Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Everything I Need to Know About Life, I Learned From Cupcakes

In most groups of friends, each individual tends to have a specific role. There's the one who is known for kindness, the one people go to when they're in a bind, and the one who can always make you laugh. In my circle of friends, I am known as the one with the cupcakes.

My obsession with cupcakes started out innocently enough. A little over three years ago, a friend gave me some silicone baking cups as part of a wedding shower gift. Although I hadn't baked anything (not even cookies from pre-made dough) since high school, I gave them a try. The next thing I knew, I was hooked. I thought I could keep it under control – after all, it was just a box of cake mix and a can of frosting every now and then, right? Before I knew it I was using a pound of butter a week and everything I owned was covered in white powder.

I realized while my husband and I were scrambling to buy a new house, pack everything up and rent out the old one that baking had become much more than a hobby. It had become part addiction, and part coping skill. And more than that, it had become a great teacher. Here are some of the lessons I have learned from baking, so that you can benefit from my experience.

The first lesson I learned from cupcakes is never to take the easy way out. When I first started making cupcakes, I used mix from a box and frosting that came in a can. The silicone baking cups made them taste a little extra moist, and people loved them. Every time I brought some to a party, everyone told me I made the best cupcakes, which made me feel a little ashamed. Once, someone even asked me for my recipe! Then I made cupcakes from scratch one time. I have never been able to stomach using a mix or canned frosting again. The taste difference is so enormous, I don’t know how anyone could mistake cupcakes from a box for the real thing.

The second lesson is a corollary to the first. Nothing worth having lasts forever, and the best things in life are gone before you know it. Back when I was making boxed cupcakes, I could keep them in the fridge for a week or even longer without a noticeable decline in taste or quality. But a homemade cupcake tastes best for two or three days after baking, at most. After that, it’s more or less inedible.

A third lesson that I have learned from cupcakes is that no matter how much you think you know, you should always keep an open mind. After I’d been making cupcakes for a while, I started browsing the Internet for recipe inspiration. On one website, I found a recipe for French toast cupcakes with bacon. You may be thinking, “Cupcakes with bacon? That’s disgusting!” I know I was. But once I’d seen them, I had to try making them. They turned out to be some of the tastiest cupcakes I’ve ever made. Everyone who tried them seemed to agree. Who knew?

Another thing that cupcakes have taught me is how much you can do with a few basic skills learned well. The first cupcake recipe I made from scratch had a really delicious buttercream frosting that almost everyone loved. I loved it so much that I learned how to use it as a basis for building other frosting recipes, experimenting with a variety of flavors and ratios. I’ve since tried other frosting recipes, and some of them have been great. But when all else fails, I can make almost any flavor of frosting I want without even having to think too hard about it.

Probably the most important lesson I’ve learned from cupcakes is that life truly is what you make of it. One of my favorite resources for new recipes is the Food Network's website. I like this website because not only do I get the benefit of a variety of professional bakers' work, I also get to see how well the recipes have worked for other bakers. Before making any new recipe, I will read the review section to see how it worked for other people. And it's inevitable... no matter how many people have posted raving, 5-star reviews for a recipe, at least one or two unfortunate souls will post, "Worst recipe ever. Didn't work at all."

In baking, there are a lot of reasons that you can fail even if you’re working with a wonderful recipe. Maybe you don't have the proper tools. Your oven might not be calibrated correctly, or perhaps you're using a hand mixer when a stand mixer would be more appropriate. Maybe you didn't follow the directions properly. This is more common than you think - the simple mistake of not letting your butter come to room temperature can completely change your results. It’s also possible to overbeat, underbake, use baking soda instead of baking powder, and the list goes on and on. I once completely destroyed a batch of cupcakes because my oil was too old. It smelled fine in the bottle, but my cupcakes came out tasting like petroleum.

Even if you’re working with the proper tools and the best raw ingredients, many circumstances can affect the outcome of your baking endeavors. If you live at a high altitude, your bake times and the amount of leavening agent you use need to be modified. If you live in an area with high humidity, you need to store your ingredients differently.

I think it’s pretty easy to see how these lessons can be applied to life. There’s no substitute for the good things in life, and when you have them, you never know when they’ll be gone. Don’t be afraid to try new things – you might like them more than you expected. Don’t assume that you have to be the best at everything. A thorough understanding of one or two things can go a long, long way.

Last but not least, if you’re not successful, don’t assume that you never will be. Life is a delicate balance. Sometimes you’re working with the best tools you know to use, but it’s not enough. It’s important to seek guidance from others when your own experience and knowledge aren’t getting you to where you want to be.

For me, cupcake-making (and baking in general) has become more than just a way to pass the time. It’s given me an outlet for some of the stresses of my everyday routine. And more importantly, it’s shown me some interesting truths about life in general. I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about them.


Little Bear said...

I love this post. I'm a cooker...not a baker. There are so many rules and careful measurements and so many things like you said that can affect your outcome. When cooking a meal however... measurements are just a 'suggestion' to me. Reading the differences and what cupcakes have taught you made me think what cooking has taught me. lol. I guess since I'm such a control freak in all other aspects of my life, cooking gives me the freedom to just do whatever I want, however I want and know that if I put certain ingredients together, the outcome will always taste good. I'm still trying to learn baking tho!

n3m3sis42 said...

Thank you for reading this (and I'm glad you liked it)! I'm a disaster with cooking because I guess I never know in the spur of the moment how closely I should follow the directions. Also, the pressure of the pot being on the stove and ready to overcook at any minute freaks me out.

I think that baking has helped me be less of a control freak in the rest of my life. It's like an outlet for my craziness. :)