I have been absent from the blog for a longish while now. There were so many multiple projects going on, that writing took a back seat. I finally found some quiet time (and inspiration) to pen a post, so here goes.
Everyone who has tried a hand at baking knows that baking and health/nutrition do not go together. Of course, if you are one of those types who do not mind eating some visually unappetizing cakes and pastries, made with whole wheat or coconut flour, and sugar substitutes (like coconut sugar), then I am not talking about you. But for most of us folks, those pastries and cakes must have a visually appealing quality to it, that just makes you reach out and grab one in the passing.
It doesn’t help if you are even a tiny, weeny health conscious. Those luscious looking cakes and pastries, can hide so much sugar and butter and cream, that you would know only if you start baking yourself. Neither does staying in Taipei help, as you find a bakery/patisserie at every corner. So it takes a lot (and I mean a LOT) of willpower to say no to the stuff.
Of course I started out with all fanciful notions of making ‘healthy’ breads and cakes. But soon realized that the best crumb and rise (in case of breads) is obtained with a little bit of all-purpose flour; my ‘healthy’ cakes fared even worse. Since I am a vegetarian, getting the cake to rise with only baking powder and soda, and non-AP flours and without eggs at that, was no easy task.
And I desperately wanted to master baking. And not wanting to compromise on the taste. A cake should look and taste like a cake. With umpteen failed attempts, I decided to chuck the health & nutrition out of the window. Without health on my conscience, I could now dole out as much of the white stuff (read SUGAR and FLOUR), the recipe called for. It also helped that my friend, R, an accomplished baker herself, let me in on her secret eggless cake recipes.
After that was no looking back. I started whipping out batch after batch of the cake batter, and entered into a baking frenzy. Since my conscience was already trampled on, numerous visits to the local DIY baking store followed. I would return with artificial flavours one day, and colours yet another day. On some days it would be getting those special boxes to transport cakes, and yet another trip was for cupcake liners and holders (Why cake boxes you might wonder. You see, the amount of baking I have crammed in the last few weeks, I HAD TO give away all those cupcakes to all real and imaginary ‘friends’ – lest the Scientist & I devour everything I made. So one batch was supplied to my badminton friends, yet another to the painting class folks. Then one batch forcibly made way to the Scientist’s colleagues and boss. Thankfully, no one says No to cake – atleast not yet anyway.)
A little bit about this shoppe. It is the smallest place imaginable, fully crammed and bursting to its seams, with all things baking. Stuff you never knew you needed (cream of tartar?!), or is used for baking is sure to be found on the shelves here. All sorts of pots and pans, trays and bakeware, spatulas and mixers, kitchen thermometers and weighing scales, pastry tips and bags for frosting, flours, chocolate & cocoa powder, sugar, essences, decorations – you name it and she’s got it (You would need to know the Chinese names though, as I found out the hard way). Stepping into the store is a little like stepping into the DiagonAlley in a Harry Potter book, before school term to get all your school supplies. You are awed by what it holds, and a whole lot nervous trying to grab something (for you never know if it will all come tumbling down).
(Side note: Before I had decided to bury the nutrition/health conscious voice, I experimented using natural colours from turmeric, dragon fruit etc – the results were as below:
Now you know why the conscience had to be killed/butchered mercilessly, if I had to have even a modicum of success in baking. End of side note)
The lady at the store was, by now, used to my comings and goings. There were a first few embarrassing trips. I forgot what pineapple is called in Chinese, and trying to make her understand which flavour I was after, was an uphill task (I came home with the mango flavour bottle, too embarrassed to explain further). Undaunted, I marched into her store the next day with a picture of pineapple on my phone and all was well. Phew!
Yet another incident was asking for ‘sprinkles’ – those tiny multi-coloured balls you decorate cupcakes with. The Scientist claimed he had seen them through the window, so I thought it would be a cake-walk (pun unintended) to get in and grab the bottle from the shelf. Well, let’s say my trust in the man took a beating, when I did not find the said bottle on the said shelf. Have you ever tried miming for sprinkles? I would not suggest you try it anytime (unless you wish to be called a different genre of crazy, with all those hand movements).
Now I have learnt my lesson. These days, I never pass the shoppe without being armed with Chinese translations, pictures to boot, and my Taiwanese friends’ number on speed dial.
Once my basic cake recipe was fixed, and I had memorised the ratios therein (you HAVE TO use a scale or at least cup measures to whip up a perfect cake – I learned this the really hard way. If you are used to our Indian way of cooking, by andaaz (guesswork), then there is a lot of unlearning to be done here), I turned to decorating the said cakes. I was, by now, armed with various cake decorating tips. With some more awkward conversations with the DIY cake lady, I finally could gather which tip was used for what kind of decoration. There was also the nightly binge watching all the cupcake decorating tutorials, which helped with trying out different flavours and decorations.
Making buttercream icing and coloured whipped cream frosting (and getting to lick clean the bowls and spoons) was the next task. There were many flops here too, as the buttercream would be really gritty, and the whipped cream would not hold shape. I trawled through umpteen websites and YouTube videos to arrive at some solutions. The usual recommendations were to use hydrogenated fat or corn syrup to make the icing hold shape. But this time, my weak, trampled-upon, health-conscious voice raised itself. There was NO WAY I was using any of this in my baking. Those ingredients were not coming into my kitchen, and it didn’t really matter if the frosting didn’t stand upright, or slept on the cake.
I spent many an pleasurable afternoon, getting the perfect rosette shapes (using spoons for lack of the flower pins). And finally finally, I was able to cast my baking apron aside, and take a deep breath. Yes, finally I had got a hang of this science and art. Of course there was a long way to go still, in terms of achieving the professional look, but I could rest for now.
(Oh yes, the downside of baking: There is just too much to clean – all the mixing bowls, the measuring cups and spoons, ladles, baking trays, oven after every single batch – that is the real hard work. Every surface have been covered with flour, walls have frosting bits plastered on them and the generally messiness that accompanies baking – that is one thing that keeps me away from the hashtag #ILoveBaking. No, not just yet)