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Rising to the challenge of (almost) unplugged baking

Baking is my Zen state; my meditation aids include a cherry-red standing mixer, a big-bowl food processor, a blender and a hand mixer.

The kitchen is the best room in our Santa Monica house. It is also about the same size as the studio apartments I've sublet in Manhattan this last year because of a teaching gig. I would have had to store socks in the food processor bowl if I'd been self-indulgent enough to ship my equipment east. So for a year I've baked almost entirely unplugged because not baking is not an option in a family whose calendar includes holidays like first-stalks-of-rhubarb day.

I did buy a small electric hand mixer. My daughter is at New York University, and it was time to make my 20th annual two-layer yellow birthday cake with homemade vanilla buttercream frosting. All those eggs, all those pounds of butter — I never even considered getting it done without help.

A couple of weeks later, she asked me over to make desserts for her crowd's Thanksgiving potluck, so the mini-mixer and I headed across town at dawn to collaborate on a dark chocolate cake, a berry cobbler and a set of individual rustic apple tarts. Our electrified egg whites, perfectly peaked, distracted us from the looming cliff's edge: The little mixer was useless when it came to cobbler dough and pie crust.

We were on our own.

I nudged little globs of butter into the cobbler dough and swirled the cream in by hand. My daughter sat on the floor, her legs holding a plastic mixing bowl in place, while she cut chunks of butter into the flour and sugar with two knives.

I've made so many pie crusts in my food processor that I think it knows the recipe by heart; I could probably measure out the ingredients, set them next to the machine, turn my back for three minutes and return to find the dough, magically, mixed.

By hand it's another story. The instruction "until it resembles coarse meal" seemed always one more double-knife swipe away. I experienced pie crust self-doubt for the first time in decades.

My daughter, determined, just kept cutting.

Once the little pies came out of the oven we agreed, tentatively, that they looked right. Later that night, confirmation via text: They tasted great.

Emboldened, I kept to my usual, appliance-enhanced schedule. I baked a pie every time a new fruit hit the farmers market. I baked for my students just to have an outlet for all this product; I baked for my daughter's friends and summer co-workers. My knife-in-butter skills approached Benihana levels.

And then, as a year of minimalist baking drew to a close, my daughter invited me over to help her bake that chocolate cake again. I loaded up the ingredients, took the subway across town and emerged to realize that I had forgotten the one essential tool for a cake built on stiff egg whites.

Out of sight, out of mind: I had packed away the cunning little hand mixer months earlier because there was no room for it on my nonexistent kitchen counter, and had promptly forgotten that it existed. I was stymied, not about to turn back to get it, nor to attempt beating egg whites with a fork. The aptly named Surprise Store beckoned from across the street. Surely they would have a really cheap hand mixer that could live at my daughter's place.

They did: It was called an eggbeater.

Five perfectly peaked egg whites later, we understood why some enterprising inventor devised a power alternative. An eggbeater requires muscle, for a motion that has repetitive stress injury written all over it. We took turns spinning, swapped right hand to left, and finally, the whites began to mound. Doable. Not fun the way cutting pie crust is fun, but doable.

When I got back to Santa Monica — oh, that pastry counter, built 2 inches lower than standard height to improve the angle for rolling out dough, the cabinets bulging with plug-in helpmates — I decided, as I often do, that making a pie crust took precedence over unpacking. I measured out the ingredients, dumped everything into the food processor, and before you could say manual dexterity, I had enough dough for a double-crust lattice-top pie.

I was home, in the best sense, and yet there was something missing. Efficiency suddenly seemed so impersonal. I was a bystander, crust-wise; how much skill does hitting and releasing the pulse button require? I was a tourist in the bake-a-thon of life, and, strange as it seems, I missed the tactile fun of powerless baking.

Nobody's going overboard here — I may be a romantic when it comes to food, but I am not crazy. You won't find the big red mixer at our yard sale, and if I never see the eggbeater again it will be too soon. But I may be on my way to becoming a hybrid baker, using appliances to keep it fun — and turning them off from time to time to keep a hand in, as it were.

food@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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