The procrastinator's guide to baking
To do: I feel the end approaching -- a rough draft of a radio documentary and a revised syllabus are due. Instead, I consult cookbooks and deny reality as I lift a white apron off the pantry door.
What I bake: Three dozen white and semisweet chocolate chip cookies with walnuts. I also bake two loaves of banana-chocolate bread drizzled with 72 percent dark chocolate. A theater-on-ice skater from Vermont wrote the recipe; Patsy specializes in baking gluten-free and vegan fare. I wonder how she has time to bake apricot-ginger muffins, morning glory loaf and pain d'epices. I wonder if she, like me, puts off deadlines with her baking. I palm a few chocolate chips and throw them into my mouth. The sweet burst deadens my stress, untangles my to-do list.
SATURDAY, MARCH 16
To do: I bring home a suitcase full of Florida-fresh tangerines picked from my best friend's backyard. Despite my citrus bounty, Willa's litter box awaits. There are floors to be swept; laundry is piled high. I feel giddy from the temperature shift, high Florida 70s to Midwest 50s.
What I bake: Buttermilk biscuits with a three-bean chipotle chili. I add more butter than the biscuit recipe calls for. "Tough," I tell the cookbook. "We're interested in tender." Tender is what I get. A warm pocket of steam rises when I open my biscuit. I love the smell, a cross between a new day and my grandmother's kitchen in Hickory County, Mo. I think she would've liked these biscuits.
SATURDAY, JUNE 8
It's all jumbled up: It's 2 a.m., and I bake with a vengeance: whole-wheat chocolate chip cookies for my anfitriona Maria, the person I'll be staying with for my three-week Spanish immersion program. My plane leaves St. Louis for San JosÃ©, Costa Rica in a few hours. As I pack and wonder if I have enough batteries and bug spray, I pull out another batch of perfect cookies. Inspired, I do not sleep. I bake, hear the timer ring every 10 minutes, pack, and bake some more. Another country later, I wearily hold out a bag of cookies for my hostess. They are smashed beyond all recognition. "Tranquila," she says to me when I try to apologize in Spanish as broken as my cookies.
FRIDAY, JUNE 27
To do: Finish packing from my three-week stay in Costa Rica. Wonder if my 12-year Nicaraguan rum - Flor de CaÃ±a - will break in my checked luggage. Use unwrapped feminine napkins to pack rum.
What I bake: Spinach-ricotta calzones. Maria's teenaged grandsons, AndrÃ©s and Daniel, hide in their shared bedroom. They have overheard what I've said I'll make for dinner tonight. I go to school that morning and tell my Spanish teacher what I told Maria. My maestra begins to laugh. "You told her you were going to cook women's underwear." I sigh. After school, my friend Elie and I order quiche con palmetto queso at a sunny cafÃ© near Avenida Central. We laugh, tell stories and drink refrescos naturales. When we're done with lunch, we wander the Auto Mercado in search of dinner ingredients. Unlike me, Elie speaks Spanish well. She has planned a meal for her host family without striking fear into her host's heart. I, on the other hand, try to bake calzones in an oven without a legible temperature dial. Like most of my time here, I don't know what I'm doing. With a baker's prayer, I place the calzones on the top rack. Fifteen minutes later, the calzones come out: golden pockets of cheesy goodness. I exhale and serve.
WEDNESDAY, JULY 16
To do: A garage sale to plan. My dad and sister are coming in from Kansas City. They may want fresh sheets and towels. I should probably shower.
What I bake: Maple spice cake. As I fold buttermilk, maple syrup and rum into the butter-brown sugar-egg mixture, I think about my sweet, elusive sister Jenna. I have her face in focus as I crush cardamom. She is as fragrant and complicated as this cake, with her tattoo sleeves and angular art-school haircuts. I don't know why I think of my younger sister as I bake this morning. I guess I wonder if she's awake with Trent, my nephew, hurtling him towards first grade with scrambled eggs and rock 'n' roll. When Jenna and I were little, I often stole her lemon drops, chocolate bunnies and red licorice ropes. She always let me.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 18
To do: Recover from turning 30 the day before. Grade papers, sleep, breathe. Make a birthday cake for a co-worker. Oh, dishes. I cannot keep up with you.
What I bake: Chocolate buttercream cake. Like all of Ina Garten's recipes, this cake is made with lots of butter. Rum, sugar and egg whites infuse the bittersweet chocolate frosting. I breathe deeply. Like many of the moments I steal away to bake, I think now of family, friends and the loose ends of memory. Baking as an act of grace is nothing new, and yet it is for me. When my life becomes blurred, I bake, and in this act of slow defiance, I recapture who and what is important.
Michaella Hammond bakes and blogs in University City.