We are always connected to our roots as cooks as practice builds upon itself. No one is born a great cook. We are inspired, enjoy the process, and by the action of practice, become more and more adept. When you touch and then taste food, you build your knowledge.
I started on my kitchen path baking when I could see over the top of the kitchen counter with two of the best teachers, my mother and Hungarian grandmother. This is where I began. I was always surrounded by a few good cooks growing up and was encouraged to do so myself.
I denote my baking life in chapters–from learning in my teens baking for my family, baking in my first home, baking in a restaurant, teaching baking, a traveling cook and baker, baking in a commercial bakery, baking for private clients with a host of personal dietary needs, writing a newspaper column on baking, and now paying attention to making lighter desserts. All along the way, I kept my recipes, my notes, even recipes that I still plan to make, in a bulging ring binder with a big smudge of chocolate on the taunt muslin cover. Since I learned a lot about baking before regional cuisine and field tripping for elusive fresh or imported ingredients became chic, I have a lot of forgotten recipes and beloved family recipes that have just, well, stayed with me.
My mother was extraordinarily creative with a limited pantry and budget. With a family of 5 children, my grandfather and father, she cooked really outstanding meals for a week on a
budget of $50 (with money left over to buy material to sew our clothes). Most all of our food was homemade from scratch, so that the occasional TV dinner Salisbury Steak was a well looked forward to occasion on nights they were going out to dinner. While we utilized packaged pudding and canned fruit, my mother made the most perfect looking and tasting pies (such as lemon meringue), layer cakes, and moist gingerbread from the Betty Crocker cookbook with the red plaid cover she got when first married, setting the standard for me even to this day. We had not-too sweet apple pies with perfect flaky crusts. Boy, can my mom make a good crust. As I would head out to the surrounding apricot orchards to play, she would give me a paper bag and say, please pick some fruit and bring it home so we can make something for dinner, like a crisp or cobbler with Bisquick topping. She can still discover what turns out to be the best recipes in the darndest places. She has a sense of what works and what doesn’t tempered by palate.
Of her friends, she was the person chosen to bake for parties and I remember standing at her knee watching her with great fascination make dozens of cream puffs for a baby shower. I was crazy begging for one, but they were counted carefully and there was not one to spare, even for a little girl. One of my earliest memories is being given the job of whipping cream with the hand held rotary egg beater–a task that is a dash laborious now on the same level as whipping the cream with a balloon whisk in cooking school–watching the stages as it began to thicken, stopping when it was just perfectly mounded like a cloud, then the delightful reward of licking the beaters.
Stirring the chocolate stove top pudding was my next task along with all manner of jello, and the very popular at the time, commercial cake mixes for two layer cakes. I am still the queen of cake mixes. I just love them. I went through a phase of poo pooing them, then my youngest sister Meg made the gold cake and chocolate frosting from the mix for her boyfriend, now-husband, who only wanted cake from a mix, and it tasted fantastic and looked perfect to boot. My attitude of superiority was dashed.
As a teenager, I learned to manipulate a heavy, unwieldy hand held Sunbeam electric mixer that looked like a prop out of Flash Gordon as my first electric mixer. When attached to the stand, there were glass bowls, not stainless steel like today.
We did not cook with what was not available. My grandparents would go visit the relatives at their farm in rural New Jersey and come back with all sorts of fresh foods. It was not a luxury, it was necessity, it was normal. With my mind wandering back to those happy days, vividly etched in memory, I am left with a sense of deep appreciation. Nanny would take me down to the cellar to choose some home canned fruit of a shelf covered with some print cotton material to keep the dust out, like my father’s favorite white peaches, for dessert. There is a joke in the family how one lunch time I looked up at Nanny Hensperger and said in all sincerity, “Oh Nanny you are the best cook in the world.” Everyone got a good hoot about her telling that story since I was eating reconstituted dried Lipton chicken noodle soup from a package. Nanny was a serious type from the old country and she really showed some teeth laughing about that.
For my mother, dessert was an every night affair and even though she was cooking for a large family, we were served in a decorative fashion that showed her flair for the artistic. I still think of our Sunday afternoon dinners, when extended family might show up adding animated conversation and loving counterpoint. She let me help set the table with the fine china, and there was a focus on foods more expensive and subtle that took a bit more preparation than for weekday cooking (An eye of the round roast would be popped into the oven before we left the house for church, ready upon return.). To this day I can set a mean table without a thought. Martha Stewart move over. We would linger about after the mid-day meal, awaiting our favorite moment — when the dessert would be presented, such as a stunning New York Cheesecake, made with cottage cheese, from a recipe clipped from the New York Times in the 1960s, with juicy defrosted sweetened strawberries dripping over the slice.
There were always special dishes for each dessert so that it would be beautifully presented, from footed bowls for fruit cocktail to tall and narrow cut-crystal parfait glasses for layering vanilla pudding or tapioca with fresh berries and real whipped cream. Layer cakes were presented on every manner of footed cake platter and fruit crisps made in oval ceramic dishes from France. I still make her Devil’s Food Cake made with buttermilk and holiday Raspberry Trifle with the custard sauce made in the microwave (look for that recipe in my new microwave book-the custard is fantastic and a snap to make).
Then off on my own after high school, I was following my own creative inspirations, although I did not know it was that at the time, varying on what I had already learned. Whether it was a teasingly small morsel or a big hunk of cake slathered with creamy frosting, baking desserts has always been intimate and personal for me. I always wanted to make really good desserts to be shared and consumed with delight. To please my friends, I developed a reliable, unique dessert repertoire, with results that looked as good as they tasted. This was my era to learn the difference between eating and dining.