This story begins, as perhaps all stories should, with a snickerdoodle. I first chanced upon this ridiculous-sounding baked good through a Texan friend of mine. Every year around Christmas he’d bake several batches and generously distribute them to friends around campus. The cinnamon-sugar-dusted cookie was unlike anything I’d tried before. Biting into its sweet cakey center was bliss. It was love at first bite. “These are homemade?” I couldn’t believe it.
My friend’s proficiency in the kitchen baffled and intrigued me. Growing up I never had the inclination nor the patience to learn how to bake anything that didn’t come ready-made in a box with instructions as simple as “add eggs and water.” Rarely did the final product merit the amount of effort I’d expended. Baking seemed, not inaccurately, like magic to me. In order not to dispel its own allure I steered clear of learning the secrets behind it, choosing instead to delight in its wonders as a wide-eyed bystander. But those snickerdoodles made me want to peek behind the curtain—surely there was no reason to deprive myself the chance to make these for myself. Sadly, college dorm rooms without ovens killed any chance of mastering the art of baking.
It wasn’t until my first year in graduate school that I attempted my own first batch of snickerdoodles (from my friend’s recipe, naturally). This confluence of events was not coincidental. It was the result of taking to heart the candid advice a professor of mine had offered me before I headed out east to make good on the promise that I’d somehow be a competent academic. “This course is basically life training,” he’d deadpanned in the first lecture of his I’d attended and I had gone on to spend the following three years taking him at his word.
He had a knack for doling out epigrammatic witticisms that I took much too seriously and which became personal mantras of mine. His wisdom ranged from the self-evident (“Never date a go-go dancer”; “Camping is bad”) to the self-assured (“Philosophy is for people who are not up to poetry”). And I ate it all up. My notebooks were eventually filled with his many playful turns of phrase. I practiced them at home, planning to casually drop them in conversation when I got to grad school, hoping they’d make me sound as urbane as I imagined I needed to be.
There was one piece of advice of his I clung to as I headed into this new, promising adventure. One that didn’t just have the ring of a Wildean bon mot but the promise of a well-worn truism. If you want to write for a living, he told me, find a hobby that allows you to make tangible things. So much of being an academic is about abstraction, he reasoned, that it helps to be able to spend some time making something you can hold with your hands. It’s why he cooked. While he could muse and work on conference papers, articles, and even books for months if not years on end, he knew he could head to the kitchen and whip up something that felt like an accomplishment at any moment’s notice. Academia nurtured the mind, he suggested. Best to find something that nurtured the body.
A few months into graduate school, in between discussions of Foucault at the local pub and seminars on modernist drama in overheated classrooms, I began craving something—anything—that didn’t require me to think in full sentences. Baking seemed the most obvious hobby I could take up. I’d always had a sweet tooth—“a sweet set of teeth” was my go-to groan-worthy line whenever I joked about how much I loved pastries—so why not stop outsourcing the thing that gave me the most joy? What had long seemed an inscrutable pursuit became a thrilling challenge.
It all began with snickerdoodles but that’s not where it ended. Soon, I was making gluten-free cookies for my roommate, decorating individual cupcakes for Oscar parties, baking and glazing donuts with my boyfriend, browsing online for the best tin to make an angel food cake, practicing the art of choux pastry to make a nun-like religieuse, and fretting over several chocolate babka recipes. This not-so-quick escalation speaks to my addictive personality. No sooner had I mastered one kind of recipe than I’d find myself wanting a more ambitious challenge. Currently, for example, I’m obsessed with making individually-sized baked alaskas. To be fair, I didn’t attempt these more intricate recipes until I started obsessing over a little show called The Great British Baking Show.
If a sweet tooth and a desire to escape the ivory tower first pushed me to try my hand at baking, that Brit import made me want to be a baker. An amateur, sure, but a baker nonetheless. The show’s self-explanatory title tells you everything you need to know about this reality TV series. Each season a dozen bakers are selected to vie for the title of “UK’s Best Amateur Baker.” They meet every week under a giant tent set up on a pristine British lawn to compete in three separate challenges. More so than any cooking competition I’ve seen in the US, GBBO (as it’s affectionately known in the UK where the show is called The Great British Bake Off ; Pillsbury owns the “Bake-Off” trademark in the US) doesn’t just celebrate the act of baking. It doubles as a welcoming intro course that compels you to try the many recipes you see on screen at home.
During the Signature challenges, where contestants are encouraged to bake their own spin on a given classic, hosts Mel and Sue walk audiences through what the judges are looking for. Their voiceovers throughout the show function as handy baking tips for beginners. And when judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood assess the Technical challenge, where everyone’s given a bare-bones recipe they’re required to recreate blindly, their critiques illuminate precisely why a certain buttercream is too runny, why that biscuit didn’t reach the requisite height, and why these baguettes aren’t baked all the way through. There’s such an attention to the intricacies of what it means to bake well that the many seasons of GBBO I binged on last year ended up doubling as the pastry class I never took and the bread-making workshop I wish I had.
GBBO wasn’t my first brush with bake-offs. While I was in graduate school, our department hosted an annual potluck every January. I showed up to my first one with a set of store-bought shortbread cookies, missing, as it turned out, the memo that the evening’s centerpiece was always a bake-off judged by a handful of faculty members. This tradition was one of the few times at school when I remember the department encouraging—celebrating, even—skills that didn’t merit a line on one’s curriculum vitae.
The following year, armed with months’ worth of practice, I entered my ever-trusty snickerdoodles to the fray. I soon learned though that cookies don’t a bake-off winner make. Crushed, I made a mental note and began brainstorming what I could make in the future that would earn me top marks. In the next few years I’d bake a ginger strawberry pie, whose crust I messed up; a batch of crispy salted white chocolate oatmeal cookies, since I was intent on giving cookies a good rep; a banana cream pudding, which sadly no one got to taste as the potluck was cancelled due to a snowstorm; and, the pièce de résistance, the recipe that nabbed me a top spot after all: snickerdoodle alfajores.
The thrill of having those baked treats singled out remains, perhaps all too tellingly, a highlight of my time in graduate school. It wasn’t until I watched GBBO that I was forced to reckon with what baking had provided me as I careened away from academia. Namely, a space where failure was inevitable and unavoidable, but for that no less valuable. GBBO taught me—or reminded me, rather—that no matter how many times you practice at home or try out the same recipe, there’s no way to expect perfection. Paul and Mary may say that’s what they’re seeking (“sheer perfection,” as Berry is fond of putting it) but they understand this vision of perfection as existing within aptly narrow parameters. What they’re looking for is “the best these bakers can do.” The Showstopper challenges, where bakers have gone ahead and created lion heads out of bread, built gingerbread replicas of the Moulin Rouge, and mounted mirror-glazed cakes on actual vintage mirrors, reward ambition as much as execution. And while many a showstopping treat looks straight out of a French patisserie, the bulk of the bakes appear decidedly less professional. Here, the use of “amateur” seems both apt and necessary.
“Amateur” is a word that gets a bad rap. It’s mostly used with disdain, often prefaced with a dismissive move: “ just an amateur,” “ only an amateur,”—even worse, “ barely an amateur.” Part of this contempt comes, if you’ll allow me the pun, prebaked into the word itself. Not only does it quite literally associate it with one’s emotions (derived as it is from the Latin for “lover”) but it has the unfortunate effect of sounding both too self-serious and needlessly apologetic.
To call yourself an “amateur photographer” is likely to earn you an eye-roll or two even when it may very well be the most accurate way of describing what you do and how you came to fill your Instagram feed with artsy shots of dew-soaked cobwebs and sun-drenched beaches. To be an amateur is to rebuke narratives of professionalism and careerism, to let one’s leisure activities remain indifferent to the whims of capital.
Graduate school, especially once I began needing to reframe my writing and my research interests into marketable aspects of my own academic job market-driven persona, was turning what had once been my love into a professional asset. The more I lost my sense of play when it came to crafting sentences or stringing up thoughts, the more I retreated into the kitchen. It’s where I found solace when the life I’d been working toward for the last several years began to look less and less like the one I wanted to live. My writing grew less confident. My research began to look much too modest. My ambition all but disappeared.
While there was little I felt compelled to do to better set myself up for success in academia, I found my baking to be a welcome palliative. There was a selfishness and an indulgence to it that worked as an antidote to the growing realization I’d somehow ended up on a path that was not quite as great a fit as when I’d embarked on it as a clueless if driven twenty-three-year-old. In a job market that encourages you to be the best, the most, the latest, the brightest, everything I wrote and thought felt monstrously inadequate. Better to bake and accomplish a passable cheesecake than fret over a half-baked cover letter that was never gonna land me the job.
Stumbling onto GBBO was revelatory. Here was a world that rewards not the professional but the amateur. That meant its contestants were real people, who, like me, had nurtured their love of baking in equally haphazard ways. This new season alone features a sixty-six-year-old semi-retired substitute teacher who enjoys whipping up delicious treats for her grandchildren, and an aerospace engineer who approaches the kitchen with the same exacting attitude as he does his job. These are bakers who cling to their handwritten recipes the same way I do mine, knowing it to be both North Star and anchor. And while they have an expansive shared kitchen to bake biscuits, knead bread, or make jam as required, you can tell they’re used to working in real kitchens. The ones where there’s never enough counter space no matter what it is you’re baking; where you’ve learnt to account for your oven’s own idiosyncrasies; and where you’ve had to handle one too many accidents that threaten to ruin the dessert at hand.
But more than that it remains a joy to see the very process of baking without all its messiness edited out. Watching Martha Stewart dream up a picture-perfect version of a chocolate cake or a whoopie pie, for example, is mesmerizing. Soothing even. Everything is so effortless, so practiced, that it ceases to be what baking has so often felt to me: work. In Martha’s kitchen there are never any egregious spills or unmitigated disasters. This is meant to be reassuring as well as encouraging. This , she tells us whenever she goes on camera to teach us a foolproof recipe, is what it looks like when it all goes according to plan. The serenity she exudes is intoxicating but oh-so-deceiving.
To say baking is always a joyful and stress-free experience is to tell a bald-faced lie, one that the bakers in GBBO happily rebuke. Sometimes baking is an enervating experience that tests the limits of your endurance. Just last week, to celebrate Pride, I decided to make a batch of funfetti cupcakes. As usual, it was meant to be a fun experience, a way to acknowledge the gay affair happening elsewhere in the city. I already had a picture-perfect Instagram image and caption in mind; perhaps that’s what cursed the entire proceedings in the first place.
Things went wrong from the get-go. I tipped over the sprinkles jar, making our kitchen look like a unicorn crime scene. Cursing sprinkles and begrudging their mere existence then led me to forget mixing them into the batter (don’t worry, I caught the error before they went into the oven). Then, against my better judgment, I decided to frost them right away in the sweltering heat of our apartment. Even before I finished decorating them with the quickly-melting vanilla buttercream they looked like they’d been left out in the sun for days, remnants of a not particularly well-attended child’s birthday party. Throughout, my husband, who’s learned how to carefully navigate my baking outbursts, was supportive in that nonintrusive way he’s perfected over the years, keeping to himself while vacuuming the sprinkles off the floor, waiting for me to cool off. By the time we tasted the monstrous cupcakes he made sure to remind me that they at least tasted delicious. If a little too sweet.
I wish I could say these outbursts aren’t the norm. Every once in awhile I’ll have an enviable baking experience where everything, inexplicably, goes according to plan and the result is a delicious treat I can be proud of. More often than not, it’s a struggle. But no matter how it all turns out, at the end of it there’s always some semblance of satisfaction. Even when I over-bake a cookie or produce a deflated cake, I get a kick out of this sense of completion. For an hour (or two, or three, or however long whatever challenge I’ve set for me and my husband on any given day) all I’m focused on is the recipe at hand. I’ve come to enjoy the serenity it offers amidst its chaos. The kitchen may be the only place where I cannot hide from my own failures, yet where I finally learned that they need not detract from my own sense of self-worth. After all, as Mel has told many a baker on GBBO and as my husband’s practiced look lets me know whenever I produce something I’m obviously ashamed of, “It’s only a cake.”