Why I Bake

Story and Photos by Diego Rivera

The first dessert I ever baked was microwaved. My family had recently moved, and our new house came with a complex dual microwave/convection oven. I found a recipe for lemon bars in the small book that accompanied the microwave and set off. I remember staining the recipe page with lemon curd and sugar; my final product was far from impressive. Despite this, there was something deeply satisfying about the whole process of creation. I felt so much happiness in handing the bars off to my parents and watching them taste (and pretend to like) my first attempt. After that, I was hooked.

There is something unique in the ritual of baking. Compared to cooking, the precision of baking necessitates a special level of care and attention to how ingredients are measured out, handled, and mixed – wrong proportions can mean ruining an entire recipe. This exactness should be stressful, but instead it creates a hypnotic moment where the noise of outside stress and worries melt away, conquered by a carefully laid out road map. Baking asks that you enter a kitchen, look at a recipe, and let it guide your actions for the next hour. Ceding control like this allows for moments of quiet introspection, transforming baking into a meditative exercise. What better moment to think about the direction of your life than while kneading croissant dough?

The difficulty of baking generates an accompanying pride over the final product and its taste. I sifted that flour; I beat those egg whites; I almost yelled when that chocolate didn’t temper properly. Many savory ingredients are easily identifiable before and after cooking. Yes, the texture and color might change, but I know what a chicken drumstick is even while it is raw. Baking transforms dissonant ingredients – eggs, flour, butter, and more – into a cohesive final product. It feels like magic to pull a cake out of the oven knowing that hours earlier it consisted of nothing more than scattered components.

This ownership means there is a special intimacy in handing someone a dessert and saying, “I made this for you.” Compared to other presents, a dessert might seem ephemeral or impersonal. But baking for others is one of the greatest joys in my life. When baking for a special occasion, it can be a celebration of milestones and community. In other cases, baking can signify that someone was simply on my mind and I wanted to celebrate them. I find the transience of baking essential to its allure. My desserts will not stand the test of time, yet I still choose to spend my days making them because I want to show the people around me that they matter to me. Baking is an act of affirmation and a physical manifestation of love that I can proudly present to someone.

Baking desserts is unnecessary. They are filled with sugar and provide next to no nutritional value. But frankly, if life consisted only of the bare minimum, it would be boring beyond belief. When I begin a recipe, I love how a kitchen transforms into a stage for creation. I cannot play instruments, paint, or sing. But I can bake. I bake cookies, cakes, merengues, tarts, pies, souffles, and whatever other obscure and complex recipes I can scrounge for on the internet. I bake because I want to give. It clears my mind and provides me with an outlet to express appreciation for those around me when words aren’t enough.

I have poured myself, my love, my heart, and my soul into this pie – here, have a bite.

Lemon Bars

Crust:

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 2 cups + 2 tbsp. all-purpose flour

Lemon Filling:

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 6 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 6 large eggs
  • 1 cup lemon juice (approximately 5 lemons)
  • 2 tsp. lemon zest

Preheat the oven to 325° F and line an 8” by 8” pan with parchment paper, both on the sides and bottom.

For the crust: Melt the butter and mix it with ½ cup of sugar, vanilla extract, and salt. Add the flour and stir with a spatula until completely combined. Press the dough into the pan, making sure to spread the crust evenly throughout. Bake for 25 minutes until the edges of the crust begin to brown.

For the filling: Mix 1 cup of sugar and flour in a large bowl. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time until incorporated fully. Add the lemon juice and lemon zest and stir to combine. Pour the filling over the crust, and bake the bars for 21 minutes, until the center has set.

Once the bars have baked, remove them from the oven and let them cool. Once they are at room temperature, chill in the refrigerator for about 2 hours. Dust with confectioners sugar and remove bars from the pan. Using a knife, cut them into squares. The bars are best served fresh, but should last up to a week covered in the fridge.

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