I’m not what you would consider a master chef. In fact, far from it. (I remember one time college I tried to make mashed potatoes without boiling them first! “What am I doing wrong?! My Grandma makes this look so easy.”) So while I was in Kenya, when I was asked to not only bake a cake without using electricity or running water, but teach a small village how to do the same, I felt a tad bit unqualified. But that didn’t stop me from trying!!!
It had been a week since my triumphant return from the hospital. I now knew how to manage my days without upsetting my vertigo- just take things slow and I’d be alright. I was back guiding groups through the jungle and enjoying my time with friends.
A break from my routine was coming up however as I was scheduled to travel out to Tsavo again (Read my Camping in Kilimanjaro blog post) to teach, build sustainable methods for community growth and lead bird surveys.
I was so excited! I longed to see the African bush again- the dry, arid plains scattered with acacia and the tan dust of the earth with the hot wind sweeping over all the land. I missed those sunsets that paint the sky red and yellow to sooth the soul… I was ready for Africa to calm my spirit and heal my body.
I remember packing and mentally preparing for the 8 hour bus ride to come- down dusty, pothole ridden roads, as my manger pulled me aside and said I had a special mission.
He told me I would teach a class for the surrounding villages on how to bake a cake. The idea being, once the community knew how to bake cakes, they could sell them to customers as a source of income.
Two problems came to mind immediately. First of all, we would be camping in the bush. There is no electricity or running water much less an oven to bake a cake. And second of all, I had never baked a cake in my life! I knew we needed flour, eggs and sugar I think, but I had no experience whatsoever! This was going to be a treat. And not the sweet kind of treat like a piece of cake… more like a messy, middle school volcano science project!
My manager waved me on with confidence as he led me to the kitchen in the volunteer house to show me how to make cake mix. Then briefly explained how to build a fire and Dutch oven in the bush to bake it. He did everything so fast- throwing shit together and not explaining in detail… mostly I stood dumbfounded, daydreaming and not paying attention. I do that sometimes.
Next thing I knew, I was on a rickety old bus, barreling down the road toward our campsite near Tsavo, out in the heart of the country. I sat content with my mind on the passing scenery and wildlife.
Here is where the story gets good!
Sitting around the campfire with our volunteers and many locals for a meet and greet was fun. Our Tsavo base manager Julie introduced all of us to the community and said, “Here’s the guy who’s going to teach us how to bake a cake!” All expectant eyes on me, I just smiled and nodded. I’ve eaten a lot of cake, that counts as experience right?
The mornings start early in central Kenya, partly because there is so much to do, but mostly because it gets so hot so quick, it’s too hard to sleep in. But I loved this! I loved waking up to mud and brick buildings and the sound of Lilac Breasted Roller birds whizzing through the air.
I took a deep appreciative breath before I remembered today was the day for a test run. I needed to practice if was going to teach a class at the end of the week. Game face bro.
Soon, I had a table set up outside with all my ingredients, bowls, spoons and baking pans. With the volunteer group watching and pointing out my mistakes, which I just loved by the way, I set about baking a masterpiece.
Flour. Got it. Sugar. Got it. Eggs. Check.
Cocoa, baking powder, salt… along with my uncomfortable “HumorAsaCoppingMechanismCauseIDon’tKnowWhatI’mDoing” commentary, it was easy as pie!
Now that the mix was ready, it was time to cook it, and here is how it went.
My manager taught me to use steam to bake the cake. I dug out a trench in the sand, lined it sticks and started a fire. Next, I placed a giant-sized metal pot over the fire, and filled it halfway with water. Then I placed the smaller pot containing the cake mix into the larger one, (making sure the water level did not rise and spill into the batter) and covered the whole thing with a lid. The water would boil, fill the trapped air with very hot steam and bake the cake.
I stepped back, folded my arms across my chest and stood in admiration at all I had created. This was a success!
I let it bake for two hours. Meanwhile I helped with other chores- carrying sandbags for the construction of a school, discussing bird observation research methods and talking with the community. Eventually it was time to check on the cake.
The batter hadn’t cooked at all. I mean not one bit. Being past its prime, it was thrown out. I assumed the fire wasn’t hot enough, or something. Oh, and by the way… steaming a cake is the dumbest idea ever! Don’t do this!
TAKE TWO: The next morning I decided to try again. “Make the fire hotter, leave the cake for longer, that’ll do it. I just have to make another cake.” But as I was taking inventory of the ingredients, I hit a snag.
Out in the bush, we have a few security guards stand watch at night to protect us from elephants or in rare cases, a lion. The four Askari, as they were called, would spend all night chatting around the campfire and drinking tea. They loved tea, especially with sugar. Most of them couldn’t afford sugar, so it was big deal that we shared what we had with them.
These guys were very funny, smart and good hearted people from the community and I always tried to stay up late to talk with them. But over just one night, the four of them drank the remaining half pound of sugar! All that was left was an empty bag!
As impressed as I was, I couldn’t make a cake without sugar.
Fortunately, I learned of a small shop in the village that sold sugar. With no roads or sign posts, I had to get express instructions on how to get there. I made my way down a dirt path, weaving in and out of small mud-and-stick huts and shanty houses to the shop, (the back window of a woman’s’ home) to buy a pound of sugar. I love Africa.
Back at the campsite, I started to bake once more.
After combining the flour and butter or whatever, I opened the sugar to find it was super coarse, granulated brown sugar- the granules were the size of small rocks! And no matter how hard I stirred, the sugar would not dissolve. So the mixture got tossed.
“Ok, new plan. I’ll melt the sugar first, break it down so it’s easier to blend in.” But we used all the sugar I’d bought, and now were out of eggs too. Back to the store!
TAKE THREE: Early in the morning, I plodded along with new confidence and even some help. A couple of the volunteers had baking experience and decided to help poor old Aaron. Which was just fine with me, I’d rather be out doing a bird survey anyway!
After returning from the store, we huddled over a small gas stove and poured the brown rock sugar into a pot to melt it down and get it ready for the cake. But we noticed as soon as we removed the pot from the heat, the sugar solidified into a block immediately. Bloody hell, if it’s not one thing, it’s another!
“Maybe we just need to keep it hot?” one friend said. I couldn’t think why not, so with the pot of sugar over the stove and stirring constantly to keep it in liquid form, we started adding ingredients. First, the eggs.
I dumped all the eggs into the pot… and they scrambled immediately. F***
So that got tossed. And we were out of eggs again. Back to the store.
(Later I saw a volunteer eating the sugar and scrambled eggs. I had no words for that, so I said nothing. But for the record… eww.)
TAKE FOUR: I called in the big guns. I swallowed my pride and asked Julie for assistance. She made a call and got more ingredients and proper sugar delivered from town. Why didn’t I do this sooner? That was a big help, but I was out of time. It was Friday and I had a cooking class to teach.
I set up a demonstration in one of the schools we were building with about 40 people in attendance. Still not having had a successful trial run, I just went for it.
I can’t remember now what I said. I tried to embody the best of Rachel Ray and Alton Brown to convince my audience I was an expert. I mixed all the ingredients on the table, explaining as I went. Soon I was finished, the mix was in the steam bath and we were waiting. Lunch was three hours away.
I passed the time by hiding behind the building or pretending to work on something, I was so nervous.
At lunch, with the cake baking for over 3 hours this time, I unveiled my dessert. Paper plates and forks were passed around as I began to cut the cake. It’s hard to describe the scene, but here it goes.
The cake… was not cake. Instead it more closely resembled hot, chocolatey lava-goop, toothpaste with a burned crust. It was awful. I felt so bad.
Lunch was a loud and boisterous affair with laughter and stories. But once everyone had a spoonful of cake paste, the whole place fell silent. They chewed their dessert quietly, looking to each other to say, “its bad right? I mean really bad?”
But it turned into this huge joke and we all laughed about it. And hard too! I mean I had to laugh to hide how embarrassed I was. I laughed and ate chocolate shit with the rest of the community.
TAKE FIVE: The next day, some of our Kenyan friends from the meeting had a better idea. Instead of using steam, try sand. Place the cake mix in a larger pot of sand over a fire and it would cook evenly. They demonstrated this with astounding ease and professionalism, as if they’d done this all their lives. 80 minutes later we had beautiful, fully-baked slices of chocolate cake for everyone!
And now, I know very well how not to bake a cake!