For most of my life I cherished the view that you were either a baker or a cook. Not to discriminate any bakers, I even regarded them as quite a separate species. Cooks thrive on improvisation and prefer the unstructured flow of whatever is to hand. Bakers like formulas, often regarding cooking as messy and unpredictable.
My mom is wonderful baker and I must admit that I’m not big on baking as much as I love to eat the finished products or sometimes even the unfinished one (most of my chocolate chip cookie dough never made it into the oven). I’m just not keen on measuring ingredients; following the rules to mix wet to dry, vice versa; and waiting whilst the goods are in the oven. However the past couple years something changed for me and I was pretty sure it was just a matter of time before I caught the baking bug.
Baking is indeed different from cooking. You cannot be as laid-back about a cake as you can be about a stew. How many carrots or chunks of meat you put into your casserole will not effectively change the entity you produce. You can alter the flavours -- and that's the joy of it -- but you are not messing with its essential properties. When you bake a cake you cannot suddenly decide you feel like putting in three eggs rather than two, or half a cup of flour instead of the cup and a half the recipe calls for.
But if baking requires obedience, it does not require military-style discipline, as my earlier prejudice had led me to believe. Once you understand what the component parts of a recipe are, you can play with them.
My banana bread here is an example of that. Depending on my mood, or frankly saying the nearest pan within reach, I can make this into muffins as well.
The whole recipe is very basic and as long as you keep the main structure as it is, you can alter the flavours and character of the bread. You can add raisins or chopped dried apricots, soaking them in coconut rum or orange juice to make it more special. Adding some chocolate chips – dark, milk or white – and chopped walnuts and it truly is irresistible.
What I had not realised -- and bakers keep this a secret for obvious reasons -- is how easy baking is. Many people say that they resent cooking because you spend hours on a meal just to have it demolished in 10 minutes. Well, baking is the reverse. A cake takes scarcely five minutes to mix, you do nothing to it while it bakes and then you have a glorious creation in your kitchen. Plus, one of the best smells in the world is the scent of fresh baked bread.
Those who remain unconvinced should definitely start off with the banana bread below. There is nothing complicated about this, trust me: it’s just a matter of mixing flour, sugar, baking powder and soda, cinnamon, bananas, butter, eggs and vanilla; and pouring the batter into greased loaf pan and bake.
From experience, I learn there are very few rules to remember in baking: First, all ingredients -- unless specified in the recipe -- should be at room temperature before you start. Second, the oven must be preheated to the correct temperature (though you would be surprised how much variation there is in ovens, so always be ready to take a cake out earlier, or leave it in longer). Third, the size of the pan should be right. Stick to these strictures, and there should not be disappointments.
I cannot tell you how great the rewards are. It is very easy to buy cookies or bread from a store, but nothing gives you the feeling of calm and satisfaction and, indeed, deep pleasure from making your own. For someone who has always held that shopping can be the hardest part of cooking, it is a bonus that the ingredients you need are easily kept at hand. You do not need a big kitchen to make sure you always have flour, eggs, butter, sugar, some chocolate chips and cocoa. And while gadgets -- a processor or a mixer -- can help, a bowl, a wooden spoon, a few pans and an oven are all you really need. Those and a willing spirit, maybe. The great thing about baking is that anyone can do it. I should know. Tempting isn’t it?
200 grams sugar
125 grams unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon milk
3 ripe bananas
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
250 grams all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1.Preheat the oven to 350 F / 180 C.
2.Cream the sugar and butter in a large mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time.
3.In a small bowl, mash the bananas with a tablespoon of milk and ground cinnamon.
4.In another bowl, measure and mix the dry ingredients, flour, baking powder, soda and salt.
5.Add the mashed banana to the creamed butter sugar mixture, stir to combine. Then add in the dry ingredients (This is the perfect time to add in the special additions).
6.Pour batter into buttered loaf pan (or muffin tin) and sprinkle with a mixture of ground cinnamon and sugar generously. Bake for 35-40 minutes.
You should really let it completely cool before slicing, but I’m never good with rules either.