(Almost) Virtuous Baking

I went camping last weekend. One of the perks of being in New Zealand is an abundance of wholesome people who like to indulge in wholesome activities. We foraged for firewood, stared at the stars and chatted gently to the sound of cracklings and velvety, twinkly stillness. I could not indulge in such a wilderness adventures without a hearty stash of food and I do tend, when not near a kitchen, to eat and store energy as if I’m embarking on the longest winter of my life. I baked dense, chocolaty muffins and syrupy, soft (unintentional textural error) Anzac biscuits; seemingly appropriate for campfires. We made damper dough and cooked it over the fire, filling the barely cooked, chewy knots with whipped cream and spoonful’s of jam. There were several tubs of hummus, pita bread and a huge sort of Focaccia. I couldn’t count the many mouthfuls of dough, chocolate crumb, jam, bread and cream that passed my lips but I know that by the next morning I couldn’t face much besides a few strawberries. My camping dough belly lasted several days of contented fullness, my body telling me that it had, in fact, had enough to survive several long winters.

This indulgence meant that this week I sought a more wholesome form of sustenance from my baking. I wanted to bake and mix and get sticky and floury but I neither wanted nor needed decadence. This seemed an opportunity to embrace the more virtuous possibilities of bread and cake.

I prefer Soda Bread of all breads, not simply because it requires no kneading or rising, in fact I quite enjoy the magical, patient process of yeast leavened bread. I like the taste and the dryer crumb of Soda Bread; I like the sourness, much like scones. I like that Soda Bread is at its best for the first two hours after baking, and in its glorious prime when it’s still steaming from the oven with a hard crust and qualities that induce butter to melt on sight. It’s child’s play to make, the kind of baking I like to do when I’m feeling fragile but still seek the comfort of clattering about in the kitchen. Soda bread is a case of mixing wet into dry and barely working the dough before piling it onto a baking tray and roughly shaping. Twenty minutes later it is possible to remove a golden, oat-strewn loaf from the oven, slice off the crusty end and slather it with too much butter.

File 12-11-2015, 6 56 23 p.m.

The Soda Bread I made this week was particularly wholesome. The process of making this bread is very supportive of dryer flours and I used organic whole-meal spelt and rye. A touch of salt and bicarb were the only other additions besides a long pour of buttermilk. Buttermilk, or I actually used Keffir, has wonderful, sour, fermented health properties. Combining such mineral and fibre rich flours made this loaf as wholesome as bread can get (besides, perhaps, some of the denser, seeded German or Scandinavian Rye loaves). What came out the oven was savoury and nutty, still moist enough to hold a slice but dry enough to not feel glutinous and heavy. I realise the irony in then slathering warm slices of it in soft butter and raspberry jam but, really, life is all about balance and what is the point of physical nourishment if one does not nourish their nostalgic and emotional selves at the same time?

My wholesome cake fantasy came to me during a particularly sleepy and mellow yoga session. I’m sure I should have been focusing a little more on my inner self but I’m starting to suspect that my inner self may consist primarily of toothsome thoughts. It was a beautifully sunny afternoon and the yoga studio was bright, homely and citrus-scented with a front porch draped in springtime, perfumed flowers. Sensory places stimulate sensory thought. With my stomach still full of partially cooked damper dough I sought the meditation of baking a cake but I didn’t fancy the usual white flour, gluten and granulated sugar. I wanted to make something light that looked like the flowers and the blue sky of that afternoon. Almond based cakes are the kind of gluten free that I like; totally natural, full of protein and fat and hold a delicious crumb. I made a Raspberry Honey Cake. Just the name sounds sweet, floral and delicate. The ‘grain’ was ground almonds, the sweetness was only honey and the flavours were frangipane and orange. It was studded with fresh raspberries and soaked in a honey-orange syrup. Again this was a case of one-bowl, wooden-spoon mixing, the most soothing of baking behaviour. This cake grew damper with time; sticky and crying out to be modestly sliced and served with snowy, sour, crème fraiche.

File 12-11-2015, 6 56 02 p.m.

As a side note I’ll be honest and say that I’m not convinced that virtuous, ‘sugar free’ baking should even exist. There is now such an abundance of sugar-free cookbooks on the market, all beautifully photographed, usually featuring a honey-skinned, flush-cheeked female on the front. I’m all for generating awareness of sugar consumption and promoting an avoidance of processed foods but I draw the line at boycotting and interfering with indulgent patisserie. Yes, there are more and more possibilities to find gluten, sugar, dairy and egg free baked goods and, from an allergy, intolerance or Vegan point of view, this is excellent but for the rest of us I can’t help but feel that ‘healthy’ baking and baking are not the same thing. I can appreciate a raw avocado cheesecake for its wonderful taste and texture alone, I don’t need to convince myself that it is a replacement for real flapjack made with butter and golden syrup. I don’t want to eat baked goods made only with tapioca starch, arrowroot, mysterious gluten free flours, rice syrup, agave nectar and the rest of the ingredients du jour. If I’m going to eat cake or muffins or tarts let it be made with white flour, sugar and eggs and let it be fluffy and sweet and followed up with a dinner of soup and raw veggies. I believe that healthy, wholesome baking means thinking lighter, less sweet, using organic whole grain flours and high quality fats. I don’t believe it is healthier to consume artificial sweeteners and a myriad of bizarre ingredients in an attempt to replicate indulgence. It’s sometimes easier, and a lot less cognitive effort to turn to new products, fads and fixes than it is to develop, within oneself, a deep and real appreciation for the food we eat.

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