I am small. Five feet no inches, 43 kgs. My hands are smaller still but I am good with them. I can type fast, I can give a (damn) good massage and I can use them in the kitchen. Strangely enough, whenever the going’s been tough, one or the other use of my hands has stood me good. In 2004, heartbroken and penniless and in 2008, finally loved and hopeful… Who’s scripting this?
To answer Maxine’s, “Where the hell have you been JB?” I’ve been completing university assignments, getting up at 4.40 in the morning, reporting for work at 7 am, then running for classes, coming back and cleaning at home, writing columns (yes plural, will introduce the other one once it’s published) AND cooking. I LOVE cooking and coming to Melbourne is doing good things to my culinary knowledge.
The little that I know, I’ve learnt in one of the three ways: Fiction books, instruction manuals or from people subconsciously. You observe, you learn. Like how I need to put one leg up with the mixing bowl on it when beating eggs for a cake. I picked that up from Kumud aunty. She used to be an army officer’s wife in our colony (1988) and could whip egg whites into stiff peaks (ensures the softest sponge cake) with a fork. Perhaps that also explains my antipathy towards using an electric beater. When it comes to cooking/baking, I am a do-it-manually snob. I will grate it with hand, beat it with fork and knead it with my knuckles than use a blender/mixer that would do the job in five minutes. But know what? I can do it, by hand, in seven minutes. Hrmph.
Partner and I and have constant kitchen conflicts due to our respective cooking styles. I will make the ‘gravy’ by mincing onions, pureeing tomatoes and simmering-while-stirring; he will use two teaspoons of Gravox (powdered gravy in a box). He will use dried mixed herbs from a packet, I will choose the leaves from my grown-in-a-pot-from-seed fresh herbs. I will beat the eggs, add the milk and whip it in the wok to make scrambled eggs; while he will pull his hair out because he would have done it in the microwave. “It tastes the same and I am faster,” is what Partner says. He is a I-can-cook-quick snob; I am an I-do-it-the-real-way snob. Both our snobberies, like all other snobbery, are acquired.
Another area where Partner and I butt heads (both of us are May-born bulls and it comes easily) is when it comes to using recipe books. Noticed how each time you want to try a dish, you will always have that one ingredient missing from your kitchen? Partner will not cook till he has every little item for a recipe -- even if it won’t be used again in the next 10 years for another dish -- while I am practical. I enjoy experimenting and finding substitutes. Of course there are things you just cannot do without. Like you cannot have tiramisu without mascarpone, but you can have a carrot cake without marzipan carrots and full-cream milk in blueberry muffins works just as well as buttermilk.
One of the primary influences in my experimental cooking have been Ma and a website. I chanced upon the website in 2004 and quite by accident. It was a time when my self-esteem was at the lowest. I HATED my body, hated being a woman, hated my heart, my naïveté and everything was going horribly, horribly wrong. Little I knew then that the turbulence would continue till early 2007... I was far removed from cakes and hated cooking. In fact I hated the kitchen. It symbolised my weakness, of my servility for a bit of love and approval.
For personal reasons, I had quit my job and decided to freelance from home. Coincidentally (since I’m freelancing now as well), back then too it was The Hindustan Times that had given me a break. They had a Saturday page called ‘Gen Now’ and I wrote 700-words feature stories for it. Hmm. Other than HT back then, the freelance plan backfired and I found myself without any job, money or sustenance. That’s also when I was reading one of the abridged four-books-in-one compilations by Reader’s Digest.
I’ve always enjoyed fiction more than non-fiction and if it were ever a choice between a simple, good story and the Award Winning Book On Earth, I’d pick the simple story one. So in that compilation, there was the abridged version of a book. It was the story of Ruth and how she loved baking cakes. How people loved eating the cakes she baked and how her baking was an outward manifestation of her need to look after her family. Her husband had been fired, her parents were living with her and they were in financial trouble. In the book, Ruth’s 16-year-old daughter encourages her to sell the cakes. Ruth’s ageing mother makes hand-made boxes, the daughter becomes her driver and marketing agent and they start a business. Throughout the novel, Ruth speaks of tangy lemon cakes, melt-in-your-mouth sponge cakes and comforting bundt cakes.
The novel made me miss my Ma and how she made her special Black Forest when we had important guests for dinner. Or the moist, soft Pineapple pastry for the ladies’ meetings. Or the Tutti-Frutti special for our tiffins lunch box. In all those cakes, I was her ‘beater’, the one who copied Kumud aunty and whipped the eggs into silken peaks with a fork. The novel made me miss Ma. Made me realise more how I had made a MESS of my life with one stupid mistake. So I cried and as I cried and reached the end of the novel, there was a recipe for a bundt cake. I didn’t know what a ‘bundt cake’ was and as I Googled, I reached a website. A happy website with delicious cake recipes, substitutes if you didn’t have the exact ingredients and more than anything else, stories about why a cake was baked in a certain way. It made me happy, it gave me something to do and it let me reconnect with memories I had forgotten. It also made baking sound easier.
So I started baking, the first time without my Ma. Those who came home liked the cakes. Someone asked if I could bake for their kid’s birthday party, they said they would pay me for it… I did. The birthday party cake was a hit. I had made a carrot-apple cake with walnuts and covered it with light chocolate icing. Two other mothers took my number and ordered two cakes. I was stunned. It was like the book! When they had called, they had asked for a rate card and a menu, I didn’t have either. But the idea stuck and just like the book, I made a menu and began packing my cakes in hand-made boxes (also learnt from the Internet).
People were ordering at least nine cakes a week and as my confidence grew, I ended up getting a media job as well. All in five months to the day I first read the book in June 2004. As ‘tribute’ to the book that inspired me -- though it would be called ‘trashy reading’ by voracious, knowledgeable readers -- I called my home ‘bakery’, Eat Cake. After author Jeanne Ray’s book, ‘Eat Cake: A Novel’. The website that helped me survive with recipes was Joy Of Baking. People in different parts of the globe, who don’t even know me, helped me… I hope to thank them someday.
And then they say that fiction is trash and bloggers/blogging are nonsense. What do they know?
PS: WHAT is it about Andrea Bocelli’s voice? I don’t understand a word of what he is singing, but he DOES something to my insides. His voice makes me want to run without touching the ground, it wants me to feel the wind go through each pore in my body, wants me to cry out loud but not make a sound, it makes me want to pray but not to any god, it wants me to get drenched in the rain and mix in with the mud, it wants me to… Oh. The song just ended. It’s strangely disappointing when he stops singing. I wish I understood. It’s not even PMS.