I hadn’t baked in years. I used to do so regularly, just to have fresh-baked bread to eat with cold butter. It is the food they must eat in Paradise. Hot crusty bread with hard cold butter: There is nothing better.
Neither had I baked a cake, but then I had a slight hankering for chocolate and I didn’t want to go out in the Covid night to shop, so I decided to make my own dessert, a small chocolate cake — a sort of brownie thing, but more cakey.
I have never used a recipe for baking and I didn’t this time, either. Years ago, when I lived with friends, I wanted to bake a cake and my friend’s wife warned me that you simply had to have the measurements right for a cake to turn out. I took it as a challenge. I threw together what I thought would make a cake and slid it in the oven. The cake was delicious.
That was something like 40 years ago. And it was, I believe, the last time I baked a cake. I’m not a big cake eater.
But bread, yes. I love bread and I always thought bread making was the easiest thing in the world. I don’t know why so many people think it is a persnickety project. I see TV chefs giving conflicting instructions. One says you have to be careful to measure your flour and to slide a knife across the top of the measuring cup to get an accurate amount. Another says you can’t measure the flour; you have to weigh it on a kitchen scale (preferably, I think, in grams).
I have never measured my flour. I just dump what feels like the proper amount in a mixing bowl, add my yeast and a bit of salt and stir around the dry ingredients, then add warm water until I get a dough. You can’t know just how much, because the air humidity and barometric pressure change the needed proportions. You just do it until it feels like dough.
Of course, you can add things if you want to make a different sort of bread. You can put in an egg and substitute some milk for the water if you want to make a challah. You can mix in some rye flour if you want a rye bread.
But you do it until you get a dough that feels right. I can’t tell you what that is: It is something you learn in your fingertips. Book knowledge is no help, anymore than it is when learning to ride a bike. The same goes for the proper amount of kneading. It will feel ready when it feels ready.
Then you can either put it in bread pans, or make a boule or a baguette. Bake it in an oven with a pan of water to help make a good crust. It will be done when the kitchen smells right.
There is so much that is not verbal and cannot be put down in print. Driving a car, facial recognition, offering condolence, playing music in tune, making love, knowing why life is worth living: Words are inadequate at best, impossible to be precise and often utterly misleading. Only experience really helps, along with an openness and willingness to pay attention.
These days, many people, locked in their homes avoiding tiny spiky bugs, fill their empty time with the baking of bread. They share sourdough starter recipes and “secrets” for a good loaf. It’s a fine hobby and the eating is a great reward. But there is a difference between a non-cook poring over a cookbook, following its instructions step by slow step, biting on their lips while reading; and a seasoned veteran who has the whole process recorded in muscle memory. It provides the confidence.
So, anyway, there I was, wanting a bit of sweet, about 8 in the evening. I set the oven for 350F and got out a mixing bowl.
I dumped some flour into the bowl. I don’t know exactly how much, maybe two-thirds of a cup or so. Measurements-shmeasurements. I added roughly three-quarters of the same amount of sugar and another hefty dose of cocoa powder, a dribble of vanilla, an egg, some butter I melted in the microwave, and used the tip end of a measuring cup handle to get some baking powder. I added about six grains of Cafe Bustelo instant coffee — barely enough to notice, and a squirt of Hershey’s syrup, and enough milk to make a batter. No measurements of anything, just the right “feel” for it. Baked it all for 25 minutes and waited for it to cool. It was yummy. I had a piece, then I had another piece, with a cold glass of milk.
So, maybe I had three pieces. Sue me. I did a little dance. Perhaps it was the caffeine from the grains of coffee. It’s about the only thing I’ve accomplished this past week of self-isolating — other than writing. Oh, and I took out the garbage and walked the dumpster down to the street so the trash delivery men could get it.
And I know what I’ll be eating for breakfast. Hah! I still got it.