about bliss

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

bake me a cake!

Friday night, I slide into bed an hour earlier than I normally would. I lay in bed and will sleep to come--the week has been long, my sleep patterns disrupted--but excitement for the next day drive ssleep an hour or so away. I would’ve been better off staying up and finishing *My Life in France,* the delightful Julia Child and Paul Prud’homme memoir.

My alarm beeps me awake at 5:45 and for once I don’t linger beneath the soft sheets. I take a quick shower, eat a simple but hearty breakfast of old-fashioned oats and fruit, grab my hair scarf and water bottle, and drive out of my parking lot at 6:30 am.

The sky remains immutably dark as I begin my drive. I think how early mornings are de rigeuer for bakers...and how 6:30 isn’t really early to the dedicated souls who begin baking morning pastries at 4:00 am. Slowly, the sun begins to rise, filling the sky with bursts of orange and pink. By the time I angle my car down I-94 towards Ann Arbor, a magnificent burning orange sun fills a sky streaked with clouds. At 7:50am, I slide my car into the parking lot and head indoors.

I wash up in the bathroom, tie my scarf securely over my head, covering my bangs and the top of my long braid. I walk into the brightly lit teaching bakery, where I’m greeted by my three teachers and helpers: Frank, Amy, and Alejandro. My fellow classmates slowly trickle in, while the instructors sip their coffee. We tie on aprons, stick on nametags, and begin class:

Bake Me a Cake, a four hour session on cake techniques at Bake, Zingerman’s latest venture.

The class begins with an overview of objectives and goals, quick introductions to one another and the all-important kitchen etiquette, and then we begin our journey of learning and baking three delicious cakes: chocolate truffle cake, pineapple upside-down butter cake, and vanilla angel food cake.

The class aims to teach students how to make three simple, basic cakes at home in lieu of relying on cake mixes (something I simply wouldn’t do). We learn a brief history of cake--from its dense beginnings to high-tech formulations in the age of industrialization and food technology. We’ll be reclaiming simple, quality ingredients and time honored techniques.

Alejandro demonstrates each of the three cakes in turn, and after each demonstration, we create the cakes in pairs, following the recipe and his example.

I experiment with egg cracking and separating: cracking eggs with one hand (I still have a tendency to crush the shell this way) and separating them in my hand (on my first attempt, the yolk slides out of my tipped palm onto the table, followed by the pool of whites; my second attempt is a successful separation of yolk and white into their respective containers).

While much of what we do in class I have done many times before, the small tricks and the attention to detail at every stage of the cake baking teach me the importance of patience and dedication. Sifting the dry ingredients together makes for an even mixture, sans lumps. Adding eggs one at a time when creaming together a cake makes a smoother, richer emulsion. Banging cake pans noisely on countertops helps settle the excess flour, and, later, evens out the top of the batter.

I take notes, ever the student, to remember bits of trivia and cooking science--the double action of the baking soda coming from the mixture of ingredients and, later, the heat.

As the morning progresses, the cakes bake, and we begin to wind down towards the tasting portion of class. We compare box and homemade versions of angel food and pineapple upside down cakes. Of course, the box mixes provide a variety of fake, industrial sensations, especially pronounced when held up to their all-natural slow baked counterparts, redolent with double portions of vanilla and fresh pineapple.

The chocolate truffle cake, a flourless concoction, needs no industrial version to highlight its wonderfulness. This cake tastes like Christmas fudge, only purer. Smooth, dense, rich. The first bite brings tears to my eyes at the visceral pull on all my senses. Mostly, I’m satieted with a pleasure of happiness, of connection, of tasting the embodiment of my food ideology.

The class draws to a close as our cakes cool from the oven and are packed into signature Zingerman’s boxes. I reluctantly leave the gleaming professional teaching bakery and arrange my cakes safely in the back seat of my car. I visit the bakehouse and creamery for other culinary delights of coffee, bread, and cheese, remove my head scarf, and begin the drive away from Ann Arbor with a smile on my face and renewed passion in my heart.

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