If you’ve ever glanced at my personal Instagram page, you’ll see more pictures of food than myself. I’m not going to go into my self-image or self-worth right now, but I do like to show off some of the things I make. I’ve been asked by a few people how I got into baking, or what inspired me to start baking as a kind of a hobby.
The simple answer to this is that I got sick and tired of buying birthday cakes for my kids at the store. Where I live, there are no real bakeries, per se. The only place, practically, to get baked goods is in a grocery store (Albertson’s Walmart, Kroger, etc.). I live a couple of blocks from a grocery store, and their quarter-sheet cakes run in the neighborhood of $20 – $30. Even the two-layer round cakes are like $15. Also, half the time, the only cakes available have that nasty whipped cream frosting. Being the cheapskate I am, I thought I could make my own cake for much less than that. A boxed cake mix is less than $2, another couple of bucks for the powdered sugar, butter, and whatnot. So, I went about doing them myself. Since then, I haven’t gone back to store-bought cake. Sure, they look much nicer than the ones I bake, but I get the satisfaction of making something for my kids. The first ones were really simple, and full of imperfections.
My daughter was given a caddy for storing decorating items one year. She basically abandoned it, so I took possession. I bought different icing colors, piping bag tips, etc. I then taught myself how to make better-looking cakes. Sure, they’re nothing professional, but I never went to any kind of culinary school. Occasionally, I’ll make a cake for the hell of it, to practice something, like piping borders, smoother finishes, or whatever. I’ve also learned a little trick to make a boxed cake mix richer and seem more like it was from a bakery. Instead of adding water, use the same quantity of milk. Substitute double the melted butter for the oil (if the box calls for 1/3 cup of oil, use 2/3 cup of melted butter); also, add one or two more eggs, then follow mixing and baking instructions. I’ve done that with much success.
My cakes always have a buttercream frosting. I’ve experimented with different flavors and colors. The basic is vanilla, but I’ve also done chocolate, strawberry and lemon. I really love lemon buttercream, especially using lemon juice and zest in the icing, rather than vanilla extract. I think the best buttercreams I’ve made were with real lemon juice, or with freeze-dried strawberries.
One year, I decided to really challenge myself. If you’ve ever played any of the “Super Mario” games, you know what a question mark block is. Two years ago, for my middle son’s 14th birthday, I made this cake. It was a monster, 9″ square and 6″ tall. I used buttercream, and for the details, a lot of candy melts. I’ve tried to use fondant in the past, but it’s messy to work with and tastes atrocious. I ended up taking half of it to work, to share with my coworkers. Earlier in Feb 2019, I made my youngest a cake that was simply the number 10, since he turned ten that year. I used the set I bought that you can make letter- or number-shaped cakes. Since they come out square looking, I trimmed them to give the numbers a more rounded appearance.
Something else I like to bake is cheesecake. It’s a simple recipe that uses cream cheese, eggs, vanilla extract and sugar, along with graham crackers, melted butter and sugar for the crust. Cheesecake is another very versatile canvas, as you can make different flavors like chocolate, peanut butter, pumpkin (if you so desire), or a myriad of other possibilities. One of my more tasty ones was a chocolate cheesecake with Oreo crust. I did one with a brownie crust, but I screwed up and baked the brownie first, so it came out way overdone and extremely chewy. Next time I get the ambition, I’m going to wait and bake it all at one time.
Now, I’m gonna give you a tip, and you may already know it. When you bake most things, let your ingredients warm up for a while. Using everything right out of the fridge just doesn’t work. Butter and cream cheese need to be softened to not overwork them or incorporate too much air. Pie crust and cookies are about the only exception to this. You want cold butter for a flaky pie crust, and sugar can cut into cold butter or margarine easier when preparing cookie dough. I’m aware the FDA says don’t eat raw dough or batter. “Oh, but, but, but, but, raw flour and eggs will give you salmonella!” I call bullshit. I’ve eaten cake batter and cookie dough for over 40 years, and I’ve never gotten sick once. Ever. I say enjoy yourself. Live your best life. Now, don’t lick the spatula or beaters until the end, since you don’t want your spit in someone else’s baked goods🤮. If you’re making it for just yourself, though, by all means, you do you.
Several people have commented on my food posts that I should open my own bakery. It would be tempting, but first of all, that’s a major financial investment. Second, my pictures do look tasty, but my stuff is far from perfect. There’s always some little bare spot on a corner of a cake, or the edge is not smooth. Nothing I bake is something you’d find at some bakery. I highly doubt anyone would buy one of my imperfect cakes. If I ever did have one, I’d have to call it the “Imperfect Bakery”, and people would have to expect some deformity or other. I’m just going to remain content baking for the sake of it, when I have the ambition and time. Meanwhile, I’m still slaving away at the grill at Cracker Barrel, serving Southern-style food to the local masses. I’m not meant to be rich or famous; honestly, I don’t know if I’d like the lifestyle. All I really want is to be able to pay my bills and keep food on the table. I just want to have a few dollars in the bank and not have to live paycheck-to-paycheck, robbing Peter to pay Paul😭. Perhaps someday that will happen, but in the meantime, I’m here juggling my bills, deciding what needs to be paid now and what can fall behind and wait until next month🤷♂️.
Is cooking or baking something you enjoy? Are you creative, or do you follow basic recipes? It’s a delicious culinary world we live in. I hope you are able to always have food for yourself and your families. I hope your bank balance is steadily in the black. Check in on family and friends who might be in need. Watch out for your loved ones. Wear those masks where required, and of course, above all else, be safe and be well.