Real Cooking

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BY CHERYL JOST
Our home has been so warm and sweet over the past few days. It?s not because we have such a loving family?now that the kids have recovered from their bout with the flu, I have noticed that the level of familial bickering has risen once again to its normal level.

No, the warmth and sweetness that I?m speaking of has emanated from the kitchen. From the oven, to be exact. I?ve been baking like a madwoman…if mad women bake.

Over the past five days, my kitchen has been turned into a mini bakery. I haven?t stopped to really take an accurate inventory until now, but I do know I have used an incredible amount of flour, sugar, butter and cream cheese.

For two days, the house was perfumed with the essence of cheesecake because I had volunteered to make the desserts for the Spirit-N-Celebration?s fund-raising banquet last Saturday.

Do you know that after making 17 cheesecakes, that most wonderful, sinful dessert just doesn?t hold any appeal at all? As I released them from their springform rounds, I wasn?t in the least bit tempted to take a finger and swipe the edges of the pan to get a taste.

In the days that followed, I baked 30 oversized, heart-shaped Valentine cookies (frosted and decorated), 24 Valentine cupcakes (frosted and decorated), four heart-shaped mini cakes (ditto), six dozen mini cupcakes (ditto), one dozen cupcakes (no frosting), one dozen cinnamon rolls, two dozen dinner rolls, and one loaf of bread.

Whew.

Let me assure you that my family is not eating all of this stuff. OK, the plain cupcakes and the bread products were for us. The rest were Valentine?s Day treats for one group or another?school parties and the like. And I was glad to do it?I?m not whining.

In fact, baking is the part of cooking I enjoy the most. I love the aromas that fill the house and I like the challenge of trying to produce sheets of uniform cookies or pans of rolls that are just the right shade of brown.

I get a sense of fulfillment seeing a counter filled with bags of dinner rolls or trays of cupcakes. It?s a tangible way of actually seeing the fruits of one?s labor.

And I like the way baked goods can be shared with others. A loaf of bread or a dozen cookies dropped by someone?s home or office is just a quick way of expressing that that person was in your thoughts today.

Baking, to me, seems to be more of an art than some of the other parts of cooking. My pal Melissa Bartel and I have discussed this at length. She bakes the most marvelous cinnamon rolls and for the life of me?even though I have her recipe?I cannot duplicate what she does with bread dough.

She, on the other hand, insists that she can?t match my cheesecakes. We have come to the conclusion that, in baking, technique probably plays as much?if not more?than having ?the best recipe? to follow.

So how do you acquire technique? Mostly by experience. When you work with a certain product, over time you know when it feels right, when it looks right. I mix my cheesecake batter until it sounds right. I don?t know how to describe that sound to you. I just know it when I hear it.

Thinking about Melissa and baking reminds me that she and I also share an interest?should I say, obsession??with bakeries.

We have been known to travel the state in search of ?the perfect bakery.?

Once, after reading an article in Midwest Living magazine that featured a bakery in Clay Center, we decided to pay a morning visit to that establishment and check it out for ourselves. After I got the kids on the bus, Melissa and I headed north.

Unfortunately, we were disappointed by what we found. Basically, it was just your typical doughnut shop?not that there?s anything wrong with that, right Danny? We were just expecting a bit more.

Next week, shall we continue this topic of bakeries? Do you have a favorite? Have a fond memory of special cakes or cookies from the bakery of your childhood? Let me know.

Maybe we could start a ?bakery support group.? I know two women who could be charter members.

* * *

There?s still time to sign up for the class Kitchen Corner is offering on Feb. 21. This particular class might be helpful to those wanting to learn some fundamental techniques of the kitchen. Melissa will be demonstrating how to cut up and fry a chicken, how to prepare perfect mashed potatoes and gravy, and how to make light, fluffy biscuits. I know how to cut up a chicken, but I?ll be there just to eat Melissa?s good cooking!

* * *

By the way, here?s a recipe for the sugar cookies I made this week.

Sugar Cookie Cutouts

11/2 cups powdered sugar

1 cup butter (the real stuff)

1 tsp. vanilla

1/2 tsp. almond extract

1 egg

21/2 cup flour

1 tsp. soda

1 tsp. cream of tartar

Mix sugar, butter, vanilla, almond extract, and egg until light and fluffy. Add dry ingredients and mix until combined. Chill if desired. Roll out and cut in desired shapes. Bake at 375 for about six minutes. Baking time and yield varies with size of cookies.

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