the baker inside

For a long time I’ve stood behind my theory that when it comes to domestic responsibilities, there are two kinds of people: dish people and laundry people. Dish people enjoy doing dishes. They find that dishes are the perfect end to a meal. That washing each plate and glass and fork and knife is a warm, comforting feeling, and that there’s little more satisfying than a full stomach and an empty sink. Laundry people are different. Laundry people take pleasure in carting armfuls of dirty clothes down to big white machines. They hoard quarters and compare dryer sheets and like how the lint trap somehow reflects the load of laundry the dryer just held. Red towels. Red lint.

These traits are mutually exclusive. Laundry people can leave a cereal bowl untouched for days while a dish person can’t leave the kitchen if there’s so much as a spoon in the drying rack. If you come across an overflowing hamper, wander to the kitchen. Odds are you’ll find everything neatly put away. Happy the household that has one of each.

I used to think it was the same thing with the kitchen. You have cooks and then you have bakers. Cooks enjoy cooking, the improv of mixing flavors and ingredients. The immediacy of the hot pan or savoring the slow meld of a day-long braise. There’s play in cooking, in concocting, in balancing acid and richness, of an endless array of tastes to consider from season to season. Cooks can’t be bothered with bread. Bread is for bakers. Bakers take pleasure in the slow process. Of a small, rotating cast of ingredients that, when combined in minutely different measurements and ratios net supremely different endings. There’s a science, a method. Mix wet, mix dry, mix together and sit back and let the magic happen. Hope that it happens and science and ingredients are on your side.

I have never considered myself a baker. I’d get the urge about twice a year to make something bready. Usually around the holidays. As a kid it was quick bread recipes from a tattered copy of The Joy of Cooking with my mother for holiday gifts for teachers. Banana Nut. Apricot Almond. Honey Walnut. I remember the first time I was compelled to bake something. I was in high school and for no good reason, I wanted to make cookies. It was summer, and the only reason I remember this is because I was interning at the LA Weekly. Since no one in my house would dare eat refined sugar or butter, I brought in the dozen of Toll House into the paper and left them with a note: “Enjoy, from Margo the Intern.” About halfway through the day, there was an announcement over the intercom, “Thanks for the cookies, Margo.”

And other than the odd jiffy cake mix to win over my guy roommates in college or savory shortbread last year, my baking urges remained dormant. Until now. I can’t stop baking.

And I’m not even sure how it started. I believe it was with some pears that came in the CSA and a birthday in the office. I wanted to do something. Something with pears. A quick search turned up a Pear Clafoutis, which I had never had, let alone pronounced out loud. I did as the recipe stated, pouring the egg, sugar, flour and butter mixture over sliced pears and put the cups into bake. A scant hour later they had puffed up into beautiful little custards, warm and rich and scented with vanilla and lemon and comfort. So little turned into so much. I was hooked.
An all-office party came along, and I felt the call again. Another clafoutis, individual ginger-pear upside down cakes, a duo of lemon-thyme and lemon-basil shortbread. I couldn’t stop.

Another party, another clafoutis. I’ve started comparing flours and yeasts. I’ve moved my vase collection to the top of my cabinets to make room for a baking cabinet. I bought a silpat baking sheet. When I was offered my aunt’s KitchenAid mixer I giggled, literally giggled to a bemused boyfriend that “my life is going to change!”

Last night I made little milk breads, where yeast is dissolved into milk instead of water.
The process took hours. Mix the dough, let it be. Come back to fold it into another shape, leave it for another hour. Come back and break it apart and fold it into yet another shape, leave it alone for another hour. It takes the better part of an afternoon to do, and by the time I pulled the petit batards from the oven, I had almost lost interest. That is, until I spread cold butter on the steaming bread and took a bite. ‘Worth it’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.

I’ve become a baker. Or at least, a person who can follow recipes for baking. I’m not sure when I can make the leap to devising recipes on my own. I think it’s a matter of studying recipes and playing with herbs and fruit and savory flavors. I understand the draw of baking more than I ever did. It’s about squinting at measuring cups and sinking your hands into dough and a warm oven and making more than you could ever eat by yourself. There’s no baking for one. You bake and you share and you offer that sense of comfort you’ve made to someone else. Ideally hot. And with butter.

For the record, I am a dish person. I can’t help but end a dinner party standing at the sink and I fall asleep better when the dishwasher is running. But now, with my new appreciation for something I once dismissed as other, I’m considering if I might be a laundry person too. If I just haven’t tapped the part of me that finds as much comfort pulling warm, clean linens from the dryer as I do from warm, soapy water and cleaning, rinsing and drying as I go.