A while ago Sophie, one of my former (and sometimes current) interpreting trainer and the genius mind behind Speechpool, a fantastic resource for interpreting students & trainers, tagged me into a post from her blog where she provided answers to questions related to creative pursuit. Although it took me a while, here are my answers.
What are you working on?
Lately, I have been discovering different types of flour and experimenting with them. As a self-taught baker, I always relied on plain flour and white strong bread flour for my recipes, with the occasional interference of their wholemeal cousin. I used to shy away from more ‘unusual’ ingredients. My innate fear was that baked goods would not turn out as good as they would with normal flour, which probably originated from my lack of knowledge in the field.
I envy those bakers who can experiment for days in their kitchens, sometimes wasting ingredients in order to come to the perfect recipe. I don’t bake professionally, so everything I make also needs to get eaten. This proves extremely fruitful for my friends, my partner’s and my work colleagues, my students and even the local café (they don’t sell the cakes, they eat them), but I also prefer not to overdo it. As a result, rather than risking a recipe, I preferred to stick to familiar territory.
However, I have become more daring in the last few months. This is partially due to me finally sticking my head out of my comfort zone and to my new working environment. My manager is intolerant to gluten, dairy and egg whites, which pretty much rules out all of the ingredients I would normally use to bake with. As I said, I bring plenty of baked goods to work at least once a week and I found it very unfair for others to enjoy homemade cakes while my manager was left out. Therefore, I resolved to try and bake something which she could enjoy as well – a very interesting challenge. I have now successfully baked a good number of gluten-, dairy- and egg-free desserts and a couple of days back I even bought a cooking book on the subject. For the moment, I still stick to recipes as this is a very unfamiliar territory for me, but I plan on being able to improvise very soon.
Some of the new types of flourI have been experimenting with
How does your work differ from others’?
Those of you who know me will be aware I always talk about food. My family is slightly food-obsessed (and not just because we’re Italian) – my mother is a trained chef with working experience in restaurants, kindergartens and care homes. My grandmother, now widowed, keeps herself busy by making gnocchi, tagliatelle, tortelloni, tortellini, cakes and all sorts of delicious things, which she then freezes so she always has a batch available. Saying her freezer is about to explode would be an understatement. You can then see the environment where I was brought up – even my dog, Tobia, gets leftovers for dinner and not bags of pet food.
My main baking shelves with sugars, nuts and extracts
Therefore, over the years I have developed a real passion for food and for the role it plays in an household. I love hearty, homemade food because I appreciate the care and time which went into its preparation. If we also consider I am a very curious person (not nosy, but thoroughly intrigued by the unknown), my thirst for knowledge results in sometimes unconventional bakes and I admit the ingredients I use can at times be perceived as a bit weird. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of molecular cuisine with its foams, balsamic vinegar pearls, etc. Rather, I like traditional food with a twist, be it an unusual ingredient in a very well-known recipe or a new way of cooking/baking.
Why do I create what I do?
I could probably find a great philosophical answer to this, but I will keep it plain and simple. There are two main reasons:
- Because cooking/baking relaxes me and allows me to have some ‘me’ time. When I started baking, I used to work in a call centre. Having to constantly man the phone all day long was exhausting and I cherished every little moment of peace and quiet after 8 long hours at work. Cooking and baking were perfect because I would be in my (then open-plan) kitchen pottering away and not having to listen to someone or actively engage in a conversation. Now, as weird as it may sound, preparing food is still something I cherish and do with an almost sacred respect, mostly because of its deep therapeutic advantages. It allows me to calm down if I had a very bad day at work and it fills me with pride and happiness when I manage to make something I would have considered completely off-limit a couple of months earlier.
- Because I love making food which others love and enjoy. And no, I don’t do it to receive a pat on the back or to be told I am amazing at what I do. It’s nice to receive compliments, but as someone constantly struggling to reach perfection, I always think I could have done better. I just love the expression on someone’s face when it transpires they find my food delicious, tasty and moreish, because that in my opinion is the biggest compliment I can receive. You could argue I am to please, but I do so only because I like to think that food has the same effect on others as it has on me.
How does my creative process work?
As I repeatedly stated in my blog, I used to follow recipes verbatim and not to play with them the way I do now. I still use recipes I find online (or in the many books I have), but I allow myself more freedom in terms of flavour combinations, textures and even ingredients. Also, now I know more or less where I am going, so for instance I know what consistency a sponge cake should be, what flavour to expect and so forth. This means that I can simply take a traditional recipe and twist it as I please.
Do you think I have enough cooking books/magazines? The (multiple) baking ones are elsewhere
For instance, the other day I wanted to use some plums I had bought and never used, so I decided to make an upside down cake. I remembered having made a similar one a while back where the sponge was enriched with either Greek yogurt or sour cream. I had some creme fraiche in the fridge, which would work just fine. I started off with a plain Victoria sponge (250g of flour, butter, sugar and eggs) and toyed with the recipe by modifying the quantity and type of sugar (225g, half golden caster, half light brown), adding the creme fraiche (therefore reducing the amount of butter) and combining plain flour with ground almonds (just 50g, enough to give flavour and a chewier consistency). I then checked the batter once all the ingredients were combined. Had it been too stiff, I would have added some milk to thin it down. Conversely, I would have added more ground almonds. Anyway, it was just perfect, so I baked it for 45 minutes at 180C and there it was. Magic.
As I said, once you know the basics, improvising is a doodle. I tend to modify even the recipes I have been making for a while, such as muffins, cupcakes and pastry. I am now more daring in terms of ingredients (adding cheese, spices, etc.) because I know what consistency I want, how long to work it for and so on. I feel my confidence has grown over time and now I can comfortably throw things together without fearing too much (unless it is a vegan/gluten-free recipe, see above).
Also, I try to find unconventional bakes online and/or to work with ingredients I need to use because they are running out of date or that I have in great quantities at home. For instance, a while back I had a gardening phase (which ended when autumn began in the UK and the skies went dull and gray) during which I had grown some basil and parsley on my window sill. When the time came to get rid of the basil plant, I didn’t want to throw all of those leaves away unused and I felt freezing them (which I normally do with fresh herbs to preserve their flavour) wouldn’t have done them justice. Therefore, I set about online to look for a creative way to use basil in cakes and, in particular, to see whether it was possible to use them in buttercream (a wild guess at the time). To my surprise, someone had already done and I could use their recipe to start from and build my plum cupcakes with a basil frosting.
It doesn’t get more traditional than that. One of the very first Italian cookbooks and a true source of inspiration.
I hope these insights into my creativity have satisfied your curiosity or have provided some of you with food for thought. As I said, I believe that ultimately creativity comes down to confidence and a bit of background knowledge, so get baking and you’ll soon see the results!