I am referred to and am trained as a Chef, but I am a Baker at heart. Not of bread, mind you, but of pastry. I love the process and the products of baking: muffins, cookies, tarts, pies, puff pastry, viennoisserie, and most of all cakes. Despite all of my training and the possibilities, I am not the kind of baker that has 25-pound bags of sugar and flour in their basement. That’s a sign of commitment that I do not have time for, although I certainly harbor the urge.
When I was living in Paris in the late 1990s attending Le Cordon Bleu, my knees would go weak when I entered the patisseries of Paris. Which I did rather frequently. Luckily, the 12 hours per day, 6 days per week schedule at said cooking school took care of the rash of butter-rich viennoisserie that I gorged on.
The French divide food into two disciplines: cuisine and patisserie—savory and sweet. Or, in American lingo: ‘cooking’ and ‘baking’. There is a simple truth behind this distinction—there are savory people and there are sweet people. And I am not referring to temperaments (as I assure you I have met plenty of unsavory ‘sweet’ people in professional kitchens). Typically, people fall into one or the other of these two disciplines. ‘Cooks’ like to wing it in the kitchen and feel penned in by a recipe, while ‘Bakers’ relish the structure of a recipe and appreciate its call to be exacting. Both are creative in their own right.
While almost everybody has a sweet tooth, it does not follow that you like to bake. On the other hand, I have never met a baker that does not have a raging sweet tooth. Lots of people tell me they actually hate baking. “It’s so rigid.” “I hate measuring everything.” “You have to be so exact.” (These are Cooks.) When they complain to me about this, I nod understandingly but can offer no sympathy as those are exactly the qualities that draw me to baking. As a Baker, it is reassuring to no end that—assuming you have chosen a good recipe—you will end up with something delicious if you simply follow the directions.
No matter how much enjoyment they derive from the process of baking, or the ceaseless call of their own sweet tooth, the end game for a baker is the same as a cook: to delight people with their creations. However, a baker’s creations tend to be highly caloric and saturated with sugar in one form or another. If you are a baker, you need your People—others who will consume what you produce, with enthusiasm.
And if you are People, you need your Baker—someone to satisfy your sweet tooth and stand in for the part of you that feels like a wild animal in too small of a cage when you attempt to bake. This symbiotic relationship has persisted for generations, often played by the grandmother in our lives. The People marvel at how kind and generous their Baker is. Which is probably true. But make no mistake, for the Baker, there is a self-serving force behind their gift: get this out of my house before I eat it all!
As much as we bakers enjoy our craft and love a treat worthy of the indulgence, we know that our endeavors are self-supportive in the moment, but self-defeating in the long run. Having three-dozen cookies or an entire layer cake sitting in the house is a like begging for an appointment with your darkest self.
And yet, the urge to bake often overwhelms me. Like a retail addict that rushes off for a long lunch with her credit card when feeling a little blasé, I clear my calendar without a thought for my future. I am seeking the rush of promised perfection from a glossy magazine recipe and a way to prop up the illusion that I really don’t have time for that task that has been staring me in the face for week. I must bake something, for others (bien sûr).
I have lived with this urge and the vicious cycle it creates for many decades now. It is not to be underestimated, nor denied. Eating mediocre treats from coffee shops and avoiding baking feels like shunning a life-affirming part of yourself. And yet, baking regularly and having mounds of treats in various stages of becoming stale can feel both wasteful and lonely. When self-reflection comes, you don’t want to keep revisiting the tragic moment when, in a swirl of exasperation, you resorted to squirting dish soap all over your four-layer masterpiece slumped over in the garbage can à la post-partem Miranda from Sex and the City.
If you are a closet baker who denies yourself the rush of perfection and delight simply because you are petrified of becoming either diabetic or the size of a cow, do not despair. Use this one simple trick to reduce belly fat: make a list…of Your Cake People.
I highly recommend neighbors. Aside from the convenience of their proximity, any acts of generosity to them repay themselves ten-fold when it comes to forgiving your noisy (or messy) dog or the need to borrow needle-nose pliers in the midst of a mentally arduous IKEA assembly project. The office is an excellent source too. All kinds of deadlines can be expanded when the perfect blueberry muffin delivered on a Monday morning comes to mind (which will be every time they see you if you get it right.)
People to avoid are those who claim to not have a sweet tooth. I view these folks with deep suspicion. It’s simply inconceivable to me. They come off as tiresome and pious to those of us who are addicted to sugar. I speak from experience when I say that these folks cannot be converted to your satisfaction. You will whip up your slam-dunk favorite and they will never give you more than the I-can-take-it-or-leave-it line, even when you catch them sneaking seconds.
Children can be problematic too. They are so easily satisfied that they will do crippling damage to your ego with innocent observations like: “This is just like that apple-y dessert in the TV dinner I had at aunt Cathy’s!” simply because they are proud of their own recognition of the flavor of cinnamon.
So, if you are one of My Baker People, I offer this recipe for my absolute favorite American-style butter cake. Eat it sitting down as it is guaranteed to make you weak in the knees. I found this recipe in a fall issue of Fine Cooking about eight years ago—the gal who came up with it has star status in my book.
My Cake People have never sampled this because it is so good that I feel zero remorse for devouring it entirely within my four walls, shared of course with those within. I confess to having substituted canned pumpkin and it did not sacrifice its aplomb. Not serving the nut topping is also a justified shortcut in my book.
As the season closes in, this will prove worthy of an afternoon when you are peckish for something comforting and/or are perhaps in need of compliments from those whose opinion you value (or need on your side).
BROWN BUTTER PUMPKIN CAKE, by Jeanne Kelley