I find it funny – yet touching at the same time – whenever people tell me I ought to start selling the stuff that I bake. For one thing, I still stand in awe of people like my godmother, Ella Fuentes-Dimalanta, who can turn home baking from a hobby into a lucrative business. For another thing, people don’t seem to believe me whenever I tell them I didn’t really learn how to bake till after I’d graduated from college! It’s true, though: I was already in my early twenties when I was finally able to whip up batches of cookies or a pan of cake without either maternal intervention or making a complete and utter disaster.
I’ve always liked food. Mom used to tell me that I was never a fussy feeder even as a kid; that I quickly progressed from breast milk to infant formula to Cerelac to several different varieties of Gerber baby food (to this day, Mom reminds me I liked turkey best) until the day came when I could sit at the table, propped up by a pile of cushions, and eat the same stuff my parents were having for dinner. Dad attributes this gustatory precociousness to both the Chinese and Kapampangan genes I got from his side of the family. My mother, however, begs to differ, citing her mother’s love of good food as the reason why started eating solid foods so early. It also meant that I was easier to feed than my brother who only ate ham, bacon, and Kentucky Fried Chicken (and mind you, it was just the skin he wanted) until the day he entered the seminary where his eating habits changed forever. But, that’s a story for another day…
Anyway, the fact that I liked food and was always keen to try something new was good enough. Unfortunately, if one loves to eat, one must eventually learn how to cook.
To put it frankly, I tried to learn how to cook in the same way I learned how to read: by watching the legendary Nora Daza on her show Cooking it Up with Nora and Stephen Yan on Wok with Yan. When that didn’t work, I tried reading every cookbook in my Lola Mama‘s library and every single one in my mother’s own collection. Ate Sion, our nanny who’s still with us even after nearly three decades, taught me the rudiments of sauteeing – and that, alas, was as far as it got.
In the Philippine educational system, girls in the fifth and sixth grades and in their freshman year in high school have Home Economics classes. I thought that I’d be able to learn a lot – heck, I even joined the Homemakers’ Club for the additional cooking lessons! – but I had a hard time with the way classes were conducted. Cooking was considered groupwork in both grade school and high school. Now, I’m a bit ashamed to admit this, but I’ve never really been what you’d call a team player – especially in the kitchen. And, when you’re a student in either one of the two higher sections in the level, even the simple act of chopping onions or peeling garlic becomes a privilege, a chance for extra class cred that you’d be willing to trash your best friend for. That said, I felt that I learned nothing at all.
[Just an aside: this is one of the reasons why I hate looking back at my childhood. Well, I had a happy childhood, but my elementary and high school days would make a good plot for one of those teen flicks where everyone bullies the weird girl.]
I had better luck in college where Home Economics for Seniors was taught to us females in lieu of ROTC. Mrs. Lea Doctor, my professor and one of our fellow parishioners at home, told me I had a good palate: I could tell what tasted good and what needed to be disposed of ASAP. However, she also told me that my baking was a disaster waiting to happen. (Ah, yes… I remember too well the angel’s food cake that turned into something even Ol’ Nick himself would turn his nose up at!) Again, I felt disheartened. It didn’t help either that my hateful paternal grandmother would often insinuate that I would never marry. In her opinion, what man in his right mind would want a woman who couldn’t cook?
But, like Mikage Sakurai in Banana Yoshimoto’s memorable tale Kitchen, I knew that there was only way to learn: I tried to make everything – and bother the fact that it earned me singed eyebrows and burnt fingertips!
My work in the kitchen progressed from cakes with scorched bottoms and sunken, molten middles to main courses lacking in seasoning to breads that were stale the second they left the oven. It wasn’t easy, it was frustrating. But, unlike in most things, I never felt like giving up. I was so obstinate, so obsessed with getting the recipe just right or making it just a little bit better than the original. It had to taste good and look good. People had to like it.
And the day finally came when I got a recipe right.
I remember a batch of peanut butter cookies, one of those things that was so simple to make yet I failed time and again to get it right. I remember crossing my fingers as I opened the oven to take out the cookie sheet. Et voila: they were perfectly golden, deliciously aromatic, and had a homey, comforting, salty-sweet flavor that made people grab one cookie after another off the rack even as they cooled. My boyfriend at the time swore by those cookies. He raved about them to friends, he took some home for his mother, and ate as much as he wanted. That particular relationship ended very badly, but I can never forget the glowing compliments and the sheer delight over and about that first batch of properly done cookies.
in the years that followed, I learned how to bake bread, cook Filipino staples like adobo (albeit with a Thai twist) and menudo (with an Italian accent), and even decorate cookies for the Holidays. My siblings plead in wheedling tones for me to bake lasagna or moussaka and my sister’s friends fought over gingerbread cutouts during the last Holiday season. My officemates swear by my cinnamon rolls and chocolate cake; they badger me for a fresh batch of chocolate chunk cookies from time to time.
Of course, I can’t claim to know everything. My sponge cakes have the texture of Scotch Brite scouring pads and I still haven’t gotten over the trauma of using sinigang broth cubes by mistake when I attempted to cook pancit Canton from scratch. (Long story…) There was even a time when I made a pizza and it came out inedible! I still can’t make siopao and siomai the way Mom does, nor can I cook paella unaided. However, that doesn’t mean I won’t try.
I like it that I can bake or cook gifts for the people who mean a lot to me as opposed to going to a shop and just picking something off a shelf. I feel that doing so puts a little bit of myself into the gift – be it cake or pie or cookies or even a homemade pasta sauce – and makes it more special. I like picking out ingredients at the supermarket or places like the weekend market in Salcedo Village: I would wonder how this or that person would react to the taste of cardamom in a lemon cookie, a hint of ginger in pork adobo. I’d try Japanese curry cubes in a stew for a family dinner and smile when my relatives demolish a platter filled with my homemade char siu.
When I was putting a seal on a canister filled with triple chocolate chunk cookies and lemon-cardamom shortbread for a certain person of my acquaintance a week before last Christmas, I wondered how he would react at what would probably be an unexpected gift. Then, I suddenly stopped what I was doing and laughed as I realized how far I’d come since those first botched attempts at cooking and baking. The kitchen, at the time, was still filled with the tangy scent of lemon, the nutty aroma of cardamom, and that pleasing fragrance emitted by sugar baked with butter. I was tired from the morning’s exertions – all that mixing and molding and forming! – but I was happy.
It was then that I accepted the fact that not only did I know how to eat, but I also knew how to cook.
And I knew how to cook well.