Monday, December 19, 2011


Have you ever thought of yours as a luxury item?

Our housekeeper has a family of 5. Though her oldest son is grown and out of the house, her grandson lives with her now for the opportunity of a better school than what their village can provide. I have baked cakes for him and her youngest son for their birthdays, as she does not own an oven. All of their cooking is done on an open fire on the roof or a gas single burner on the floor of their small apartment.

I bake all...the...time! In the spring, she asked if I could bake a cake for her son's birthday. She offered to pay me for the supplies. I turned her down on the reimbursement, but happily obliged with the baking. He was thrilled to have a fancy birthday cake. So when her grandson's birthday approached, he too hoped for a cake. I asked her to let me know what flavor he'd like... a strawberry cake was the answer. Hmmm. Not really expecting that one. She said he'd seen one in a book. So I made an angel food cake and sent her home with a bowl of sliced berries (frozen, as fresh are super rare here... and sour) and a tub of cool whip. Score!

Now I've started a tradition, at least for our couple years. Everyone in the house (driver, housekeeper, gardener, kids of housekeeper) get to choose a dessert on their birthday. Our driver turned 29 last week and chose peanut butter cookies. The house ate some fresh and warm, and he went home with a bag full. Our house helpers quickly became part of our extended family. Ceiba serenades them all with a hearty "Happy Birthday to You!".

And last week, she bought a large chicken with her extra babysitting money (she uses this for extra special family treats). She asked if we'd mind her to cook it while she was working. So we baked it for hours with vegetables, wrapped it up in aluminum foil, towels and a giant Sam's shopping bag. Her husband stopped by on his way home to help her carry everything on the rickshaw.

But honestly, baking here can be a luxury. It is nonexistent for most of the population, and the rest of us are at the daily mercy of the fuel levels. Most days the oven never even reaches its temperature. That is common. A 10 minute pizza can take an hour to cook just because of the low fuel levels pumping through to the houses. Many nights our housekeeper doesn't get gas at all at home and ends up lighting a bamboo fire on the roof.

When we were back in the States over the summer, I nearly burned dinner on more than one occasion, because I wasn't used to the temperature being ready at rocket speed. What I wouldn't give to have our oven to 350 in less than 30 minutes. Think of us the next time you make a Friday night Totino's pizza in 15!


  1. Your new gift tradition is heart warming. What a lovely thing to do for someone, especially someone who cares for your family as an employee. And I agree. An oven is an amazing luxury to have.

  2. Oh, I love this new tradition too! So wonderful of you to share your luxury AND your baking skills. Sounds like everyone is really enjoying it!

  3. It's actually geo-cultural. The baking culture stops at Afghanistan (naan bread). After that, from East India to Japan, wherever there is a mainly rice growing culture, it's generally stovetop cooking. You don't need concentrated heat in a hot climate. Even apartments in Japan don't come with installed ovens, you have to buy the tiny, electrical countertop ones. But since everyone loves cakes - well, you have a captive consumer market in these places, if you own an oven and are willing to tolerate the heat in the kitchen.