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A Note from Marcy

A Passion for Home Baking,
The Baker's Batch of New Recipes

October 2003
BetterBaking.com /Baker Boulanger
The Online Magazine For Bakers

A Baker’s Beginnings, Part Two

A short while back, I treated you to an inside look at my baker’s beginnings. That was Chapter One. I now regale you with another view of my food roots.

Every chef’s first introduction to food begins at home. This forms the greatest impression on all of us who make food a profession. I trained in classic French pastry at hotel school but the food I was brought up on was imprinted on me and is a large part of how I evolved into being a chef.

To say it gracefully, my home, when I was a kid, was most irregular: interesting but highly unusual. We were one of the few middle-class Jewish homes (that I knew of, at any rate), that featured mussels and live lobster as normal fare, as well as cod tongues, bread-by-the-bushel from the best bakeries in the city, fresh lichee nuts from our dry cleaners (who despite being Chinese immigrants spoke the best Yiddish I have ever heard), humongous cases of red delicious apples, oranges and grapefruit bought each month directly from wholesalers, and always, fresh ground, fresh perked (you know those Pyrex glass percolators?) coffee each day.

Despite this plethora of neat stuff, there was rarely anything like Kraft cheese slices, potato chips, Lipton noodle soup, packaged anything-let-alone-mac-‘n-cheese or anything as ubiquitous as canned tuna. Imported, exotic, upscale: we did in spades. Daily fare? My parents never even considered it. I mean, like seriously. Eating at a friend’s house was a unique treat because it meant I would actually see mainstream food with people that resembled the Brady Bunch. For me, that was exotic. I thought everyone had Brie on sourdough for breakfast and broiled kippers. I was amazed that there were homes where someone actually bought sandwich bread and made carrot and celery sticks for your lunch.

Thank goodness we had basics like butter, sugar and flour. Those ingredients were always around and they were like the basic palate colors for an artist. From those simple elements, I could create anything – which is one of the many things I still love about baking.

In the end, I think I became a chef simply because our home, at many times, felt like an episode of Survivor, urban style. Family meals together were the exception, not the norm. If you wanted to eat, you did it yourself. If you wanted to eat well or better, you had to learn how because we rarely ate at the same time and something as mundane as a regular grocery order was a serendipitous event. Secondly, when I was seven, my grandmother came to live with us.  A gracious Russian lady, my grandmother happened to be blind. Making sure she had proper meals and cups of tea and coffee, fell to me. It also became my mission to impress her with my baking. I cringe when I think of the many tough cookies and salty cakes my grandmother suffered through – all with a smile and a compliment. How I wish she could see how I improved! Instead, she has a grandson, my youngest son, those middle name, Elan, honours hers which was Ilianna (well, close enough :-).

Thirdly, baking just drew me from the get-go. I was always captivated by what I call the flour arts. To me, baking was drama. Cooking seemed evident: take a salmon, season and broil a salmon, eat some salmon. Baking was more mix flour and butter, add yeast or baking powder and behold: magic. Bagels or brioche, poundcake or pancakes. Again, magic. Harnessing that alchemy, as much as stringing a slew of words together to create a poem or short story or musical lyrics, or dancing to a cadence of notes, beguiled me.  I had a free hand in the kitchen – Betty Freidan had done her work as far as allowing women of the late 60’s and early 70’s to flee the kitchen, which my mom did. Her exodus left me at the kitchen helm. I jumped in with gusto. Inbetween high school and dance classes, I managed all the grocery shopping and planned the meals. I spent a large part of both my childhood and adolescence self-training in classic cuisine, via every classic cookbook I could lay my hands on. At 11, I mastered soufflés and quiche, at 13, it was the roux, cream soups and roasts, and by 15, I was baking yeasted rolls and coffeecakes and Chicken Kiev, along with Onion Soup au Gratin was my signature dish. Other girls wanted new make-up; I wanted graniteware pie tins and a set of Victorinox knives. I almost failed grade ten math a few times, but in reference to fractions involving anything in the kitchen, I could have won a scholarship to MIT. I was quick, accurate, and infallible. Ditto for chemistry, which I barely passed, Ah....but give me an impromptu test on carbonization and I would have dragged out caramelized onions and burnt sugar to prove the benefits of the carbon family in an edible way. I wanted to take Home Ec but when I found out they spent 2 months (!) just on baking powder biscuits while I had already taught myself brioche, I knew I wouldn’t last. Clearly, I was on my way to becoming either a culinary curiosity or destined to be a chef. 

I never quite stopped baking or cooking for too long – at any point in my life. Most people who cook and bake well think of it as a domestic skill or hobby but I wager some 30% of us are really chefs in training/chefs in waiting or in denial. And some of us our chefs who are really domestic goddesses (and gods); some of us are both.  

At book signings and speaking engagements, people will often state, “I bet your mom taught you all this baking or grandmother”. Actually, no. I am a throw-back – the reverse of 70’s feminism in many ways. Being skilled in the kitchen makes me somewhat old-fashioned. It also makes me feel capable and dare I say it: nurturing. To save face in the crossfire of being politically incorrect, and lest people note I am an overt, innate nurturer I have a ‘cover’. I double as a professional pastry chef, baker and cookbook author. To pass as ‘au courant’, I even launched a website. In fact, I invented a whole career to do elude unemployment, keep the feminists at bay, and do what I love anyway. All in all, it looks like I am quite the wily lass - sort of a modern day gingerbread boy that has fled the oven and all the pursuing villagers. Other days, I feel like the village baker. In the end, I am, for all intents and purposes, simply an apron-sporting anachronism and the terror of my sons' school bakesales.

As for this newest Baker's Batch of recipes, please enjoy an Indian summer treat of Rhubarb Raspberry Crunch Biscotti, funky, sinfully delicious Chocolate Brownie Cookie Blobs, or a pure and simple loaf like Old-Fashioned White Bread, or a more upbeat bread, Triple Chocolate Chip Chanukah Challah. There is also a unique  for matching up to a cup of coffee or tea.  Is it Halloween? Well then, you must try a batch of Big Red Candy Mountain Candy Apples to get in the spirit or indulge your sweet tooth by baking up some .

Please note: these recipes, not yet posted on my front page, are in the Complete Recipe Archive and available to all visitors.

Check my Complete Recipe Index (the Archives). This huge recipe box is constantly being loaded with new recipes all the time. Live, expert (and opininated) baker’s advice is available simply by emailing me at the BetterBaking.com Test Kitchen,  editors@betterbaking.com.

Wishing you, as always, sweet times in the kitchen,

Marcy Goldman
Head Baker, Author, Host
www.BetterBaking.com
Baker Boulanger Online

A Passion for Home Baking,
The Baker's Batch of New Recipes


Previous Monthly Essays from A Note From Marcy:

Essays to tickle your funny bone, wake up your inner baker, twinge on your heartstrings, or make you smile and say, Ive know the feeling; I know the place. If you missed an essay, or a season in baking or inner sensibility, we invite you to stroll through our archived Notes From Marcy.

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