The Cooking Class

He was feeling quite pleased, having been invited to demonstrate a dish to a bunch of eager cooks. When the folks from the institute suggested a whole wheat carrot cake baked in a pressure cooker, he quickly agreed, despite never having baked anything in a pressure cooker before, nor a whole wheat cake and in fact, this would be the fourth cake he was baking in his life.

“How difficult can a cake be anyway”, he smirked to himself. The following evening, a whole wheat cake was baked, admired and eaten. The test having been passed, he slept soundly.

The next morning, he strode into the classroom an hour earlier to check preparations when it struck him. The cake he’d made last night, he’d forgotten the carrots!

“Whatever. I’ll just add 50gm of carrots to the mixture and that’s that”, he thought. “Let me ask a baker, just in case, even though this is a childishly simple subject.” So, he first WhatsApped the recipe and called Suman Sharma in Bangalore, asking what she thought. “You’ll need more lift”, she said, “since the mass to be lifted has increased. Let me call someone more experienced and get back to you”, she promised.

“This cake baking thing might actually be a skill”, he thought nervously as the clock ticked away faster than usual. The first few people had started trickling in and little beads of sweat ran down his brow.

Suman called back, said she’d spoken with Sulochana Roshan from Bareilly, neither of whom had baked anything in a pressure cooker before. She said they’d picked up a recipe ‘from the net’, and adjusted it for the amount of batter in his original recipe. “All the best!” she chirped cheerily, unaware of the knots in his stomach.

Then, looking at a recipe that wasn’t close to his and had in fact never seen the light of day till an hour ago, the knots in his stomach began churning around. “Maybe I should get someone else to confirm this new recipe”, he decided, and then called Sahana Karnik-Khanolkar, a master baker in Mumbai. She said the recipe could do with another egg and maybe some wheat bran for extra lift. He didn’t have any wheat bran. “Stupid question, Sahana, but this is the process I follow”, he said as if he’d baked a hundred cakes in the past week, and proceeded to explain his ‘process’. “No no”, she said, “you need to cream the butter and sugar first”, then continued, telling him the right way to do it, explaining her reasons as she went.

There he stood, in front of a crowd of 30 young cooks, all the bluster and arrogance replaced with fear and perspiration, looking at a bunch of ingredients he’d never used together before, at a recipe that had never seen the light of day and a process that he’d never thought of before then.

First, he creamed the butter and sugar. Then came the questions. The lighting was hot. The butter began separating. He whipped furiously and tossed the bowl in the fridge. Then the eggs. Then the grated carrots from the fridge and wheat flour and the rest of it. The carrots were moist and condensation was heavy. The mixture became a dough for carrot parathas. He began separating each strand. Didn’t work.

Then, in a last ditch effort, he mixed them together in the sequence Sahana had mentioned, and magically, they separated and the batter came together beautifully.

At this point, he noticed the gas flame, working off of a small cylinder, was much bigger than expected and so the temperature of the cooker was much higher than usual. Throwing his fate to the mercy of the ghosts of cooks long past, he chucked the buttered and floured tin into the cooker, shut it, flashed a fake, gracious smile and collapsed into a chair. It would be an hour before the cake was done.

Someone in the audience said, “I’m waiting for the frosting”. Then he remembered. Oh Lord! The cream cheese frosting! Slowly taking out his phone, he looked up the first recipe in grams and found one. 227 grams of cream cheese, it said. He only had 200 grams. In haste, instead of adjusting the ratios, he deducted 27 grams of cream cheese, 27 grams of sugar and forgot to reduce the butter.

When the hour was up, he opened the cooker, with an eager audience looking on, flipped the tin over, muttered a silent prayer to the benevolent spirits of Escoffier et. al., knocked on it a few times and lifted it off. It was perfect!

Letting it cool a bit, he began applying the cream cheese frosting, explaining the recipe as he did so. Horror of horrors, the residual heat from the cake began melting the frosting, containing excess butter as it did! Talking some more, reciting the Hanuman Chalisa in his head, he laid on thicker and thicker coats of frosting until it seemed stable. Then, to his dismay, the frosting began melting from the sides, and dripping down to the plate. “How pretty the dripping frosting looks”, someone remarked.

He smiled, sighed and began taking questions. Baking cakes was indeed a skill and one he wasn’t likely to underestimate again.

Sid Khullar

Sid Khullar is the founder of Chef at Large, a blog that began in 2007. He enjoys cooking, writing, travelling and technology in addition to being a practising Freemason. Health and wellness is a particularly passionate focus. Sid prefers the company of food and animals to most humans, and can be reached at sid.khullar@chefatlarge.in.