The Self-taught Baker


Growing up, I never cared to stay in the kitchen with my mother and learn to cook anything, much less bake the from-scratch treats that she was known for in our community. When I was a young girl, I cared more about making mud pies than I did learning how to bake a real pie. The older I became, the less patience I had for working in the kitchen.

When I married, however, I realized that if I wanted “homemade” cooking, it would be up to me to learn how to cook in the manner my mother had. Of course, I fought it. I wasn’t exactly ready at the age of twenty-five to put on an apron and become Martha Stewart. Even so, it was time for me to learn to make many of the dishes my mom raised my brother and myself on.

Trial and error seemed to be the theme whenever I planned a meal. My natural creativity made it fun to try a dash of this or a dash of that in a classic recipe. Sometimes we were pleasantly surprised, sometimes not so much. We ate out a lot that year. However, while cooking things on the stovetop allows for creativity, baking things in the oven does not. Cooking is like an art project. You know what you like and mix those things in to (mostly) get the flavor blend you prefer. Baking is like a chemistry project. Too much of this or too little of that and you end up with an explosion or a sad, flat nothing.

Perhaps the best gift at this time was a Bell’s Best cookbook (any Southern bookstore worth its salt will have a copy). The range of recipes there was endless. From simple to professional, yummy meals and baked goods filled the pages. I started with a few easy recipes, and I worked my way toward more difficult dishes.

At first, my baking was sorely lacking. I often found myself leaving out at least one key ingredient or accidentally skipping a step in the process that made my cakes fall flat. I learned that if a recipe called for cake flour, that’s exactly what I’d better use. I learned how to use a thermometer to create tasty cake icing. I even learned how to substitute certain ingredients to make my sweet treats a little healthier (yogurt makes a great substitute in many recipes and it’s low-fat!).

Perhaps one of the most memorable moments in baking had to do with learning how to make boxed cake mixes seem like they were “from-scratch.” After making several cakes that seemed “packy” and dense, I read an article on Pinterest that instructed me to substitute whole milk when the instructions called for water, melted butter instead of cooking oil, and five eggs instead of three. I tried this “hack” when I cooked my next cake, and my family raved about the fluffy cake layers as well as the rich flavor.

I also learned that the barometer has a definitive effect on how my cakes turn out. Word to the wise – never bake on a very humid day! Cake icing will be runny and never set. Baking pies is somewhat easier; they are not as affected by changes in the barometric pressure as a cake.

Again, much of my baking prowess was self-taught. I never cared much for cooking when I could have learned from the best (my mother), so I had to teach myself how to make the delicious treats she could mix up from her own memory in a jiffy. I did learn how to cook from a trusted cookbook, and reading, research, and some trial-and-error made it possible for me to get at least somewhat close to my mother’s talent in cooking.

My personal experience in the kitchen was much like that barometer you have to be careful to watch. Sometimes conditions were perfect. My mood and my patience were balanced just enough to help me through a challenging meal. Sometimes I was tired or too hungry to pay attention to small details or allow something to cook long enough for perfection. It was a sure prediction of how well a meal would turn out.

My mother always seemed to be in the best mood when she cooked. She would hum and it seemed like she glided across the kitchen floor from cabinet to stove, from stove to counter. Cooking was more of a therapy than a necessity to her. I envy her prowess. While our motives are slightly different, her lovely cooking gave me a taste for quality cooking – something I aspire to create to this day. You too can learn on your own, but nothing beats experience when it comes to learning how to properly cook traditional foods.

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