Tag Archives: baking

Feeding my writing

I haven’t done a pastry post in a while. I haven’t really experimented with pastries in a while. I’ve just made the standards, really, Grandma Scott’s sugar cookies and my son’s favorite, chocolate chips.

Truth is, for me baking is meditation, baking and walks with my dog, Maynard. Unfortunately, between the first nasty cold I’ve had in years and the “polar vortex” conditions we’ve been experiencing lately, Maynard and I have been mostly unable to walk outside.

Winter is a fantastic time to bake. I can’t describe the smells in my kitchen because I lost that sense a long time ago. Still, there is something visceral about baking. Perhaps, it’s that it brings me back to all that was good about growing up. That is being in the kitchen with family and friends. The kitchen in our house was Grand Central Station. It was where I did homework, where we gathered for holidays, where we sat with friends and discussed the workings of the world over sweet breads and coffee. Sure, we had a dining room and a table in that dining room, but it was rarely ever used except as a work station for my dollhouse crafting. My mother just preferred the kitchen, preferred everyone be in the thick of wafting scents and sizzling sounds of sustenance being prepared. We preferred it too.


A large version of the mini cinnamon sugar pumpkin muffin.

A large version of the mini cinnamon sugar pumpkin muffin.

The kitchen was part enigma, part fascination for me. I couldn’t cook my way out of a paper bag. I burned pizza and rice. My lack of sense of smell was a definitely a handicap when it came to seasoning savory food. It just couldn’t get it the way my mom could. Still, I always loved food, loved just about anything my  mother made–and now my husband makes. In fact, she and my chef husband have ruined me for your everyday restaurants. They pale in comparison to anything that came out of our simple, non-commercial, very homey kitchen. While trying to recreate some of that, for me, has been a challenge, the one thing I could do well was bake. I was always good at baking. Perhaps my pasta sauce needs a little work, but give me flour, sugar, butter, and pure vanilla extract and watch me go.

It started in the kitchen in our old house in Canton. It started there with my mother and her helping me bake chocolate chip cookies. It started with me watching and helping her make cannoli shells. It moved from my mother helping me to my best friend and I exploring our baking prowess on our own. Specifically, I remember the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, a classic, and numerous batches of drop biscuits and a few pineapple upside down cakes. Later, in college, my roommate and let our final exam stress out by baking Christmas cookies.

Now, I have my own very small kitchen, smaller than perhaps it should be for as much as it gets used. Still, we make our galley work. Also, if  there is one place I’ve ditched books and gone electronic it would be for recipes. My apologies to cookbook writers everywhere. With my iPhone I have so many options available at my fingertips and an endless number of new things I can try. What is particularly nice is that I can take the ingredients I find in my pantry, look them up, and usually find something that fits.

Last week, I took some canned pumpkin I had left over from Thanksgiving and found a cinnamon sugar pumpkin muffin recipe. You can find the recipe at Sally’s Baking Addiction. I made regular size muffins instead of minis, so I had to cook them a bit longer. They were not overly sweet. That’s fine by me. I hate when I get a muffin and am expecting a muffin, but it turns out sweeter than cake. Anyway, they were a hit with friends and family, and they made for nice morning side to my cup of ginger pear tea.

This week, I made a basic vanilla sheet cake from scratch for my son’s friend who is leaving soon for army basic training. I’d tried the Better

Sheet cake made from scratch.

Sheet cake made from scratch.

Homes and Gardens recipe many times, but the cakes always seemed a bit dry. This time I searched for another simple option. I landed on the best recipe at TheKitchn. The cake came out more moist than I had expected. I think a little tweaking with applesauce might make it just right. I consider myself a butter cream frosting connoisseur, so I can make it in my sleep. I need to beef up the cake decorating supplies and practice a bit with the tips. Still, it has been less than 24 hours and the cake has all but disappeared. And no, Maynard has not gotten hold of any.

In the end, what it does for me, besides making my family happy, is it gives me a little space from writing, directs my creative energy in another way that literally and figuratively feeds my writing and I think it’s important to take that time and do those things or we get burned out. I wasn’t feeling burned out, but it felt good all the same to fill the well in that way. How do you fill the well?


Lemons, fig cake and setting

When life sends you lemons (and figs) via the U.S. Postal Service, make lemonade and fig cake. Okay, so life didn’t really send the lemons and figs. My parents sent them. They sent them all the way from their home in California where lemon and fig trees produce so quickly they can’t eat or use the fruit fast enough. I’ve enjoyed the gifted bounty. I have made delicious fresh-squeezed lemonade and an out of this world fig cake that I found a recipe for at a blog called Lemons and Anchovies. With a name like that the recipes have to be good. This one was probably the best thing I’ve baked from scratch ever.

None of this has anything to do with the Midwest Writers Workshop, except to say that my time there was a nice gift in what has turned out to be a stressful, quickly dissolving summer. As I mentioned in my previous post, I learned so much. I think today’s nugget will focus on what I learned in D.E. (Dan) Johnson’s workshop classes. I attended two. For those who don’t know Dan, he writes historical mysteries set in Detroit in the early 20th century. I have not read his books. I intend to even though I’m not one to really read mystery. I’m compelled by the glimpse I had of his writing and by his writing knowledge. He knows his stuff.

Fig Cake made with figs from my mom and dad’s backyard in California.

His workshop on setting was an elaboration on the writing mantra “show, don’t tell.” That description doesn’t really do it justice, because he dove deeply into what that really means and how that really works to bring a narrative to life. I think the most valuable piece of advice I walked away with was his technique for making sure he’s using enough of every sense. He goes through his manuscripts with five different highlighters each representing one of the five senses. This gives him a visual diagram of how often he’s using these to bring out setting. I haven’t tried it yet, but it has made me much more aware of where I’m using all the senses in my work.

So, now that I am thinking of the senses, time to go let the golden, soft fig cake melt in my mouth, so I can taste the hints of sweet cream, olive oil and butter as the smell of baked fig wafts about my head. I won’t forget to wash it down with the sweet and tangy fresh lemonade.

My life in a box

I’m thinking of changing the title of this blog to “My Life in a Box.” Why? It’s because I spend my most of my waking hours standing next to my Dear Partner J  in a six-foot by ten-foot stainless steel box. Yes, this definitely, if nothing else, tests a marriage. Just yesterday, with the heat index hovering around 102 and no air conditioning in our box, the ingredients were ripe for us to have a few of our “moments.” It didn’t help that our paella took longer to cook than normal and our corn dog batter was falling apart (an issue with the fallback brand of baking powder we chose not because of cost but because we were exhausted and didn’t want to make one more stop at one more store.) All were lessons learned and thank goodness that our commissary kitchen has a giant walk-in cooler we can step into to cool off, literally and figuratively.

Still, as hellish as it sounds, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Words and food, it doesn’t get any better than that. Jay and I definitely have a common interest in creating and eating great food. Despite our “moments,” we’ve had a great fun with our cart. We’ve met some wonderful people. I love watching people’s faces as they read our menu of paella with Catalan-style pulled pork, lamb burgers with Valdeon blue cheese and pear mustarda, chorizo corn dogs, duck fries with chorizo duck gravy and Valdeon blue cheese, and Mama Maria’s Almond Cookies. I am most often asked what duck fries are. Most people think they are fried duck, but they are hand-cut fried potatoes with chorizo duck gravy and blue cheese. Yum!! They were reviewed favorably in Current Magazine, as were my cookies, for which I have Ji Hye of the food cart San Street to thank. She’s the one who bought the cookies to share with the reviewers, Joe and Lisa. They may well have passed them over had Ji Hye not done that.

In my former life as a columnist, it was well-written that I didn’t think of myself as all that kitchen savvy. Mostly, I have been haunted by the few pizzas I have burned, perhaps because I was distracted by kids and such, and then there was a rice episode in college, before I knew that rice had to be turned down to simmer. My apologies to my then roommate Karin, whose pot I destroyed. While I would never admit to being able to handle full-on line cooking in a full-on restaurant I have managed to hold my own in the food cart, surprisingly. I can flip a burger, down some corn dogs and fries and dish out paella like nobody’s business. Honestly, though, I love the baking, the quiet of the kitchen mid-shift as most everyone is up at their carts selling food. Perhaps baking comes naturally because I did so much of it as a kid, and there were always  great memories associated with it, memories of making cookies with my mom and memories of the many pineapple upside down cakes my best friend, Kim, and I made from scratch.  So, it turns out that I’ve rounded out my Dear Partner J’s menu with a little sweet touch and that works for me.

After almost two months in business, I have finally built some stamina for what is an extremely physical job and add to that carting the food back and forth from the commissary kitchen to the food cart. I did, after all, spend the last 12 years sitting in an office. I would hardly call it a cubicle job. I worked for a newspaper, so I was on the go quite a bit.

Now that I’m getting used to the job, I finally made it known that it’s time for me to get back to writing. That will be helped by the fact that I started with a new writing group and am committed to making that a priority again. So, I guess I better get to work on my books, one done and one  just beginning, then it’s off to Bacon Fest in Ann Arbor.

Day 64 – The Miracle of Turning Bananas into Bread

I’ve been increasingly embracing a sustainable way of life, so I’m taking steps in my home to make food rather than purchase a bunch of prepackaged foods. We already did a bit of this, but I’m trying to think more ecologically about everything I do. I’ve got a long way to go, but I did some baking today and it felt great. The bread tasted great as well. My kids think I can’t cook, but I’m not so bad. My dear partner J and I continued the making things at home trend I started with baking and we made a delicious tomato sauce with mushrooms that we put over penne past. Yum. All of that led to this poem tonight. Now it’s time for bed.

The Miracle of Turning Bananas into Bread

Today, in making my house a home, warmth
came from the oven where I turned old

bananas into bread. There was something
that became whole in that one small

act, the beating of the eggs, the folding
of liquid into flour, all of it spilled deep

into every cell massaging away lingering
effects of days when healing meant

shoot first and ask later, but there were
few questions to ask, there was little to say,

just a routine of needles and tubes that
these days are yet vivid but history all

the same. Still, they make the act of stirring
batter a gift, the act of turning bananas

into bread nothing short of a miracle.
That’s what it is, a miracle.

Word of the Week – Cookie

The word “cookie” is derived from the dutch word “koekje.” So cookies are dutch. I never batted an eye at the dutch, now my sister is practically Dutch. Well, she’s not really practically Dutch, but she lives in the Netherlands, so she could be considered practically Dutch. This has nothing to do with the fact that I was buried in a mound of cookie dough, yesterday, and spent hours icing sugar cookies and making fudge, because I’m a woman and I can multitask. The cookies are disappearing fast and I’ll probably have to make more.

Now I’m not thinking of cookies or fudge. Instead, I’m thinking of chocolate cake with chocolate frosting because it’s what I would choose on this test my sister-in-law sent. This is supposed to be like one of those Myers-Briggs personality tests but with a lot more sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla flavoring, and it seems to me to be much more accurate than Myers-Briggs. The fact that I would choose chocolate cake with chocolate frosting means the following about my personality:


 6. CHOCOLATE CAKE WITH  CHOCOLATE ICING — Sexy;  always ready to give and receive. Very  creative, adventurous, ambitious, and passionate. You can a appear to  have a cold exterior but are warm on the inside. Not  afraid to take chances. Will not settle for anything average in life. Love to laugh.
That pretty much says it all, especially the sexy part.