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How baking got so hot

IN tough times we turn on the oven and fill the home with the comforting scents of rising cakes and fresh bread. Bridget Hourican explains why.

MY friend, a former New Yorker who does not cook, has started baking bread.

Her husband, who has never struck me as particularly interested in food, waxes lyrical on the taste, texture and variety of her breads. Warming to his theme, he starts pointing out their cost-effectiveness, but he literally doesn't know the price of bread-- he thinks an average shop loaf costs €6 -- so he soon gives up that angle. It's not about saving money anyway.

These friends have recently moved from New York to Europe. They're both looking to change careers and they've just started their kids in a new school. So what do they do in this insecure, transitional period? They start baking.



Troubled

Bread is never just bread, nor cake just cake. Who can forget the scene in The Hours when Juliette Moore, playing a troubled 1950s housewife, makes a cake for her husband's birthday and it turns out a flop? Under the horrified eyes of her small son, she dumps it in the bin. Their home-life is under siege. Her whole being as wife, mother, homemaker is called into question in a way it never would be by, say, pasta or salad.

Or there's the scene in Short Cuts when the baker, played by Lyle Lovett, who has been an unpleasant character throughout, comforts the grieving parents, mourning the death of their son, by giving them hot cinnamon rolls, straight from his oven. The film is based on the great Raymond Carver story, A Small, Good Thing. "You have to eat and keep going," says the baker (who is never given a name, just his title). "Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this."

Sure it is -- but would it be as good if the bereaved were eating pilaf or a Marks & Spencer ready meal? No, it has to be fresh-baked bread.

I could go with cultural and historical examples. From the loaves and the fishes, to King Alfred burning the cakes, to Proust's madeleine, baking has, for centuries, got hold of our psyches and taken on significance beyond the nutritional.

The most recent example is Marian Keyes, who earlier this year published Saved by Cake, 80 Ways to Bake Yourself Happy.

In the midst of a crippling depression, Marian turned to baking. "Baking hasn't 'cured' me," she writes, "but it gets me through. To be perfectly blunt about it, my choice sometimes is: I can kill myself or I can make a dozen cupcakes."

But why baking rather than other kinds of cooking? And why are we suddenly all obsessing over it? Just in the past year alone, we've had Marian's book and Lilly Higgins, the Cork girl, whose blog Make, Bake, Love was turned into a Christmas bestseller, and of course there's the BBC's Great British Bake Off which, before Tuesday night's final, had over five million viewers, regularly seeing off ITV's Champions League for the coveted 8pm slot, plus in the pipeline is TV3's The Great Irish Bake Off to be presented by Anna Nolan.



Security

So what is it about baking that's suddenly so hot? "Baking has to be one of the most relaxing, comforting things you can do," says Anna Nolan. "You feel great doing it and then at the end -- you have something delicious to eat. Also, I think we have moved on from the crazy diets that consumed us during the boom years -- we are happy now to eat the odd cake, bun or dessert," she adds. "Occasionally, I would bake. My speciality is a baked cheesecake -- straight out of Rachel Allen's cook book. Yum."

I should say that I don't bake. I cook quite well, but I don't bake. My mother bakes excellently but seasonally -- I know that inimitable, comforting childhood smell of risen dough, but I only got it at Christmas and in late summer with the blackberries. My younger brother is a natural and was making astonishing pastries at the age of 15. But I'm scared of baking. I can just about do crumbles and those flourless gooey brownies, but my cakes don't rise, my icings are watery, I think bread is something that arrives wrapped. I don't even own a mixer and I know I'm a heavy hand at kneading.

Is it just me? To explain the success of The Great British Bake Off, BBC2's controller Janice Hadlow remarked: "A lot of people who might be intimidated by other sorts of cooking feel that baking is something everyone can have a go at. And you can also get quite good at it quite quickly."

Really? I think the reason for the show's success is the exact opposite. We watched because it's difficult, like gymnastics. I remember once interviewing Rachel Allen and her remarking that, "Yes, baking is quite different to cooking, more of a science".

That's it. Cooking is ad-hoc and salvageable. If the sauce tastes wrong, add chilli, garlic, herbs. If the soup is tasteless, blend it and add salt. But how do you redeem a cake that comes out sunken and soggy?

There's little subjectivity about baking. It's not in the eye (or mouth) of the beholder. Yes, it's science: the dough has to rise a certain way, take on a particular colour, have a certain consistency and moistness. You have to measure the ingredients, work the pastry and time the cooking. And that's before you get to the decoration, which is a minor art form in itself.

All this makes a bake-off a perfect competitive event. A cook-off is less measurable, less objective and less show-stopping.

Our newfound love of baking is probably mostly down to the recession. During austerity, we stop spending. Even though making a cake may be no cheaper than buying one once you've factored in the cost of flour, eggs, sugar, butter etc, it seems cheaper because these are staples you have in the house anyway.

Less available work means more free time and less disposable income means less going out, so we're spending more time at home, and that means finding domestic distractions and making homemore attractive. Nothing is more attractive than the smell of something sugary and buttery, rising.

In recessions, we crave security. We associate baking with our mothers feeding us -- about the most secure thing in our psyche. Baking involves a series of small, finite tasks -- weighing, measuring, sieving, icing -- leading to a definable goal. It balances science with the creative artistic flurry of decoration.



Delicious

Ask your friends why they bake. They'll say things like it's "unwinding" or "de-stressing" or "comforting". One friend talks about her attachment to her baking tins and moulds and I remember Nigella bringing the cameras down to view her huge collection of cookie cutters.

And at the end you have a perishable, creative product, your own handiwork, which you can serve up or give away. "In fairness, it is sort of magic," writes Marian, "you start off with all this disparate stuff, such as butter and eggs, and what you end up with is so totally different. And delicious."

When we stop baking, it will be the first sign of economic recovery. In the meantime I might even buy a mixer, and go with the knead.


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