I was making cookies the other day, and while doing so I realized that, though I’ve always done it, lately baking’s become a neglected hobby. This particular batch of cookies was a gooey thank-you note to a friend; otherwise I wouldn’t have made them. I’ve been somewhat alone-r than usual, lately, and it’s funny how the repercussions of that crop up in protractedly unnoticeable ways. For instance, I used to bake a lot. I used to have roommates to bake with at 10p.m. while the winter wind howled and we cozied into our apartment’s vanilla-air like bunnies in straw. Back then, as a student, I baked as a break from books, a bid for the diversion of sensory engagement and something to share. But there’s always been more; innumerable reasons and reactions behind domestic chemistry, the thick, sensitive roots of my sweet tooth.
I only ever went to the neighbourhood my paternal grandmother lived in during the Hans Christian Anderson years. As a result, the imagery of European folklore is whipped smoothly into my perception of those visits. I recall an attunement to parallels between fictional foresty cottages and the neighbourhood’s anthropomorphic homes, beaming between willow branches, stout and good-naturedly nestled into front lawns as strokable as cat-fur. It was funny, visiting her, because genetic contribution notwithstanding, she was the secondary grandma. I lived full-time with my maternal grandmother, and her everpresent love garnered her exclusive rights to the unhyphenated, capitalized, definitive moniker “Grandma.” Dad’s mom had a person-person name accompanying her grandma status, for differentiation. She baked, which is something my primary Grandma never did. In bratty moments I’d present this shortcoming to Grandma (while she dried my hair or fed me breakfast or located my lost Gameboy, or checked my temperature), and then I’d feel ashamed. Gingersnaps were my paternal grandma’s specialty, pretty enough to pack into wicker baskets and skip through the woods with. I always noticed the food in fairytales, biscuits, porridge, and bread trailing the way back home. Goodies for apple-cheeked girls who (in the real version) got sacrificed to wolves as allegorical warnings. The gingersnaps were brown-sugar hued and soft, sweetly spicy in their molasses-rich glory, impossible to recreate, though I used the recipe written in her hand (lacily slanted blue ink). I could eat them infinitely, recreating the ephemeral moment of perfect milk-saturation. Her indisputable gingersnap dominance was significant enough to garner a reference in her eulogy. The last time I saw her, in the hospital, jaundice had goldened her skin, and she held my hand and told me she’d always thought I was special. I’ve never gone back to her old neighbourhood after, or eaten good gingersnap cookies.
Still super-young, I started baking in semi-secret. I barred my family entrance from the kitchen while I was at it, adamant I remain un-interrupted, as though I was performing a highly delicate sacred ritual requiring perfect solitude.
Privacy was the only rule I applied to baking, otherwise things went largely unregimented; ingredients, proportions, oven times and temperatures, even a clear vision of what I was trying to create were unimportant. Nothing was an informed decision. Baking isn’t an art, it’s a science, but I treated it like a séance, acting like a spectral force was guiding my hands to this pan, that measuring cup, cocoa rather than baker’s chocolate (which I’d gnaw on, rabbity, shaving off avalanches of chocolate flakes with my small front teeth), baking soda rather than powder (a sucker for the fizz). It felt good opening the drawers and cabinets, banging around with the veneer of authority, all sorts of utensils ready to be examined and dirtied. I ate gobs of dough that, had anyone been there to see, would have been condemned for their potential to make me ill (but they never did, they were just delicious). When I go, it won’t be raw egg that takes me.
When I unsealed the kitchen’s borders, there, on the cooling rack would sit some dry blandly chocolate bread, or one paperthin sugarcrisp of cookie. A flat, brittle roadkill of flour and fat. I do remember eating those weird experiments, indifferent to their imperfect flavours and dedicated to their merits regardless, helpfully suggesting to dubious parties, “This would be good with Nutella.”
Baking becomes different when love’s in the picture. When I lack love I lack the interest in creaming butter and sugar together, too. ‘Cause it’s almost always a metaphor, a transmutation of affection, bubbling up golden and rich with unlisted ingredients. Some feelings are easier to articulate via sugar than language. I got to the point where I wanted things to be perfect, smile-inducing incitements for people to arc in, keen and close. I wanted things to turn out right. A caramel-chocolate frosted cake for my high school boyfriend’s birthday, the mastery of the New York Times’ perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe (browning the butter until it smelled hazlenutty—beurre noisette, chocolate coins that melt to form thin “stratas” rather than oafishly stud the dough). Veering to the alternate extreme from my childhood forays, I was briefly obsessed with Cook’s Illustrated and the chrome allure of America’s Test Kitchen, NASA in spirit and satisfyingly investigative with every conceivable option explored in the pursuit of the definitive “best.” I subscribed to the superiority of their strawberry cream cake in particular; three light layers laden with a strawberry puree that required seven steps of macerating, juice reducing, and re-combining capable of magically transforming even the out of season into the flavour your parents adoringly teased you for gorging on right there in the field. The crowning glory was an inspired halfway mesh of cream cheese icing and thick whipped cream, the former’s sweet tang and the latter’s lush demureness convalescing to create luscious cloud; an icing so perfect that when a distantly loved friend from out of town came to stay for a rare visit, a bowl of it atop fresh berries was the only acceptably special breakfast. Batches of careful cookies and cupcakes topped with honey-spiked buttercream made it to the mouths of men I didn’t kiss. “This is so good” sounds so much like “I’m glad you’re here.”