How baking mirrors writing
I am a novice fiction writer and forgive me for being immodest but somewhat of an ace baker. Until yesterday, I hadn’t quite understood what an unreliable narrator was. Then my Chocolate Fudge Cake, the batter of which looked glossy and tasted heavenly, cracked into three distinct pieces when I took it out of the oven and I had a moment of realization. An unreliable narrator is exactly the same as an unreliable recipe. They both mislead you right until the end.
I enrolled in a year-long novel-writing course when the pandemic began. Smack in the middle of the course, via a podcast, a writing tutor warned my fellow novelists and me about the dangers of a soggy middle while writing a book. Basically, it’s every baker’s nightmare to find their cake has sunk. Likewise, a novelist dreads losing his or her reader midway. One writer in my group, a non-baker, made an interesting analogy between baking and writing. She said the key to a perfect cake/ well-written novel is using the correct ingredients in the right proportions. Stories and Cakes have five essential elements/ingredients each. Necessary to a story are plot, character, theme, setting, and conflict. Cakes require flour, butter, eggs, sugar, and vanilla essence. To expand on the premise while in preparation to bake, one ensures the ingredients are in place and they’re all kept out at ambient temperature. Similarly, before putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard, it is important to collate research and sift through it so that one uses only use what’s necessary. The first step in baking a cake is to cream the butter and sugar until the mixture turns pale yellow. I liken the phase to Act 1 of a story which lasts until the first initiating incident. After creaming the butter and sugar, we add eggs and vanilla essence. One can vary flavorings according to the availability of ingredients and mood. Come to think of it, the flavour we use is sort of like the genre we choose to write in. A fruitcake could be a fantasy novel, a lemon cake could be a thriller, an orange — historical fiction and as for chocolate — I leave that to your imagination. At this juncture, it’s important not to over mix the batter or it will disintegrate, one stops when the batter is light and fluffy. While no one desires fluffiness for their novels, I would say, it’s the fluffiness that ensures a cake’s taste, hence its desirability not unlike keeping up a pace which writers hope will hold their readers’ interest.
In the preparation of a cake, the midpoint is the addition of flour. Now we change the motion from mixing in the figure of an eight to folding. At a novel’s mid-point, writers have established character and plot. Even if there’s a major structural loophole, one can do nothing to rectify it. Bakers know that when they pour their batter into a wax-papered cake tin and place it in an oven, little can be done if they haven’t done the initial steps correctly. While a cake bakes in an oven, a writer steers his/her novel from midpoint to the conflict/ resolution stage. Now consider the cake baked and the novel written, neither the most ornate decoration nor crisp editing can save a novel whose author’s heart wasn’t in it. I read this article by a young, published author who said that watching a baking show enabled her to complete her novel. She learned about tenacity from the show’s bakers who couldn’t rectify their mistakes as easily as writers.
Like doctors, bakers and writers are blessed with a certain type of temperaments. Not everyone has the gift of perseverance. Both crafts require a high level of creativity, tremendous determination, and the deployment of a sense of balance. To perfect either skill takes years of practice and many failed attempts. (read cake batters and manuscripts in the dustbin.) Bakers and writers both enjoy the applause their crafts bring them and are inherently prima donnas.
John Yorke, the author of Into the Woods, talks about all creation resulting from combustion and opposing forces, but I believe all creative projects need a little sprinkle of love and a brush of stardust (read glittery icing/fame).