I started baking in college, first in a food co-op, then in my off-campus house. Living with 5 other college-aged kids meant we ate a lot, giving me ample opportunity to experiment; it was common practice to polish off a standard batch of two to three loaves in a couple of days. My first baking book was The Garden Way Bread Book, though it lives in my memory by its subtitle: A Baker’s Almanac. I was intrigued by its promise of a yearly guide to the glories of baking. In it were the recipes which were to be the crucible for the concoction that would become my life: being a baker.
There is a flow to the year, one to which all beings adhere, bakers notwithstanding. The new year starts with the pop of a champagne cork but quickly settles into a more austere mindset, one which favors hearty, healthy breads. After a brief fling with chocolate in February, we trundle on, anticipating the lightness of being which is spring, the abundance of delectable fresh produce which is summer, the robust foods of autumn and the arrival of the sumptuous holidays. All to be rounded by that pop once again which is both start and death knell.
In a very unsystematic way, I will be writing a monthly bit of lore and insight I’ve gained over 38 years of baking. I have seen the smooth transition from hippie-inspired home baking to rock star restaurants touting stunning pastries and desserts to once again a return to what I like to think of as local materials, honestly expressed. With history and the seasons as my guide, I hope to entertain, inform and inspire, and each essay will conclude with a user friendly recipe.
What follows is the first installment. I hope you enjoy!
I have long been a fan of fairy tales, simple fables with simple messages, peopled with colorful characters. These stories entertain and enlighten and I have embraced their gentle teachings since a boy. One of my favorites is the Elves and the Shoemaker. This is a tale of simple goodness: a poor shoemaker, unable to produce goods of sufficient quantity or quality to pay for his living, is assisted by a pair of elves. Unobserved, these mischievously helpful beings produce shoes for him overnight, shoes of surpassing quality which are left to be discovered when he awakens. There is a gentle goodness, a selflessness, a giving that I find reaffirming. It is no surprise I run a bakery.
A folklore-ish element suffuses all the goings on of a bakery. The work of late nights produces wondrous comestibles to be discovered upon awakening. Watching people come in and grab some something with which to brighten their day is the intangible payment for the long night’s work. Never is that more clear than during the holidays. Thanksgiving, with it’s pies and rolls, lays a warm autumnal blanket down upon which Christmas gaudily settles. Bright, shining, colorful treats of stunning breadth emerge. The goodies seem to embody the essence of elven work.
I dusted off my copy of The Italian Baker, one of my earliest and favorite baking books. Filled with lore and culture and regional recipes, I enjoy going to that well again and again, especially when an Italian specialty is called for. And now it’s Christmas time. The time above all times when baking is called for, expected, trundled out and anticipated. Cultures and peoples all over the world pull out their best, to wow and celebrate family and friends. Long before the coming of Christianity, the end of December had been celebrated. The Solstice, the shortest day of the year, occurs then. I suspect if I was going to have a party in the middle of the dark and cold, I’d pick the longest night of the year, figuring we could break into the larder and ransack treasured bits of the bounty of summer, for it would be all about the return of spring from then on. Fruitcake, jam cake, pies, and preserved meats, all come out to mark the end of the dark and the coming of the light.
And what better way to celebrate than with warm, rich, succulent baked goods? The English have their Christmas pudding, the southern U.S., their jam cake, the German their stollen (more completely known as Christstollen, the lumpy shape and blanket of powdered sugar said to represent the baby Jesus in swaddling), the French their buche de Noel, the Italian panettone, hence the book I had been holding earlier. Studded with fruit and spice, it, like its brethren from around the world represent the best in celebration.
I view most of these items from the perspective of the professional baker, someone who’s business depends on Jesus Christ, Patron Saint of 4th Quarter Profits. But the realm of the home baker holds strong through December as well. I maintain there is hardly a person around who doesn’t remember holiday baking in Granny’s kitchen, even if they never did, so strong is the sentiment surrounding this time. My mom made cookies and candy. Wedding cookies, cherry chews (nee cherry winks, dubbed cherry coconut bars), chocolate almond caramel crunch, and butter cookies (see recipe, below.)
Light, rich, redolent with butter and melt-in-your-mouth tender, these little nothings of pleasure were always my favorite. The line between perfect and also-ran was fine, the anticipation and reverence while baking, angel food cake like. When they were made, lightly mixed, squeezed out in just the right shape from some Buck Rogers cookie press, baked to golden tenderness and allowed to cool for only the briefest of time, the experience of that cookie dissolving in your mouth was sublime. The only time we had these was at Christmas, the rarity increasing the value. I know we were not alone in this. There seems to be an endless stream of family favorites and grandma’s specialties. And for this I give thanks.
Cora Anna Banta Betts’s Butter Cookie Recipe
As presented to my mother, Jackie Betts, her first wedded Christmas.
1 cup (8 ounces) softened unsalted butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 cups All purpose Flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy.
Sift together the flour and salt, add to butter/sugar mixture.
Stir in vanilla.
Push through cookie press onto a baking sheet, sprinkle colored sugar on top if desired.
Place in preheated 350-degree oven for 10 minutes, until golden brown on bottom, pale white on top.
Let cool, but barely.
Makes about 50 small cookies.
The key to this recipe is a light touch. Don’t overmix the flour with the butter. Don’t over bake the cookie. Gentle the whole way and they will be light and crumbly. A pleasure in your mouth.