Half-baked

by DaniGirl on December 5, 2006 · 13 comments

in It IS all about me, Life, the Universe and Everything

Baking is one of those skills that all mothers have, like healing boo-boos with kisses and controlling behaviour with the hairy eyeball. Somehow, though, when I was in the parenthood department store picking out my mothering skills, I went down the neuroses aisle twice instead of getting my supply of baking skills. I got too much Woody Allen and not enough Julia Child.

Baking should be easy. It comes with instructions. How many things in life come with explicit instructions? Do you remember the first time you changed a diaper or tried to put a child in a onsie? Oh sure, NOW you can do it in a washroom stall the size of a shoebox, balancing a diaper bag with one had and a wriggling baby in the other, while keeping the door with the broken lock closed with your knee and holding a box of wipes in your teeth. But the first time, when it took you three tries and 20 minutes to figure out which was the front end, didn’t you wish you had a nice set of instructions?

Baking comes with instructions. It tells you exactly how much of each ingredient you need, exactly the order to add them together, and exactly how long to cook them at a precise temperature. The question is not how I could screw this up once, but how I could screw it up more often than not.

I made a cake for Beloved’s birthday this week. A cake from a box, mind you. You know the ones – dump the box, add eggs and oil and water, mix, bake. No-brainer, right? Well, first of all, that cake had the density of a neutron star. I’m surprised the kitchen table had the structural integrity to hold it up.

As if that weren’t bad enough, it was a cake with attitude, and that cake did not want to be frosted. In fact, not only did it wilfully resist being frosted, it actually threw off the frosting as I was trying to slather it on. I’d pass the spatula (because I get that baking is about the right tools, and I have a spatula for frosting a cake, even though the cake inevitably doesn’t want to be frosted) over one section, and rather than the frosting sticking to the cake, the frosting peeled up layers of the cake and stuck to the spatula. The more frosting I tried to apply, the more cake ended up stuck to the spatula. It was not pretty. I used an entire can of frosting on one cake. Cake from a box, frosting from a can, and still I screwed it up. That takes a special level of culinary incompetence, don’t you think?

The one thing I really, really, really want to be able to bake is cookies. Mothers can bake cookies. I am a mother. Ergo, I should be able to bake cookies. In fact, I can make chocolate chip coasters, and large cookie sheets of an oatmealish material loosely identifiable as former cookie dough, and that’s about it. Sometimes they are overcooked, sometimes they are undercooked, but they are consistently unappetizing and often inedible.

My favourite cookies right now are the Farmer’s Market gourmet homestyle cookies from Loblaws. The other day as I was perusing the freezer section beside the bakery, a ray of light fell down from the heavens and a chorus of angels heralded my discovery of a box of frozen Farmer’s Market gourmet homestyle cookie dough chunks, complete with baking instructions.

Finally, a foolproof cookie! Place premixed, preformed chocolate chip oatmeal cookie dough pucks on a cookie sheet, bake at precisely 325F for exactly 11 minutes, and revel in the glory of being a successful cookie baker at last.

What actually happened was that they ran together into a massive cookie pangea, and were so badly stuck to the cookie sheet that by the time I pried them up they were less cookie and more chunks and crumbs. Chewy chunks and crumbs, but not in that melt-in-your-mouth way that a normal person’s freshly-baked cookies would be.

From now on I’ll just buy the already-baked cookies, and just nuke them for a few seconds to make the chocolate chips all melty. Five seconds in the microwave counts as baking, right?


{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Not So Little Sister December 5, 2006 at 2:45 pm

LOL! Great post. I love to bake and am not terrible at it, but the oven in our current apartment won’t stay on 350…nor will is hold a constant temperature so it definitely makes baking an adventure. Maybe you could try blaming it on the oven?
Good luck!

2 sleepycat December 5, 2006 at 3:21 pm

Here are a few suggestions if you want more baked goods and less amusing blogging material 🙂
Get an oven thermometer and see what your oven temperature really is and how well it keeps that temp. If you’re oven temp fluctuates and won’t stay steady – stop right there and stick with the pre-made cookie/microwave plan.
Check and see if it really is at the temp it says it is when it beeps. It may be higher or lower. From the cookie story it sounds like it’s running hot.
Watch it. I know it’s not that exciting but until you trust your oven stay in the kitchen and watch it through one whole baking cycle. You can see what it’s doing and maybe figure it out.
What is your cookie sheet like? If it’s plain metal you might try getting an insulated one (the kind with two layers of metal and a space for air in between) or a stoneware one. A cookie sheet that gets too hot too fast in an oven that’s too hot already is my guess as to what’s up with the pangaea cookies.
Good luck!

3 Myra December 5, 2006 at 3:28 pm

Hi Dani
That was a riot to read! I’m lucky enough to have baking in my blood, which isn’t to say I’ve never messed it up beyond comprehension. It’s quite a bit like chemistry in that even the slightest variation in conditions can yield disastrous results. But at least you don’t have to memorize the periodic table!
Heavy cakes and cookies are usually the result of over-zealous mixing (like from my Type A hubby) – strive for imperfection, be lazy, and go old-school (i.e. wooden spoon) and leave some lumps. It’ll be lighter.
Sliding icing is usally the result of a cake that is not quite cool. The heat leeches out of the cake and literally melts the icing off. Let it sit in the pan on a rack for a bit and then turn out onto the rack to cool completely before icing. Baking the cake the night before is a great idea.
Cookies that spread too much are a bit of a mystery to me… I’ve long-suspected kitchen gremlins but I think it has to do with oven temp (you might need an oven thermometer to be sure) and/or the cookie sheets – dark ones really mess with even my “fool-proof” recipes yielding either burnt offerings or a melted sheet of undercooked batter. Dark cake pans are also a crapshoot.
I’ve got a very simple sugar cookie recipe with icing “paint” if you ever want to delve into it again… even if just for the holidays.
If not – those Farmer’s Market cookies really are DIVINE.

4 cinnamon gurl December 5, 2006 at 3:44 pm

Hee hee! This post comes at just the right moment because I have just agreed to one of those cookie exchanges. Except this cookie exchange is for humans who will bake only one batch, not those supermoms who can bake like 12 dozen cookies… why do they even need a cookie exchange???
Of course this morning I noticed that my oven won’t even turn on. And I have less than a week to bake this mythical batch of cookies.
Oh – and I LOVE those Farmer’s Market cookies. Maybe I could just bring a couple dozen of those?
I love this bit: “Somehow, though, when I was in the parenthood department store picking out my mothering skills, I went down the neuroses aisle twice instead of getting my supply of baking skills. I got too much Woody Allen and not enough Julia Child.”
I feel that way about crafty stuff. Of course I can’t really bake either so I must have gone down the neuroses aisle three times. I’m REALLY good at the neuroses. It’s what I do best.

5 Renee December 5, 2006 at 4:21 pm

I can bake somewhat, but sometimes not. My mom had to make cookies for a Christmas cookie swap last weekend, and she showed up at my house about 2 hours later screaming ‘That was hell! I hate to cook. I’m never doing that again!’.
So, I see that in my future.

6 Valerie December 5, 2006 at 5:14 pm

My first reaction was the same as the first two responses – blame it on your oven. Do as sleepycat suggested and get a separate oven thermometer to check – our old oven ran VERY hot. New oven, new cookie sheet, fresh batch – you’ll be smiling. 🙂

7 APL December 5, 2006 at 5:43 pm

OK, the thing about the frosting? That happens to EVERYONE. One of the memories I have of my childhood is of my mom (generally a very easy-going person) YELLING at me because she was so frustrated about the frosting doing exactly what you describe while trying to frost my birthday cake. I’ve never forgotten it (she didn’t yell at me often, so it stands out). To this day, I harbor a grudge against frosting. You think I’m joking, but I’m serious. When I bake cupcakes, I almost NEVER frost them. Same with cakes. That’s why I prefer to bake my cakes in bundt cake pans: no one cares if you frost them.

8 BubandPie December 5, 2006 at 5:56 pm

My chocolate-chip-cookie secret is this: Golden Crisco. It’s made out of poison, so I only use it once or twice a year, but the recipe on the back results in DIVINE cookies.
(Another secret: I wait until I’m really stressed and then make hubby do the baking.)

9 Sayre December 5, 2006 at 6:38 pm

Another secret is PARCHMENT PAPER instead of “greasing” the pan. I love how parchment makes it so easy to get cookies out of the pan.

10 DaniGirl December 5, 2006 at 6:59 pm

But what happens if I buy the oven thermometer, and the fancy baking pans, and the Golden Crisco poison, and the parchment paper, and my cookies still suck?? I’m not sure if I could live with the sense of failure.
APL, I’m sorry if my post added to your trauma (even as I’m snickering.)
And in retrospect, maybe putting the references to Woody Allen and parenting skills in the same paragraph were not so well thought out. I’m just sayin’.

11 Myra December 5, 2006 at 8:24 pm

I think you and your future cookies will be fine.
But speaking of poison.. just wait until your cake is cool and then dump a whole tub of Cool Whip on it. Now that’s easy. 😉

12 Ingrid December 5, 2006 at 10:08 pm

A solution to your baking woes: come to a friends house and bake her favourite cookie recipe together!
When I was a kid, my mom never baked (still doesn’t) and I loved baking. So I decided I would have to do it myself. By age 10 I could bake cookies independently and by age 12 I made all the birthday cakes. Of course there were mishaps, but that’s how you learn anything. And my tummy was a strong motivator.

13 liz December 5, 2006 at 10:32 pm

Laughing so hard. I’ve been there and done that.
I second sleepycat and her oven-testing suggestion, and Myra and her “mix it less and cool it more” suggestions.
Alton Brown (Good Eats!) suggests putting a pizza stone in the oven to help maintain an even temperature. I’ve found it works most of the time. Also, wait 15-20 minutes after the oven has come to the proper temp (which just means the air in the oven is the right temp) so that the walls of the oven can heat up too.

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