I learned to bake when I was little, probably no more than three or four. At that age, my mom would measure out each ingredient before letting me “help” by dumping it into the bowl. Later, after my brother came into existence, we would fight over who got to dump the chocolate chips at the end, because somehow that was the best part. Well, second to licking the beaters, of course. Luckily, my mom’s stand mixer was of the dual-beater variety, so there was no fighting between my brother and I. (At least where beater distribution was concerned.)
It was helping my mom bake at that young age that I learned about the power of baked goods. I learned that I could make my dad’s favorite Oatmeal Scotchies cookies and be rewarded with a giant grin and hugs. I learned that no one is ever not excited to see brownies, especially when they’re homemade. I learned that what I viewed as their imperfections–their inconsistent sizes, their uneven bake, some lumps–only garnered more praise, because people saw those flaws as love that doesn’t come with packaged treats. And I learned that something as simple as a dessert could be a way of expressing love, care, gratitude.
Since those young days of dumping in the flour for Mommy, baking has always played a part of my life. In junior high Home Ec., it set me apart when I realized that few of my classmates had ever used an oven before. In high school was when my dad first taught me how to bake a proper cheesecake, fueling a lifelong bond between the two of us over our passion for the dessert. (We’re still on the hunt for that elusive Caramel Apple Cheesecake recipe that my dad swears he had once, the one with the caramel and apples baked in the cake, not just spread on top.) Even in college, with its distinctively kitchen-free living, I learned quickly that any of my friends living in apartments could be bribed to let me use their kitchen if I promised to make an extra one of whatever I was baking for them, leading to wonderful memories of hanging out with friends while I baked. And of course, those first days that Kyle and I dated brought me my biggest fan and most enthusiastic supporter of my baking hobby. (He still swears there’s no indiscretion big enough for him to leave me as long as there’s Grandma Dietrich’s Peach Cobbler in the house.)
Baking to this day remains one of my favorite hobbies. I still love the joy it brings people, the look on Kyle’s face when he realizes that I made Banana Bread. (It’s not dissimilar to a kid coming to the realization that school has been canceled due to snow.) But I’ve grown to love baking more so for what it does for me. It’s familiar; there’s comfort in measuring out flour using the exact same technique my mom taught me when I was little. There’s reassurance in baking a batch of cookies and knowing that they’ll come out exactly like they did last time when I made them to take to the track, exactly like they did when I made them in college for my friend’s birthday, exactly like they did when I made them for my dad as a kid. If I’m having a shit day baking makes everything okay, because maybe I can’t keep people from being dickheads and maybe I can’t emotionally deal with the disaster that is our laundry pile, but I can sure as fuck make some goddamn brownies that I know will be fucking delicious.
But just as much as the calming predictability of baking, I also love the inherent uncertainty. Baking is an alchemy of sorts. You take a bunch of shit that by itself is at best, nothing special, but at worst, kinda gross. You work your magic on it, and you’re left with a paste, a glop, a blob. And then you have to throw it in the oven and trust that you did it right. That’s the part I love the most. When you cook something savory, you can keep tasting it and tweaking right up to the moment it hits a plate, but with baking, there’s the requirement of sheer blind faith. The incertitude, that’s what makes it all the more gratifying when I pull my creation out of the oven. Knowing that an hour ago, this super delicious treat was a bunch of gross shit before I worked my magic on it, and now I will have to hold Kyle back at knife-point so that it can cool properly.
Life is complicated. And hard. People don’t always act the way I want them to and plans I make don’t always pan out the way I hoped. Sometimes, I will have a shitty day for absolutely no reason. There’s so much of life that I can’t control. But there’s comfort in knowing that as long as I have my KitchenAid and a bag of chocolate chips, there’s always a way to bring a little bit of light to my corner of the world.