The purpose of baking
Madeleines, memories, and mistakes: it’s a process
PHOTO COURTESY OF Michael Mararian
Desk is on the kitchen floor, looking up at me, smiling. He’s a Corgi. He knows I’m making something.
(Buddy, I haven’t even started yet.) My dog Desk got his name because I couldn’t think of a better one. It was supposed to be a placeholder but somehow it stuck.
Anyway, for Valentine’s Day, I decided to make lavender white-chocolate madeleines for people at work. Problem was, locally, I couldn’t find lavender flowers anywhere and I couldn’t get the edible extract either. All I could really find were lavender essential oils that you can’t use in cooking unless you want to wind up on Dateline. So I ended up buying some on Amazon. Fine. Next on the agenda was a madeleine pan so I thought I’d give William Sonoma a try.
I got into baking at a time when my wife was very ill. Many hours were spent at home, on our couch, watching television—in particular, The Great British Baking Show. I found it inspirational, almost moving, to watch these amateur bakers, smattered in flour, struggle their way to a final bake-off extravaganza. I wanted to try it myself, so I decided on Sundays I would bake for my wife something from each episode. It was a nice distraction and took up the whole day because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. In the end, it was worth it. She was gone within a few months.
The madeleine pan cost me thirty bucks; it will probably live the rest of its life in the cabinet with my waffle cone maker and potato ricer. I showed Desk the fancy scalloped tray, but he seemed detached. His little bum made a complete circle before flopping down.
Ok let’s do this...
The perfect madeleine teacake has a “baby bump” in the center that is created when chilled batter meets the hot oven. It’s a fragile mix that requires sugar, flour, eggs, and melted butter to be folded together, delicately. That’s the key. The first recipe suggested I keep it overnight in the fridge but, when I took it out the next morning, that shit was harder than raising kids. The melted butter had really solidified. I let it rest but still, the mix seemed rubbery and weird.
I sometimes wonder how I might have done on the Great British Baking Show. Probably bad.
I’m a perfectionist and in baking, there is no perfection. Imagine being in a car with your city friends as you pass a field of grazing cows. The odds of me screwing up a recipe are the same odds as someone in that damn car going, “Hey, look at the cows.” It’s gonna happen.
The worst part is the actual moment you realize you messed up. When you notice the cornstarch never made it in, or you put way too much salt, or not enough butter, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You just have to take it. It’s a horrible, helpless feeling rivaled only by the surgeon who’s discovered he amputated the wrong leg. Okay, that’s a stretch, but honestly it is like a medical procedure. Sort of. It’s just as exacting, just as intricate, and, when it’s over, it’s devastating to pronounce your strudel’s time of death at 11:20 a.m.
Desk was laying on his side, asleep and snoring. He looked like a loaf of bread someone dropped on the floor. I told him I found a new recipe with the chilling under an hour, but he had given up on me. With the ingredients measured out, I began whisking it all together quickly, until it dawned on me I should be folding the mix gently, not whisking! Dammit! Why am I such an idiot?! I could’ve smashed the bowl I was so mad! I have a bad temper, cooking. I punched a baklava once. It’s true, I actually punched a pastry. It was working with that phyllo dough. I hated it.
Nevertheless, after a brief composure, I held hope this batch might still work out and to my surprise, when I did bake them at 350, they rose quite nicely. But I decided to try it again and make the batter right.
Success! I came, I saw, I gently folded. The batter was airy, smooth, and shiny. But then I had a thought that my oven isn’t hot enough. That last batch rose okay but maybe my 350 degrees is more like 310. I cranked the oven to 400 degrees and put them in. It didn’t take long. The teacakes quivered then puffed up like a sparrow’s chest. Tada! I was right! It was the heat. They rose beautifully. I was so proud of myself—until the reverse happened and through the gloomy oven window I watched in horror as all of them deflated.
400 degrees was too hot. They rose too fast, then subsequently sank into the bowels of Betty Crocker’s dungeon. Desk tilted his head in confusion as I angled the baking tray into the garbage and with a wiggle, let the madeleines cascade down.
The next day, I brought to work the one batch that turned out okay and they were adored; even so, I was sad. I asked myself why I bother? Some people are so good at it and I suck.
Then my thoughts went back to my wife, Elizabeth and all those Sundays. How she never said a word that my princess cake was mealy because I used corn flour by mistake, or that my povitica bread, which looked amazing, tasted like a foot. It’s because she knew it gave me purpose.
Funny, that word purpose.
It’s the ingredient I always forget to add.