Food Poem – The Scent of Apple Cake by Marge Piercy

Yet another benefit to baking: “to make sweetness where there is none.”  I also loved the part about the sweetness of babies before “their wills sprouted like mushrooms.” Hope you enjoy the poem as I do!

My mother cooked as drudgery
the same fifteen dishes round
and round like a donkey bound
to a millstone grinding dust.

My mother baked as a dance,
the flour falling from the sifter
in a rain of fine white pollen.
The sugar was sweet snow.

The dough beneath her palms
was the warm flesh of a baby
when they were all hers before
their wills sprouted like mushrooms.

Cookies she formed in rows
on the baking sheets, oatmeal,
molasses, lemon, chocolate chip,
delights anyone could love.

Love was in short supply,
but pies were obedient to her
command of their pastry, crisp
holding the sweetness within.

Desserts were her reward for endless
cleaning in the acid yellow cloud
of Detroit, begging dollars from
my father, mending, darning, bleaching.

In the oven she made sweetness
where otherwise there was none.

“The scent of apple cake” by Marge Piercy from Made in Detroit. © Knopf, 2015. from the Writer’s Almanac, June 15th, 2017

Image and Recipe for teddie’s apple cake from

A Trifle Saves the (Birth)Day!


I wanted to bake a cake for the baby of our chopped and blended family who is turning 12 today. Ree Drummond’s big four layer chocolate cake looked perfectly suited for my BIG personality daughter by marriage, Ava. As my reader friends know, I’m not the best at following recipes. I did wait three hours after the cake cooled to try to assemble it. Okay..fine…maybe two. I just want to stress when Ree gently recommends “freezing the cake layers for best results” it should be more of a requirement.

The cake was delicious, moist and SUPER chocolatey….but not good for building a cake tower. The architect in me wanted to add skewer reinforcements. Once I placed the fourth layer, the cake was just started to slide and slowly fall apart. Oh…. the slow motion HORROR!

In the fight between ideality and materiality, materiality won today. Freezing the layers may have controlled it’s angry soft moistness long enough to assemble.

The cake is now supported in a trifle dish. Still delicious. All four layers wouldn’t fit in the dish. We have a separate bonus single layer cake. No one is complaining. My other two daughters have generously offered to take care that cake.

Lessons learned:

  1. Maybe try to follow the recipe better next time by freezing the layers before assembly.
  2. Maybe big personality needs containment, whether by temperature control or structure.  We all need support sometimes. Support doesn’t ruin our inner deliciousness.

Here is Ree Drummond’s recipe.



BakingPhil Project 4: Pecan Sticky Buns (Recipe 8.13)


This chapter on enriched yeast breads continues to build on the techniques of quick breads and yeast breads. The increased amount of sugar and fat of breakfast pastries can inhibit the gluten from developing. Breads without too much fat can be mixed using the straight dough method, otherwise the sponge method is (where yeast is activated before adding fat) recommended. Parisian Brioche is, for example, 50% butter and so needs the sponge method. This concept that fat inhibits gluten growth is new to me. Actual “yeasty breadiness” is lost in order to achieve the decadent taste. Here the yeast and flour is reduced to being a mere vehicle of sugar and fat. I feel bad for the yeast. But….these enriched morsels sure are tasty and worthy of special occasions. This is not the type of bread to gorge on. It is the type to share, where a little should go a long way.

The recipe I chose to try is for Pecan Sticky Buns.  At 480 calories a piece, these buns were certainly worth sharing and eating slowly. Studded with cinnamon pecans inside and coated with honeyed pecans on the outside, this bread felt extravagant in every way. The dough felt fragile under the weight of sugar and nuts. Rolling up the layer of brown sugar, nuts and cinnamon in the inside was like hiding treasure. After baking, the rolls became sponges for the slow drip of the caramelized honey. The whole process had an aura of guilty pleasure. In light of my gluten free, sugar free, milk free, first days of the year, these rolls were just……wrong.

This is rococo extravagance where the ornamental and pleasurable cover functional structure. The fragility of dough under my hands as I was shaping the roll was scary and soothing at the same time. Strange. No rolling pin was needed. I just gently pushed and pulled the dough into shape. How odd that luxurious taste is defined by such fragility!

Desserts may not have practical function but are loaded with symbolic function. The pastry chef constructs a dream landscape of sugar in every confection. An escape from the demands of nourishment, these bites are moments of death defying, excess. When consumed as a matter of habit, pastries loose the symbolic function of living a life beyond practical need (and become death inviting). The proportions so crucial to baking parallel the balance of life well lived energized and shaken by moments of excess and loss. Pecan Sticky Buns definitely ranks as a moment of excess.

Once we enter the realm of cookies and cakes, all practical function is lost. As a bun, the pecan sticky bun is uncomfortably poised between bread and cake, self-aware of its own messy, practical fragility and its heavy symbolic sweet glaze. Sometimes, we all have sticky bun moments torn between a nutty, spicy inside and a sticky shiny, sweet coating.

Credits: Many bees sacrificed their labor for this project, butter made from cow milk, sugar, pecan trees, cinnamon bark, lemons, flour, mixers, muffin pans, bowls, lots of spoons, dish washers, children willing to eat the sugar, etc.


BakingPhil Project 3: Focaccia (Recipe 7.34)


I’ve reached chapter 7 about yeast breads in the textbook On Baking. This project could have easily been just about this chapter. It is overwhelming and challenging! Oh my…. Thank goodness I don’t have an exam to pass. The biology of yeast and the chemistry of fermentation and baking are complex. There are types of yeast, appropriate water temperature, climate control, hand and machine kneading, shaping etc. to consider. There are 10 production stages: scaling, mixing, fermenting, punching, proportioning, rounding, shaping, proofing, baking and cooling. Each stage has specific requirements. I completely understand why bread making was the first domestic task to be outsourced and professionalized. I am humbled. I have two logistical issues at this point of project:

  1. First, the recipes in the book are aimed for large production kitchens that yield for example 64 rolls. While I’m happy to make, eat and share, I fear my home standing mixer may not be able to technically accommodate the kneading and mixing. Sure I can try to reduce the recipe but I don’t trust my math skills or my understanding of baking proportions.
  2. I don’t have some of the ingredients readily (or specific tools). I doubt any home kitchen would have old dough or sourdough starter.

Based on the limitations I decided to try the recipe for Focaccia (Recipe 7.34) using the straight dough method. I didn’t have fresh rosemary. Sprinkling sesame seeds didn’t work well (just fell off without any agent to help them stick to the bread). Regardless, the bread was delicious. The onions and the brushed olive oil made it savory. The inside was soft and outside crisp. I would make it again. Tomorrow I’ll make fresh tuna salad sandwiches with tomato and lettuce or maybe a melt. Maybe both and have a hot-cold taste test. I’m eager to try other focaccia recipes now. The variations seem endless. The yeasty and oniony scent in the house is so comforting on a cold Indiana day. There is also something intrinsically satisfying about witnessing dough grow and double. Like watching a flower blossom. Despite my earlier laments about the complexity of the process, the play-dough moment of mixing and shaping is so soothing. Maybe I should bake bread once a week for as therapeutic recovery. Speaking of baking for the soul and what I learned……

Every stage of bread making offers philosophical insight. My favorite: the lesson from punching down the dough. Why would we work so hard to develop the yeast only to punch the dough down? According to the text, punching down redistributes the gas pockets, evens out the temperature, relaxes the gluten and it reactivates the yeast. Who among us hasn’t felt punched down on occasion? I can imagine myself as a loaf of rising dough just punched down and ready to be more consistent, relaxed, reactivated. It is hard to imagine a literal or metaphorical punch as anything but violent. But in this case the punch is meant to provoke a second rise. Making anything involves modulated violence, mixing, beating, kneading, whipping, punching, fermenting as much as shaping, forming, resting, blooming. As I said, baking, like life,  is complex.

Credits: Special shout out to yeast, the tiny living creatures that make bread possible, flour, olive groves, olive presses, and oil, salt, flat half sheet pans, Roman culinary history, onions, knives, ovens, cold weather outside, fireplaces inside, stand mixers, counter tops, etc.


Baking – Poem

On Approaching Seventy

Watching the hands of my son
kneading challah dough
on the maple cutting board
in my kitchen, a memory

rises of my mother
bending over our kitchen table
in Flatbush, pressing, stretching,
folding flour, water, eggs

into a living elastic.
Sometimes in my dreams, Mom
appears, whispers of her mother
in her kitchen in Zurawno

in the pre-dawn dark,
by the light of the kerosene
lamp, pulling and pushing
the yeasty challah dough

until my son covers it
with a clean white cloth
and leaves it in the warm
electric oven to rise.

“On Approaching Seventy” by Joan Seliger Sidney from Bereft and Blessed. © Antrim House Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

BakingPhil Project 3: Lemon Tea Bread (Recipe 6.17)


The last two mixing methods, biscuit and muffin have been exercises of gentility, of assembling an aggregate of ingredients. Learning to mix “just until combined.” It required trust that the heat of the oven will meld all the pieces into a final tasty product. This week’s mixing technique “creaming” usually seems partner to with “folding” too. These mixing motions are different in speed and direction from the collecting mode of biscuits and muffins. There are many websites that offer good explanations of “creaming” that you can find at the end of this post. Creaming is a multi step process of creating a light and fluffy mixture of whipped butter and sugar that is then folded into the dry ingredients (eggs and milk are usually added in between). It’s like going to a party with a friend and then mixing/ socializing with others, as a pair. In architectural terms, creamed butter and sugar is like cement in a building, except fluffy and delicious.

What I learned:

  1. Room temperature butter is essential. It will not cream without this step. This means, I have to think ahead when using this method in order to let the butter come to temp. There it is……the waiting. It’s not only a “mise-en-place” in space but also in time.
  2. The proportion of butter and sugar makes a difference in texture and fluffiness. This recipe had 3 oz of butter and 10 oz of sugar. The mix was not a cream at all. It was like grainy sand. Maybe this recipe isn’t the best example of the creaming method…but what do I know.
  3. Sometimes baking can be like nesting dolls. Ingredients are paired and combined then combined again to other combinations of ingredients. It is very formulaic and sequenced. When you ask for a recipe, the ingredients will only tell you half of the story. You’ll have to ask for directions and the sequence of events that leads up to the production of yummy.

{[[(Cream+Sugar) + (milk+ eggs)+(flour, baking powder, salt)]+ lemon zest ]+heat} + (lemon juice +sugar)

Or something like this……. I was never good at math.

The taste: The lemon tea cake was VERY moist. I could hardly get the piece out of the pan without breaking it. [confession: the recipe DID say, take out the cake and THEN pour the syrup….but did I listen…noooooo] The recipe called for pouring lemon sugar syrup over the hot cake. Very suspicious. Seems strange to be pouring liquid over our spongy, airy efforts. By the time we took a bite the syrup had infused the cake with a fresh lemon flavor. Even though added after the cooking process, the syrup was surely not ornamental. It’s like a cake version of a lemon bar. My tiny taster, Ava and I decided it needed some whipped cream. Really good recipe and would definitely make it again (next time I’ll take it out of the loaf pan).


Lemons produced somewhere warm for us in cold places to enjoy thanks to the miracle of the trucking industry, microplane manufacturers, flour, milk, refrigerators that keep milk cold, sugar, butter, eggs, bowls, loaf pans, ovens, timers, whisks, spatulas, the recipe, language and numbers and so much more…….

More on the Creaming Method:

Here’s the recipe:


BakingPhil Project 2: Morning Glory Muffins


I am not a morning person. The idea of morning glory seems to me ironic. I love irony. So, for the second bakingphil project I chose Morning Glory Muffins (Recipe 6.8) that employs the “muffin” method of mixing. Never made this before. What could be bad about a muffin that boasts nuts, fruits and spices? Nothing. Unless, I over mix and create a “condition known as tunneling.” These elongated holes in muffins occur when we mix until smooth, warns the textbook. There seems to be a theme here with quick breads. Don’t over mix.

The muffin method requires the fat to be liquid (opposed to the biscuit method) when combined with the flour and other dry ingredients. Instead of aggregate biscuit dough that is rolled out, muffin batter is supposed to be lumpy. The incomplete incorporation of ingredients is the key to protecting the space for the bread to rise to soft and sweet tastiness.

One important point I forgot to mention last time is about the proportions. As I said before baking is all about a heated modulating and measuring of flour (structure, presence) with air (space, absence). These proportions determine the difference between pound cake and sponge cake (for more information see Rulman’s book Ratio). Its important to remember all measure is determined from the amount of flour. So, for example in this recipe, flour is 100%, sugar 112%, eggs 62% and on and on. Baking if anything is the art of proportion like light and airy Greek architecture that parted the walls invented the column. Greek architecture is like a sponge cake, while Etruscan a pound cake and Minoan architecture muffins. That may require another post to explain. For now, back to Morning Glory Muffins and the liquid medium of relationships.

What I learned:

  1. What does it mean to “mix just until combined”? I mixed until there was still just a bit of flour visible.
  2. Just like all baking, the temperature and time needs adjusting.
  3. How much to fill a muffin cup takes experience that would allow me to leave enough room for the expected rise. Standards only arise out of repetition. I am woefully without standards.

Dear expert bakers, now its time for the “diagnose my muffin” portion of the blog.

Look at the muffins at the top of the picture below. Notice the craters or dents in the middle. Is it because I didn’t bake them long enough?


Also, notice my first batch towards the bottom is smaller, while the second batch at the top are bigger. Is there an optimal muffin size?


Thanks for your help.


Coconut, apple, carrot, pecan, grapes (and the sun that makes them raisins) growers, pickers, shredders, packers, distributors, grocery stores, warm and cold climates, muffin pans, metal, ovens, heat, fire, eggs and chickens that produced them, oil (how does one make vegetable oil anyway?), sugar, mixing bowls, dishwashers that wash them, my whisk, measuring cups and spoons, oven mittens, kitchen, sink, water etc. etc.

BakingPhil Project 1: Cream Scones


It may seem ironic that I’m embarking on this baking fest. After all, I started 2015 limiting wheat, milk, sugar, caffeine and red meat. On the opposite end of the spectrum, last night I enjoyed an unhealthy amount of delicious processed food in the forms of nachos, wings, tiny hot dogs, cookies, banana pudding and cake pops. The truth of my appetite is somewhere in between. Maybe because I’m trying to limit all the yummy, supposedly bad for me stuff, I feel the need to make the carbs, sugar and red meat I do have….an event. No plain white bread, frozen beef-patti burgers or cheap milk chocolate for me. No thank you. If I’m going to poison my body, I want to at least enjoy a few moments of deliberate and designed gastronomic delight.

So, here I am at the first entry. I’ve chosen Cream Scones first, because I’ve made biscuits before and wanted to try something different. Second, Jim always orders scones, I’d like to be able to make him some and lastly, as previously confessed, my sister’s taunting.

Cream Scones (Recipe 6.5 in the textbook OnBaking)

This recipe requires that we apply the biscuit method of mixing. If you want the actual recipe, let me know. There are so many recipes online and I’m not really adding anything. The point here is not offer a how to guide ( I cannot claim expertise) or a recipe for scones but rather expose how everything you do, even as seemingly simple as baking bread, can be meaningful and philosophical. We are all hungry philosophers. We all make meaning everyday, even in baking scones. The interesting features of this particular method are:

  1. The fat that gives it flavor and adds air in the form of flakiness is solid. So, if we speak in architectural terms, the butter acts as scaffolding that helps the structure rise, but also forms the spaces. Its poetic to think of the disappearing butter as the secret to a biscuit or scones particular flavor.
  2. In this method, over-mixing is a sin. Don’t do it. The key is to keep the ingredients in a loose aggregate that allows space for the butter to form pockets of air. Aggressive mixing literally squashes the possibility of flakiness, of air/flavor pockets…..and then you get the hard as a rock hockey puck that I myself am guilty of making. I’d like to think I’m a gentler person who believes in supporting the benevolent actions all diverse components, now. The biscuit method demands gentility. As Hannah Arendt wrote, one of the techniques of totalitarianism is in blocking free movement:

“By pressing men against each other, total terror destroys the space between them; compared to the condition within its iron band, even the desert of tyranny, insofar as it is still some kind of space, appears like a guarantee of freedom. Totalitarian government does not just curtail liberties or abolish essential freedoms; nor does it, at least to our limited knowledge, succeed in eradicating love for freedom from the hearts of man. It destroys the one essential prerequisite of all freedom which is simply the capacity of motion which cannot exist without space.” (Origins of Totalitarianism, 466)

Don’t be a totalitarian with your scones, says the recipe.

What I Learned:

  1. Don’t let the fear of over-mixing scare you. In my nervousness I added the liquid BEFORE I cut in the butter. Yikes. Not a good start to this whole project. I grated the solid butter and then added it to the flour under the liquid as best I could.
  2. I didn’t have half and half as the recipe required. So I mixed whole milk and whipping cream. May have been too heavy for the recipe.
  3. The 10-minute baking time needed adjusting. I let it bake for a few more minutes. But I think I could have left in a bit longer to get more color.

Baking may be a science but accidents happen, substitutions and adjustments are often needed. I have a feeling this may be a dominant theme in future posts.

It tastes moist, slightly sweet, flakes as I bite into it. Soft, not hard. The dough was flaky even I was rolling it. Next time, I’d like to try adding more flavorings like orange zest or strawberries. I’d probably give myself a ‘B’ on account of the sequence fiasco and it could’ve risen more and had more color. I’ll perfect it before I send my sister a box.


Thank you to the book Onbaking and the systems of publishing, my mixing bowls, rolling pin, flour, butter, sugar, baking powder, soda, eggs, milk and the systems that produced, distributed, packaged, branded and sold the ingredients like, chickens, cows, wheat plants, wood, truck drivers, grocery shelf stockers, my oven, my warm house, my kitchen island, my roof, the gas company, the gas, the pipes that brought it to my oven, the timer, the internet, this blog, my camera, my tasters……etc. etc. for making this taste experience of production and consumption possible.

Baking Philosopher Project


As long as I can remember, I loved to cook. Baking, however, intimidated me with its strange bipolar rhythm between energetic beating, whisking, rolling, folding and patient waiting to heat, cook and cool. But mostly, what scared me is its insistence on measurement. Recently, I’ve come to rethink baking as architecture. Baking is a measured combination of flour and air, just like architecture is a measured experience between structure and space. The quality our experiences related to both is enhanced by color/flavorings, comfort/fat and texture/grains. The comparison is not mine alone. In reading the textbook Onbaking: a textbook of baking and pastry fundamentals (Sarah R. Labensky, Eddy van Damme, Priscilla Martel and Klaus Tenbergen), I found this quote by Marie-Antoine Careme (1783-1833)


Maybe I can learn to love baking too. So the next few months, I’ll be working on philosophically developing practical appreciation. As you can tell, I got the book. Not much research in that, just ordered a used textbook (new textbooks are very expensive!). I’ll be following onbaking for this project. The first five chapters cover history, equipment, principles, ingredients and such. I’ll start posting at chapter 6 Quick Breads.  Here’s my five reasons for doing this:

  1. Given all the information and support available online I should be able to teach “myself” to bake. It’s a DIY exercise of teaching and learning. There is nothing like having an experienced baker’s tastebuds and skills…which brings me to my second reason.
  2. I don’t have money to spend on baking school. If I win the lottery, it’ll be top on my list.
  3. I want to treat this as a radical philosophy project. In What It’s Like to Be a Thing, philosopher Ian Bogost calls us all to be hybrid philosophers. This is my attempt to be a philosopher-baker, by which I bring thoughtful attention to the practice and all its magic. What would it mean to live philosophically, to bake and cook philosophically?
  4. On a mommy level, I want to be able to send my baby in college yummy treats. Baked goods are tasty pieces of love that travel well, unlike my cooking.
  5. Now that I’ve publicly announced this project, I’ll have to be accountable for myself. Nothing like, guilt and shame to sustain a project. Okay…fine….for you positive people out there…yes, I’m talking to you Jim…..Support. Hopefully, I’ll have your support to continue on this tasty adventure. If you want to join me online in this baking project, please do. Go through any baking book you have on hand. If you live near me, you know who you are…come over.

Let the BAKINGPHIL PROJECT, Begin! First, the three mixing methods: biscuit, muffin and creaming. Next time: The muffin method of mixing used in cream scones. I start here because my sister teases me mercilessly about the “hockey-puck” scones I made loooooong ago (literally 25 years ago). She hasn’t forgotten. I shall have my vindication! Didn’t I say, baked goods ship well. Hmmmm.