It was such an ordinary phrase, and tossed off so casually, that I almost did not notice it. And even then, it took a second to register.
This was a few months ago, and I was watching one of the last episodes of the most recent season of “The Great British Baking Show.” Perhaps the most ebullient of the remaining four contestants, Crystelle Pereira, says she wants to concentrate on the baking and “just enjoy it.”
First of all, have you ever heard any competitor on any American cooking show ever talk about enjoying it?
American contestants aren’t there to enjoy it, they are there to win. The thought of enjoyment never crosses their minds. They are far too concerned with the correct temperature to roast their Brussels sprouts or wondering whether anchovies taste good with fire-roasted tomatoes.
I’m sure Pereira wanted to win, too, or at least do as well as she possibly could. But in an unguarded moment, she revealed her true motivation. She just wanted to have fun.
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For Pereira, and for many of us, baking is fun.
As I write this, I have a loaf of bread in the oven. I don’t have to have a loaf of bread in the oven. I could buy an excellent loaf at any neighborhood grocery store, and I could get an even better than excellent loaf at a nearby bakery.
It isn’t the money, though that bakery bread gets awfully pricey. I bake bread for the fun.
I bake cakes for the fun. I bake pies, or at least pie crusts, for the fun. I bake cookies because I like cookies.
This is new to me. I have always thought of myself as a cook, not a baker. Baking relies on precise measurement, and I am a master of imprecision. That is why I am a cook; I can throw a handful of one ingredient into a pan of another ingredient and wind up with something delicious.
It’s enjoyable. But maybe it isn’t straight-up, sheer, unadulterated fun, like baking.
Is it the butter? Is it the sugar? Is it the flour?
Maybe it is the fact that I can use my hands to play with my food. There is something deeply satisfying, on a primal level, in the texture of a smooth, soft, pliant dough. There is something magical about seeing a yeast dough rise.
Perhaps it is the way a small handful of basic ingredients can be combined to yield such different results. The same building blocks are used to make bagels and doughnuts, biscuits and brownies, muffins and sweet rolls and scones.
Immediate gratification plays a part, too. Once you’ve mixed together the ingredients, which rarely takes long, you can pop them in the oven to bake. As soon as they are cooled, you can eat them.
The same is true of cooking, of course. But what comes out of the oven is different.
With cooking, you may end up with fried chicken, or stir-fried pork, or a vegetable terrine.
But with baking, you get bread or dessert. And everyone knows those are the best parts of any meal.