In my short lifetime I’ve learned and relearned how to bake three times. If you ask me, baking is more than an art; it is a mysterious blend of accurate measurements and intuitive understanding. In my kitchen, most often I measure and I weigh my ingredients faithfully – but then there are those days that my ingredients speak to me and suddenly my measuring spoons get tossed aside and I begin throwing things in a bowl like some kind of modern-era mad scientist. And to be honest, it usually works. I don’t advise you to don my mad scientist apron and give it a go yourself, but if you do, be prepared for wonderful accidents and tear-worthy fails. Serious fails.
For as long as I can remember I have felt a pull towards baking. To me there is something ridiculously comforting about measuring, pouring, sifting, and stirring. As I add ingredient after ingredient into the bowl, the outside world melts away and all that’s in my mind is myself, in the present moment, taking these extraneous parts and creating a wholly new substance. Hopefully, and edible one! I find peace in stirring the dry ingredients with the wet. I feel that the world is right when these sums of a whole act in the way that science teaches us that they will. There is an element of mystery because the batter or the dough will never, ever taste like the finished process. And I know that there is magic in the air when I place the pan into the oven; at that point I’ve done all that I could do and it is in the hands of the universe to deliver the outcome of my efforts.
I first learned to bake by watching and helping my parents from a stool in our kitchen. Chocolate chip cookies, bread from the bread machine, Bisquick biscuits, brown sugar-studded coffee cake, brownies from a box, and birthday cakes four times a year… these were the things I learned to measure and mix. Soon I was baking on my own time. I would sit down with my parent’s cookbooks, pour over the desserts sections and pick out things I wanted to bake. I began collecting vintage cookbooks from thrift stores and spending my allowances or birthday money on cake decorating supplies. I began baking the birthday cakes, and the cookies, and the brownies. I taught myself how to bake things from quick bread muffins to crispy, eggy and delicious popovers. And if I was ever stuck or confused my parents would step in and offer me a quick lesson, and then disappear back into the woodwork to let me flex my skills on my own. If anything, I gained an incredible amount of confidence in the kitchen learning to bake. I enjoyed every moment of it.
And then my mom was diagnosed with a severe gluten-intolerance. One thing that all of that baking had never taught me was what gluten was, or how it impacted baked goods. Seriously, what the hell was this stuff? I wanted to find out. For a while, I continued to bake as I had and watched my mom refrain from joining the rest of the family in eating it. Seeing that made me ache inside. So I slowly and quietly began my research and my foray into the new world of gluten-free baking. I tried a few recipes from the bloggers out there at the time and I found a handful of cookbooks that had made it to the shelves of our local bookstore – this was, after all, before gluten-free awareness hit the mainstream!
Not too long afterwards I myself was diagnosed with the very same, celiac-suspected, extreme gluten-intolerance. Now I threw on my game face. It was time to pack away the gluten and begin relearning how to bake. Because, folks, that’s what it took. I had to throw everything I knew and had learned about baking right out the window and began all over again, from scratch, so to say. And let me assure you that it was not an easy process… I baked more cardboard-like foods than I’d care to remember. Everything either turned out as a pile of crumbs or a mess of gooey, gumminess. It seemed to me that there simply wasn’t any logic in it all.
But I am stubborn by nature and I refused to be beaten. I believed that there was absolutely no reason that I couldn’t continue to eat muffins and cakes just like everyone else on the damn planet, so I stuck with it. For every success there was two or three utter failures. It took me years but I eventually began to understand the subtleties of working with gluten-free flours and how to replace the lack of gluten in a recipe. I was able to put birthday cakes on the table that the entire family, gluten-free or not, would eat. I was able to make muffins and breads and I was able to successfully feel that I had, once again, learned how to bake. It wasn’t perfect, but it was more than a work-in-progress – it was once again, a joy to be baking.
And then I found myself relearning how to bake, once again, for a third time. Just as I felt I had gluten-free baking down my doctor threw a curveball at me by asking me to switch to a plant-based diet. That meant learning to bake without eggs, without dairy milk, or without butter. It meant no buttercream frosting and no more popovers. It meant getting rid of my stand mixer, because what did I need to cream anymore? It meant learning how to use new ingredients and how to adjust for the lack of rise without eggs. It also meant learning to bake without oil – because that’s what my doctor asked of me.
But in spite of all of those potential potholes and discouraging negatives, I was inspired by the freedom in vegan baking. Seriously. I could eat as much batter as I wanted, because with no eggs – why not? I almost never have to run to the store for an ingredient if I’m missing it because in vegan baking there is always, always a pantry-ready substitution. And it’s easier than ever to cut down on my refined sugar content in my recipes because of the use of fruit or fruit purees in place of the eggs or oil. Really, once I wrapped my head around the idea of vegan baking – I threw myself into it head first, no doubts, no trepidations, merely giddy excitement at being able to reinvent myself and my baking once again.
Plus, let’s be real … there is no downside to baking something so damn healthy that you can eat it for breakfast and feel no shame.
I’m a little late to the Valentine’s Day party considering that it is tomorrow, but in honor of the official day of love on the standard calendar I have a recipe I’ve developed as a labor of love. My SIL asked me a few months ago for a chocolate dessert that she could make at the start of the week and portion out a small serving each night as a guilt-free dessert. She wanted it to be easy, and she wanted it to be satisfying … and have non-processed ingredients with as little sugar as possible, to aid in the guiltless game.
I found a recipe from Oatmeal With A Fork I’d saved on my phone ages ago, and went about trying to use it as guide. I ended up changing very little of it, but I have altered it somewhat and have since accepted these brownies as my family’s newest addiction. I’ve made pan after pan of these only to see them disappear almost as quickly as I can make them. I’ve never even had anyone question if they were vegan or gluten-free, simply because they just taste that good. The first bite is a wonder, but they grow on your from there until you find yourself shamelessly reaching for a third.
You should make these tomorrow. Share them or hoard them, I won’t judge you for it. But make them. You’ll thank me later.