I like to bake (mainly dessert), and I usually use recipes from cook books. As you may have noticed, cook books don't provide much in the way of explanation for what they do (hence the use of the terms "cook book" and "recipe" to refer to something where step-by-step instructions, with no underlying explanation, are provided). This could be that they themselves don't really know anymore, or that they think their customers don't want to know. It could be that they've taken to heart the old adage: "Sell a man a fish and you have a customer. Teach a man to fish and you have a competitor."

Here, then, are a few recipes of mine which deviate sufficiently from any cookbook recipe on which they were based to merit recording separately. Along with them is provided an explanation, at least of the parts of them that I understand, in an attempt to dispel the myth that baking is black magic.

Orange Cake

Zest the oranges. You probably want an orange zester for this; they are not expensive. Here's the one I use. Then, squeeze the oranges. They should give you about 1/4 cup of juice each; if you get more, be happy. It'll take a good 15 minutes to zest 2 oranges; this is the only really time-consuming part of the recipe. If you're lazy, or can't get oranges, you could try substituting some dried orange peel (available in jars), orange extract, and/or orange juice for the fresh orange parts. I haven't tried any of these, but they should probably be ok. Add them at the end, so that you can adjust the quantity by taste (and make sure you wash the eggs; see below).

Melt the butter. Some people swear that if you melt butter in a microwave, but I don't, and in blind taste-tests, the people I know who said so couldn't tell the difference. Do whatever's convenient for you. If all you have is salted butter (people who don't regularly bake often find themselves in this situation, because salted butter is the type that's usually eaten directly), just use it.

Combine all the ingredients and mix. Order doesn't matter; dump 'em in and then start stirring. If you want to eat some of the batter uncooked, you should wash the eggs carefully with soap prior to cracking them (the inside of an egg is sterile; the bacteria that makes you sick comes from the contact of the contents with the outside of the shell when you crack them.) For the sugar, use whatever proportion of brown sugar and white sugar makes you happy, or whatever you have on hand. I used about half and half, and it worked fine. If you have only one or only the other, just use what you have.

Add some water, such that the total amount of water plus orange juice is one cup (so if you got 1/4 cup juice from each orange, put in half a cup of water).

Then mix it all up. You shouldn't have to use an electric mixer (it mixes quite nicely with a wooden spoon), but if it makes you happy to do so, I don't see that it would do any harm. After it's mixed, dump it in a pan and bake it at 350 degrees fahrenheit for about half an hour. I use a Bundt pan, and I think that's the type of pan that's really the most suited for a cake like this, but it obviously isn't going to taste much different if you bake it in something of a completely different shape. If you're using a non-stick (Teflon coated) pan, there is no need to grease or prepare it in any way. If you're using a glass pan, you might want to grease it.

While it's baking, it's time to make the icing. Unfortunately, I didn't write down the quantities of the ingredients I used in the icing, but I'll tell you how I did it. Start with about 2 cups of powdered sugar. Add a tablespoon (approximate; you can eyeball it) milk (or water, if you're alergic to milk). Mix with an electric mixer. If not all the powdered sugar dissolves, add a little more milk. If it's too runny, add more powdered sugar. You get the idea. The icing will not actually taste particularly good while wet, but that's ok; have faith. I put a small amount of almond extract in the icing, and it worked very well. Be careful! Extracts are powerful, and almond extract is even more powerful than most. Try 1/4 teaspoon, and then taste. A quarter teaspoon might even be too much.

When the cake is done, let it cool before putting the icing on. Refridgerating it might even be better; you want the icing to be sufficiently viscous that it slides down the cake somewhat, but most of it doesn't spill off the bottom. The icing will dry over time if left exposed to the air, so if it's too runny, just wait.

That's about it. I just made this a couple of days ago, and it was the best orange cake I've ever had.

Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies

For the butter, "softened" means a little warm (like it would be in the summer if you don't have air conditioning and don't live in the Great White North). If you keep your butter in the fridge, microwave it until it just starts melting a tiny bit. For the sugar, combine the white and brown however you want; I use about half and half and like it. Remember to wash the eggs; cookie batter is awfully yummy.

Combine the butter, sugar, and eggs; beat with an electric mixer. Add the flour, baking soda, and vanilla, and beat again. Add the chocolate chips and stir with a spoon. Put on a cookie sheet. Bake at around 350 degrees Fahrenheit until the cookies just barely begin to turn brown around the bottoms, which will likely be around 10-15 minutes. If you bake longer, you will get crunchier cookies.

You can play all sorts of games with this recipe (add nuts, replace some flour with cocoa for really deep chocolate cookies, put in instant coffee, etc.)