Thursday, December 20, 2007

Baking as Yoga

Since we are well into the holidays, and probably all the eating that goes with them, here is a guest post from my friend Anja Zander, who bakes like the proverbial domestic goddess! She is also a dedicated Ashtangi, maintaining a regular practice and even squeezing in a bit of teaching, despite regularly (always) working 14-hour days. She tells me the New Year will hold more balance on that front...

My favorite memories of my childhood are eating freshly baked bread (which was rather super healthy with loads of seeds and not an ounce of white flour in) smothered in butter or eating Apfelstrudel with heaps of fresh cream. Birthdays were most important because then I could have either a Malakoff cake or Profiteroles filled with cream and peaches. My love for baked goods never subsided. Yet years would pass were I would not eat cake never mind attempting to bake. Shop bought cakes or biscuits never had any appeal to me. They tasted all of sugar and bland flour to me. Some have said growing up in a Austrian/German household spoilt me a little bit in my tastes for baked goods......

When I had the chance to go to Europe, I would make sure I had my croissant and bol au chocolat in Paris, my cream smothered Sachertorte in Vienna or the Apfelstrudel with (once again) cream. The smells of their good quality sugar, grounds hazelnuts, flour and butter made me feel calm, comfortable and for a few blissful moments, all was good in the world.

Yet, I was a lousy baker! I could not cook nor bake. Not being able to cook never bothered me, I love throwing salads and pasta together which requires very little cooking. But baking, there was a whole world out I wanted to discover there yet every attempt to bake ended up in total failure. Burnt, stodgy, boring, too sweet.

Until the day I got hold of the book by Nigella Lawson, How to Be A Domestic Goddess. I liked the title. A book written by a modern woman with a good sense of irony and self depreciation, someone who unapologetically loved food and as she said herself, was not someone who liked fancy pretentious food. A woman after my heart! I enjoyed the little introduction to each recipe (scoffing dark chocolate cake at midnight is always a good thing according to Nigella) and decided to try bake. I cannot even remember what is the 1st thing I baked but I know it worked! I could create something so tasty out of flour, sugar, butter and some good dark chocolate. Around the same time I realized I could bake, I started to take yoga up again. Like baking, yoga had been part of my life early but I abandoned it because I lacked good guidance. I found a wonderful yoga teacher (Nadine...yes you!) who re-inspired me to do yoga, who taught me how to be more gentle, calmer and be in the moment.

There have been many a tear and panic moment when some cake did not turn out the way I had in my head - from a cake bursting into flames in the oven to plastic melting around a cake to just me having way too high expectations of what the cake should look like. I do apologies to everyone around me who had to put up with the angst that I managed to artificially create! As the years passed, I did more and more yoga and stopped punishing myself in yoga if I could not pretzel myself as the teacher could or as the pretty picture in the yoga book. I learnt, without really consciously thinking about it, to be in the moment, enjoy the poses I could to in yoga and realize we all have different limitations and to work within those. And what seemed to be quite sudden, the yoga poses came more easily to me, I managed to do poses I never thought I could. And one should not measure oneself according to what one can do but it is so fun when one can do something one never thought one could!

And this brings me back to baking, now I bake and bring a whole lot less angst into it and the cakes turn out so much better. Oh yes, occasionally there is the still the moment of angst and I am sure everyone around me scuttles off then (as much as in yoga I have moments of annoyance with myself). In general, I talk to my baked goods while they are rising, mixing, melting or resting. Seems perfectly sane to me :) I lovingly melt the 70 % dark chocolate into the smooth butter, I coax the egg whites to be all firm and well behaved, I have a rather good relationship with yeast, which produces yummy cinnamon buns with a maple pecan topping (they are I must admit one of my favorite recipes and I think most of my friends agree). Nigella and her humorous descriptions and reassurances helped me become a Domestic Goddess, but yoga taught me to be in the moment, to focus only on what I do now and baking needs that, as does yoga. The ingredients need your full attention and to really be there and then they do happily as you want it. Every now and then the baking faeries get a bit sneaky and mess it a little bit up;I laugh and try again. Or maybe try something different. As I do when I get stuck on a yoga pose.

To yoga and baking - both bring benefits of good friends (and not just because I feed them occasionally) and a certain peace of mind and fulfillment!

* Sorry about the poor-quality photo of Anja - it was the only one I had to hand, and I had to fiddle with the color/contrast a bit.