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The Joy of Cooking
and Baking, Really

By Nigella Lawson

For most of my life I cherished the view that you were either a baker or a cook. I was resolutely the latter, and regarded bakers as quite a separate species. Cooks thrive on improvisation and prefer the unstructured flow of whatever is to hand. Bakers like formulas, often regarding cooking as messy and unpredictable.

Indeed, the people I met tended to fall into one of either camps. In my experience wonderful cooks my mother for instance could not bake to save their lives, and gloriously impressive cake makers turned out to be terrible cooks. I still know of such people and don't declare the demarcation entirely erroneous, but some years ago something changed for me: I caught the baking bug.

Baking is indeed different from cooking. You cannot be as laissez-faire about a cake as you can be about a stew. However many carrots or chunks of meat you put into your casserole will not effectively change the entity you produce. You can alter the flavors and that's the joy of it but you are not messing with its essential properties. When you make a cake you cannot suddenly decide you feel like putting in three eggs rather than two or half a cup of flour instead of the cup and a half the recipe calls for.

But if baking requires obedience, it does not require Soviet-style obliteration of individuality, as my earlier prejudice had led me to believe. Once you understand what the component parts of a recipe are, you can play with them.

The banana bread here is an example of that. As long as you keep the main structure as it is, you can alter the flavors and character of the loaf.

Use raisins in place of the chopped dried apricots, for example, and soak them in rum rather than orange juice, replacing the orange zest with vanilla. Or soak them in coconut liqueur and add coconut essence in place of the orange zest. Add half a cup of chocolate chips or replace a tablespoon and a half of flour with cocoa (better, maybe, if you are going the rum-raisin route) for a chocolate version.

What I had not realized and bakers keep this a secret for obvious reasons is how easy baking is. Many people say that they resent cooking because you spend hours on a meal just to have it demolished in 10 minutes. Well, baking is the reverse. A cake takes scarcely five minutes to mix, you do nothing to it while it bakes and then you have a glorious creation in your kitchen, bestowing welcome all weekend.

Those who remain unconvinced should start off with the all-in-one chocolate cake below. There is nothing to get alarmed about: you just plonk flour, sugar, baking powder and soda, cocoa, butter, eggs, vanilla and sour cream into a food processor, blitz for a few minutes, pour the ensuing Aztec-earth-colored batter into two greased pans and bake.

The hardest thing you have to do to make the frosting is sieve the confectioners' sugar, my most hated job in the kitchen. Melting the chocolate for it is a cinch if you have a microwave; otherwise just chop it fine, and put it in a bowl that can be balanced on top of a pan of simmering water. This is the perfect chocolate cake: beautiful, melting, intense but not heavy.

There are very few rules to remember in baking: First, all ingredients unless specified in the recipe should be at room temperature before you start. Second, the oven must be preheated to the correct temperature (though you would be surprised how much variation there is in ovens, so always be ready to take a cake out earlier, or leave it in longer). Third, the size of the pan should be right. Stick to these strictures, and there should not be disappointments. I would also recommend buying some Silpat, the reusable nonstick mats. You may as well stack the odds in your favor.

And I cannot tell you how great the rewards are. It is very easy to buy cookies from a store, but nothing gives you the feeling of calm and satisfaction and, indeed, deep pleasure from making your own. These cookies, buttery and chewy and studded with salted peanuts and chocolate chips nothing beats the combination of sweet and salty for me are life-changingly easy to make. And for someone who has always held that shopping can be the hardest part of cooking, it is a bonus that the ingredients you need are easily kept at hand. You do not need a big kitchen to make sure you always have flour, eggs, butter, sugar, some chocolate chips and cocoa. And while gadgets a processor or a mixer can help, a bowl, a wooden spoon, a few pans and an oven are all you really need. Those and a willing spirit, maybe. But what you do not need are expertise or arcane gifts. The great thing about baking is that anyone can do it. I should know.

Recipe: All-in-One Chocolate Cake
Recipe: Fruity Banana Bread
Recipe: My Favorite Cookies

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