Wednesday, June 29, 2011

from instant pudding to homemade requests.

People ask me almost everyday where I learned to bake, or rather, why I seem to be so passionate about baking. The response I usually give is short and sweet, in a classic drawn-out kind of way. It sounds something like, "Well, from a very young age, both my grandmothers taught me how to bake. And it kind of stuck with me." And it's all true, just not complete.

After my parents split up, I found myself spending afternoons with my maternal grandmother. Everyday after school I would ride the bus to her house and wait for my mother to pick up my sister and I after she got off work. Sometimes we had a knitting lesson, learning to make washcloths or potholders (basically anything Grandma needed to replace around the house), but more often than not, I had a baking lesson. It started off simple, learning how to make peanut-butter crackers. I know what you're thinking, 'Peanut butter crackers are easy to make, who needs a lesson in that?' I didn't need a lesson,, per se, but my Grandma was determined to teach me how to become more independent, as I'm sure my daily water works when my mom left in her car were starting to grow old. So we started simple. Learning how to spread peanut butter. And soon after that we moved onto instant Jello Pudding from a package. And man oh man I thought that was just Top Chef material.

Every few days I would climb up on the counter and sit down next to the sink and dump this huge package of brown powder into a gigantic bowl. Then I would get to carefully pour milk into a cup (over a larger cup to catch my inevitable spillage) and then we'd set a timer and I'd whisk away for five minutes straight. I'm sure my whisking skills were comparable to every other five year old at the time-- uneven and messy. Maybe that's why we always baked by the sink?

Probably what I loved most about the pudding mix was getting to pour the batter into these delicate little glasses my Grandma only used for our afternoons together. We would separate the pudding into fours and then place the china into the fridge to let it set. And I could never wait for the pudding to get cold, we'd always eat one right away. Everyday after that I'd check back to see if we needed to make more pudding, hoping I'd get to use the big whisk.

At Christmas time, my Grandma would have my sister and I over for a baking session. We'd get out our cutest little aprons to protect our Christmas dresses, and she would let us destroy her kitchen for the entire afternoon. The scent of the cookies would overtake the house and even lure my grandfather from his den every once in a while. We made sugar cookies, cutout cookies, chocolate chip, butterscotch crunchies, almond cookies, and everything in between. The day was not over until every tin was filled. At the time, my sister was old enough to handle the mixer and the smaller measurements, so I was in charge of measuring everything light and easy to see.

I will never forget my very first lesson in measuring flour. I was handed a giant spoon, and a one cup measure. Next to me sat the big ceramic container of flour. My grandma took my hand and told me to scoop the flour into the cup. So I did what any child would do, I scooped until it was full and then started smashing it down with the back of the spoon to make room for more. Oh no, precious, don't pack the flour down. That will make the batter too dense. Flour has to be handled gently, explained my grandma. She took my hands in hers and showed me the proper way.

1. Scoop flour into the cup
2. Take a knife and chop the top lightly.
3. Use the knife (back side, not serrated!) to slide off the excess flour

And from that moment on, I knew my baking had to be precise. But my grandmother being the amazing woman she is, made baking look effortless. Actually, both my grandmothers make cooking and baking look flawless. But who wouldn't be able to when you're this beautiful?

Maternal Grandmother Sexton

Paternal Grandmother Phipps

I give them full-credit for my tree-climbing abilities and somewhat frequent public displays of half-nudity.

Anyhow, my paternal Grandmother has been an inspiration when it comes to baking as well. Her kitchen was constantly going when I was younger, and to this day it mostly still is. She either had hot dogs boiling for kids, or a pork tenderloin tenderizing in the oven. When it came to our afternoon visits, we always had apple slices and popcorn waiting for our movie, and when it ended, it was time to bake cupcakes to take home to my Mom. I still don't know how she got her icing to be so fluffy and light, even after having the recipe for a few years, but I was always impressed with her ability to make light and fluffy cupcakes and cookies with very little effort. She didn't wear an apron. She usually had on a blouse, her gold egg-shaped jewelry (rings, earrings and necklace) along with her perfectly polished nails and Chanel Number Five perfume sprayed on lightly. I couldn't leave her house without at least two lipstick prints on my face, a Bounce sheet in my pants pocket to ward off mosquitoes, and a container filled with her baked goods....and of course the occasional Coca-Cola for the road.

Her cookies were loaded with butter, rich sweet cream butter, and they just broke off and melted in your mouth. Snack time soon became a two or three times per day affair, and left us always wondering what would be on the menu later that day. My grandma could also make a semi-homemade dessert look and taste fully homemade. One of my favorite creations that she made was my Dad's Boston Cream Birthday Pie, and I believe about half of it was typically from store-bought materials. But she didn't look up how to make it home-made, she just created. She understood the consistency of every ingredient involved and knew what the final would need to be like, and from that point on she just dove right in.

Many afternoons were spent with my Grandparents, and that alone makes me one of the luckiest people in the world. Not only did I have the opportunity to live in the same city as both sets of grandparents, but I had ample opportunity of spending time with them and learning about their lives, while they shaped mine. I've probably adopted my maternal grandmother's perception and understanding of baking, but I adopted my paternal grandmother's ability to take this science to a new level. My passion for baking didn't just come from my Grandmothers, it came from some internal feeling I've learned to love about baking. Some days I bake because I'm sad. I bake because my world is crumbling around me, with no sense of direction, and all I want is for something to make sense. And baking makes sense. Plus, it's a great way to sort things out in my head, especially when there's no chance to go out for an hour long run!

I also bake because I like to make people happy. The first time they bite into something incredible, their face lights up. And that face is simply priceless. It's like watching a child open their first gift on Christmas morning. Nothing can compare. I may have moved on from boxed pudding and mis-measuring ingredients, but I cherish every step I've taken along the way. And now I find myself dreaming about new recipes, creating them while I'm at work without a task to complete. I even dream of opening my own bakery one day, maybe a non-profit organization designed to give back to the community in one way or another. Bring on the smiles. And the butter too, of course.

So there you have story, in a very expanded nutshell. And yes, I do take baking requests.

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