Before the days of Pinterest and well, let’s be honest, internet, I used to scrapbook about the person I’d be when I grew up and what I’d wear and buy and bake, and where I’d live. Based on the clippings, I was going to be a Chanel suited, high heel booted, jitterbugging intellectual, who had several fabulous homes all over the world and who baked eight layer cakes or cookies with edible pansies.
Last week, thirteen years after clipping the recipe, I found edible pansies at the store.
I bake every once in a while. Flour, sugar, butter, eggs, I’ll pull these simple ingredients together and play. It’s fun. I get to use all sorts of kitchen toys, make a mess, and eat the rewards. I can follow rules and be creative and be generous to myself and to others. The Joy of Baking, isn’t that what they say?
But as I grabbed the measuring cups that day, there was a twinge of guilt. One of the best things about Mother Sugar are the comments that follow each post. And one thing that comes up again and again is the potential inherent conflict between certain things we do and what doing them says about us. Cooking, cleaning, getting married, being single, having babies, how to raise them when you have them, baking, these are not just simple tasks or unfettered choices. To a self-aware intelligent being, they come with implications and at times, problematic associations.
So I thought: isn’t baking awfully old fashioned? Doesn’t my rolling pin solidify traditional roles about women? Am I not subscribing to some kind of essentialist notion of what us gals should be doing with our lives? Growing up (and maybe this is because of that 90’s cynicism) a woman in an apron was not a role model. Does anyone even remember when Hilary Clinton dismissed making cookies? That there was a time when it seemed you were either breaking eggs, or breaking glass ceilings, but you wouldn’t dare do both at the same time? And even now there’s been an ongoing debate about ecological mothering in which I’m sure baking plays a critical yet sinister part.
Nowadays even the humble cupcake is an industry. The whoopie pie has launched a full frontal assault here in Europe. Martha and Sandra and Dorie and Nigella are encouraging us to bake, affiliating the act with all sorts of good things: love, home, generosity, relaxation, escape, even empowerment. And the proof is in the pudding: whatever baking triumph I might have, there’s probably a banker, a homemaker, or a rocket scientist online who has done it better, while having written a clever article, and taken professional pictures at the same time. Baking has become not unlike fashion, a means through which, on the one hand, we express and empower ourselves, a means that make a lot of women financially successful; and yet at the same time, it keeps us gals firmly rooted in the traditional feminine.
It’s easy enough to say I’m making a free choice, that unlike women before me, I’m not under any obligations to bake a dozen chocolate chip cookies, that what was a once a chore is now a hobby, and a luxury one at that. There might even be people who are surprised that I bake at all. But what if the choice itself is engendered? And what if making a societal statement- throwing my muffin tins out- robs me of true pleasure?
As a child, I baked with my mother. We made cakes and puddings: we took a box and dumped it’s powders into a bowl, added some milk, an egg. Later, we’d crack open a tub of icing.
And then one day somebody told me, if it came out of a box, it wasn’t really baking. Turned out my grandmother, whose chocolate cake I looked forward to every year, was also a cheat! I was too young to draw parallels between the authenticity of their love and their baking, or to consider how political such an accusation might be when directed at a time starved working mom like mine, but I promised myself that even though I didn’t have a clue how to go about it, when I grew up, I would only bake from scratch.
Enter Martha Stewart (because if you’re going to bake from scratch, she seemed like the logical place to start in 1999). While roommates drank and ventured out to strip bars, I worked on my feminist jurisprudence paper and clipped recipes. When I couldn’t figure out how to calculate marginal productivity, I made drop biscuits. When my father remarried, I made Gingerbread Snacking Cake.
Don’t let me mislead you: I wasn’t very good. Baking might have been a traditional activity but I was hardly the traditional type: impatient, ambitious, I never liked making anything more than once. Baking wasn’t about giving or sacrifice or proving some kind of feminine wile; it was just my way of imposing structure and control when I didn’t know what the hell was going on. In fact, the irony never occurred to me that a women’s studies minor would find such solace in her oven.
My projects became more elaborate and ridiculous. I kept my boyfriend and all his friends waiting until nearly midnight for lemon soufflés that never rose from their skins. Looking back, I must have appeared like a desperate housewife in the making, but I was fighting a war with those lemons! Eventually I found a job, a career, which came with enough combat rules and complexity to leave baking alone for a while.
Rebellion, independence, assertiveness, control, these are the real ingredients in my baking mix. Baking was hardly safe, domesticated terrain. Sure, there might have been some self-validation sprinkled throughout- but that validation transcended gender, it wasn’t about proving I was sugar and spice and all that crap; it was about proving to myself I could figure out and direct and create and give something away (however trivial) all by myself. Baking made me understand that there is an important difference in saying you can’t do something and you won’t do something. One is a choice, the other is a limitation. Isn’t that a recipe worth saving?
Maybe I have my mother and grandmother to thank, that their short-cut cakes, their refusal to entirely bow to a domestic tradition (or to at least embody a more modern one) uncomplicated the magic of vanilla and yeast. I regret the severity of judging my mother’s boxed cake mix. Daughters can be cruel.
Forbes published an article about how women in the corporate world shouldn’t bring their baking to work because it would send the wrong kind of signal– instead of ambitious career woman, you’d become holly homemaker. I get that, I do. I did not bring cookies to the trading floor. Being aware of the politics of baking (of anything) serves a purpose. Not everyone is past reducing a woman to her baked goods.
But as far as I see it, there’s nothing wrong with being proud of anything you create with your hands, your brain, your heart. The politics are worth bearing in mind, but sometimes those politics can feel a lot like somebody else just telling you what to do. And as one of us once said, reduction intensifies flavor. But if you’re not careful, you’ll burn it all down to a black stinking mess.
Maybe I do bake to recreate some kind of nostalgia that doesn’t really exist. Yes, I’ll admit it: I’ll bake to impress my mother-in-law, I’ll even bake to show off.
But mostly I’m showing off to myself. I take pictures because while I know I can run a million dollar conference and win corporate awards, half of me still can’t quite believe I’ve baked a cake.
If we are looking solely for self worth in our batter, things are going to fall flat. That blogger who in her spare time just finished her croquembouche will make you suicidal. But at least for now, I’m not worried about being defined by a plate of brownies any more than I am worried about being defined as a corporate bitch. One association kind of cancels out the other. And that contradiction is the cherry on the top.
The cookies turned out swell. No I was not wearing Chanel. Yes, I have one fabulous house. In honor of that self seeking girl who (more or less) became the woman she hoped to be and her baking mentor Martha, I’ve included the recipe below. Enjoy!
Pansy Cookies (from Martha Stewart circa 1998)
Makes 4 dozen
4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup unsalted butter
2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs, slightly beaten
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract (I added 2 teaspoon of lemon zest and 2 teaspoon of lavender)
1 large egg white
3 dozen edible pansies, stems trimmed
1/2 cup sanding sugar (or granulated)
1. In a large bowl sift flour, salt, and baking powder. set aside
2.Cream butter on medium speed, gradually add sugar, beat until fluffy. Add eggs gradually; beat until fluffy. On low speed, add vanilla and other flavors if using, and reserved dry ingredients; mix until combined. Divide two into two balls; wrap in plastic. Flatten to discs. Refrigerate 30 min.
3.Heat oven to 325 degree Fahrenheit. In a small bowl whisk egg white wash with 1 tablespoon water until frothy. On a lightly floured surface, roll out one disc of dough, to a 1/4 inch thickness. Cut out shapes. Place on baking sheets, space about 2 inches apart. Brush tops with egg wash. Place pansy on top of each cookie and affix petals with more egg wash. Sprinkle with sanding sugar. But until lightly golden, 8-10 min. Transfer to rack to cool. Can be stored up to 1 week.