Diner: Lo, It Has Risen!

A little adventure in baking can be the road to paradise

Mar 29, 2001 at 2:06 pm

I like bringing home-baked goods to people's houses. Their response is extremely gratifying. Invariably they act as if someone brought a pile of holy wafers fresh from the oven. I suspect the recipe for holy wafers is more complicated than what I do, which is scones, usually, or banana bread. But it's not what goes into the mixing bowl that matters as much as what comes out of the oven at the end, after that ineffable transubstantiation that kicks in at around 450 degrees.

The spiritual nature of baked goods has been addressed before, most notably by Peter Reinhart, a master baker and applied theologian who specializes in bread as metaphor, and also bread as just bread, especially rustic loaves and Celtic harvest breads. His books all deal with baked things in various ways — Crust and Crumb and Brother Juniper's Bread Book are mostly recipes; Sacramental Magic in a Small-Town Cafe offers great stories, and Bread upon the Waters just gets deep — but he writes them all with reverence. Reinhart has a whole web of theories about the transcendent spirit of the baking process. Bread is his guiding light, a perfect metaphor on his path toward spiritual understanding. Somehow he manages to tie this in to the lives of assorted saints and some of the lesser-known apocrypha, plus tips about steaming the oven and bread mixers.

I appreciate Reinhart's approach, but when sometimes you're talking with lay people about baking, you have to go for a more secular approach, something tempered with objective, scientific fact, because baking recipes definitely involve more chemistry than most cooking recipes. There is less room for error, and less opportunity to correct it. A tablespoon of tomato paste missing from a soup will most likely be overlooked. But even a half-teaspoon of, say, baking soda can make the difference between a fluffy scone that you'd want to eat on a Sunday morning and a scone that you could use as a doorstop.

Oddly, the qualities that make baking so scary — structure, discipline and the laws of chemistry and nature turned loose in the oven — are the same qualities that can make it so easy and enjoyable. All you have to do is follow the recipe, and then blame the cookbook writer if it doesn't turn out.

But people are still intimidated. We think we don't have the time, and we opt instead for convenience methods, muffin mixes, ready-bake tubes of cookie dough and vacuum-sealed pizza crusts. These products are fine for their purpose, and they are pretty much the culinary equivalent of the washing machine, as far as women's liberation goes. I mean, that whole "daily bread" thing is not meant to be taken literally. I don't care to whip up a little something every day, or even every week, the way housewives did a hundred years ago.

But now that we are so far removed from baking as a daily practice, the occasional baking session can bring on even more intense epiphanies, for the baker and the eater alike. The ingredients are raw: just plain bland flour and fat, salt, and baking powder and sugar in seemingly inedible proportions. You sift and mix them with your hands, dump the whole thing on a baking sheet and then take a leap of faith.

Yes, faith. Because you never know how the oven is going to act today, or whether the house was just warm enough to get a good rise. Until the glorious moment when you open the oven and see for yourself, you don't know what you're going to get. Sometimes it's a crisis of burnt crust, or an overflow.

But sometimes, that little loaf or scone is a little piece of paradise, a golden, toasty-smelling wonder. In this Perfect Presence, even the most godless atheist must bow down and exclaim, "Praise the Lord and pass the butter." ©

I add a little more sugar to this scone recipe — maybe an extra tablespoon — to make it a more dessert-ish breakfast treat, and using heavy cream instead of milk makes it even richer. You can also glaze the tops with milk and a dusting of sugar. One of these days I'm going to try savory scones, with herbs or cheese, and then I'll take the extra sugar back out.

2 cups flour

2 1/2 tsp. baking powder

2 Tbsp. sugar

1 tsp. salt

1/4 cup vegetable shortening

1/2 cup currants (optional)

2 tsp. poppy seeds (optional)

grated zest from 1 lemon or orange (optional)

1/2 cup milk

1 egg, slightly beaten

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Combine flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt in a mixing bowl. Stir well with fork to mix and aerate. Add shortening to flour mixture and cut in with pastry blender or two knives, or work in using your fingertips until mixture looks like fresh bread crumbs. (If you are using any optional ingredients, add them here and toss gently with fork to combine.) Stir in milk and egg, mixing only until dry ingredients are moistened. Gather dough into a ball and press so it holds together.

Lightly dust counter or pastry board with flour and turn dough out onto surface. Knead lightly about 12 times, and pat dough into circle about 1/2 inch thick. If using glaze, brush milk over dough and sprinkle evenly with sugar. Cut dough in 12 wedges. Place scones 1 inch apart on ungreased baking sheet. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, or until tops are golden brown. Serve hot.

— Adapted slightly from The Fannie Farmer Baking Book by Marion Cunningham (Wings Books)