Friday, December 14, 2007

Cookies Unmade

This year, in a very long time, the Holiday season is different. I am not baking any cookies. No Raspberry Linzers or Danish Butter, or the humble jam thumbprints. No chocolate dipped shortcake and peanut butter cookies. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

My baking journey started a very long time ago in a small, sleepy town in the dusty Maharashtrian hinterlands. The town had nothing much to offer, really, in terms of entertainment, but it had an excellent library. And a book fair would be held in the large hall at the library every year, an event my brother and my parents and me looked forward to. Though I didn’t realize then, the book selection was quite predictable. Dickens and Austen and other classics in hardbacks mixed with a generous dose of Ludlum and Forsyth and other popular authors in paperbacks. And (not really) surprising number of books from the Soviet. Printed on glossy paper with beautiful illustrations. Always hardbound. Complete collections of Chekov’s short stories and Dostoevskys to illustrated 3 book sets of the Russian Revolution (which I bought for the pictures, but never read) and commentaries on Marxism. Amidst this bizarre collection, my mom once found a book, or a magazine, it certainly was a little of both. It was a special baking issue of the Australian Women’s Weekly. I don’t know why my mom bought the book. She didn’t bake. She didn’t even like cooking that much. She owned one unillustrated cookbook written in Marathi that every Maharastrian housewife was expected to have and it was brought out only during the festivals to get the ingredient ratios.

A few days later, with nothing to do after school, I gloated over the books we had bought at the book fair and the Australian Women’s Weekly caught my fancy. I thumbed though it. I was stunned. Did that recipe really call for 400gms of almonds? That would cost a small fortune and it would be silly to spend it on a cake. And what was demerara sugar? How on earth would zucchini bread taste (yuck) and could it be substituted with something else? I was sure it that something the local bhajiwallahs would not carry. But it wasn’t just the recipes. The photographs too. Beautiful lacy table linens and exquisite silverware. Dainty china teapots and delicate crocheted napkins sitting smugly beside a thick slice of delectably golden lemon-poppy seed cake basking in the glow of the morning sunlight streaming through windows that I imagined opened to exquisite gardens. It was a whole new world to my 12-year old self. I poured over these pictures from start to finish and came back to the beginning again to an introductory section where they listed the tools required for baking. Out of a list of 15 or 20 recommended pieces that included odd looking whisks and large rolling pins and springform and lamington pans, my mother probably had an old, dusty round aluminum oven and I wasn’t sure it even worked. So the book and its culinary treasures lay partly forgotten, there were simply no resources to buy the fancy gadgets and ingredients.

And then, a few months later came summer. My mother had to leave town for a week to attend a training program and my Dad was left with me and my brother in the middle of our summer holidays. My grandmother was there to look after us but I craved adventure. I had already made a kiln and lit a fire and baked mud pots in it a couple of weeks ago but that hadn’t gone too well with my mom. I had tried making some homemade translucent paper and that turned out to have disastrous results. In search of an uncharted territory to explore, I decided to bake a cake. Once my father left, I started to execute my plan. I took down a recipe book. Not the Australian Women’s Weekly, but a closer to home version of Tarla Dalal that my mom had borrowed from my aunt. Since the last two experiments at being adventours hadn’t gone as planned, I decided to let my grandmother in on my secret. But not all of it. “I want to cook something and I need some money to buy ingredients.” I wouldn’t tell what I wanted to cook. In the end she gave me a few rupees and my brother and I walked to a little shack of a store and bought eggs and white flour. Back home, I took out the pot of butter from the refrigerator knowing fully well if I made a noticeable dent in it, I would have to face my mom after she got back once again. But 12 year old girls can be quite unfazed. I took down the dusty oven and cleaned it. Then I turned the Tarla Dalal book to the simple vanilla cake and measured and poured and mixed. Just as I was about to put it in the oven, the electricity died. With batter in hand and nothing to bake it in, I was crestfallen. My grandmother suggested I keep it the fridge and bake it when electricity returned. But I knew batters could not be stored like this. The cake would come out like a rock. I thought and thought and a brainwave hit me. We had a solar cooker on our roof that we used sometimes. That would do. So I poured the batter in the solar container, climbed the ladder (there were no stairs) to the rooftop and put the cake to bake in the solar cooker. I checked on it every hour. The batter had risen and overflowed and I was happy about that. That meant the cake would not be hard. By evening the cake was nicely done and enjoyed by all. After that there was no looking back.

When I came to the United States and “settled”, the world of Australian Women’s Weekly opened to me. I could walk into a store and buy all the pans and whisks and gadgets I wanted. And I did. My kitchen is full of every gadget they sell out there (not silly ones like egg yolk separator, but real gadgets). And a couple of years ago I splurged and bought the beautiful Kitchen Aid Stand mixer. But life took its unexpected turns. Chip was diagnosed with an egg allergy before he turned one. And a few months ago BigGeek stopped eating butter because of cardiac issues. It’s hard to bake without eggs and butter. I have found recipes that use oil and applesauce instead of butter and I have found egg free recipes. They all work out OK, for most part, but a treasure trove of recipes now lie sadly abandoned.

This is a picture of the cake I made for Chip's first birthday. The animals are moulded by hand using marshmallow fondant. Lower tier filled with oreo cream is chocolate, upper is vanilla filled with strawberry cream.


Kodi's Mom said...

you really are full of suprises! very cute childhood story and using the solar cooker - brilliant :)
and the 1st bday cake - simply WOW!

Preethi said...

Wow dotmom can we come visit?? We love cakes me and Nantu.. egg, eggless, butterless as long as its sweet and looks as delicious as the one in the pic we will eat it... and i cant believe you baked when you were 12. When I was 12 I bet I dint know where the kitchen was I spent all my time in the local library :P

rayshma said...

i had thot of some smart-alecky comment.. but one look at that cake.. and that's all i can think of now! :D

Trishna said...

Wow!!! the story took me back to the little town..beautiful! And the cake.. lovely...:) Aadya's first birthday will be here soon,you know!*hint Hint*I baked my first cake at age 12 too.. in one of those old aluminium ovens with a coil inside.

Anitha(Nikki's mom) said...

You baked when you were 12? And that cake you baked for Chip's birthday - A.M.A.Z.I.N.G.
Hats off!

Anitha(Nikki's mom) said...

You baked when you were 12? And that cake you baked for Chip's birthday - A.M.A.Z.I.N.G.
Hats off!

Suki said...

Wow, Dotmom! Now we can see where your creativity started out! That's such a wonderful story and idea :) .

That cake looks absolutely mouthwatering, I must say... mmmm.

Mona said...

omg, i cannot get over that cake. you're on talented chick, dotmom.

Orchid said...

I am giving you a standing ovation as we speak...did u say you made that cake and here I am wondering what to feed my son for lunch...can I send Li'l A over, please ??:)
and I liked how the post was it moved from your love for reading to love for baking!

noon said...

Wow Wow Wow - where is your feet?!!! I fall at thy feet!! OMG - look at the picture - my God - I am now truly inspired to bake a real cake. I baked a cake just once. Love looking at the recipe books like the one you described - opening out into lovely lush gardens type pictures...but never really baked much. I cannot believe you thought of all that at 12 - that you cannot put it in the refrigerator (you were a baking natural then!!)and that you could use the solar cooker! Amazing!
And those animals in this cake - absolutely cute and adorable. Loved it!

Kowsalya Subramanian said...

Wow dotmom. I knew you were a geek after reading your engagement story.. now you are a splendid cook too.. WOWWWWWW I cannot stop drooling over the cake and the animal moulds are fantabulous

SUR NOTES said...

just stumbled onto your blog...beautiful description of growing up in a small city, and dusty summer afternoons...and the madcap experiments were a delight to read...i connected with everything -i seldom had any success with my experiments-

dipali said...

Such a delicious post, Dotmom, and a delightful cake.Thanks for sharing both:)

Random Vignettes said...

*looks greedily* i want i want....such a nice well written post :)

Shobana said...

U are so full of surprises. That cake looks so professional. Maybe for Naren's nezt b'day, I could ask you for a cake or a design. The animals looked so darn pretty.

Parul said...

I could do with a piece of that cake, having had nothing but 'healthy' stuff these last few weeks!! The battle of the bulge continues!

You have a great way of drawing up imagery! I loved it...

B o o said...

And here I am bragging about my thumbprint jam cookies!! Look at that cake! WOW, DM. Wonderful post and an even wonderful cake. And the animals look so cute and like animals too. My attempts with Play doh makes even a dog look like an extra terrestrial creature! ;) Hats off to you.

choxbox said...

DOTMOM! you are not supposed to write things like this or post pix like this.

think of us lesser mortals..

Moppet's Mom said...

Dear lord, you baked THAT?! And here I was going to gloat that I managed some fairly edible carrot cake for the husband's birthday last week. Hmmph! You superwoman types are not good for the egos of us more ordinary mortals! :-D

Sue said...

*Drool... slurp... slurrrp*

I'll get back to you once I get over that cake, ok?

Did I ever tell you how badly I want to meet you and how much I've decided to love you when we do meet?

DotMom said...

kodi's mom: I miss those days!!

preethi: absolutely. name your cake wish :)

rayshma: still waiting for the smart-alecky comment :)

trishna: please, please do a post on your cake story. Would love to know the details.

anitha: it was a simple cake... it was done as an adventure!

suki: come on over!

mona: ah.. see now I need to do posts about what a klutz I am! but thanks!

orchid: send over lil'A i'll give a you a nice slice too :)

noon: noon.. do post pictures of the fondant animals you plan to make!

kowsalya: they are sooo easy to make.. where geekinesss goes, BiGeek tops the charts :)

surnotes: welcome! please do a post on your experiments! please, please!

dipali: do share a story from your childhood, dipali!

shobana: absolutely.. this cake is VERY easy to make. It just looks fancy.

parul: hahaha.. this cake, incidently has no butter. let me know if you want the recipe!

boo: send some jam theumbprints over boo. they are my favorites! and you have NO idea how much I practised using play doh. And I got pictures of animals from the net, so I looked to them to give me an idea.

choxbox: don't you remember my sewing post. A klutz post is coming up now.

moppte's mom: gosh, no. cooking (and baking) is the only thing I am half way decent at!

sue: Ditto! I totally need to make a trip to Cal!

Tharini said...

Wow! That has got to be one of the best childhood stories I have e.v.e.r read! I am amazed at your resourcefulness to think of using the solar cooker. Not one to shrink back from a challenge are you??!!

The cake looks amaaazing! Truly a creation of patience, visualisation and love! I loved getting to know you a little better thru this post.

ddmom said...

What a beautiful childhood story to remember :)
The first b'day cake - I saw the picture and assumed the fine print was regarding copyright from some site you had copy-pasted. Baking the cake I can still understand, hand moulding the animals to this perfection, TOOOOO good !!
Sorry that you can't bake with egg and butter, but why do they have to lie sadly abandoned. Pl. pl scan them and start a food blog. c'mon now..

Mystic Margarita said...

I bow in reverence to your baking skills! That cake you made is way better than any of those pricy designer cakes you get to buy at a store. Could you please, please give me an idea for a simple cake I can try for P's b'day - not a fancy one, but something someone like me with two left hands at baking can make?

DotMom said...

tharini: I always wonder what it would have been if the solar cooker had made a mess out of the cake!! The the b'day cake looks fancy.. its quite easy to make.

ddmom: Someone would actually want my recipes? :) I'll post them on DMZ. I have thought about starting a food anthropology blog!

mystic: yeah.. costs a fraction too.. will post some recipes, links and directions for simple cakes. and if a 12 yrold can bake, anybody can bake.

Fuzzylogic said...

I second Moppet's mom and Choxbox.
I just did a post on my baking disaster and here you are showing me such a beautiful home made! On second thoughts can I have a piece of the divine cake??

Sheela said...

Amazing cake!! saw it on DMC and popped over to read your story! I can't bring myself to bite into those marshmallow fondant animals - and you molded them by hand? Wow!

DotMom said...

fuzzy: I'll send you one on your birthday. how about that?

sheela: Thanks! you don't want to eat those animals.. they are VERY VERY sweet. the kids love them though :)

Anonymous said...

Hi dotmom!
The cake looks very cute and perfect for a kids birthday. Got to try your eggless cake too! Guess what? I baked a similar cake for my little one's birthday this year. Do take a look! we can share notes:)


AP said...

OMG!!! what a beautiful cake. I came here from the DMC blog. Can you please please please tell me how you made those cute animals?

I'll check the reply to my comment here.

Thanks a lot!

DotThoughts said...

AG: hello! so glad you liked the cake... I just wrote a post a couple of days ago (the directions are for another cake I made, but the idea is the same)

Doli said...

Oh my God! the cake looks amazing! I wish you had some site where you give tips on how to bake. I do bake but I'm not sure how to make the cream and frost it