Baking isn’t just a science — it’s an art. Throw sugar, flour and butter together; the chemical reaction is almost foolproof. But approach the oven with some whimsical creativity, and the results can be sheer magic.
My love affair with baking began in August 1999. The initial trigger of the tryst was a venerable apple pie. I remember walking into the kitchen and declaring to the family, “I’m attempting a pie for dessert, and I don’t want any help.” No objections there, so to work I went.
After leafing through the tattered household copy of Joy of Cooking, I knew I had it down. Make crust. Prepare filling. Combine. Voila. Just two hours later, the most wondrous scent of butter, cinnamon and caramelising fruit was wafting out of the kitchen and onto the streets of Capitol Hill. Then, a neighbour rang to ask if she could pop over for dessert — eureka. And just like that, I became hooked on pastry.
The truth is, baking is nowhere near as daunting as some would claim. Admittedly, there are certain proportions one must adhere to. Too little sugar: the cookie might taste like a sandy brick. One missing egg could spell disaster for a soufflé. And let’s not even get started with baking powder or bicarbonate of soda.
But take heart. The measurements in any respectable recipe would not lead you astray. Friendly advice: follow them to the letter until you’re comfortable enough to improvise. If you’ve never baked before but always wanted to, I invite you to this simple shortbread bake-off. Give me an hour of your time, and surprise yourself by dinner tonight.
There are several reasons I recommend this simple treat. Chief among them is the end product, which is nothing less than buttery bliss. Shortbread is unpretentious. Far from exotic, the ingredients should live in most larders, though icing sugar may be a stretch. (You could use regular sugar, but the result is a courser, less satisfying biscuit) Furthermore, take note of the necessary equipment — nothing fussy at all. You don’t even need electric beaters, though they greatly expedite the creaming process.
Of course, if you’re looking to invest in gadgets and gizmos, the list is endless. For now, Qatar is fledgling as a baker’s playground. Tavola and Lakeland probably come to the fore as the two shops most likely to stock that silicone muffin tray or lattice dough cutter your cousin insists is vital to Aunt Mildred’s recipe. Additionally, specialist ingredients can be tough to track down. But Lulu and Family Food Centre are my default places to look because prices don’t typically teeter between the ridiculous and criminal.
So here’s my golden rule of baking. You get out of it what you put in. Should you use margarine in lieu of butter, prepare to snort in disgust. (Margarine is an indispensable stabilising agent. Adding it to cookies or cakes results in a hardier product more able to withstand warmer climates. But using margarine solely to replace butter is sacrilegious). Vanilla extract is the real stuff made from elegant stalks of bean. The 2 Riyal bottle of flavouring is a chemical solution unworthy of your kitchen cupboard.
If you view baking as a chore, stressing over inane details, all you’ll find waiting is a pedestrian pie at best… a burnt brownie at worst. I urge you, instead, to loosen your apron strings; be a bit adventurous; and, above all listen to the butter. There are no mistakes in baking, just stories to share and laugh over. Just recently, I made a chocolate cake so insipid that I broke it up, bound the crumbs with coffee and buttercream, and transformed the lot into mini cake truffles rolled in cocoa. Without exaggerating, the colleagues lapped them up.
At its essence, the culinary arts should be fun. As a hobby, it helps me unwind from the pressures of daily living. With opera playing in the background, I tinker with my glistening set of measuring cups and revel in the texture of pastry crumbs between my fingers.
I am no professional baker. But I am a passionate one; and in my world, that’s enough to make me a magician with the oven. Go on then: give it a whirl. You’ll know you’re on the right track when the neighbours come a-knocking.