Sitting in my office in downtown Vancouver, an Excel sheet open in front of me, I daydream: “A fluffy sponge cake. Three layers. Rosewater buttercream. Soak the cake in lemon syrup. Fresh rose petals to decorate. A sprinkle of gold powder on top of the cake to finish.”
For a few minutes, I escape the reality of my job as a researcher and enter a baking fantasy, one of my secret internal worlds. That world, that compartment of my personality, is as much part of me as my name, my hair colour, or the sound of my voice. «Cogito ergo sum», wrote Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.” I “bake, therefore I am.” Baking is synonymous with my name and my name is synonymous with baking. We are one.
A Teenage Love Story
I was 12 when I developed a curiosity for baking. Sadly, the beginning of this curiosity is tainted by shame and pain. It was around that age, or shortly after, that I became anorexic. And like so many girls in the grip of that illness, baking became a place to express my hunger. I cooked everything I wanted to eat. For me, it’s the desserts I see in the magazines lying around my house: Vanidades, ¡Hola!, but especially BuenHogar. The desserts in those magazines are not Venezuelan. They are Spanish or have a European or North American influence.
In the dense, humid, and eternal heat of Maracaibo, Venezuela, where I was born and lived until age 19, I spend hours looking at the photos of the fantasy creations I will never be able to make, no matter how hard I try: strawberry covered cakes, strawberry being a cold climate fruit and extremely expensive in our local supermarkets, or buttercream filled cakes, an unknown concept in Venezuela — our preferred traditional icing is the “nevado,” a merengue made of whipped egg whites and light syrup.
Still, from my intense daydreaming, I begin to take some steps into making some of those recipes a reality. I start with cut-out cookies, another unknown concept in our cuisine. Our traditional cookies are the “polvorosas” o “mantecadas,” a thick, crumbly cookie made with vegetable shortening. Or the butter cookies imported from the Netherlands, or the professional cookies found in the bakeries around the city, almost all of them founded by Portuguese, Spanish, or Italian immigrants. I clearly remember the first time I saw a smooth, flat cookie dough, perfectly stretched on a marble table, ready to be cut into shapes with a cookie cutter. I remember the longing I felt imagining that cookie dough and being able to lift the cut-out cookies and place them, their shape intact, in the baking tray.
I can’t remember when I started to experiment. But I do remember the afternoon that changed my life. It was the day my mom attended a party where somebody served beautifully-shaped cut-out cookies. They had crushed peanuts on them. The cookies were so delicious my mom asked the lady who had made them for the recipe. In an act of infinite kindness, she agreed to share it.
The first time I tried the recipe I was extremely excited. I soon realized, however, that the dough was not behaving the way I expected it: it was elastic when I was hoping for it to be stable so the cookies would keep their shape once cut. Still, the recipe was delicious and the cookies were a success.
Determined to realize my dream dough, I started to modify the recipe little by little. Each time I made them I would make a small change: fewer eggs, more flour, cool the dough in the fridge to avoid the dough from cracking from the heat in the kitchen. I continued that way for several months until I managed to obtain the dough I had always dreamed of: smooth and stable, both when raw and after baking. That was the birth of my cookies, the ones I still make today, 30 years later, and the ones my sisters in California and Pfronten, Germany, ask me to make when I visit them. These are also the only cookies that my brother, who doesn’t like sweets, will eat.
In the following five years I made hundreds, thousands of those cookies. I started to sell them at school in packages of six. I would package them in delicate tissue paper of every colour. During the Fifa World Cup, I would wrap them in the colours of the teams playing that day: light blue and white for Argentina; yellow, green, and red for Cameroon. At Christmas, they were red and green. With the money I made from selling my cookies, I bought the first album that I found about and chose without any external influence: The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. I was 14.
From Sustenance to Status Symbol
In 2018, an archeologist leading an excavation in Jordan found some bits of charred food. After analysis, it was revealed that the charred bits were breadcrumbs dating back 14,000 years. Until then, archeologists placed the birth of bread in the Neolithic era, some 4,000 years later (about 10,000 years ago). The significance of this discovery is that it indicates that our ancestors did not start making bread after agriculture was established, but rather the other way around: agriculture was established to have easier access to the grains that would allow bread to be made.
The transformation of Epipaleolithic bread into modern baking and pastry-making is the story of the human imagination. Through its evolution, bread goes from being food for the sustenance of the body to being food for the sustenance of the soul and the intrinsic need for beauty in human beings. The Egyptians were already using yeast 2,600 years before the common era and in ancient Greece and Rome honey, nuts, olive oil, butter, and eggs were already being added to bread to create a richer product. The first cakes were actually breads enriched with these ingredients. Much more than an everyday food, the function of these bread or cakes is already special by then, their preparation reserved for religious days, celebrations, and even to accompany loved ones in the afterlife.
The evolution of pastry-making reached its pinnacle in the 18th century and then continued throughout the 19th century thanks to technological advances that allowed flour to be increasingly refined. The development of domestic ovens that could be installed in every home further contributed to this evolution. The explosion in sugar production — perversely only made possible by the forced labor of millions and millions of slaves brought from Africa to the New World — also helps baking to reach this turning point in its history. It is at this time that the idea of luxury and ostentation become more closely associated with cakes and desserts: being able to buy sugar and to make and eat cakes on different social occasions becomes a symbol of social and economic status.
Seizing the Intangible
Nowadays, the basic ingredients of baking — butter, sugar, eggs, flour, and milk — are some of the most humble in the modern kitchen. For me, baking is the philosopher’s stone that allows us to transform these simple but noble ingredients into gold. The process of baking also provides multiple levels of pleasure. The pleasure of creation, which involves imagining flavors and combinations of aromas and textures; the pleasure of manual work, especially when the technical challenges have been conquered; the pleasure of its great visual aesthetic flexibility, something I feel can be more difficult to achieve with savory foods.
Maybe because from the start I did not bake to eat but to offer it to others — not because I didn’t want to, but because of the anorexia — my baking was always a receptacle of fantasy. Today, it still is. I don’t crave the sweetness of sugar, I look for the ancestral taste of honey and spices, the scent of pure vanilla extract — these days a product as valuable as gold — and the density of almonds and nuts. I look for the tropical flavours of my youth: the guava halves and the delicate syrup that soaks the sponge cake where they lay, the citrus kick from the lemon peel in an elegant, grown-up cookie, the floral aroma of passion fruit sensually hidden in the folds of buttercream.
I was born in Maracaibo, but my baking reflects my desire to capture everything that moves me aesthetically: in my mind, I capture the essence of my favourite flowers or fruits and transform them into a new flavour that is added to my palate’s dictionary. In my mind, I transform my historical obsessions — 18th-century dress, the great masters of Dutch painting in the 16th and 17th century, the medieval period — into colour palettes that I would love to apply to my desserts. In my mind, I travel around the world and taste foods that bring tears to my eyes — almost always a delicate dessert passed down through generations— and make my heart burst with pleasure.
Baking is a place where the most extreme aspirations and fantasies can be realized. Cakes, cookies, and desserts are not essential for human survival on earth. But like every art, baking is an intrinsic manifestation of human nature. Baking allows us to display our infinite imagination, to transform the world and everything around us into something beautiful and delectable. But baking, a process elevated to the level of art and then domesticated and democratized through centuries of history, retains some of the humbleness of its origins. For me, it is mostly a symbol of love from the baker to their loved ones, their friends, and their community.
This story was originally published in Spanish in September 2020 in Arenga Digital.