I was told about a year ago that food is my love language. It was during an afternoon of cooking with a good friend and in the midst of what likely was one of my failed dating stories (there are plenty to go around). She turned to me and said, “You know that your love language is food, right? Really. It’s so evident in everything you do.”
This gave me pause to consider something I never had before, and soon admitted to myself that she called it spot on. Some of the most vivid memories of my childhood surround food: a full house for Thanksgiving dinner with older siblings home from college; sitting my parents down on a hot summer day and preparing them an anniversary dinner because I didn’t have the means to buy them a gift; baking dozens and dozens of Christmas cookies with my mom and sisters that were mostly all given away; planning a family “international night” dinner from one of the Betty Crocker paperback volumes on the kitchen shelf. Food was a vehicle for shared family time and non-verbal expressions of love during my childhood, and I held on to that practice, unconsciously, throughout life. However, now, instead of my blood family, it is my chosen family of close friends, which comes after living abroad for more than ten years.
While both cooking and baking are part of my vocabulary, over the last few years my energy has gone more into baking. This started out of [a perceived] necessity. I mean, any big life event needs a really damn good dessert, right? And, well Spaniards aren’t known for dessert and baking is not a practical part of Tanzanian culture (the two places I have lived since 2008). Birthdays would be celebrated, babies were conceived, graduations were had, and well, someone just had to step up to the [dessert] plate. Armed with a couple good family recipes, I appointed myself pastry chef in a few situations and fell into the habit of always offering to bring dessert or make the celebratory cake. And, when you live in a country where you can’t get the ingredients you are used to, you do one of two things: get creative or get learning (more about baking).
Being the recovering perfectionist that I am, there was no way I was going to bring a cake to a party have it be sub-par. Thankfully I’m naturally curious, and so questions and complaints began to fly on the weekly calls home. After all, Mom and/or Siblings were my most trusted resources at this point. This cascaded into doing my own searching and reading, and soon I started being able to solve my own baking problems and get closer to the results I was hoping for. And well, like I said, being a perfectionist, that soon was just not good enough. I knew that this cake could be more moist, or that curd could be smoother, or that frosting could have a stronger lemon pop. (It’s at this point when I get to thank my graduate research professor for instilling in me the importance of valid, reliable research. Even though at the time it was dealing with music education, it has absolutely transferred to baking research.)
So, over the years I have created a few guiding rules for myself that now I abide by every time I step into the kitchen and turn the oven on:
Taste trumps all: creating a special moment and passing on love can’t happen if the food doesn’t taste good. Balance of flavors, texture, moisture…these are top priority always.
Take advantage of the seasons: a lot of achieving rule number one is utilizing the best ingredients. When a recipe calls for something fresh, I am not going to use oranges in the middle of the summer or cherries in the winter. If their natural flavor is crap, then there ain’t nothin’ I can do in the kitchen to fix it.
Respect the (whole) ingredient: I read the book The Soul of a Chef several years ago and one story that Thomas Keller recounted about having to kill and butcher a rabbit has stayed with me over the years and completely changed how I approach the use of ingredients. Using as much of a fresh ingredient as possible and reducing waste, including compostable waste, equals respect for said product. Respect equals understanding and understanding will result in tastier baked goods.
Respect the environment: Expanding on rule #3, I try to purchase ingredients that are packaged as minimally as possible and have traveled the shortest distance. Thankfully, popularity of bulk stores and dairies is on the rise in Madrid, so many basics can be purchased with reusable containers. If I’m going to consume more raw materials, it doesn’t mean I have to create more waste and increase my carbon footprint.
Lastly (and probably most importantly), know who I am baking for: Taking just a few minutes to really consider someone’s personality, what they like and don’t like, and why I’m making what I’m making really helps to create a dessert that is meaningful…which brings everything back full circle. Those small moments I still hold dear from my childhood? That is what I hope to create for anyone who tastes something that comes out of my kitchen. In the end, I believe that life is just a string of small moments. If I can contribute even one meaningful moment to a person’s life, then hopefully their life has been changed for the better.