When I was a little girl, my Mom – who had been a high school English teacher when we lived in Maryland – decided she wanted to launch a second career as a lawyer. Of course this would necessitate her going to law school, no easy task for a thirty-something mother of three children; but my mom was not the kind of woman to be easily deterred. Or deterred at all, really, from anything she set her mind to. EVER. She started law school when I was five, my brother was eight, and my sister was ten, and the truth is she kind of disappeared for three years. She was still a conscientious mom and did her best to keep all the balls in the air (as all women do), but I remember having a lot of unsupervised time on my hands when I was in elementary school. This is not necessarily a bad thing for a kid; I was, by default, given the time and space (read: nobody was there to stop me) to explore things that interested me, and one of those things was baking. My mom hated being in the kitchen – cooking was probably her least favorite activity, and frankly if it weren’t for the fact that food was required to keep her children alive (and we couldn’t afford takeout), she would never have ventured anywhere near a stove. She actually made recipes from a book called “The ‘I Hate to Cook’ Book” (I am not making that up) in which pretty much every recipe involved a can-opener and a CorningWare casserole dish. Naturally, as a result I loved all things culinary and made it my mission to become a great baker and rescue myself and my siblings from those disgusting store-bought Pecan Sandies my mother insisted were “just fine.”
You might be thinking that this is the point where I’m going tell you of my preternatural gift for the culinary arts, of my innate food science genius, of my early triumphs with molecular gastronomy and sous vide, of the many Yolo County fair blue ribbons lining the walls of my bedroom. And you would be right, if this were someone else’s essay. On a bright spring day in second grade, I picked up my regular Scholastic book order, and there was the magical “Cookie Book” right at the top of the stack; that afternoon, after school, I made my first attempt at baking (the world’s best!) peanut butter cookies, which could only be described as a total clusterf***. It might have been my irrational fear of using an electric mixer (not helpful when you need to cream butter and sugar) that led me to use a spectacularly ineffective wooden spoon as a “mixer”; maybe it was the petrified brown sugar I dug out of the back of the cabinet (did I mention my mother never baked?) that probably dated from the Jurassic and that I put in my cookies anyway, ‘cause, well, it was brown(ish) and it said sugar on the package; perhaps that foul chunk of margarine (my mom never bought real butter) I threw in the bowl at the start wasn’t the best choice. Of course the cookies were a disaster, rock-hard peanut butter Frisbees dotted with mini-marbles of stale brown sugar. But, being my mother’s daughter, I would not be deterred. In my 7-year-old mind, I knew I was destined for baking greatness, peanut butter Frisbees be damned.
It took a few more epic failures (who knew 1 ½ cups milk doesn’t mean 11 + 2 cups? hello, cake soup) and years of trial and error, but by the time I was in my early 20’s I had become that baker, the one who not only knows how to make all the classics but has managed come up with a few of her own. Yep - I’m the dork who buys Scharffen-Berger 70% bittersweet chocolate in bulk online, the obsessive who uses different butters depending on the desired outcome (usually Kerrygold unsalted, but sometimes Plugra, and Kerrygold salted for shortbread; don’t laugh – it matters). I’ve even branched out into candy: English toffee with toasted pecans, fleur de sel caramels, rocky road – yes, you DO want to come to my house at Christmas. I’ve long since gotten over my fear of electric mixers – even the Cuisinart can’t scare me now. My brown sugar – along with every ingredient I use – is always impeccable, and a few decades after the Frisbee debacle my Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk cookies are second to none. And there’s no doubt in my mind that none of this would ever have happened if it hadn’t been for my no-bake Mom being at the UCD law library every afternoon, a model of stubborn single-mindedness that her little girl would emulate in her own unique way.