By Marina Wolf
I LIKE BRINGING baked goods to people's houses. Invariably they act as if someone brought a pile of holy wafers fresh from the oven. I suspect the recipe for holy wafers is more complicated than what I do, which is scones, usually, or banana bread. But it's not what goes into the mixing bowl that matters as much as what comes out of the oven at the end, after that ineffable transubstantiation that kicks in at around 400 degrees.
The spiritual nature of baked goods has been addressed before, most notably by Peter Reinhart, a longtime North Bay resident, master baker, and applied theologian who specializes in bread as metaphor, and also bread as just bread, especially rustic loaves and Celtic harvest breads. His books all deal with baked things in various ways--Crust and Crumb and Brother Juniper's Bread Book are mostly recipes; Sacramental Magic in a Small-Town Cafe offers great stories; and Bread upon the Waters just gets deep--but they all are written in reverence. I mean, Reinhart has a whole web of theories about the transcendent spirit of the baking process. Bread is his guiding light, a perfect metaphor on his path toward spiritual understanding. Somehow he manages to tie this in to the lives of assorted saints and some of the lesser-known apocrypha, plus tips about bread mixers and steaming the oven.
I appreciate Reinhart's approach, but when sometimes you're talking with lay people about baking, you have to go for a more secular approach, something tempered with objective, scientific fact, because baking recipes definitely involve more chemistry than most cooking recipes. There is less room for error, and less opportunity to correct it. A tablespoon of tomato paste missing from a soup will most likely be overlooked. But even a half-teaspoon of, say, baking soda can make the difference between a fluffy scone that you'd want to eat on a Sunday morning and a scone that you could use as a doorstop.
Oddly, the qualities that make baking so scary--structure, discipline, and the laws of chemistry and nature turned loose in the oven--are the same qualities that can make it so easy and enjoyable. All you have to do is follow the recipe, and then blame the cookbook writer if it doesn't turn out.
But people are still intimidated. They think they don't have the time, and they opt instead for convenience methods, muffin mixes, ready-bake tubes of cookie dough, and vacuum-sealed pizza crusts. These products are fine for their purpose, and are pretty much the culinary equivalent of the washing machine, as far as women's liberation goes. I mean, that whole "daily bread" thing is not meant to be taken literally. I don't care to whip up a little something every day, or even every week, the way housewives did a hundred years ago.
But now that we are so far removed from baking as a daily practice, the occasional baking session can bring on even more intense epiphanies, for the baker and the eater alike. The ingredients are raw: just plain bland flour and fat, salt, baking powder, and sugar in seemingly inedible proportions. You sift and mix them with your hands, dump the whole thing on a baking sheet, and then take a leap of faith.
Yes, faith. Because you never know how the oven is going to act today, or whether the house was just warm enough to get a good rise. Until the glorious moment when you open the oven and see for yourself, you don't know what you're going to get. Sometimes it's a crisis of burnt crust, or an overflow.
But sometimes, that little loaf or scone is the perfect golden thing, and that is a beautiful moment indeed.
From the February 15-21, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.