On January 8, my brother sent me a link to an article titled “In Search of Lost Time: Why Is Everyone So Busy?” I did with it what I do with most reads that look interesting but suspiciously time-consuming these days: I opened it, read the headline, scrolled down to see how long it was, decided—on second thought—that I best get down to work, and let it languish in a forgotten browser tab for the rest of the afternoon.
Normally that’s the end of the line. Whatever’s left on my desktop at the end of the day gets closed and permanently ejected from my brain (like when you click that little underlined up arrow to disconnect a device from a Mac—except I’m the Mac and the Mac is the device). But before I could “x” this one out for good, the subhead caught my eye: “Time poverty is a problem partly of perception and partly of distribution.” The economist in me was intrigued—although admittedly insufficiently intrigued to keep reading just then—so I starred the article (so! rare!) and powered down.
A week later (this is why I don’t flag stuff for future reading), I finally got back to it. You know, because I’m so busy. The article is a great read from start to finish, but one passage really jumped out at me (emphasis mine):
So being busy can make you rich, but being rich makes you feel busier still. Staffan Linder, a Swedish economist, diagnosed this problem in 1970. Like Becker, he saw that heady increases in the productivity of work-time compelled people to maximise the utility of their leisure time. The most direct way to do this would be for people to consume more goods within a given unit of time. To indulge in such ‘simultaneous consumption’, he wrote, a chap ‘may find himself drinking Brazilian coffee, smoking a Dutch cigar, sipping a French cognac, reading the New York Times, listening to a Brandenburg Concerto and entertaining his Swedish wife—all at the same time, with varying degrees of success.’ Leisure time would inevitably feel less leisurely, he surmised, particularly for those who seemed best placed to enjoy it all. The unexpected product of economic progress, according to Linder, was a ‘harried leisure class’.
The explosion of available goods has only made time feel more crunched, as the struggle to choose what to buy or watch or eat or do raises the opportunity cost of leisure (ie, choosing one thing comes at the expense of choosing another) and contributes to feelings of stress. The endless possibilities afforded by a simple internet connection boggle the mind. When there are so many ways to fill one’s time, it is only natural to crave more of it. And pleasures always feel fleeting. Such things are relative, as Albert Einstein noted: ‘An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour.’
The ability to satisfy desires instantly also breeds impatience, fuelled by a nagging sense that one could be doing so much else.
Dutch cigars and Swedish wife aside, the compulsion to indulge in simultaneous consumption is alive and well in me and, I suspect, in many of you too. How many times have you found yourself “listening” to a podcast, “watching “a video on your laptop and scrolling through Instagram photos on your iPhone all at the same time? Guilty as charged. Which brings us to the crux of the matter: to be halfhearted in everything is to be wholehearted in nothing.
Why am I talking about leisure and stress and stressing out about leisure on a baking blog? Is it so you can spend your leisure time stress-baking and then stress-eating over how you’re spending your leisure time? Nope. It occurred to me that baking is one of the very few things I do that demands and receives my undivided attention, which explains, at least in part, why I find it so satisfying.
So, let’s bake cake (just that and nothing more) and then eat it (just that and nothing more) and feel all the fuller for it.
- 300 g granulated sugar, divided
- 2 Madagascar vanilla beans*
- 100 g Wondra flour**
- ¼ tsp salt
- 480 g egg whites (14–16 eggs), at room temperature
- 2 tsp cream of tartar
- 1 tbsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed
- 5 tbsp water
- ¼ tsp cream of tartar
- 265 g granulated sugar
- 70 g egg whites (2 eggs), at room temperature
- 1 tbsp light corn syrup
- 1 Madagascar vanilla bean*
- Preheat your oven to 180 °C (350 °F) and move your racks into the lower third of the oven. Get out a 25 cm (10", 16-cup) two-piece metal tube pan and set it aside.
- Pulse the sugar in a food processor until it is superfine. Move half of the sugar to a sheet of wax paper and set it side.
- To the remaining sugar, add the flour, the salt and the seeds from your two vanilla beans. (If you're using vanilla extract instead, stay tuned.) Pulse until the seeds are fairly evenly distributed. Move the mixture to a bowl.
- Use a stand mixer fitted with a recently cleaned (and oil-free!) whisk attachment to beat the egg whites on medium speed until foamy.
- Stop the mixer and add the cream of tartar and lemon juice.
- Raise the mixer speed to medium-high and beat until soft peaks form when the beater is raised.
- Gradually beat in the sugar you set aside earlier and continue beating on medium-high speed until very stiff peaks form. If you're using vanilla extract instead of beans, add it now and beat until incorporated.
- Lightly sprinkle the flour mixture over the beaten egg whites, ¼ cup at a time. Use a large silicone spatula to fold in the flour mixture quickly but gently.
- Once all of the flour mixture has been incorporated, spread a thin layer of batter onto the sides of your pan to ensure smooth sides on your finished cake.
- Empty the rest of the batter into the pan. Run a knife through the batter to eliminate bubbles before smoothing the surface.
- Bake until the cake is golden brown in colour and springs back when lightly pressed in the centre (about 40 minutes). The surface will have deep cracks.
- Remove the cake from the oven and immediately invert the pan onto a narrow-necked, weighted wine bottle or an inverted heatproof glass. Cool completely.
- Once cool, use a knife or metal cake tester to carefully ease the cake from the sides of the pan. Briefly invert the cake onto a flat plate covered with plastic wrap that has been coated lightly with nonstick cooking spray, before re-inverting it onto a serving plate.
- Wait until the top is no longer tacky, then cover the cake with a cake dome or wrap it airtight.
- To prepare the frosting, whisk together the water, cream of tartar, granulated sugar, egg whites and light corn syrup in a large, stainless-steel bowl. If you're using a vanilla bean rather than extract, split the pod and scrape the seeds into the mixture at this point.
- Fill a wide, deep skillet filled with enough water to at least equal the depth of the egg whites in the bowl. Bring the water to a simmer.
- Put the bowl in the simmering water and, using handheld mixer set to low, beat the egg white mixture until it reaches 60 °C (140 °F). Whatever you do, don't stop beating!
- Increase the mixer speed to high and beat for five minutes.
- Remove the bowl from the simmering water (and add the vanilla if you're using extract instead of beans). Beat on high speed for 2–3 more minutes until the frosting is cool.
- Frost the cooled cake. The unfrosted cake will keep for several days, covered at room temperature; the frosting becomes grainy over time and is best eaten the day it's made.
** In Canada, I use Robin Hood Easy Blend Flour, which often comes in a tall shaker like salt.