How baking spurred me to work more efficiently and effectively
Trying my hand at baking has pushed me to become more economical with my time. How else to squeeze a new hobby into one’s life?
The kitchen is the sanctuary of the home, a place to relax and find comfort. It’s full of memories of cooking with friends and family on weekends and holidays for most people. I’ve never loved cooking. I’ve never as much as liked cooking. It’s a necessary act of survival and sustenance.
So it might surprise you to learn my second of 12 months of hobbies is being spent baking. Yes, baking. How do I go from jiu-jitsu in the first month to baking in the next? Baking was a clear choice for my second hobby. I’ve recently watched four seasons of The Great British Baking Show on Netflix. Watching contestants working under pressure and often failing gave me an excellent introduction and a few no-nos (e.g., the water in fruit can make your break or pastry mushy).
The big surprise is baking is pushing me to become more efficient with my time. How exactly do I get more out of each day? So far I have run across some good advice and have adopted a couple task-tracking apps.
Each day has a handful of necessary activities: sleep, eat, family time, work, and hopefully exercise and/or relax. Now throw baking into the equation. Last month’s hobby, jiu-jitsu, usually took the place of exercise, a time-neutral activity because one thing takes the place of another. But baking doesn’t overlap with a basic activity—unless eating is counted, and I couldn’t possibly eat everything I bake.
An industry of self-help gurus subsists on human’s desire to find time, save time, and use time more efficiently. I’ve run across a few methods and tools recently. Most methods are actually project management tools marketed as elixirs for the time challenged. The MOOC Coursera has classes on working smarter. Amazon is filled with books on the topic; if I were going to read a book on working smarter I’d re-read The 4-Hour Workweek, a convincing directive to cut out unnecessary activities and focus on what’s essential.
But I think working smarter and saving time requires setting goals. In this case, my goal is to squeeze in a new hobby every month—not necessarily aggregating hobbies as I go—while fulfilling my basic needs. I’m not working smarter to feel like I’m saving time, I’m getting through my days more efficiently to enjoy my new hobbies.
Having a new hobby gives me a well-defined goal. I’m not being more efficient for efficiency’s sake.
Well, not always. The fact I’m writing this so late in the month is a signal I should have found more time to write. Back to The 4-Hour Workweek I go.
Here I am diving into the kitchen. Over the years, economic and other forces have driven me to the kitchen. Time spent in the kitchen is money I didn’t have to spend eating out. In New York eating out can be more affordable than buying groceries and preparing meals at home. Have you gone to a grocery store in New York City? Newcomers or guests will experience sticker-shock at the prices of, well, almost anything. (Cheese is an exception. I’ve always found cheese to be relatively affordable there.)
Elsewhere—such as Nashville, my home for almost 12 years—eating out often is a waste of money. Restaurants are relatively costly here. You can’t get a good take-out meal quickly and cheaply.
I’m not blessed with whatever gene that makes people happy in the kitchen. I don’t get joy from cooking. I haven’t got joy from the limited baking I’ve done in the past. The goal is usually to just get it over with. Put together whatever healthy—or at least not unhealthy—meal without any of the experience, flourishes, and techniques that separate a weak cook from a moderate cool from a good cook. The idea of using the kitchen to bake rarely crossed my mind.
Am I enjoying it thus far? Yeah, baking has been a lot of fun. This new pursuit is equal parts experiment, pastime, and education.
My first bake was blueberry scones. Easy first recipe. Flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, butter, heavy cream, blueberries, and confectioners’ sugar for a glaze. I already knew—perhaps learned from cooking shows—that scone dough should be given little kneading. Too much kneading and you’ve practically got dense cookie that lacks the scone’s crumbling nature and rough texture.
Next, I baked cheese bagels. These require more work than scones because of the multi-step process: mix ingredients, knead and work the dough, let the dough rise, work more and let proof again, make dough balls with the familiar hole in the middle, place in boiling water for a couple minutes, remove with a seemingly single-purpose strainer recently purchased at a grocery store, sprinkle on pecorino cheese, and finally put these devils in the oven.
Thank goodness for my Amazon Echo. People might say they use their Echos to stream music (I do, too) and get news (I do, too), but I also use the timer almost daily. “Alexa, set a timer for 20 minutes.” When the soft, ascending beeping is heard, the proofing time has ended, or the time has come to check the oven. During proofing and baking I worked on my laptop at the kitchen counter; baking and working are a good pairing when working from home. Try making bagels at the kitchen at work. Tech companies have pretty loose rules about kitchen use but I’d be surprised to see somebody pulling flour, salt, baking soda, and a strainer from his messenger bag.
The cheese bagels turned out well. Right out of the oven, the warm bagels had a crisp topping of scattered cheese shards and a soft texture that wasn’t chewy but not crisp, either. The process requires kneading, multiple proofs, and boiling in water. For the boiling phase, I bought one of those hand-held strainers (a mix of a colander and a ladle) for scooper the bagels out of hot water.
The ingredients are simple: flour, yeast, salt, sugar, and eggs. Combine and knead until the dough if firm.
A good bagel, in my opinion, is the New York bagel you get from any street cart: oversized, crisp with a slight tang and an outer shell surrounding a soft inside (but not challenging to chew). My cheese bagels use gluten-free wheat four and was never going to have the classic texture I love. But they were good for what they were. A day or two later, the bagels had lost their original, peppy character and had turned into a spongy bagel.
The next time I make bagels, I’ll stick with a recipe for a classic (hopefully) New York-style bagel. With everything.
The red velvet banana cake was simple. It tasted great—I love a red velvet pastry and I love bananas. I didn’t feel comfortable using a packet of red velvet cake mix; the particular recipe I used called for the packet. I appreciated how using a pre-made ingredient saved time.
Red velvet cake mix, a smashed banana, sugar, canola oil, three eggs. Bake. Let cool.
During the few minutes the bread baked I whipped up a neon-pink frosting that contrasted with the warmth of the red-tinged loaf. The frosting was easy: sugar, vanilla extract, milk, and red food coloring.
Next was a chocolate bread with a cream cheese filling and covered—generously—with small chocolate chips. This chocolate bread bake was like a three-foot putt: not simple but definitely not difficult. I baked this late one night after the family had gone to bed. Again, I’m trying to find time to bake and some days I could squeeze in kitchen time only in the late evening.
One problem, though. The chocolate bread was a bit dry. The red velvet banana cake may have been slightly dry—I thought it was fine—but the chocolate bread wasn’t moist and required a glass of milk.
The weak point in the supply chain was the time in the oven. Desiring to avoid a mushy, unbaked middle, I left the bread in the oven a bit too long. So, unfortunately, the former was traded for the latter. After trying to choke down slightly chalky slices of otherwise beautiful bread, I would have preferred a bit of excess moisture in the middle.
But I hadn’t learned my lessons. Next, I’ll write about another over-bake and continued challenges finding time to bake during an exceedingly busy stretch of time.