Whoops, I Forgot to Learn How to Bake

Devoting her time to job, husband and family, this More editor came late to the household arts. But as she slowly caught up with the creative joys of risotto and redecorating, one dream continued to elude her: the near-magical power of making dough rise

By Judith Coyne
coconut layer cake
Photograph: Mitchell Feinberg

MY MOTHER WOULD PROBABLY SHRUG and take the blame. A good cook of the roast-beef-and-gravy school and a talented home decorator (if only her spirit could materialize and help me choose slipcovers half as pretty as hers), she stuck strictly to her areas of interest. So while she’d fuss impressively over the ironing, happily showing me the tricks of producing a smooth, crisp collar, she also embraced what her generation saw as the progress of frozen vegetables and packaged foods. Home-baked desserts? Hah. Sara Lee owes my mother her career.

It turned out that as my mother was to desserts, I was to meals in general. In grad school, I produced my first home-cooked meal—canned corned-beef hash, heated in a skillet. That set the bar pretty low for the next 20 years. My motto: The simpler the better, and takeout Chinese the best of all. As a toddler, my son one day amused the whole playground by picking up a toy telephone and shouting into the receiver, “Chicken with broccoli!”

But by the time he was in high school, my career was far enough along that I began to slow down and smell the cooking. After picking up a collection of clear, triple-tested recipes published by the famous magazine where I was then employed, I found that the phone wasn’t the only thing that worked in my kitchen. Dishes like spaghetti Bolo-gnese ensued, prompting my husband to say, “That cookbook changed my life.” But still no baking.

On occasion, I did try. A lover of real strawberry shortcake, I’d long since given up on the supermarket’s little Styrofoam versions and simply did without—until one summer weekend when I decided that this was the day: We’d eat strawberry shortcake that night or know the reason why.
Well, we ate sliced strawberries with confectioner’s sugar, and here’s the reason why: Instead of pulling six adorable shortcakes out of the oven, I discovered I’d baked six perfectly flat, disgustingly sweet cookie-ish thingies. What went wrong? Only my high school chemistry teacher knows for sure. My next attempt was inspired by a gift sent to my son, who was learning to cook under the TV guidance (and sexual spell) of Giada De Laurentiis. His generous godfather had sent him a gorgeous red KitchenAid stand mixer, and, awed by its power, we decided to try a cake together. But wait. All those paddles to choose from. All those mixing speeds. The leaden cake we produced was like weaponized flour.

Did I rise to this challenge? I did not. My son went to college, and the KitchenAid went into the basement, where I vengefully placed it in humiliating proximity to the cat box. Who needed a mixer? I live in a big city full of first-class bakeries that handled my sugar needs beautifully, from dinner party desserts to the coconut cake my beloved sister requires for her birthday. But the desire to turn out delicious things with my own hands for my loved ones was surprisingly powerful, and one day I opened the New York Times and found . . . the answer.

Mark Bittman, the best-selling cookbook author and New York Times writer, had long since won my trust with a recipe for slow-cooked lamb that he published, as a form of high-class comfort food, in the sad, frightening days after 9/11. Now he was once again speaking directly to me, offering a recipe for citrus pound cake that could be prepared with just a blender or food processor. No paddles, no mixing speeds—just the BLEND button. Would Bittman break my heart with this Bundt? I had to find out.

I baked the citrus cake for a weekend dinner party. It was scarily simple once I stopped obsessing over the flouring of the pan, but doubt assailed me, and I bought a backup. At the table, I promised my friends an entertaining reveal: After dinner we’d try the Bittman Bundt and find out if once again my efforts were half-baked. We cut. We tasted. And left the backup in its bakery box. The leftovers told the story: I gained three pounds in two days.

I had found the ring of power, and now I couldn’t be stopped. Back at the offices of More, I proposed we ask Bitt-man for more blender- or food processor–based recipes. “Mark Bittman said yes,” the food editor reported. “And he’d like to know, What else do you want to bake?”

First Published May 24, 2011

Share Your Thoughts!


Susan Swimmer06.23.2011

I was late to learn the art of cooking, too, and although I cook for the family now, somehow my mother made it look so much easier. Oh, to be able to replicate her sesame chicken...

CJ, Ellen, Barbara: I just logged on to my story in order to print the recipe for boozy apple cake (which I haven't tried yet but am baking this weekend)...and I discovered your notes. You're right, something's not working properly. We'll figure this out asap and fix it so the extra recipes become accessible, as promised. Apologies, and stay tuned.
Are you all master bakers who are just having fun with this? Or are you, like me, new to this baking game?

CJ 06.01.2011

Still waiting for the extra recipes?

Ellen 05.28.2011

Having the same problem! I wanted more recipes also. :(

Barbara Burke05.27.2011

After brownie recipe it was written that you could go to more.com/recipes-mark-bittman for more easy recipes. I tried but computer came back with the words that I could not access that site. Please explain. I would love to get the other recipes.

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