3. When Life Gives You Lemons
The first thing I ever made for human consumption was lemon bars. I was around 5 or 6 years old. They were a big hit and I made them throughout childhood. While I’m now partial to chocolate anything, even the sight of lemon bars evokes feelings of youth, accomplishment and sunshine.
Other than lemon bars and a few other baked goods — mom’s pumpkin bread recipe and my chocolate chip zucchini bread based out of summer necessity — I have never been a baker. I’ll cook up a storm — big Indian feasts, slow braised meats, handrolled grapeleaves, stews, handmade pasta, Greek mousakka, and much more. But I’m pretty a hard no in the baking department, especially if it involves dough.
That was until Paris.
I learned cooking basics at school when home “ec” still existed. My mom was a decent cook mostly because she received a recipe book of my dad’s favorite dishes as a wedding gift from my grandmother who was an excellent cook. College exposed me to different cuisines and ingredients, but most nights I relied on that college stable: pasta and a jar of Ragu. (It was as hard to write that as it is to read it I assure you).
I grew as a cook when I moved to San Francisco in my mid-twenties. I was simultaneously inspired by the local culinary scene, the local markets teeming with fresh produce, and the meager salary and not so meager rent that kept me out of many of the city’s finer epicurean establishments. I relied on Michael Bauer, friend’s expense accounts and occasional bonuses to find out what chefs were dishing up to the city.
Cooking became my escape from work. With the precision and long hours required of a new lawyer I needed a diversion that allowed me creativity and flexibility. Cooking — unlike baking — filled that hole. Cooking is forgiving and allows on the fly adjustments. I could improvise, add and (usually) save a dish along the way. Cooking provided all the things I craved, but wasn’t getting from my law firm corporate life.
Baking in contrast was anxiety producing. It requires precision. There is no room for adjustments once the dish has been handed over to the oven gods. I had enough anxiety at work, I didn’t need it in the kitchen. With one glaring exception.
A Detour Though The Greek Isles
I threw myself into perfecting spanakopita, when Bennett and I returned from our Greek honeymoon. For the uninitiated, spanakopita consists of an earthy, cheesy, almost mysterious blend of herbs and greens wrapped in buttery dough. It can be made as individual hand pies, or my favorite, served up like a savory pie from a deep baking dish.
Spanakopita became my gateway into baking. It’s a perfect balance of cooking and baking if one chooses to make the dough from scratch. I of course did not, thanks to the discovery of a delectable prepackaged pastry dough at my local Greek grocer. Who needs the work of making a flaky, butter infused dough? Not I. Nevertheless, once the mixture is encased in the dough there is no fixing it if you forgot an ingredient. I found myself stuck with more than a few pans of underwhelming spinach pie.
By the end of our first year of marriage, however, I was delivering memory evoking Spanakopita from my oven. I was delighted and proud. But not ready to embrace baking.
A Turning Point
In 2009, I entered a turning point in the kitchen. Life handed me some lemons in the form of a health diagnosis. In response, I choose to eliminate gluten and dairy from my diet. It was the right decision for my health. But without wheat, and butter my limited baking days were over.
That brings me back to Paris.
When deciding to go to Paris to celebrate my 50th, Bennett and I agreed to suspend our dietary choices and experience all Paris offers. That was either the dumbest or most brilliant decision we’ve made. Dumb in that my post-menopausal mid-section now seems to be my forever companion who laughs at my secret desire for a twenty-something waist line, or brilliant in that meal time and snack time are now more delightful and fulfilling. Paris altered my kitchen identity and my relationship to baking.
Like with Greece, I returned from Paris on a mission. I was determined to recreate the delights of French baking without gluten and butter. Foolish I know. Anxiety producing yes. Utterly crazy for someone not fond of baking and its need for precision. I went from fixing things on the fly to the risky, no recovery world of baking with mysterious ingredients.
Luckily gluten-free baking had come a long way in the prior eight years and I was able to stand on the shoulders of giants like Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois of Bread in Five Minutes a Day, Frederique Jules, Jennifer LePoutre and Mitsuru Yanase of NoGlu and numerous no bake or unconventional bakers. Despite their inspiration, there were many mistakes along the way and many lessons learned.
Fast forward three years and a pandemic full of baking experimentation later. It’s New Year’s Eve of the much anticipated 2021. We sat down to a baking dish of my latest attempt at spanakopita complete, with homemade gluten-free, dairy-free dough and filling. Near perfection. Next time I’ll make a few tweaks with the dough, but I’m almost there with not only an edible, but a memory invoking dish that transports us back to Greece.
Embrace the Precision
Baking is a part of my daily life. I now bake a few loaves of sourdough bread each week. I feed my starter twice a day. Most weekends I bake cookies, cake or a pie. I’ve been experimenting with tarte tatin and even made a Paris patisserie worthy chocolate raspberry tart. What happened to my dislike, or more aptly my fear of baking?
Paris and turning fifty seems to have been a turning point. Together they seem to have accelerated my maturing from a white knuckle to an easy grip on the steering wheel of life. I am more open to kitchen failures and experimentation. With that, I now love to bake. I even adapt gluten recipes with non-gluten ingredients with frequent success.
The real turning point of course was when I realized I couldn’t control anything but my thoughts and actions and — this one is important — I wasn’t my failures. These are ever evolving realizations of course, as they are for all of us. In my case, they opened a new world. They allowed me to finally embrace the precision and science of baking with the confidence to experiment and create from scratch.
Next up: gluten-free, dairy-free lemon bars.