My Baking Wonderland

Dara LevanBlogLeave a Comment

The shiny, stainless steel cup scoops white flurries from the paper bag. A few sparkly, sneaky granules dust the counter. My hand becomes a snow plow; I clean as the blizzard continues.

Flour, sugar, and a pinch of salt mingle in the mixing bowl. I am whipping up an edible winter wonderland while the weather outside is delightful! I pause before melting the butter, noticing as the sun smiles through the Florida palm trees.

I bake throughout the year, not just during the holidays. I like to cook, but I much prefer the precision of baking. The perfectionist part of my personality is drawn to measuring and meticulously following directions.

However, I am also a free spirit. I am well aware of that paradoxical statement. So I usually modify and personalize most recipes. I love creating, decorating, and molding. Smooth batter and making “not too sweet” icing excites me.

Linear art forms, such as drawing or even wrapping a gift, are not my forte. But baking has always been a source of inspiration, an outlet for anxiety, and a way of sharing my love for others.

I had no clue about my penchant for perfection until one night 20 years ago. I was in the midst of baking a surprise for my fiance. He had and still has an insatiable sweet tooth. So I thought I’d make my Aunt Linda’s decadent Hello Dolly Bars. Certainly he’d be smitten with them like the rest of our family!

At the time, he was living in a two-bedroom apartment in Ft. Lauderdale, and it was the fall of 1999. I was layering the graham cracker crust with coconut flakes, walnuts, and then of course, milk chocolate chips.

I am not making this up. My fiance stomped impatiently into the tiny kitchen. He said to me, “WHAT is taking so long?” I jumped as he disrupted my process.

“Please get out of here! I am trying to surprise you!” He still hates not being in the know.

“Ohhhh! You’re making those? That’s my Grandma Pearl’s secret recipe—how do YOU know that???

I couldn’t decide if his clearly erroneous statement was more annoying than the unwelcome disruption. He wasn’t finished. “Sooooo. Tell me! Why isn’t this done yet?”

My big, brown eyes widened as I glared at him. “The recipe says to spread the chocolate chips evenly. So that is what I am doing,” I retort as I shift my gaze back to the textured palate in front of me. I continued placing the individual chocolate morsels one by one in the 9 X 13 glass dish.

He starts to howl. “You. Are. Not. Joking!” I then join him as we both laugh at my apparent perfectionism. You REALLY get to know yourself when you live with someone!

A few years pass, and I am pregnant for the first time. I didn’t understand the true meaning of “nesting” until around the eighth month. Suddenly, I felt the perpetual desire to bake. I recall a friend coming over before I gave birth to Alec. I proudly took her hand and opened the door to my freezer. She peered at the stacked pans. On each shelf, cookie sheets tightly wrapped with tin foil, were labeled with a date and name. 

She cracked up and couldn’t believe what she saw. I said, “Well after the baby arrives, I may not be up to cooking or baking. And what if visitors are hungry?? I wanted to plan ahead and make sure I always have something homemade if anyone comes to my house.”

After Alec’s first birthday, I became immersed in creating cakes. For him I made a Thomas the Train cake, a long airplane, and a Dr. Seuss-themed sheet cake. Zoe loved shoes and talking—not much has changed! So for years I’d research (hmmm perhaps obsess?) on the decor and coordinating cakes I’d make from scratch. If I didn’t like even an inch of the cake, it’d go in the garbage. Well, I think perhaps in my mouth first and then into the trash.

Designing and decorating cakes were a blast. But I was ready to sink my teeth, literally, into another consumable art. I then learned about chocolate molds. I became a regular at Michael’s and other stores. I’m giggling as I write this because I just recently found these molds; I must have at least 80 types! I started to make chocolates for all of the holidays as well. 

These days my concoctions are typically made without dairy and gluten. I’ve tried various substitutions for butter that are delicious! Lately I’ve incorporated coconut and almond flour rather than pre-made gluten free mixes, which I have heard “tastes the best” so far. And in addition to the health benefits, I don’t lick my fingers now. Instead, I slather the leftover coconut oil on my skin! It’s quite hydrating.

Baking will forever be a meditative, calming activity for me. I still wipe every ounce of dripping batter off the pan before popping muffins into the oven. I admittedly cannot stand a messy presentation. The entire process from mixing, decorating, and serving brings me such joy.

But what I truly love most is baking for friends, family, and my kids’ friends. As soon as I post this blog, I am researching festive recipes for New Year’s Eve. And to all a goodnight!

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