Cheating In The Kitchen – “I Made It All Myself”

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Can you judge a recipe just from a photo?

One of the pitfalls of Tastespotting, and sites of its ilk, is that things jump out as visually appealing before you have any idea how they’re made. This means that squashed-looking but astonishingly delicious things might be overlooked – although it’s a pretty small risk, given there’s not much that gets on those sites that doesn’t look like it could teach quite a few glossy magazines a thing or three. As a euphemistically termed “rustic baker”, I tend to be equally intrigued by anything that looks a little rougher around the edges as those that look like works of art – and the same goes for stories of baking fails, which give hope to the rest of us that they happen to the best in the business as well.

Chocolate chip cookie dough cupcakes from My Baking Addiction
Chocolate chip cookie dough cupcakes from My Baking Adddiction

But there’s a particular sort of looked-good-till-I-saw-how-it-was-made which is especially frustrating. And that’s without going near the things that look an inordinate fidget, have to cook for about three weeks, or contain enough butter to make even Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris pause for thought (and, potentially, for breath).

Red velvet sandwich cookies from Let's Dish
Red velvet sandwich cookies from Let's Dish

I’m talking about recipes made with packet stuff. They might be convenient. Hell, they might be astonishingly delicious in a way that’s never been tasted before. But if I feel like baking, then it has to be baking from scratch. And there’s a whole gaping chasm of difference between occasionally breaking out the frozen pastry*, compared to making an elaborate confection that includes cake mix, pudding mix, or some other deconstituted, rehydrated, questionable-and-probably-full-of-chemicals mix. Mix is for when you feel like eating baking, without the bother of doing baking.

Pecan pie squares from Pip and Ebby
Pecan pie squares from Pip and Ebby 

But, much as the Other Penguin is keen on Betty Crocker low fat chocolate chip muffins (and I don’t exactly galumph away from them at breakneck speed when they turn up in the kitchen), there are increasingly compelling reasons why I tend to avoid them...

When I feel like baking, I mostly want to try out something new, and the old reliability of muffin mix just doesn’t cut it. Baking is one area where risk aversion can be (and is) cheerfully cast aside for the could-be-wonderful-if-it’s-not-downright-awful.

Ooey gooey peach cobbler from Real Mom Kitchen
Ooey gooey peach cobbler from Real Mom Kitchen

Baking’s something I do to feel domesticated, and baking with mixes feels like... cheating. Like if it turns out well, you’d have to admit it wasn’t really you that made most of it. And it’s a small slide downhill from there to buying one from Bourke Street Bakery and squishing the edges to make it look more likely to be homemade.

One minute brownie - with jello - from The Kitchn
The one-minute brownie from The Kitchn (dear heavens, it has jelly in it! Gooey brownies are one thing, but jiggly brownies? Even in a minute, it stretches wobbles the boundaries...

The more recipes I try out, and hunt down, the more I find things that are so quick, easy and reliable that they take away the apparent convenience of baking with mixes. This one is definitely next on the list when one of those is called for...
Gluten free five minute mug cake from Almost Bourdain
Gluten free five minute chocolate mug cake from Almost Bourdain

When exhaustion levels are such that I don’t feel like baking, they are almost always such that I don’t even feel able to half-heartedly stir some goo and tug open the oven door. By that time, couch-flopping has generally ensued. Meaning that it is almost always the Other Penguin who makes them. At which time I leap on them gratefully... *

And, most importantly, packet mix muffins (at least the sort usually found in the penguin household) taste far, far better as muffins than as the batter that precedes them. And an entirely inappropriate and disproportionate part of the fun of baking comes from eating the scraps left in the mixing bowl. Without that, the experience feels cheaper, shallower... the one night stand of baking, if you will.

Pistachio cupcakes from Two Tiny Kitchens 

The packet-based recipes encountered on Tastespotting and food blogs tend to have a further source of frustration. They tend to involve intriguing but unattainable mixes from enormous US food emporia. Which is an even greater source of frustration when those mixes are for things like double-chocolate-with-buttercream-filling-and-extra-sticky-ganache-but-totally-fat-free layer cake. That is just unfair and depressing. But it might be enough to convert me to cheating baking with mixes.

Although this one might be a more achievable, and worthwhile, place to begin...

Banana pudding from Magnolia Bakery, made by A Cupcake Or Two
Banana pudding from Magnolia Bakery, made by A Cupcake Or Two

Because I can delude myself that it’s just a small and harmless pudding, and has no correlation to proper baking at all. Really...

* Even that become less of an option once you know how quick it is to make pastry from scratch. The availability of low(er) fat pastry and the lack of availability of time occasionally triumph, though.
** On the muffins. Of course that’s what I mean...

Disclaimer: some of the recipes linked to on this post are made with (gasp!) packet mixes. But they look very enticing all the same - are they convincing you? Or are you already a convert...?

Sonia on February 13, 2011 at 6:35 AM

I truly agree with your observations and comments. Baking anything right from the scratch has its own charm, learning and unlearning ample things for ur next trail. Loved this post, as always... !!!

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