Baking as Biography – A Life Story in Recipes
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 260 pages, $24.95
Most of us can look to a mother or grandmother as a cooking mentor; someone who taught us the basics of home cooking, and who shared their love of the craft and inspired us to try new dishes and expand our cooking repertoires. But what of the poor souls whose mothers didn’t cook, or worse, who didn’t cook well? What of the people who mothers cooked, but hated it?
Dianne Tye had one such mother. A minister’s wife in the Maritimes during the 70s, Tye’s mother was obligated to cook, not just for family, but for myriad church and community events, but never truly enjoyed it.
Tye herself went on to become a Women’s Studies professor at Memorial University, and tells her story in two distinct voices; first the clinical voice of science, observing trends in food and social norms during her childhood, and analyzing how they affected her mother, and in turn her family with regards to what she baked, when, and for whom. But when recalling specific stories about her mother, her baking for various events or a description of the dish, Tye’s voice becomes softer, more familial, verging at times on romanticized. This jump can be disconcerting as Tye attempts to distance herself from the information.
I’m not typically a cake mix purchaser. When you still need to add milk, eggs, etc., it’s usually just as easy to make your baked goods from scratch. So I bought this bag of Grainstorm muffin mix at the Green Barns Farmer’s Market out of curiosity more than anything else.
The premise is that the various mixes (muffins, pancakes, oatmeal cookies and a vegan muffin) are all made from ancient grains, grown in Ontario and ground and mixes and then vacuum-sealed for freshness. They’re also peanut and nut-free. The grains though are not all that exotic – to me anyway – and include spelt, kamut, oats and red fife grains, all of which can be purchased as flours with relative ease, at least in Toronto. So I don’t know that buying a mix would really be saving me anything – I have most of these flours (plus buckwheat) in my cupboard at any given time and cook with them regularly.
So after finally making it to the new Longo’s down at Maple Leaf Square, Greg and I are wandering through the place, filling our cart with many, many thing we don’t need. (Seriously, biggest one-stop grocery bill ever!) Anyway, added to the cart full of things we don’t need but want, is a package of Spanish torta de aceite. I have no idea what they are, but they come in a Seville orange flavour. That’s enough incentive for me. And since I’m being a greedy girl and buying many things I want but don’t need, into the cart they go, even though they’re eight bucks for what look like 8 individually-wrapped 5-inch crackers.
The torta come in a variety of savoury flavours; olive oil, sesame seed, anise, and one sweet variety, Seville orange, sprinkled with sugar and the dough studded with bits of Seville orange peel. The package says they are to be eaten with cheese.
I can’t remember the last time I baked anything from a mix. Greg had a passing fancy with a disappointing Boston Cream Pie mix at one point when I had a broken arm and he was attempting to do some of the cooking, but it was a sad affair that we agreed never to repeat. Besides usually being not very good, cake mixes have the uncanny ability to suck absolutely all the fun out of baking. Dump powder, add water or milk. Stir. Meh. I get that this is exactly the amount of effort that is desired by people who do not like to bake but for some reason want to “make a cake”, as opposed to going out to a nice bakery and buying something. But for those of us that dig the process, it’s not a lot of fun.
Which is why this particular box of cake mix is such a conundrum.
When Greg’s uncle Daniel passed away at the end of November, he left an apartment full of stuff that needed to be dealt with. Daniel wasn’t a hoarder, but he definitely had some packrat tendencies, and his tiny little apartment often felt like a delicate dollhouse to my lumbering built-like-a-brick-shithouse frame, exacerbated by the fact that there was so much stuff everywhere.
As Daniel spent most of his adult life working as a chef, much of what he collected was food-related. Every time I saw him, he gifted me with cookbooks, or baking pans or little gadgets and utensils. Many of these he’d pick up at thrift shops and yard sales, treasures that he couldn’t pass up but likely knew he’d never need.
Sheryl has a deep freezer full of food, which includes 4 frozen chickens. She needs to make room in the freezer for for 5 bags of Christmas cookies. She removes 1 chicken and cooks it, resulting in 8 servings of meat, 4 of which are eaten and 4 of which are placed in containers to become part of a chicken pot pie. If she returns the 4 uneaten portions of meat to the freezer, along with the chicken carcass to use for stock at a future date, how many bags of cookies will fit in the freezer? Note – Show your work or points will be deducted.
Students unable to complete the question through standard mathematical formulae are welcome attempt to solve the problem using physics. Those wishing to attempt to find a solution using Freezer Tetris™, please contact the professor to book an examination date.
I’ve written before about learning to cook at the side of my Grandmother. I’ve also written about the revelation that this same Grandmother, who has been responsible for preparing 3 meals a day, for a varying number of hungry mouths, for the past 70 years, actually hates to cook. My cousin and I always assumed that the fun things she let us do while helping her prepare food were meant to be, well, fun. For us. As it turns out they were often ways for her to make the process more interesting for herself, and if she was able to take a shortcut or two in the name of “fun” then all the better.
The “pissybed” is really just a free form pie. In France, it would fall under the header of “galette” if galette meant “shit, my pastry is crap today and isn’t going to roll out properly!” Because this kind of pie is usually what you end up with, albeit unintentionally, if your pie crust is crap. You can make them if your pie crust is fine, as was my Grandmother’s – and mine – but know that unless they get to taste it, people will think this is because your dough is a no-go. My Grandma wouldn’t know a galette from a whosit – there weren’t a lot of fancy French people in rural Nova Scotia. Well, there were once but the English shipped them off to Louisiana to become Cajuns.
Working on the theory that everything is better with coconut, I came up with these the other day. They’re meant to resemble an inside-out bounty bar. Flavourwise it works, but next time I’ll incorporate more coconut right into the buttercream frosting.
Bounty Bar Cupcakes
1/4 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup coconut milk
1/4 cup milk
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Cream butter and sugar until smooth then add egg and vanilla. Beat until light and fluffy. Blend flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda and cocoa in a separate bowl. In a measuring cup, mix milk and coconut milk together. Alternate small amounts of the flour mixture and the milk until fully incorporated and smooth.
Line a cupcake pan with papers and fill each approximately 3/4 full. Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. Allow to cool completely.
1/4 cup butter
2 cups icing sugar
Combine butter and icing sugar and enough coconut milk to create a thick but spreadable icing. Spread onto each cupcake and then sprinkle with toasted coconut.
The flavour combination of dark chocolate, dulce de leche and sea salt is not new. You might even say it’s a bit passé, but it could also be one of those things that become a classic, like chocolate and mint.
I had wanted thimble (aka. thumbprint) cookies, but I was also craving chocolate. And when my pal David at Circles and Squares Bakery tweeted about making dulce de leche brownies, the idea hit me.
This first batch is really a prototype – I made one pan and put the caramel into the thumbprints first, before baking, as you do when making the regular version with jam. This created a big oozing mess of melted caramel. Filling the prints as soon as the cookies come out of the oven works better – it melts just enough to smooth out, without creating too much of a river.
I also used 100% cacao chocolate, because that’s what I had on hand. It’s not readily available, but I don’t think I’d go below about 80% or the cookie will be way too sweet – otherwise the amount of sugar would have to be adjusted. And, I cheated and used dulce de leche from a jar, but the caramel is not hard to make.
Go big or go home. Not my life’s philosophy, but apparently one I follow when baking.
See, I got a freezer, right? And not eating meat, I needed something to put in it. I filled it up somewhat with summer delights; fiddleheads and berries and pesto and tubs of peach chutney. But my original plan for the thing included cookies. I could start making Christmas cookies in September! Thus saving me from running around frantically in November to get everything done.
It was a great theory, but what actually happened was that I had all that extra time on my hands and so made more… much more. Ironically we found homes for most of it and now have a happy postman, building superintendent, co-workers, friends and relatives.
Cookies: clockwise from the top: chocolate coffee crinkles, zimsterne (a rolled meringue cookie with almonds and hazelnuts), white chocolate cranberry and pistachio biscotti, honey sand balls (a shortbread sweetened with honey and studded with walnuts), pfefferneusse, chocolate orange icebox cookies and eggnog shortbread squares. In the centre: zesty lime and coconut shortbread.