It’s 10 p.m. on a Friday, I have a metre-long to-do list for the weekend, and I am typing away while waiting for my batch of puff pastries to rise nicely in the oven. Stress-baking, that’s what it might be.
When I was around 11-12, my Mum, my very Vietnamese Mum, took up baking—at the time, to most households, a convection oven was treated as a luxury. French gâteaux. French pastries. She printed out stacks of recipes on A5 sheets—with ingredients put in bold, measurements underlined, important notes in italic—all neatly laminated, hole-punched, and bound with a gold ribbon. Her proudest moment, one that I can recall vividly, was when she took a tray full of puffy croissants out of our tiny oven, joy dancing in her eyes; she had spent that entire Sunday folding and rolling out, from scratch, a batch of puff pastry.
For years, up until her career took a turn, Mum had kneaded and mixed and baked. These days, whenever they are flooding back, my teenage memories always fill me with the smell of dough and fresh cream and butter.
I guess I was a late bloomer, cooking-wise. Mum had always complained, me internally nodding zealously, that my limbs just weren’t meant for kitchen stuff. I could fold intricate origamis and embroider tiny flowers, yet even air could trip me up as soon as one of my toes crossed the kitchen threshold. I had thought I would never grow up to be like my Mum. How could I, when she was churning out cookies after cakes after bread rolls, and there I was holding a pot lid as a shield when frying eggs?
When I was in high school, one of my Mum’s younger colleagues told me (during a visit) that she noticed I would tilt my head to the side on which I was wearing an ear-pod. With an amused smile, she added that my Mum would always do the same at work.
A few weeks ago, I was flipping through my little notebook of hand-written recipes—which I started long before when I was preparing for the great move to Australia—and something, some things, caught my eyes. Emboldened ingredients, underlined measurements, italicised notes (“do NOT open oven door when pastries are rising”).
Up until that point, I had made three batches of macarons (which are notorious for troubling even the most seasoned bakers), about ten fully decorated cakes, countless trays of langues de chat, boxes of choux à la crème.
I have been baking at odd hours, when I feel blue, bored out of my wits, or stressed out (hence stress-baking). But mostly, I bake when I am missing my Mum and missing home dearly.
It’s 10 p.m. on a Friday, I’m away from my family, and I’m baking. It’s not even anything complicated, just store-bought puff pastry cut and folded with some strawberry jam filling, because uni has worn me out for this week.
My puff pastries are rising nicely, and I smell home.