C is for Chemistry, B is for Bad Baking, and S is for Sugar

This week’s post is served to you by Jessica Engman, editorial intern extraordinaire, or as we affectionately call her, Intern 1.


Baking is like chemistry: it is a complex experiment with directions that, when followed precisely, can be repeated over and over again to produce identical results. There are ingredients to be measured and combined, stirred and mixed, and heated and cooled to the right temperature to create chemical reactions. But instead of a calcium-chloride concoction that does nobody any good, in baking, the results are far more delightful: fluffy sponge cakes, breads, light and airy soufflés, and buttery caramels and candies!

I love baking. However, unfortunately for me, one thing I learned from my high school chemistry class is that I am not good at chemistry—not one bit. As an amateur chemist in Chemistry 101, I couldn’t seem to re-create a single successful experiment to save my life, let alone my grade. “C is for Chemistry!” I told my mom.

And today, although my high school chemistry days are far behind me, I have realized that truly, I cannot fully escape the diabolical treachery of my own crappiness at chemistry…and baking.

It all started when Marit and I, aka Intern 3 and Intern 1, decided that we were going to try to re-create some of the seasonal recipes from one of Fulcrum’s latest books, The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook, Recipes from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

Excited to eat? Yes. Excited to dishonor Native culinary tradition with my horrible baking skills? No.

So, I searched for an easy recipe, one I couldn’t possibly mess up. A recipe with as few ingredients and directions as possible: I chose Corn Bread, with a total of eight ingredients and a single four-line paragraph of instructions. Piece of cake!  …or…corn bread.

My corn bread recipe called for four teaspoons of crystalline disaccharide sucrose (aka white table sugar) to be added to four teaspoons of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), along with sodium chloride (salt), an emulsifier (egg), lactose (C12H22O11, or milk), H2O, flour, corn/oil, and of course corn meal.

Here’s the breakdown for those of you who don’t speak chem-nerd lingo:

Corn Bread

Makes 9 3-inch squares

1 cup cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 large egg
1/4 cup corn or canola oil

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch square baking pan.

In a medium bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Stir with a whisk to blend. In another medium bowl, combine the milk, egg, and oil. Whisk until combined. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients just until combined; do not overmix.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove from the oven. Cut into squares and serve warm.

Marit chose to make the Hazelnut and Honey–Roasted Acorn Squash recipe for the main course. Her recipe only had four ingredients…we should have switched.

That night after work, I went home and got everything ready, measured out the dry ingredients, put them into a big Tupperware bowl to bring in the next day. Everything was going really well up until I realized that I was out of sugar and milk; it was late, it was dark and cold outside, and my neighbors are creepy, so I just decided I would use  four teaspoons of coffee sugar and a cup of creamer from work. Then I noticed that my recipe called for 1/4 cup of corn or canola oil. Well I didn’t have canola oil, and I like corn a lot better than I like oil, so I searched through the cupboards and found a can of corn—it is corn bread after all. I packed the Tupperware, the can of corn, and an egg into a brown bag and called it a night.

The next day during lunch, Marit and I headed to the Fulcrum kitchen and got to baking. I was shaking up all the dry ingredients in the Tupperware, and then went on a desperate search for a measuring cup so I could add the milk (uhh, creamer) and the corn. Meanwhile, Marit is grunting and trying not to remove her fingers as she carves away at a rock-solid acorn squash with a dull steak knife—of course, the recipe called for the squash to be cut into thin slices.

After checking the cupboards and drawers, I came to the conclusion that there was no measuring cup. So, I found a little plastic cup in the back of a drawer—it looked close to what I thought a cup”might look like. I measured out the milk, cracked the egg, and opened the can of corn and presto! Mix, mix, mix, pour into a pie tin (the corn bread was supposed to go in a 9-inch square baking pan, but we didn’t have one, so a round pie tin, I figured, would suffice). Preheated the oven to 350, inserted corn bread pie, and set the timer. Done!

We set the table and waited for the magnificent smells to begin filling the office.

When the timer buzzed, we ran to the kitchen, pulled out our masterpieces, and regretted that we forgot to bring a camera. Everything looked great.

I took the dull steak knife to cut my golden yellow corn bread into pie slices. But just like in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, when Clark carves into that fateful Christmas goose, I took one jab at my corn bread and realized to my horror…I forgot the sugar. And with four teaspoons of sugar to four teaspoons of sour, alkaliney baking soda, this was problematic. To top it off, Marit looked at my recipe and informed me that when the recipe said “1/4 cup corn or canola oil” it didn’t mean I had the choice between actual canned corn and oil, it was referring to corn oil. Ahh. Okay.

Well we both tried it anyway, and yep, my corn bread was downright awful. It was so bad and so sour (I never knew corn bread could be sour!) that the aftertaste was like a punch to your face and make your eyes hurt.

“Honey?” Marit suggested as she coughed it down.

“Yes, honey. Lots of honey.” But nope, honey didn’t help either. The corn bread was bad, just plain bad. To make light of the situation, we began to think about who we could play a prank on by making them eat the stuff.

Today I realized that I am still bad at chemistry, even after all these years, because, yes, I am very bad at baking. Nevertheless, I learned three valuable lessons that may have helped me during my amateur chemist days:

1) Read the directions carefully.

2) Do not deviate.

3) Don’t forget the sugar.

P.S. We are doing an intern Christmas bake-off in December. Look out Fulcrum Kitchen!