At the Heart of Baking

As much as I enjoy taking amateur-trying-to-pass-off-as-a-professional photos of my finished bakes, what is presented to the world, or really the Instagram/Facebook/Blog community, are only the cakes and pastries that turn out successful. Failures of my bakes can range from underbaking, overbaking, failure to rise, undesirable marriage of flavours… And the list goes on.

When my first attempts at macarons failed.. Lol.

What do I usually do with poor outcomes? My first instinct is always to throw them away, but Mum always finds a way to save them by exclaiming that they taste amazing still or that they are not at all bad, although there have still been some that even Mun couldn’t rescue and were destined for the bin. It never sits well with me when there are bakes in our home that are not up scratch and I hate to think that they might be given away even though they fall far short of my standards. So usually, I tell Mum not to let me know what she’s doing with them or whom she is giving them away to. It’s true, ignorance is bliss. Sometimes.

So burnt cookies get binned; underproved bread with a dense crumb get a second chance and are often devoured by my bread-loving mummy dearest; odd flavour combos get redistributed to friends and around the neighbourhood; and the good stuff go into the homes, and stomachs, of families celebrating special occasions, or for no good reason at all apart from the fact that there can never be too much cake!


A couple of years ago, I began to bake once-a-weekly at a cafe/bistro that champions the cause for autism by hiring and training autistic staff to serve within their dining establishment. They had wanted to make a shift from ordering wholesale cakes to having freshly-baked in-house cakes. They also had a boy who had some baking experience so they wondered if I might be able to teach him the recipes for the range of cakes I would be baking for them.

I have never worked directly with an autistic person before and while I was open to the idea, I was apprehensive about how to go about doing so.

QJ, at first meeting, was quiet but eager. Over the weeks, he began to get more familiar with me and often jabbered on about something or other, usually the same things each time. He had an enthusiasm that impressed me because even when he made mistakes and I told him off for them, he would come the following week, rubbing his hands in anticipation for the baking session to start.

The most difficult part of training him, for me, was the need to repeat myself a lot of the time. Weeks turned into months and what he learned in those months was what most ‘normal’ (according to most of society) people would have learned in weeks.

It was frustrating for me at times but it also made me reflect and realise that I needed to exercise an extra portion of love and patience towards QJ. I admired his child-like excitement whenever he stepped into the kitchen, and how much he loved being able to do something, anything to help with baking, be it weighing flour, preparing baking tins, or simply setting the timer. It was humbling for me to take a step back and acknowledge that as much as I was supposed to help hone QJ’s baking skills, he was in fact teaching me how to be a better human being.

QJ has since returned to his usual duties within the bistro and doesn’t work with me much anymore. Yet, whenever I see him, he calls my name and asks each time when we will be baking together again. When I say that I love to bake, I don’t think it is anywhere near QJ’s love for baking.

Whenever I have a baking flop, I surrender myself to the baking gods and not only feel annoyed with myself, but start to question my baking abilities. I get distraught and down-trodden when I mess up or when my bakes don’t turn out the way I envisioned them. Then I look at QJ and how he keeps trying to pipe shells, or remember the right steps to making a chocolate sponge, or check to see if a cake is baked through. Every. Single. Week. And I cannot help but feel ashamed at how easily I give up sometimes.

Failure is relative. And what I deem as failure may be someone else’s success. I guess that’s why even cakes or pastries in imperfect states can still be salvaged. Like an apple, you can cut away the portions that may be underbaked for example, and still eat the parts that are baked. It’s all about looking at a problem and figuring out a solution or how we can make best of the situation.

In the end, the heart of baking is really just baking with heart. And no matter the outcome, those who receive it will somehow be able to tell that the main ingredient in those bakes is love – and that, really is the most important ingredient!

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