A Hero’s Journey of a Hobbyist Baker

When you are close to 30, you start living the opposite of your old self. Somehow I took on the road of homemade desserts.

I never wanted to bake desserts. Cooking has never been my thing. The first time I cooked is upon arrival in California at the age of 24. It was a matter of life and death; I had to survive and it’s impossible to eat out all the time in this country. So I’ve been cooking and that is okay.

A good friend loved desserts, liked to bake and fed me with black tea chiffon cake every now and then. I enjoyed it but never saw the attraction of it. Cooking is enough. Baking requires a whole new set of skills and equipments. I do enjoy dessert, but it’s an luxury that if it’s not available within a card swipe and a regular budget, I’m not supposed to have it. At the same time, I do enjoy dessert but isn’t it outrageous that I have to work through all the ingredients, equipments and measurements and steps of instructions before getting something that’s edible?

So it is really a wonder that this year I am known for baking. I’ve started to play around with homemade desserts for exactly a year. I have changed. It’s so mysterious, and I want to reflect how I’ve been changing.

Ordinary World — Chocolate Chip Cookies in the Supermarket

Chocolate chip cookies is the only cookie I eat. It is the top impulse I have for sweets. I came back to America seeking the ultimate memory from Chips Ahoy, but after so many tries, I gave up on brands available in supermarkets. There’s just too much sugar and processed ingredients. Even Whole Foods or the smaller boutique brands couldn’t cut it.

Call to Adventure – Food does not only exist in supermarkets

I turned to bakeries instead of supermarkets. The reality is this. 20 mediocre cookies for $3 is not worth it. One satisfying cookie for $3 is. I started yelping for cookies and bakeries and there are many: Anthony’s, Bumzy’s, Arzimendi, L’acajou, b. Patisserie, Thorough, and later Jane, Craftsman and Wolves, and even the provider to Philz Coffee. From all these wonderful bakeries, I started learning what I want in a cookie.

Meeting with the Mentor – Thank you, bakeries

It lies in the combined texture of soft and crunchy, and the aroma of grains and chocolate. It must be crunchy on the outside but not crispy or flaky. It should be softer in the inside but not chewy or sandy. Also it better not be oily or sugary. Cookies from L’acajou and Craftwman and Wolves were my favorite. After a while, I realized a cookie has to be fresh to meet my definition of yummy texture.

First Threshold – The world relies on me.

Or rather my cookie desire is now solely my responsibility. No one else can fix it. Only I can serve myself fresh, yummy, real-ingredient cookies when I demand it. Store cookie dough brands are disappointing too so I finally searched for “super simple chocolate chip cookies recipe” and baked. Luckily my roommates already had some baking ware so I didn’t feel like I was really going out of the way and betraying myself.

Tests, Allies, Enemies: recipes, friends and their bellies

Over the months I tried several recipes, some variations (espresso, sea salt, dried cranberry) and shared with friends until even I don’t want to eat my cookies anymore. I learned that people don’t like be shoved sweets under their nose. People want control over their calories and junk food intake. Across recipes, I developed a vague sense that cookies are more unhealthy than other desserts because there is so much butter.

Approach & Ordeal: tired of cookies, disinterested in cakes

I got tired of cookies. A new friend taught me Taiwanese style chiffon cupcakes. It was so yummy. I tried myself at least 3 times, and always failed. I’d forget I’m baking, left the oven on and left the house. Luckily every time my roommate saved the house. I only came home to brunt, black, cute plastic-looking cupcakes.

Another friend invited me to make chocolate cake together. It turned out alright. Cake recipes still weren’t calling to me, but there’s no turning back to cookies now. Instead, I made buttercream frosting out of a desire for fruity creaminess. It was awesome.

Reward: a newly discovered passion

I’ve always loved berries, but they are too healthy in pies, degraded in muffins and cupcakes, and always dry in cookies. The cake recipe led me to strawberry buttercream frosting. Reviews made a big deal out of “it’s made with real strawberries!” What’s the meaning of homemade dessert if it’s not made with real produce? I didn’t get it, and bought strawberries and made the frosting.

It’s unbelievable how buttercream can taste so, so juicy, full of strawberry aroma and flavor, almost like liquid on your tongue. I was blown away and wanted to be loyal to my berry fantasies.

The Road Back: one can only eat so much sweets

The problem rose again: I made so much frosting, but there’s not enough cake for it, and there’s not enough appetite for the fat either. This is the ordeal every homemade baker runs into: there’s no one to eat the sweets. Reality dawns again. One can only spend so much time baking food that will go into the trash.

I have not met a final test, but walked through a slow dying process of the interest in baking. The oven rested, and so did I.

I can not recall why the urge to make cheesecake again appeared.

Return with Elixir: the momentum stays within

I made cheesecake once when I was craving it, and when plain cupcakes weren’t working out. It turned out quite good, although there was too much and was left to undesired leftovers.

This time, I decided to make cheesecake because I felt like it, and because I think my friend will enjoy it as a birthday cake. It was well received and I am as proud as I am thankful and happy. I went on to try variations – margarita cheesecake, ready-pie-crust cheesecake, and mini cheesecakes.

I feel like I have came far enough to see a change pattern. In the beginning I was just saving myself from a realistic need and it was only one-time needs. I just need to eat, I don’t want extra equipments or super high quality ingredients.

Then I developed a familiarity with basic combinations like flour and butter, as well as with electronic mixer and hand-beating tools. Increasingly, I needed to look up measurement exchange tables, understand the consequences of temperature, sequence and alternatives. This complexity was what I disliked about baking, but because the need for the knowledge developed naturally,  I became proud knowing 1 cup of butter equals 2 sticks with are 8 tablespoons each.

And slowly I start taking notice of equipments. I’d look at the size of my pan, and how regular tin is not working out for cheesecakes. I know I don’t want to invest in extra equipments until I want to. Later on, buying a springform pan felt natural instead of like a forced splurge. I now I realize I’m quietly evaluating the value of tools whenever I am making something. Today I’ll just use substitute. Better ingredients next time, maybe.

Failure becomes a part of it. I think failure is devastating for bakers because it’s usually hard to fix, and there’s usually a deadline. For me, failure was not a part of it in the beginning because I need to eat it, and because cookies were simple and hard to fail. When I repeatedly failed at chiffon cupcakes, but I did not have to eat it, I know it’s time to rest. Change my focus, and I shall relearn something later.

Excitement becomes part of the process. I thought of myself smart enough to make variations or use substitutes. I used cake flour for a chocolate cupcake recipe and was brought back the memories of always failing cupcakes. I used wrong kind of sugar for buttercream and expected the whole batch to go to the trash. I suck. My friend, an avid cooker who gets depressed at failed dishes too, pat me on the back and said “It’ll be fine. You’ll be fine, even if it is bad.” I started getting excited and wondered if it will turn out okay. The chocolate cupcake did, and the buttercream did not. It was okay. I had fun. I learned something and could take the results. The momentum is within me. I kind of like baking.

I could vaguely feel what would be coming next. I’ve been thinking about tips and tools for proper storage. I’ve been thinking about the possibility to sell and that I was never able to take nice photos of the sweets. I thought about what if every time I make desserts there’s no one to finish them.

Let them sit…… Let these wonders sit.

I’ve come far enough on a new journey without meaning to. I’m in no rush. How delightful it is to have a hobby in life, not a passion nor a career ambition, that can really grow organically, and show me how I’m changing.

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