Somewhere I realized that not everyone has a mixer or an interest in baking, but everyone has an interest in receiving home-baked goods.
Hi. You know that lady you see at the grocery store buying eighteen pounds of Land-O-Lakes butter because it’s $2.50/pound and you are shaking your head wondering what on earth she could possibly do with that amount of butter? Limit four says the ad? Limit nothing—she will go through every checkout line in the store and barely blink and while you are still wondering who exactly she is trying to kill with all that butter. Well, hi again. That would be me.
Last month, I sent my husband’s colleague a chocolate pound cake with a note that read, “Nothing says ‘I’m so sorry your apartment caught fire’ quite like a bundt cake.” I was really sorry, and, I don’t know, wouldn’t a super good cake make you feel just a little better? This I believe: if I can say it through baked goods—and pretty much any message can be conveyed through butter, sugar and some zest—I’m spreading the love.
I grew up with a mom who baked—maybe nothing spectacular, but we had dessert every night. More importantly, I grew up with a mom who let me bake pretty much whenever I asked. And most importantly, I grew up with a mom who, after my excitement petered out, finished scooping the dough onto the cookie sheets and washed all the dishes and let me feel like I had finished the whole project.
Unsurprisingly I turned into a girl that believed in the power of baking. In college, if I knew you just enough, I would ask you my most horrifying and telling question: “If you could only eat one dessert for the rest of your life, what would it be: cake, pie, or cookies?” Because if I couldn’t be baking in a dorm room, I could at least be talking about it.
When I was in graduate school, I had an embarrassing incident at work that signaled all my love for baking was clearly out of hand. I was sitting at my desk reading an issue of Cook’s Illustrated instead of filing and sorting through the mail. The article was about oatmeal cookies, and the test kitchen had made three jillion batches trying to find just the right balance between chewy on the inside and crisp on the outside. It had crossed my mind that I should investigate the oatmeal cookie mystery, find The One so that I didn’t have to worry about it anymore or give it any more brain time. And there it was, already done for me; the description of the final product was so moving and beautiful and exactly what I would have wanted in a cookie that I welled up. Welled up! I wiped away the two tears and steeled myself. “If I am crying over a cookie recipe because I think I may never make them, if I am crying at work over anything, it is time to deal.”
So after graduation, I quit talking about baked goods and started making them, with my trusty sidekick—my KitchenAid KSM5 stand mixer, a graduation gift to me from me, with love. I made the heavenly oatmeal cookies, but mostly I made a lot of chocolate-based items: brownies, black-bottom cupcakes, and one glorious fall when I made six chocolate cakes in a quest to find the best before my birthday rolled around (the clincher was a thin layer of raspberry jam in the middle).
But then I had kids and chocolate kept me up at night, and while staying at home with the littles, my tastes changed to something a little more plain…more buttermilky and nutty. Enter almond cake and oatmeal muffins with blueberry surprise and some insane Italian torta that’s like a macaroon on top, nutty shortbread on the bottom, and an apricot jam party in the middle.
My tastes changed in one other major way: now I mainly bake to give. Somewhere I realized that not everyone has a mixer or an interest in baking, but everyone has an interest in receiving home-baked goods. What a revelation! Now I can experiment like crazy and make all the recipes I have cut out or photocopied, and I don’t have to eat them all! My pants love me and my neighbors love me.
And my kids, especially our eldest daughter, thinks this is what fun is. You hang out in the kitchen and make something yummy, you put it in some awesome package with a cute note, you hop in the stroller and go ring a doorbell. Inadvertently, we have learned the lesson that giving is happy-making. It’s a lovely thing when your five-year-old says on a snowy Saturday, “Can we make something and give it to the neighbors?”
Isn’t this the fun thing about growing up, or just growing as a person? Something you love to do has this whole new application, a whole new meaning? Baking satisfies my love of creating something delicious, or creating a feeling for my family that I had when I was little, and I can spread that feeling outward in some small way. I know it sounds almost too small to count or to matter, because there are people out there fighting the good fight against serious injustice, and where does a sour cream coffee cake fit into the mix? But I’ll tell you where: it fits in everywhere, because it says, “Hello, I see you working hard over there,” or it says, “Thanks for giving me a tutorial on my new camera,” or just, “I am thinking of you.” Baking can say it all, if you let it.
Sour Cream Coffee Cake (from The Silver Palate)
You can make this in a standard 10-cup bundt pan, but one of my happiest discoveries is 6-cup capacity bundt pans. This allows me to make two smaller cakes—keep one, give one—which is really probably more humane to all given how yummy the coffee cake is.
- ½ pound (2 sticks) sweet butter
- 2 1/3 cups granulated sugar (divided use)
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup pecans, chopped
- ½ tablespoon cinnamon
- Preheat the oven to 350. Butter and flour a 10-inch bundt pan.
- Cream together the butter and 2 cups of the sugar. Add eggs, blending well, then the sour cream and vanilla.
- Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Fold the dry ingredients into the creamed mixture, and beat until just blended. Do not overbeat.
- In a separate bowl, mix remaining 1/3 cup sugar, with pecans and cinnamon.
- Pour half the batter in the bundt pan. Sprinkle with the pecan-sugar mixture. Add remaining batter and smooth the top.
- Set on the middle rack of the oven and bake for about 60 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve warm.