April 11, 2012

Today marks the beginning of my new cookie business: cookies@ bakingtherapist. My business is an opportunity to share my absolute love of baking cookies and brownies with customers in the Twin Cities area. I bake extraordinary cookies (as grandiose as that may sound), have a repetoire of dozens of varieties, and can supply cookies for any occasion (including cookies that you can give as gifts to the people you love). Please contact me at for more information.

Giving It Up

December 16, 2011

Tomorrow morning, for the first time this holiday season, I will be packing holiday cookies to give as gifts. My daughters are asking if they can give cookies to their favorite teachers. As I have written previously, I bake everyday. What that means for THIS holiday season, is that I have more cookies than I have ever had in the past. In previous Decembers, baking 25 varieties of cookies was almost unattainable. I had way too much to juggle and tended to put other activities in the forefront of my day. This year, with each day beginning with pans and pans of cookies created with the help of mixers, double-boilers, and ovens, I have already baked over 25 batches of cookies that have included 20 varieties. My freezer is almost impossible to shut and yet I still hope to bake 15 more types of cookies this week (or more), and my fear that there will not be enough to go around is completely without foundation. The girls can give cookies to their favorite teachers as well as those who are out of favor (I’m thinking the gift couldn’t hurt any aspect of their relationships with these educators).

One thing that will never change is the process I use to pack up the cookies and what it means to me to watch them leave my house. I start by taking out all of the cookies from the freezer. Ok, at this point we are talking about over 1000 cookies! I get the plates or bags in position, and with the help of a family member, we methodically place several of each type of cookie in each container. So far, the teachers will receive Linzer sandwiches, shortbreads of every type, caramel-chocolate bars, and amazing dark chocolate brownies with midnight milky ways. The list could go on and on. One of my idiosyncracies is that I see each cookie as a jewel. Only the best will have the opportunity to enter the gift sac and a great deal of time is spent deliberating over which cookies should go to which recipient. I feel the pride and self-consciousness that creative people must have as their photographs, ceramic vessels, or woven rugs are scrutinized by gallery-goers. I am “on,” and I want each little cookie that I give up to taste amazing but garner “oohs” and “ahhs” of delight as they are seen and eaten. I am giving up pieces of myself.

While the cookies are baked solely to be given away and shared, I feel a bit of sadness as I see the contents of my freezer dwindle and my jewels going out into the world. I have spent hours and hours and hours making these cookies and bars (as well as money purchasing 30 pounds of butter, 30 or more pounds of flour, and more sugar than I can even estimate). It made me think how much a part of me this ritual has become. I am a baker. I see it as an integral part of me. What would happen if I was no longer able to bake, create these holiday cookies (some of which had also been baked by my grandmother and mother), and had to see an empty freezer with the memories of my life of baking fading?

I have not been writing entries in my blog because I have not been running as much as usual. My physician “prescribed” 6 weeks of rest to help calm down a painful flair of arthritis. At first I thought nothing of it. She asked me if I would have any problem not running. I confidently told her it was no big deal and thought that was true. Of course I could “give it up.” Then, after 6 days went by, I realized that running was much more than merely exercise. I do almost all of my creating when I run. I visualize future conversations, make gift lists, plan lectures, work out personal problems and imagine how I am going to handle my next professional conversation. Most importantly, every single piece of writing I have done for the last 17 years has been conceived during a run. I try things out. I edit my ideas. My muse is working at full throttle and I am completely open to whatever will come to me. Without running, this part of me ran dry. I had no ideas of what to write, kept baking the same things, and gave some lectures that lacked the coherence that I expect. I was no longer a runner. I had given up a part of my identity and I panicked. It took much more of me than I could have ever predicted. I began running again, immediately, and prepared to explain my non-compliant self to my MD when she next questioned me.

That led me to ask how I really know who I am. Of course I am a mother, partner, daughter, friend, baker, a runner, a teacher, and a conversationalist. I’ve seen myself as insightful, generous (at times), ethical, intense, passionate, slow to warm up, opinionated and persistent. But how do I know those things about myself? I often tell people, “you are so much more than what you do,” but how can I see myself as an ethical person if I betray those who are closest to me? How can I be a baker if I no longer bake or a runner if I no longer run? What does it mean to give up some part of me that is so precious, so deep, so hidden, that I was unaware of its existence?

I had a conversation with my father last night about this very subject. He had a stroke a year ago and has been unable to play golf since the event. It has been a cornerstone of his life. He has been a GOLFER. I believe he has met all of his golfing goals: two holes-in-one, shooting his age (I think this means getting a score of 75 at age 75), and having a handicap in the single digits. He acknowledged that he will never golf again, and when asked, seemed completely non-plussed by the idea of giving up this key activity and part of his identity. Maybe I will understand in 25 years. Today, I cannot.

Giving it up. Giving away precious parts of me, giving away the sweets I have created, giving up activities that define me, and maybe most importantly…giving up, over the last 18 months, a true sense of who I am. How much can I give up and still be me? How many cookies need to be in my freezer to maintain my status as daily, serious baker? How much of myself needs to reside consistently within me to allow me to hold onto my identity? Who would I be without secrets, cookies, miles to travel with time to think?

True Grit

September 23, 2011

I was having an amazing conversation with my daughter, Cameron, this weekend. We were discussing (what else?) possible colleges she might attend in the not so distant future. She admitted that even though many of the colleges on her list of “top 25” were “reach” schools, a part of her believed she would be accepted to any college she applied to, however Pollyannaish that belief might be. We laughed as I reminisced about the first time I took her to see The Nutcracker at age 3. Cameron had been taking ballet classes with a woman who was more concerned with teaching the girls in pink how to sneeze without spreading germs than any particular dance moves. Cameron loved the dance accoutrements that included pink shoes and a dance skirt. When she saw her first real ballet, she announced, “I want to be Clara.” She said it in a sincere, emphatic, yet totally innocent manner. She seemed to believe, “If I want it, it should come to me.” She has continued to be that way ever since, although now realizing the need to work very, very hard to make those dreams become real.

As we continued to share the delight of analyzing the details of her personality and experiences, we moved on to one of her first real disappointments…losing a bid for Student Council VP last year. Ever since 5th grade, she has been a Student Council officer, running for her chosen office and winning, running again, and winning again. When I heard of her defeat last year, my heart hurt and I worried about how she would take it. As is often the case, my body alerted me to what had happened and I almost felt as if the injury was mine. As we spoke of it this week she stated wisely, “You know, Mom, I was really disappointed, but I know it is important for me to learn how to lose. You know, to be able to accept not always succeeding, that can be tough for a person like me to face. I think I really needed that lesson.”

Where did this child come from? Had she read the cover of the New York Times Magazine the day before that announced the inclusion of an article entitled, “What if the secret to success is failure?” The author, Paul Tough (I did not make that up), describes educators focusing on students who exhibit ‘grit,’ which includes, “a passion for a single mission [combined with] an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take (p. 43).” Cameron clearly had grit, but what about me? How would I describe my dedication or even my willingness to name goals that might involve risk or be out of my reach?

That served as the beginning of many days of thinking about risk, perseverance, and willingness to accept failure. As in most areas of my life, I started my psychological digging by looking at examples connected to baking. Because, as we all know, baking can be a metaphor for any of life’s challenges, joys, or problems. I thought about how I tend to choose the recipes I bake each morning. While I will try something new, I rarely choose a recipe that would result in my failing. For many years I eschewed recipes that required me to make caramel that began by melting sugar. Too iffy, I thought, and my chances of burning the sugar were great. Use easier recipes that had a higher guarantee of success. No grit there. I also reflected on my desire to make real French macarons (well before bakeries selling macarons became ubiquitous), chocolate soufflés, and a cake roulade. I have tried each once, failed, and really never tried again. I voraciously read articles about how to make each of these elusive sweets, but am reluctant to risk failure again. Again, I find no grit.

I began to think of my life beyond baking, however small it may be. I had set some goals for myself that I pursued passionately until they were attained. When I was in the 8th grade I did a Social Studies project on becoming a psychologist. Fifteen years later, after completing high school, an undergraduate degree in psychology, a Master’s Degree, internship and Ph.D. all in psychology and marriage and family therapy, I reached my goal. OK, there was some grit! But did I take any risks? I couldn’t see it. While there were definitely challenges along the way, as I look back, the hard work had seemed to come easily to me. I was so passionate about what I was doing (and continue to be), that it barely seemed like work. Does that count?

Next I had to consider my current adult life. What are the real risks that I am faced with that I fear taking? There are many times that I fear admitting to myself (and others) exactly who I am and what I want. Have I ever told someone, who I thought might not share my feelings, “I’d like to be your friend”? Never. Have I ever really put myself and my feelings out in plain view for someone to see, particularly if they had the potential to change how I was viewed? Never. I live a very safe, predictable life, where I am much more likely to bake a recipe of Levain CopyCat Cookies than espresso macarons with ganache. Where is my grit? What am I afraid of? How did my daughter develop her wisdom and ability to take risks (despite her incredible fear) and I looked to protect myself in whatever way possible? What caused me to go from an idealistic 8th grader, willing to do anything to pursue my dreams, to someone who was daunted by the possibility of a roulade that would not properly roll, or my intense emotions that could overwhelm anyone who appeared in their path or let others know that I am not always as I seem? I see myself having the option to follow one of several paths to better understand this…run (to give me time to reflect on what I’m afraid of), bake (and take risks to try something unfamiliar, whatever the outcome), or talk (and let someone know how they are taking my breath away). What’s the worst that could happen?

Baking Everyday

September 2, 2011

If asked what I do everyday, no one would be surprised to learn that I breathe; sleep; eat; read; tell my daughters, “I love you;” have conversations; drink coffee (a whole milk miel latte); check out my favorite Internet sites; try to run; and worry about who knows what (I realize that last one could be interpreted in a number of ways). Many of the people in my life (co-workers, family, and friends) know that I bake everyday, but only a few people have a clue why, and I realize I am not completely sure myself.

What have I baked this week? I made an exquisite freeform Blueberry Tart with a Cornmeal Crust from The Craft of Baking (DeMasco, 2009), Peanut Butter Cup Crunch Brownie Bars from BrownEyedBaker’s blog (amazing), and Serendipity Deluxe Bars from Bakingblonde’s weblog (I brought them to work and earned an employee of the year award within 10 minutes). Right now I have Heartland Turtle Bars in the oven (Baked Explorations, no further citation is needed, I believe). I have plans for lemon bars and PBJ bars for this weekend (and maybe a raspberry tart with golden raspberries from the farmer’s market).

The amazement and questions that I receive when I tell people that I bake every morning (lately at 4:00am, no less) keep me amused. People I know often tell me they NEVER bake anything…no time or talent. How is it possible that you bake everyday? WHY do you do it? Why do I do it? Someone I spoke to yesterday thought it was a concrete task that must engender a sense of accomplishment. Yes. It allows me to be very generous since I share my baking with family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Yes. It gives me something I can count on. Yes. It is relaxing. Yes. I am an absolute creature of habit (very few people know that I eat the same thing for lunch everyday—right now it is toast, peanut butter, and banana) and doing something daily is very comforting. Yes. Yes. It adds to my sense of identity. This not only includes letting people know that I am not just a baker, but I am a BAKER. I take my baking very seriously and feel a bit lost when I am unable to bake. On recent trips to NYC and Wisconsin, I felt at loose ends when there were no kitchens available to me at 5am. I had to substitute going to bakeries for baking myself. Yes. And finally, I love being a bit on the fringe. I have always loved describing who I am with labels few people wear with pride. Girl who doesn’t shave her legs or wear a bra? Yup, and was happy to admit it. Feminist when many of my friends were much more concerned with finding a male partner than looking at the politics of marriage in our culture? Yes, again. And now, older mother, going through a major life transition, who has hundreds of cookies and bars in her freezer, yet bakes everyday. Yes, yes, yes.

My daughters love telling their friends that I bake everyday and will often bring the spoils of our freezer to dance classes, teachers, or soccer practices. My oldest daughter has a nightly ritual…”freezer-diving” in which she trolls through our freezer looking for a long-lost treasure and proudly brings it to room temperature with the air of having found a forgotten pair of solid gold earrings. My father and partner shake their heads will slight amusement and tolerance. “Really. There isn’t room for one more cookie in our freezer. Where are we going to put the vegetarian burgers or eggrolls? We barely have room for a carton of ice cream. This is NOT going to work!” Yet every morning when the smell of butter and chocolate slowly seep into our home, the nods of understanding, acceptance, and even anticipation occur.

Is there something else I’d like to be able to say I do every day? Yesterday, my youngest daughter read an article about famine in Somalia. She was horrified (and I think a bit traumatized) by the picture of a young starving girl that accompanied the news story. She must have asked 50 times, “Why did I look at that picture, it was SO horrible?” Then, she began to plan a 7th grade bake sale with profits going to help end hunger in Somalia. She screwed up her courage to develop a way to approach her “scary” 7th grade Social Studies teacher about her plan and left the house triumphantly stating, “Good-bye, Mom. I’m going off to change the world today.” What could I do but cry? Do I change the world everyday? I’d like to think that I do…through my example to my girls, my conversations with people, and the sweetness I bring to others (and myself) through my baking. If everyone baked everyday and shared their creations, how might our world be a different place?

I’ve been thinking about how to start this entry for a number of weeks. “I’m back?” Not exactly. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “I’m here.” Today marks the first anniversary of events that have radically changed my life over the last year, resulted in my learning so much about myself, and question what my future might be. I have had to be vulnerable, ask for help, be less available to others, and accept (at least for the time being) a new sense of self. Had I known last year that February 5th is International Nutella Day, my whole year might have turned out to be radically different! Perhaps, on February 5, 2010, I would have been so focused on which Nutella recipe I was going to make, that nothing else would have mattered. It makes me smile to imagine that possibility. So rather than reflect on what this anniversary means to me, I have been focused on Nutella. For the first time in 30 years or so, I did not write in my birthday journal and I have not put my experiences of the last year down on paper, despite many people encouraging me to do so. Today is no exception. I want to write about food memory, Nutella, running with music, and the way that baking has remained such an important part of my life.

I remember the first time I tasted Nutella. I was in France, traveling at age 14 with my 9th grade French class, and staying in French college dorms during Spring break. We ate many, many horrific foods: rabbit pate sandwiches (the rabbit came out of a tin can), cafeteria coq au vin, and crème renversee that was more rubbery than you can imagine. However, we also had chocolat chaud, café au lait (my first experience drinking coffee and enjoying it out of a bowl), incredible omelettes and croissants, and most importantly, French bread and Nutella. We were allowed, actually encouraged, to eat chocolate at breakfast time. I don’t think my life has been the same since then. Ice cream for breakfast? Why not? Oatmeal cookies first thing in the morning? Sounds pretty healthy to me! If the French can eat chocolate before noon, I see no reason to limit myself in any way. I came back to my small town in Wisconsin…a changed girl. I stopped shaving my legs, I embraced all things French, and I took every opportunity to look for Nutella in small specialty food markets that had brie, French wines, and Pffffft sodas. I imagined that these loves brought me closer to being French, which I longed to become.

Over the last year, I have taken to making fresh crepes most mornings for myself and my daughters and filling them with Nutella. Each morning I will go upstairs into my daughter Cameron’s room, and whisper, “Honey, your crepe and hot cocoa are ready.” She sleepwalks downstairs, silently eats her crepe and downs her cocoa and begins her early day at school with either Latin or playing the viola in her quartet. She admits that what was once a “special day treat” is the necessity that pulls her into action each morning. How will she survive in college without her mom to make these crepes she wonders. Luckily we have a few years to figure out those details.  So, in honor of International Nutella Day, we had crepes with Nutella (what else?), I made David Lebovitz’s peanut butter cookies and added Nutella (1/4 cup) to the dough (they will be baked tomorrow), and I located a recipe for Nutella cupcakes that I will make tomorrow as well. More details on these efforts to come. 

One of my favorite ways to use Nutella is in the middle of cappuccino muffins. When I was pregnant with Cameron, I could not start out a day without cappuccino muffins with white chocolate. I made them several times a week, ate them daily, and whenever I make them now it transports me back to my pregnancy and the excitement and fear I felt as I was expecting my first child. It is no surprise that Cameron and Isabel love these muffins as much as I do. Isabel has chosen them as her official birthday breakfast muffin that we savor every year. Last year, I began changing the recipe and putting Nutella in the center of the muffins rather than white chocolate chips.

I have found that it is not only food that has the power to transport me to my past. While Nutella brings me to France (and Europe in general), I have started another habit this year that has the ability to give me small pleasures I never imagined. I have begun running with my iPod.  While this may seem like such a mundane activity not in anyway newsworthy, you have to know something about me to understand what this means. I am a very opinionated person. While in my work, I have a great deal of room for people to be whoever they might be, in my “real” life, I admit I have strong ideas of what is right and wrong. Running with music was always “wrong.” In my world, running was a way to be mindful, to clear my mind, and to just be. Now, as I set my iPod to shuffle, I am completely delighted as my machine chooses what I need to listen to at any particular moment. For some reason, my iPod chooses the Beach Boys every time I have to push myself up a particularly hard hill, and delights me with “Fly Me to the Moon” when I most need to hear it, or provides me an opportunity to smile as Mott the Hoople sings, “All the Young Dudes,” the most popular song at the first concert my parents knowingly allowed me to attend as a teen. Baking, music, and running are the parts of my life that allow me an occasional smile, something that I am more grateful for than anyone can possibly know. Happy International Nutella Day!

I grew up in a small town that had one “fancy” restaurant reserved for special events. While I am not certain, I would guess that I spent most of my birthdays there as well as the birthdays of aunts, uncles, parents, and my brother. I’m sure my parents celebrated all of their anniversaries at this supper club. I remember it as the spot chosen for my final senior prom. It was located at a public golf course and had large windows overlooking the lush green golf course. On the weekends they had a piano bar that we would have to walk through to get to our table. I remember the feel of my tight patent leather shoes as we walked through the parking lot and the excitement of our upcoming dinner. It was here that I had my first encounter with a “dessert tray.” For a child that grew up on TV dinners and McDonalds, going to a restaurant of this caliber was thrilling. I felt that I had some idea of what it must be like to dine at a 4-star restaurant in NYC each time we ate here. The height of sophistication, I thought, was the desserts. I have to admit, I really don’t remember most of  the dessert choices very well. I believe they were always the same, which didn’t bother me in the least. The one that I loved the most was the rum cake. Looking back, it was likely made from a mix, but I didn’t care! It was soaked with rum and covered with ice cream, more rum sauce and whipped cream. It seemed the closest thing to an alcoholic beverage I was going to get at age 10. My grandmother would tease me that I would get drunk each time I ordered it.

So, this was the back drop to my making Dorie’s Rum Soaked Vanilla Cake. I shied away from using all of the syrup and I think I baked it too long (how do the rest of you deal with dry ends and not quite done middles?). But the flavor of rum transported me back to our local supper club and the feeling of a young child who felt she knew what it was like to be a grown up. Once again….thank-you Dorie.

I continue to be in the process of recovery from an illness that has gone on for exactly three months today. Despite the ups and downs of my health, I have full days, lots of plans and try to keep to a schedule. My schedule today, among other things, gave me a full hour to reflect on the joys of Dorie’s Burnt Sugar Ice Cream. I imagined a beautiful post with photos, long stories about what ice cream has meant to me in my past, favorite local ice cream shops, and my family’s reactions to this recipe. Well, I just received a call from my oldest daughter, poor weather has cut short her school event, and I need to leave in five minutes to pick her up. Oh well, so much for any sense of structure or control in my life. And…so much for writing a prize-winning piece about Burnt Sugar Ice Cream.

That means I only have five minutes to wax poetic about all of the wonders of this week’s TWD selection. I LOVE making ice cream. I had a Donvier ice cream maker when they were REALLY wonky, an ice cream maker that required the addition of salt prior to that, and now a really excellent Cuisinart model that I believe was recommended by Dorie, herself, in an article in Bon Appetit. I have made fruit ice creams, sorbets, goat cheese ice cream, olive oil ice cream and still am considering Roquefort Ice Cream from David Lebovitz’s book. I have to say that the Burnt Sugar Ice Cream will remain on the very top of my list of favorites. The way I made it was salty-sweet (I added a bit more fleur de sel than was called for), so very, very creamy (why did that happen?), and just perfectly satisfying. This is a recipe I will go back to again and again. And, I hope the joy of this ice cream will once again remind me that ice cream is NOT difficult to make and worth every moment of anticipation.