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Bake Until Golden

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Cooking had always been something Astrid did with her mom, and then suddenly, Mom was gone, and Grandma Betty and the church ladies were in the kitchen, cooking up casseroles and cakes for Astrid and her dad. And then they were gone too, leaving behind a fridge and freezer stocked for weeks with food that tasted fine except for the fact that every bite was a reminder that Mom was dead.

After that, it was just her and Daddy and Mom's cookbooks.

Astrid used to do her homework at the kitchen table while her mother cooked, and she knew where everything was, so it was easier for her to pick up the slack, especially since she was home from school long before Daddy got home from work. Every morning before she got on the bus, she pulled something out of the freezer--chicken thighs or ground beef or the meatballs Grandma Betty had left frozen in their red sauce--and set it out on the counter, so that when she got off the bus in the afternoon, it'd be ready to cook.

She learned not to get distracted while the stew was simmering--Daddy never let her live that down, the way she'd gotten lost in building a better computer while the stew was burning away on the stove and filling the house with smoke. The neighbors had called the fire department, and he'd arrived with them, frantic and confused. Once he realized she was safe and the house wasn't on fire, though, Daddy had laughed for an hour, all through the pizza he'd ordered instead.

On the weekends, they cooked together--in warm weather, he stood over the grill with his "Kiss the Cook" apron and his barbecue fork, and they ate at the picnic table on the back deck. In the cold weather, they learned to bake--cupcakes, cookies, pies, the scent of fresh bread warming them as much as the high heat of the oven.

Astrid experienced the disaster of too much flour or too little baking powder, of dough that didn't proof when they set it to rise, or rose too high and fell when they baked it, of soggy crusts and burnt cookies and muffins that claimed to be healthy but tasted like corrugated cardboard. Daddy laughed and told her she would get it right next time, that mistakes were never failures if she learned from them, and failures were never useless if she got a laugh and a story out of them.

Once she mastered the basics, she found freedom in variation: the substitution of almond extract for vanilla, the bright zing of tangerine instead of orange, subtle changes that made each recipe new every time. Grandma Betty and the aunts got colorful tins of cookies for Christmas every year, and brightly wrapped loaves of zucchini bread on their birthdays, baskets of lemon cupcakes studded with sugar pearls on Mother's Day.

She enjoyed chemistry and physics, because she'd already come to understand their uses in every day life--the application of force turned heavy cream into whipped cream; the application of heat turned dough into bread. She studied languages and math, learned to translate code into English, the same way she'd converted metric to imperial (and back) as needed. There wasn't as much difference between programming and baking as everyone seemed to think. And at least with baking, she could eat the results, even if the they were sloppy or malformed.

College was a challenge, but she became adept at making pancakes and frittatas on the hotplate, and spent finals week frantically making cookies on her study breaks, the safest outlet for her exam anxiety, the one outcome she could control in a sea of unending variables. It also made her popular with her dorm-mates.

She wasn't surprised the first time she found Walter cooking up custard on the Bunsen burner, or attempting to recreate the perfect shake in the blender, and she didn't mind being his assistant in his culinary experiments--they were less gross than the biological ones, anyway, and usually easier on the stomach, though they also occasionally exploded.

When they worked on an unusually perplexing or upsetting case, it didn't matter how tired she was when she got home; she found solace in the familiar motions--zesting the lemon, beating the egg, creaming the butter and the sugar, measuring and sifting the cup of flour with half a teaspoon of baking powder, half a teaspoon of baking soda (she hoped it was still fresh, tried to remember how long it had been sitting in the cabinet), and a quarter teaspoon of salt. She alternated the dry ingredients with the buttermilk, the mixer vibrating in her hand as it all combined into a sweet batter that would make a delicious cake. She scattered raspberries on top and let it bake for twenty minutes, the scent easing the tension in her shoulders better than any glass of wine or shot of whisky.

The cake was gloriously golden, and she ate it sweet and warm from the pan, standing over the counter with a fork and a glass of milk before she went to bed and tried not to dream about holes in the universe and how it was her job to help stop them from getting any bigger.