The Om of Baking

November 14, 2010 § 5 Comments

If you need to find me at the moment, and you’ve checked the kitchen, Anthropologie, and my favourite cafes and bars with no luck, it’s a reasonable bet that I’ll be on the yoga mat. After years of assiduously avoiding (and to be honest just not getting) yoga, an angelic massage therapist took one prod of my over-exercised, under-stretched legs and generally stressed-out demeanour and practically frog-marched me down to the studio there and then. I can’t thank her enough. I was hooked from day one – on the physical to be sure (who doesn’t want Aniston arms!) – but more than anything else on the amazing feeling of warmth, community and wellbeing that is what has been pulling me back just about every day since. I would be kicking myself for wasting so much time making excuses not to go if I wasn’t so busy being blissed-out and enjoying the moment.

Yoga has made me more appreciative of the good things in my life and in particular it has clued me in more than before about just what it is that I love about baking. I adore cooking in general, but there’s just something specifically about baking that’s different and special. As on the mat, baking forces you to slow down and to tap into the meditative precision of the physical activity: this is one of the reasons that creaming up some butter and sugar, or taking the time to measure out seven different ingredients to a gram, is one of the increasingly few places where I find true flow – you know, that state where nothing else exists at that moment in time. Baking can show you that there is beauty to be found in the simple as well as the complex. There might well be a time and a place for a three-tier butterscotch caramel cake that involves days of labour but the enjoyment of a 10 minute chocolate chip cookie, or a slice of sponge cake, is not in any way lessened for that and, moreover, is probably all the more enjoyable for its simplicity.

Most of all, baking is almost always an outward-facing act. It’s something you do for others. I’m really never happier baking than when I know the end result is going to end up in front of friends. And with the holiday and party season pretty much upon us now, I’m likely to be one very happy girl over the coming months! I’ll try and give you as many good crowd-pleasing baking options as I can over the coming weeks as I expect I’m not the only one who will be hitting the sugar jar a bit more than usual at this time of year. My first piece of advice: if you don’t already own a bundt pan, get hold of one, stat. Bundt cakes are the ultimate cakes for sharing. The recipes tend to yield a bigger cake than usual without having to go to the hassle of assembling layers and the mechanics of the pan’s shape mean that this is a large cake which has a lot of crust but that doesn’t dry out. Quite the opposite: bundt cakes tend, in my experience, to be wonderfully moist and to stay that way for four or five days which also gives you a bit of leeway for baking in advance of a party. And the pan also puts in some aesthetic work and lends a beautiful shape to the cake which means you can stick it on a plate, dust over a bit of icing/confectioner’s sugar and have something more than merely presentable without too much stress or strain.

This first bundt cake I am posting is pretty much autumn in a slice. Apples, cranberries, pumpkin, ginger, pecans: it ticks just about every box you might expect for this season. It comes with built-in generosity, demanding as it does to be served in a hunk hearty enough to ensure the recipient gets a good cross-section of all the goodies tucked inside. It shows effort but doesn’t grandstand: think of it as a nice up-dog rather than a full backbend. The orange hue from the pumpkin frames the flecks of nutty browns and dark cranberry reds perfectly. If at any point the strains and stresses of the coming months start to seem overwhelming, I prescribe an hour in the kitchen chopping and stirring, to be followed by a large piece of cake and a cup of tea. The om is optional.

All-in-one Holiday Bundt Cake
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking

Yield: 10-12 servings

2 cups/220g all purpose/plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
pinch of salt
1 1/2 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 1/4 sticks/10 tbsp/140g unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup/170g sugar
1/2 cup (packed)/90g light brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups canned unsweetened pumpkin puree (see note below)
1 large apple, peeled, cored and finely diced
1 cup/100g dried cranberries
1 cup/100g pecans, coarsely chopped

*pumpkin puree note: I have clearly lived in the US for too long as I can’t remember whether this is something that is easily available in the UK! If not, you can dice up pumpkin into 1-2 inch chunks and roast in a medium oven for about 30 minutes, until soft enough to puree until smooth with a whisk or in a food processor. You want to end up with about 300g in weight.

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Grease a 9-10 inch bundt pan with melted butter, being careful to get the butter into all the nooks and crannies of the pan. Do not place the pan on a baking sheet – you want the air to be able to circulate through the inner tube of the pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt.

Cream together the butter and both sugars until light and fluffy, using either the paddle attachment of a stand mixer, or a hand mixer. Keep the speed at medium and add the eggs one at a time, beating for a minute after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. Reduce the speed to slow and add the pumpkin, chopped apple and grated ginger. The mixture will probably look hideously curdled at this point – do not worry. Still on a low speed, add the dry ingredients, mixing only until they are just incorporated. Use a rubber spatula to stir in the cranberries and pecans. Pour the batter into the pan and smooth the top with the spatula.

Bake for 60-70 minutes, or until a thin knife or skewer inserted into the thickest part of the cake comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a rack and leave to cool for 10 minutes or so before unmoulding the cake. Cool to room temperature on the rack before serving.

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