The Heat Is on: a Practice in Indulgent Baking

Usually, when midterm week hits, I’m one of the many Perks lurkers burrowed into a chair with a hot cup of coffee, earphones and a pile of books. Occasionally, I even find myself a part of the unshaven chain-smoker contingent lining Geisel’s walkway.

But this year seems to be my year of change. I finally quit smoking ,and I’ve even made an effort to eat right (for the most part).

Good food is, after all, fundamental to good mental health — but when midterms roll around, it’s also important to indulge a little.

So, with that in mind, I decided to skip the late-night BK run and try my hand at baking: one dish to sustain me for a few meals during the week, and another for a sweet post-cram reward. The objective: a baked pasta casserole and a batch of red-velvet cupcakes. Estimated cooking time: about an hour total, each dish requiring 15 to 20 minutes of preparation.

Baked casserole seemed easy enough, considering I was already a seasoned veteran in the art of water-boiling. First, I added a pinch of salt and threw some whole-wheat pasta shells in the pan (one hopes, by his second year of off-campus living, he knows how to make pasta). Beyond that, all I had to do was chop up a yellow onion, two garlic cloves and four cups of spinach, zest two lemons and saute everything together in olive oil.

With an irrational sense of control over the kitchen, I reached for my sauteed onions — and was painfully humbled by a burn to the forearm as I absentmindedly brushed against the cooking pot. In retrospect, the pain was negligible and short-lived, but it was more a blow to my confidence, as I’d somehow managed to sustain an injury before zesting my first lemon.

Fortunately, it was my only culinary injury of the day. From there, I mixed my sauteed produce with the pasta, added the lemon zest (finally), sliced almonds for extra zing and crunch, and slowly poured the mixture into a baking pan — afterward adding a layer of mozzarella on top.

Once I had sat through 30 minutes of baking time at 375 degrees, part one of my baking mission was complete.

In all honesty, the crunchy fruits of my labor weren’t so great at first — though adding alfredo sauce and bacon the next day made the casserole infinitely tastier.

I can confidently say, however, that part two of my mission — baking the red-velvet cupcakes — was one of the most rewarding endeavors I have taken on in my short life. It’s entirely possible that the fulfillment I got out of baking these cupcakes will blossom into a full-fledged love affair with homemade deserts. It was so easy, and so worth it.

The recipe — a brainchild of the Food Network’s Paula Deen — was incredibly simple, and my aunt’s handy electronic beater helped get the job done quick.

By mixing a few cups of vegetable oil, buttermilk, all-purpose flower and sugar with two eggs — along with a few teaspoons of cocoa powder, salt, baking soda, vinegar, red food coloring and vanilla extract — I created a doughy cupcake foundation, then poured the mixture into individual cupcake racks and placed them in the oven at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.

I’ll admit it: Making the cream-cheese frosting should have made me feel like a terrible person. There has to be something wrong with mixing one pound of cream cheese with four cups of sugar and two sticks of butter — but any hint of moral guilt was lost on me as I burrowed into the happy place of my inner child and licked the frosting off of each individual beater.

After the cupcakes had risen perfectly in their slots, I slabbed on the frosting and garnished them with red sprinkles for some extra presentation points. Considering the universally heart-warming aroma of freshly baked cake that was wafting throughout my townhouse, I wasted no more time in guiltlessly indulging in a warm, fresh cupcake. Inner child was in full force by the time I’d stuffed the rest into my mouth. No more Geisel smoking breaks for me — I could get used to this whole baking gig.

Editor’s note: We ate his cupcakes. They were delicious.

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