“Alexa, what’s half of 2/3 cup?”
I’m a baker. Not one who gets paid for her efforts, nothing like that. I’m the kind who bakes at home and then Instagrams it because heaven forbid we do things other people can’t praise us for. I bake lots of pies and muffins and experiments with alternative flours because I have the gastrointestinal strength of a wet piece of notebook paper. I do my best.
Another vital fact you should know if you’re going to spend your time reading my internet work (though honestly, I’m not that flattered, what else do we have going on), is that I’m single. I am baking for one. Perhaps most especially during a global pandemic but in truth, always. I’ve never baked anything, for anyone, but me. You know I take that back, one time on a group vacation to a cabin in the woods I made a large batch of cinnamon rolls for my friends. As I recall, they were a success, despite the fact that I had to prep them the evening prior while halfway to the bottom of a bottle of Chablis.
What does it mean to bake for one person? It means one thing, more than any other: math. Fucking math! There is so much math in baking for one person that if you’d told me back in eighth grade how vital fractions were actually going to be in my adult life I’d have run away to the furthest corners of Alaska to live off grid and let the winter claim me.
I made it through the vast majority of my pre-collegiate education with straight As and no boyfriends. “Nothin’ But Vowels” Silver, that was me. But not if you count math. Math was my nemesis. My evil Thanos ready to snap my self esteem into dust in the wind because my sense of worth was attached to my grades because what the fuck else do you have at fourteen?! I cannot do fractions, they are hard. I have no grip on the metric system, I’m American. Have you read a recipe lately and completed the mental contortions required to shrink it down to single person size? If you want to bake anything more than trash can lining, you will need fractions, the metric system, or both.
All recipes assume you’re in love. There, I’ve said it. They require ingredient quantities of insulting proportions, knowing full well a single person cannot consume an entire sheet cake without falling ill or leaving it to mold. There are no baking recipes that even dare to validate solo bakers by offering halved or quartered versions somewhere on the page. So after clicking out of no fewer than 57 ads and waiting for 19 goddamned videos to load so I can pause them to scroll past the story of a blogger’s childhood growing up in a citrus grove I still have to figure out what half of three quarters is if I want some goddamned blackberry scones.
And no, I shouldn’t have to make the full recipes, for those of you who’ve spent quarantine in proximity to something living other than a feline or an aloe vera plant. I shouldn’t have to use twice the ingredients I need for the one human being I’m feeding. Have you shopped for pantry staples lately? This is a matter of fiscal responsibility! The entire world of baking assumes you own more than two dining chairs and that one of them isn’t buried underneath a pile of books and clothes. It assumes single people will deal with it. We’ll deal with quantities we can’t consume, quantities that remind us it might be nice to have someone to share with. At no time do baking recipes take our feelings into consideration. “Just freeze it!” Fuck you.
Breaking down fractions into smaller fractions is a trash activity. It’s not all as a simple as 1/2 cups and 1/2 tablespoons, people. It gets dark. Even if I was good at math, let’s just pretend, pray tell: HOW DO YOU DO HALF AN EGG? Anybody? Figured that out yet, have you? At least whoever is in charge of butter has taken pity on single people by offering packaging guidelines you can easily slice into and a product shaped into something that’s really quite effortless to work with in solid form. But there are some ingredients that cannot be halved, or quartered, or thirded, or fucking sixteenthed! Do you own a 1/8th measuring cup? Does anyone??
Want to throw some salt in the wound? Because heaven knows we have no idea how much to throw in this cookie batter? Even if you’re fortunate enough in your life to have access to things like KitchenAid mixers and Vitamix Blenders (which I am, they were gifts), those extremely fancy and supposedly well thought-out gadgets hate single people too! Try whisking the chilled part of a mini can of coconut cream into a fluffy vegan whipped topping. You can’t do it. Know why? The mixer can’t reach it! Our appliances themselves are intended to only operate when there are enough ingredients in them for a family of fucking four. It is one insult after another and quite frankly I don’t need this kind of negative reinforcement from things that have cords.
My solution to the solo baking conundrum has been a very “screw it” attitude and subsequent loose relationship with measurements. I eyeball my way to just enough muffins for breakfast this week or single-sized loaves perfect for a bruschetta lunch. But don’t think for one second that I nailed it the first time. My recipes are countless attempts and failures and tweaks that land me somewhere in the vicinity of baked goods that don’t make me sad. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever measured cinnamon. I can admit to that.
Someone, somewhere, who I assume was either bored or almost out of ingredients, came up with a proposed solution to solo sweet cravings: Mug Cake. The culinary equivalent of a Live, Laugh, Love sign. Let me be extremely goddamned clear: Mug Cake does not work. Mug Cake has never worked. Mug cake is tasteless soufflé inside a souvenir you got in Utah that’s now hot enough to the touch to require an emergency room visit. And you still have to pull out all of the ingredients from whatever caverns of your fridge and pantry they’re hiding in, and you still have to use all of the measuring spoons. It’s all of the kitchen mess, none of the reward. Don’t forget to clean the microwave! Because it’s fucked now.
Mug Cake is what you give the last kid to leave the party when all the little bags of treats are gone. It’s a shitty consolation prize for single people and we deserve so much more than terrible food made to sound cute to distract us from the fact that it tastes like chocolate eggs.
Why is solo baking a consolation prize activity? Why is it just assumed that if you’re baking for one that you should have to figure it out on your own? Solo baking recipes are few and far between and they reiterate that no one really gives a shit about single people or our cookie cravings. Mug Cake?? Go fuck yourself! I want right-sized baking recipes and inspiration for people who live alone. Living alone and being single, in my opinion, should be thought of as more than just temporary life phases on our way to an acceptable form of living life: as a couple. My life is valid and when I say I only need six brownies, I mean it.
While I do look forward to having someone around someday to share an impulsively baked weekend pie with, or perhaps a reason to make more than two pancakes at a time, right now I don’t, and that’s still a completely lovely way to live life even in a very partnership and family-centric society. I’m perfectly happy with the way things are. Until I try to bake something, and then I’m reminded that I’m just a fraction of what’s called for. And I’m half of 1/4 cup of over it.
Shani Silver is a humor essayist and podcaster based in Brooklyn who writes on Medium, a lot.