"You have to listen to everything I say.”
I stared at her, momentarily startled. She was deadly serious. Then I grinned.
It is not every day that my 10-year-old feels she has dominion over me. That day she did because for the first time her father requested her for help and advice in the kitchen. We had a deal: I would teach her to widen her culinary repertoire, and she would teach me to bake.
You see, in 45 years of cooking, I had never baked—as in cakes, bread, desserts. This is largely related to the fact that I do not care for desserts or things that require a sweet tooth because I clearly do not have one. I prefer that the flavour of a good meal lingers, unsullied by intrusive sweetness.
My daughter started baking last year. I did not pay much attention to what she was producing, primarily because I was vexed by her mess. Encouraged by her mother, she watched Instagram videos and the two of them produced basic cakes and cookies. I could only see the chaos in my kitchen, much of it left for me to clean up.
The cakes she turned out were full of things I did not like and were bad for me: maida (refined flour) and sugar. The rest of the family was enthused but I was distinctly unenthusiastic, and I think she sensed it. One day, she came to me with what she called a “healthy cake”: oat flour instead of maida. I was impressed. And the sugar?
“Just half a cup, appa.”
I frowned and forgot about the conversation, believing there was no such thing as a “healthy cake”.
A few weeks later, I was presented with another healthy cake. This one, she said, had no maida and no sugar.
Yes, she said, beaming in triumph. But then how is it sweet, I asked suspiciously after a bite. It was quite delicious but there certainly appeared to be a substantial amount of sugar.
Dates, my poppet said, as her fat cheeks fluffed out with a smile, date paste actually.
I had never heard of such a thing but her mother confirmed it was true.
Now, I realized—out of the corner of my eye—that she was baking by herself. Somewhere along the line, my daughter had transitioned into a proper little amateur baker.
My daughter has been active in the kitchen since she was 4, if I remember right, graduating from washing ingredients to peeling to making dosas, eggs and pancakes. She was not allowed to use sharp knives and light the gas herself but now she is permitted to use stoves with automatic knobs.
She can make her own breakfast. Sometimes, she stays over at my parents’, heats and serves them dinner and makes them breakfast, usually eggs and dosas. But her real passion is baking. I summoned her to ask why.
“It’s fun to, like, just whip the batter, and then, like, to taste the batter after it’s ready,” she said, giving me a quick interview in between—as I found out later—using my shaving cream and some Fevicol for one of her many “experiments”.
“Fun fact,” she said with a grin. “When you whip the white of the egg it becomes, like, the texture of whipped cream.”
That’s it for the interview, I said. Perhaps you can try framing a sentence that does not contain the word “like”?
“Bye bye,” she said, the grin fading.
The tables turned when we started baking. I am usually the disciplinarian, making it clear—while her mother rolls her eyes in the background—that she is not living in a democracy: I am the general and she is the soldier. That day, she was bossy and authoritative as she told me what to get and what to do.
Perhaps we can put away the things we have already used, I suggested. “That’s not how I bake, appa,” she said with asperity. “I do everything at the same time. You have to follow what I do.”
So I did, trying to ignore her non-linear culinary methods and adopting her freewheeling tactics, which were not very different from my own cook-with-what-you-have approach.
I did teach her how to get past roadblocks though. Our food processor was not working and the dates had to be ground. What do we do now, she said. We did it the hard way, pounding the dates with water in a stone mortar and pestle. The oats, similarly, could not be ground to a powder, so I convinced her to throw them in as is. We also went off recipe by adding crushed almonds, pumpkin and other seeds and raisins.
Now that we were back on track, she took charge again and showed me how to make the batter, use parchment paper and how to plunge a knife in and tell when the cake was ready (it must come out clean, I was told; if damp batter comes out, the cake is not done inside, even if it is outside).
Our only dispute was over the amount of olive oil: one-third of a cup seemed an awful lot to me, so I tried to reduce it. She saw me and sternly said, “Baking is a precise science, appa.” Who was I to argue?
OAT FLOUR CAKE WITH ALMONDS AND SEEDS
One-third cup olive oil
3 tsp baking powder
One and one-third cups oat flour
1 cup date paste
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 tsp cinnamon
2 eggs, beaten well
8 almonds, crushed
1 tbsp pumpkin and chia seeds (or any you like)
1-2 tbsp milk or water
In a bowl, mix olive oil, eggs, date paste, vanilla essence and cinnamon until the batter turns brownish. In another bowl, mix in oat flour, baking powder, almonds, seeds and raisins to make a dry batter. Add the dry batter into the wet, tablespoon by tablespoon, and mix it till it becomes a thick paste. Drizzle in milk or water until the batter becomes smooth. Preheat the oven to 175 degrees Celsius. Grease a wax paper and place in a baking pan. Pour in the batter. Bake for 30-35 minutes until done.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.