Nearly two years after immersing myself in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, and cooking many dozen delicious and beautiful dishes and desserts, I received as Christmas gifts two new baking cookbooks, which I had been not-so-secretly coveting. The first is Baking with Mary Berry. The second is Paul Hollywood’s 100 Great Breads. You may recognize both names from The Great British Baking Show, to which my daughters introduced me a few years ago. We have watched, with pleasure and intimidation, Great Britain’s expert amateur bakers, glad the hosts’ withering critiques were not aimed at us. With no judges but myself and my admiring parents, I spent January making several recipes a week. Hollywood’s first bread recipe is for a “wheat sheaf loaf.” He promised if I can bake that, I can bake anything in his book. Well, I did succeed in making a beautiful loaf. (Beware: cut the insane volume of salt by at least half.) Each of Mary’s recipes fits on a single page, faced with gorgeous photos. They have all turned out wonderfully so far: magic lemon pudding cake; magic chocolate pudding cake; white chocolate muffins with strawberry jam centers; double chocolate muffins; French pancakes; and, oat-butter-crunch “flapjack” bars (nothing like American pancakes). But the most beautiful so far is her orange-chocolate mousse cake, which I offered at Hyrum’s birthday. I heard on National Public Radio that millions of people have taken up the baking hobby due to Covid pandemic cabin-fever isolation. For me, the motivation is different. I love the metamorphic magic of taking an assortment of powders and liquids and combining them to create an edible work of art. Not to mix metaphors, I consider each recipe as a treasure map, some harder to follow than others, but all leading eventually to an unexpectedly delightful treasure. I hope I my cartographic talent is steadily growing. Mom and Dad are happy for me to practice on them.
Mary Berry’s Orange-Chocolate Mousse Cake
Paul Hollywood’s Wheat Sheaf Loaf
Tonight’s dinner came frozen out of boxes and bags: breaded pollock; cheesy scalloped potatoes; mixed vegetables. And I am not at all embarrassed to announce that we loved it and ate our fill. Mom, Dad, and I sat at the dinner table—a family—conversing and looking forward to our after-dinner movie. I have taken pleasure in showing Mom and Dad some of my old favorites, like Nacho Libre (2006) (because it is so absurd and makes me laugh and Jack Black is brilliant) and George of the Jungle (1997) (because it is so absurd and makes me laugh and Brendan and Leslie make such a cute hopeful couple) and Chariots of Fire (1981) (because of integrity and grit and glory and love and the thrill and cheer of victory against the odds). During the Christmas holidays, we enjoyed Albert Finney’s Scrooge (1970) and George C. Scott’s A Christmas Carol (1984) and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), always moved by the miracle of a changed heart. Tonight, we watched The Scarlet Pimpernel from 1982, chuckling at Percy Blakeney’s foppish façade, sad for the tragedies of the French Revolution, and happy for the happy ending. Missing Julia Child’s cookbook—I showed them Julie and Julia (2009), too—I baked a French chocolate soufflé during the movie, cutting the sugar with stevia-sweetened chocolate and mixing one part Splenda with one part sugar. I am always so pleased and relieved when my baking adventures end well. Pulling the jiggling masterpiece out of the oven, I felt quite over-the-moon giddy that the chocolate soufflé turned out perfectly, not quite a custard, not quite a cake, not quite a pudding—a pleasant satisfying piquing converging in-between of all three. And I relished the reward of Mom and Dad loving it and asking for more.
I wanted to make a nice dessert for Dad, and settled on a cream cheese tart. I added fresh guava puree to exotify the pie, and sweetened the filling with Splenda. I have become proficient at making French tart shells (pie crusts) from Julia Child’s cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Dad sat at the island watching me prepare the dough. “Don’t mix it too much,” he interjected. I think you mixed it too much. It needs to be ice cold and barely blended.” I paid no heed, and placed the wax-paper-wrapped balls of dough in the fridge to chill. After a few hours, I rolled the dough out and shaped the shell in the spring-form pan. When I first starting baking, I pressed into the shell a sheet of aluminum foil and poured in a pound of dry black beans, to keep the bottom from bubbling up. The beans are a cheap but effective substitute for ceramic baking beads, which I only recently bought. Sitting in a yogurt container, they looked just like Holland mints, round and white. Dad suddenly picked up a ceramic bead and plopped it into his mouth, thinking it was a mint. Before I could articulate gentle words, I blurted, “Uh uh uh!” like one would chide a child with its hand in the cookie jar. I did not mean to treat him like an errant child, but out of instinctual fear I did what I needed to do to stop him before he crunched on the glass bead and broke a took, or swallowed the bead. He quickly spit it out, and neither of us looked at the other or said a word. I did not want to shame him anymore than I already had with my tut-tut, and he did not want to acknowledge his gaffe. We pretended nothing happened. But later, when the pie came out of the oven looking beautiful, he confessed, as if I hadn’t known, “I almost ate one of those white glass beads. I thought it was a mint!” The beads removed, and the guava cream cheese filling poured in to bake, the tart tasted wonderfully delicious.
Following our routine after selecting the week’s produce, Dad waited in the deli area while I finished the grocery shopping. My cart heavy-laden, I circled back to gather Dad and his cart and to head together to the register. As we passed slowly by a stack of boxed pastries, Dad picked up the top box and looked longingly at the apple fritters. “I sure would like to have an apple fritter,” he lamented, teetering on temptation’s edge. I understood the angst with which he contemplated the moist deep-fried fritters covered with white sugar icing: I, too, ached for a bite of blissful sweetness. We stood in silent solidarity, Dad with his fear of diabetes and me with my fear of being fat. He put the box down with genuine sadness. We squared our shoulders and walked toward the register, leaving desire behind us. “When we get home,” I offered, “I’ll make us some French crêpes rolled around sliced fresh bananas, peaches, and strawberries, with dollops of stevia-sweetened whipped cream.” “That sounds wonderful,” Dad said. “Let’s do it.”
(Image by pixel1 from Pixabay.)