Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How a Baker was Made

By now, I’m sure it is exceedingly obvious to all and sundry that I adore baking. It’s a unique medium that almost always brings a smile to peoples’ faces, and that just makes me happy. At dinner with friends recently, I was asked how I started out. I gave them the answer I have given for years: At my first job as a GIS tech, I had a boss with a really big sweet tooth. When I brought a cake in for a coworker’s birthday one day, he asked me to start using petty cash to make cakes for everyone’s birthday, and so a baker was born.

Or was she? As I was making batch upon batch of cupcake goodness for the workshop I attended this weekend, I had a flashback to kneading dough next to my mother in the house we had in Georgia when I was around 5 years old. Side by side in the kitchen, me on a chair while she stood patiently beside be, we pushed and pulled the dough in the age old method that has been passed down from generation to generation through the centuries.

I imagine that women throughout the millennia taught their daughters just as my mother taught me, with my own tiny ball of dough beside her own. Allowing them to taste the yeasty mixture, their faces puckering at the lack of sweetness. Gently reminding them to add more flour to the counter so the dough won’t stick, and laughing when they squeeze the gooey mixture through their tiny fingers.

Only, my mother hadn’t been taught by her mother. She had taught herself, intent on providing the freshest, most wholesome food for our family. Back before it was posh, when all the modern moms were opening bags of Wonderbread and offering jars of Jiff, my mother ground the wheat for her dough, kneaded and shaped it with me at her side, and placed it in the oven to bake. As the smell of fresh-baked bread filled the house, filling us all with mouth-watering anticipation, she would go to work making homemade peanut butter.

No preservatives, no chemicals, no name brands or catchy advertising, just one woman and her daughter, working the foods God gave us, together in a warm kitchen somewhere lost in time.

We rarely had sweets in the house when I was young, but when we did, they were baked in our own harvest gold oven. Treats were just that: something special, appearing only on important occasions. Chocolate chip-less chocolate chip cookies (from the curious time as a child when I didn’t like chocolate), peanut butter cookies with hatch marks made with a fork, and the endless variety of Christmas cookies that we would make one magical day in December. Lemon meringue pies were my father’s favorite, peach cobbler when the season was right, and the occasional batch of ooey, gooey brownies if we were really good. And, of course, a cake on each of our birthdays, of which we were allowed exactly one slice.

As I grew older, I began to notice the little plastic wrapped snack cakes other children had. Little spongy logs filled with crème, chocolate squiggled-topped cupcakes, oatmeal cookies glued together with icing – it was all very new and foreign to me. What were these sugary little delicacies? Why hadn’t my mother given them to me as the other kid’s mother’s had? Going home, I begged my mother to buy me these treats, to allow me to partake in the goodies all the other kids had. Alas, she refused, and sent me away with carrot sticks, or saltines and peanut butter, or a slice of wheat bread.

So very unfair. And then, one day one of my friends’ mothers gave me a Twinkie. I stared in wonder at the perfectly shaped tube of cake, nestled within its cellophane home. Reverently, I tore open the package and pulled out the forbidden treat within. It was very light in my hand, as if filled with air instead of the delicious-looking frosting peaking from three little ports along the bottom. I lifted the cake to my mouth, and took my first bite.

And blinked.

It tasted like… well, nothing, really. The icing was tasteless, the cake had an odd texture, and the whole thing struck me as entirely un-treat like. What was all the fuss about?

I never did learn to like Twinkies and the other snack cakes. But as time caught up with us, there were less loaves of bread, and only the occasional batch of cookies. I went to college and abandoned the healthy eating of my youth, and gained 50 pounds and my first 4 cavities for my trouble. Fast food was the norm, and desserts came before meals. For the first few years of college, I didn’t have an oven, so I couldn’t have baked if I wanted to.

And then along came that first job, and the sweets-loving boss. After that first cake, I found a recipe for homemade icing. I couldn’t believe how delicious it was. Then I branched out and found cake recipes, then I began to tweak them, and later I began working on presentation. The baker was reborn.

And she had learned some things along the way. Sweets were again special, not just a mindless indulgence. Food was something to be respected, to be eaten reverently, not just scarfed down while sitting in front of the television or driving a car.

I was reminded of the art of savoring food. Of laboring to create a dish, and then taking the time to really appreciate every bite, to turn the flavors over in my mouth and give thanks for the sustenance it provides my mind, my soul, and my body. With respect for food came weight loss and happiness.

Give me fresh baked goods any day of the week. Give me a cake measured with care, diligently mixed, and frosted with love. Give me a cookie where I can sneak a taste of the batter, dump a few extra chocolate chips into if I want, and eat while it is still piping hot from the oven.

Give me a cobbler where each peach is sliced by hand, sweet juices running down my fingers as I gobble up every third slice or so. A peach that was sold to me by the farmer who planted it, picked it, and brought it to the market with his sweet wife by his side. I want a cupcake where I can pronounce every ingredient, one that has been iced with fluffy homemade frosting, and that needs to be eaten within two or three days, lest it go bad. Baked goods shouldn’t have an expiration date measured in years, sealed up in plastic that was made somewhere in China, laden with ingredients with lots of x’s and z’s in the names.

Yes, the baker was reborn, intent on bringing happiness to others straight from my oven. But where did I really learn to bake? In a small kitchen in Georgia, using a harvest gold stove and wearing an over-sized apron with the strings doubled up around my waist. Kneading a small ball of dough at my mother’s side, watching her every move and doing my best to emulate her. It was those lessons that laid the seeds for me to be the baker—and lover of real food—that I am today.

When did you learn to bake? Do you have a special baking tradition in your family? And is there anyone out there that actually likes Twinkies? :)

Today I’d like to share a very simple yet delicious bread recipe with you, which is modified from the recipe found here. It’s a great starter bread for those of you who may have never tried to make your own bread. Here’s to yummy, healthy, homemade bread!

2 cups warm water (110 degrees F is ideal)

1/3 cup white sugar

1 ½ Tbsp active dry yeast

1 ½ tsp salt

¼ cup vegetable or canola oil

6 cups bread flour

In a large bowl, dissolve the sugar in the warm water, then stir in yeast. Allow to proof until a creamy foam forms on top (6 to 10 minutes)

Mix in salt and oil with a wooden spoon. Mix in flour, 1 cup at a time, until you have mixed in 5 ½ cups. Using flour from the remaining ½ cup, lightly coat your working surface. Kneed dough, adding flour as necessary, until the dough is smooth (about 8 to 10 minutes), taking care not to tear the dough. Place in well-oiled bowl that is at least twice the size of the dough, turning a few times to coat the dough with the oil. Cover with a damp cloth (I use tea towels) and place in the unheated oven with the oven light on. Allow to rise until doubled in bulk (about an hour)

Punch the dough down, then turn out onto floured surface to knead a second time for another few minutes. Divide in half and shape and place into two well-oiled 9x5 loaf pans. Allow to rise for 30 minutes until dough has risen about 1 inch above pans.

Bake a 350 degrees for 30 minutes.


  1. Your blogs always make me hungry! LOL

    I've never NOT known how to cook, because my mother has MS and I am the eldest daughter, I took over in the kitchen at an early age to help out. One of my earliest memories is standing on a kitchen chair, stirring something in a saucepan.

    But baking is entirely different from cooking and I still remember the first cake I made for fun...a peaches and cream cake from a recipe in a Southern Living cookbook. It was heavenly, with a sour cream filling and whipped cream frosting. I have never found the recipe again, but when I do...

  2. ... when you do, you better send it on to me! Holy cow, Sarah, that sounds heavenly indeed! I too love Southern Living and the wonderful recipes they have. My banana bread recipe is straight from their pages, and I could only barely improve on its deliciousness.

    How interesting that you grew up the cook in the household—very admirable. I'm sure little your family now appreciates the fruits of that labor :)

  3. Homemade treats are those you make at home, right? My cakes came out of a box, pies from a can, and cookies from the back of that yellow bag containing chocolate chips.

    So I feel cheated? Not really. Growing up, my mom worked because my dad was getting his PhD. After my dad finished school, my mom went and got her college diploma and a Masters Degree. There really wasn't time for baking.

    But when the Holidays did come around we made those pies, cookies and cakes together.

    Now I'm trying to make Kiffles at Thanksgiving/Christmas. These are nut (or fruit) filling wrapped in dough cookies. My grandmother made them...but I never saw the process. According to my dad they still aren't right. But every year I keep trying.

    I also picked up making cheesecakes because my husband likes it. Neither my mom or mother-in-law make them. So it's something that's all mine.

  4. One of these days, Beth, I'm gonna have to try your yummy cheesecakes :) And boxes, cans, and bags are just fine with me if that's what make you happy. And I sure as heck won't turn my nose up at a yummy Duncan Hines cake, I assure you :) To me, there is just something magical about putting batter in the oven and half an hour latter extracting fresh-baked goodness :)

    Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I'll bring some type of cheesecake to the Christmas party. :)

  6. Another wonderful blog post -- I really like what you said about respecting and savoring food. Eating shouldn't be a speed event (well, except for when it is! LOL), and it shouldn't be a chore.

    I decided I wanted to make my very first apple pie, and I've got the apples, so now I just need to get up the nerve. LOL I think I'll try your bread recipe too. My house gets so cold in the winter and I've decided this year I'm going to keep it warmer by keeping the oven going. :)

  7. Now that's my idea of house warming! I hope you give the pie a whirl, Donna, and let me know how it turns out. For the first timer, don't be afraid to use the store bought pie dough (the kind that comes in rolls in the fridge or freezer section so you can have both the top and bottom, as opposed to the kind that comes pre-shaped in a foil pie-pan).

    The very first time I tried the baking bread (since childhood, anyway), I watched a youtube video on kneading and punching down dough as a refresher. If you feel better about watching it first, try this video.

    Good luck!! And here's to savoring food like the Italians, lol. Thanks for dropping in to say hello :)

  8. Baking is one of those things I kind of do in spurts. I'm not sure where I learned how to do it, and I'm still more likely to buy a box mix and throw it together than I am to put together my own ingredients. But I can tell you how I learned to cook. I was about 4 years old, and I always wanted to help Mommy in the kitchen. She would let me help by stirring the Kool-Aid and things of that nature, but never anything more potentially dangerous than that. But Daddy decided I should learn how to cook. So he took one of the dining room chairs and put it right up next to the stove, and he put some slices of bacon in a pan, then he showed me how to turn them over so they would cook evenly. It was all downhill from there, after getting popped and splattered by bacon grease in the pan. If I could handle that, I could handle anything.

  9. Sounds like baptism by fire, Catherine! I'm *still* afraid of frying bacon, lol. I think your dad was smart to get you though the scary stuff first so the rest was really, well, a piece of cake!

  10. Wonderful blog, Erin. I always enjoy your stories.

    I grew up in a canned vegetable/ding dong household. But when I graduated from college, I went to live in North Africa for 5 years. I had no choice. I had to learn to make everything from scratch and to only eat things that were in season.

    Thank goodness for my mother-in-law who had the patience to teach me Middle Eastern cooking and a few French recipes too.

  11. What an amazing life you have led, Clarissa :) I love the idea of eating everything from scratch, all local and fresh ingredients. Unfortunately, I'm not that disciplined, lol. I guess sometimes we just need to be dropped in the middle of a foreign land to shove us in the right direction ;)

    Thanks for the compliment, and for stopping by to say hello!

  12. Marquita ValentineOctober 19, 2010 at 6:09 PM

    Thanks for making me soooo hungry for freshly baked bread. It is the time of year for it. All crusty to sop up the remaining soup in my bowl.

    And the cupcakes were awesome...as usual!

  13. Oh, yum, Marquita - Now I'm craving soup in a bread bowl! Makes me long for the day they served the yummy creamy chicken soup at Quiznos ...
    Glad you liked the cupcakes :)

  14. Okay, now I am hungry. For the record, I never liked twinkies. However, I had a weakness for those foil wrapped Ho-Ho's. I haven't had one of those in years. As for baking traditions, one weekend a few weeks before Christmas the kids and I make batches upon batches of cookies, bars and candy and then fill tins with various mixtures and give them away. I enjoy making the candy more than the cookies. When I was little my mother belonged to a group of women who participated in a cookie exchange. Each made 12 dozen of one kind off cookie to give to the other ladies and each mother came home with twelve different kinds of cookies.

  15. Amy, I love your cookie exchange traditions! And Christmas cookies are truly the best :) Now, how you can like those ho-hos is truly beyond me, but to each her own, lol!
    Thanks for stopping by!

  16. This post made me cry. Some of my first memories are making chocolate chip cookies with mom. I haven't made them in so long...I might need to now. And yes, the lack of sweets during most of the year made Christmas cookies THE BEST! Making the candy cane cookies was fun (coloring and twisting the dough), but eating the tiny pecan tarts and the awesome chocolate bars was my favorite! Thanks for this post...so well written, as always:)

  17. Happy tears, I hope, Kara! Ahh, those candy cane cookies - those *are* Christmas to me :) Thanks for stopping by to share my memories; I'm so blessed to share so much of my life with you.