Off Piste: Fabulous baker's joys

Therese Huston's lifelong passion for baking has provided happiness and sustenance on many levels

January 21, 2010

If you're in my office, you may notice that the bookshelves are crowded with books on teaching. But if you're in my kitchen, you will know where my real passion lies. I love cookbooks. I do. I haven't counted recently, but my cookbook collection easily tops 200. And my favourite cookbooks, the kind I guiltily pick up and put down several times when I'm in a bookstore, are the ones on baking. In my kitchen, I now have four shelves devoted to baking cookbooks, and the chocolate section is about to muscle a shelf all to itself.

My near obsession with baking started young. I received an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas when I was eight years old, and I was the happiest little kid in the living room. Sitting amid all the other gifts of perfunctory socks and uncomfortable dresses, there was this amazing box full of promise. I felt like Santa finally understood me.

After all the other presents were unwrapped that morning, and we'd eaten the orange-frosted rolls that my mum had made, I could sit in the kitchen to savour my favourite gift. I read the entire pamphlet that came with it - the "cookbook", which was really just three sheets of paper folded and stapled, probably heavier with warnings than recipes. A little disappointment began to creep in. To make matters worse, the oven baked with a light bulb. A light bulb. I didn't understand how ovens worked, but even I knew this was not serious baking. I was still going to bake my masterpiece in the kitchen, but it appeared that I could bake anywhere there was a power outlet, such as in the garage, next to the lawn mower. As an added insult to my inner pastry chef, the recipe amounted to "Add water and stir". This was child's play.

But it was still my Christmas gift and I was going to make the most of it. Being able to bake in the kitchen with no adult supervision was pretty cool, even if there were no eggs to crack or messes to clean up. So I put on one of my mum's aprons and stirred some water into the packaged mix with the tiny chocolate chips (could I add some extra chips? Maybe a dollop of black raspberry jam? I wanted to be creative, but as a child, I was also a stickler for following instructions). I slid the cake into the oven, tried to peer in to see how it was doing, and turned on the timer. I got out plates and napkins for everyone in the family. I was so excited for those 12 minutes.

I shouldn't have been surprised by the size of the baked cake, because I had been the one to mix the batter and put the 4-inch pan in the oven, but I somehow expected some magic to occur under the light bulb's watch. My little heart sank when I pulled out a cake that was, at best, half a muffin. I put the cake on to the smallest saucer plate I could find and cut it into four careful pieces - one for me, one for my sister, and a wedge each for my parents. My dad's fingers were bigger than his piece. My mum generously (and ridiculously) asked for a fork for her bite. I'm not even sure I gave my sister her piece.

I quickly graduated to baking with our real oven, using measuring cups and spatulas and wishing that we had more food colouring. My sister and I got to bake pretty often because my mum sometimes worked in the evenings. She was a trade union organiser, and when one of her school districts was about to go on strike, she'd have to stay late for meetings, trying to negotiate better contracts for the school bus drivers or the cafeteria workers who belonged to the union. She loved her job, and she taught us to be kind to the hard-working people behind the scenes, the custodians and secretaries who clean up everyone else's messes (literally and figuratively).

She was a single mum for several years, and on those nights when she had to work late and our dad wasn't there to enforce a bedtime, my sister and I would go down to the kitchen and bake. We were thrilled by the tantalising possibility of making mum something special, something that she could eat when she got home at 10pm, something that would make her feel nourished and loved.

Now, you don't need a PhD in psychology to realise that the "presents" we baked for her were things that my sister and I wanted to eat. Looking back, I'm fairly sure that when mum came home after a long night at the bargaining table and was standing in the kitchen in her dress suit, high heels and nylons, the last thing she wanted was an overly sweet piece of layer cake with fudge icing. (Now that I'm an adult, I've been in enough all-day meetings to know that there must have been a plate of tired pastries somewhere in that boardroom 30 years ago.) But did our mum ever tell us that? Not once. She'd set down her stack of files on the kitchen counter, "ooh" and "ahh" as we dramatically lifted the plastic cover from the Tupperware cake dish, and insist: "Just a little slice, girls." As she eased her tired body into a chair, she'd add: "Somebody pour me some milk." Mum was so good to us.

I'd never thought of this before I began writing this article, but I can trace my lifelong obsession with cookbooks back to those late-night childhood baking sprees. You see, neither my sister nor I could drive yet, so our baking world was constrained by two things: the ingredients and the recipes we had in the house. With regard to the ingredients, we first had to size up the food we had in the kitchen because that changed from week to week, based on whatever mum had used or bought (or, and I'm not exaggerating, hidden from us). My sister and I would take everything that looked like potential baking ingredients out of the cupboard and refrigerator, line them up on the counter, count the eggs and bags of chocolate chips, and then search for a recipe that used as many of those ingredients as possible, but no more.

So the ingredients in our creative kitchen changed from week to week. The range of recipes, on the other hand, stayed frustratingly constant. My mum had seven cookbooks, just seven, and I can picture them all to this day. Her small collection included some books on hors d'oeuvres and fondues - I always put those mysterious adult-sounding volumes back on the shelf. That left us with just four cookbooks with dessert recipes we could make.

Four cookbooks may seem like a lifetime's worth of baking possibilities, but they weren't enough for me for a couple of reasons.

First, I was a little kid and just as picky as any other little kid. That pickiness eliminated any recipes with raisins, figs or mincemeat. No raisins, no way. I got stuck with those too often in my lunch box anyway.

Second, I wanted adventure and excitement in our 7ft x 11ft kitchen. I wanted to bake something new every single time. I loved the novelty of trying a new recipe to see if it was worth making again. And of course, we wanted to bake something that we could complete before my mum came home, which eliminated many of the elaborate recipes in her collection. Any recipe that was longer than a page would probably take too long, and I had a nagging suspicion that if she saw us using adult knives to chop the nuts when she walked in the door, we would get in trouble instead of being heralded as the delightful child prodigies we were.

So by the time I was about 11, I found myself wanting more recipes. My mum bought me a children's book of cookie recipes - one recipe for every month of the year. I made ten of the 12 recipes (who in their right mind would put "old-fashioned date bars" in a cookbook for kids?) and was itching for more.

It took several years before I had enough income to start buying my own cookbooks, and I bought my first one as a fresher at university - The Joy of Cooking. It's a kitchen classic; it had more than 600 pages, and I thought I'd be recipe-set for a good long time. But I got it back to my room and soon discovered that most of its recipes didn't fit a dorm kitchen that was basically equipped with burnt cookie sheets and small pots with no lids. Evidently one big generic cookbook wasn't going to be enough.

It was in my second year that I began experimenting by creating my own recipes. It probably started by accident - I can imagine that I didn't have enough milk for some recipe, so I substituted a few tablespoons of watered-down sour cream. Before long, I was changing ingredients left and right, doubling this and crossing out that. I felt unleashed, and I baked every weekend, usually on Saturday nights. People would stop by the kitchen, sloshed from a party, but coherent enough to hug me as they grabbed a cookie. They'd shout my name happily as they disappeared down the hallway.

In fact, one of the recipes I invented that year has become a tradition in my family. I went to a small college in Minnesota in the middle of rolling farmland. I was playing in the dorm kitchen one night, baking a new chocolate-chip cookie recipe I'd dreamt up, and someone ran in to say it was snowing. We looked out of the tall narrow window in the kitchen, everyone's faces pressed against the cold glass, but couldn't see a thing out there in the dark. Then someone turned out the lights, and sure enough, the flakes were there. It was mid-October and early snow, even for Minnesota.

We all ran outside for a minute, the crazy way you do when you're in college, looking up at all the flakes falling from the sky. We came back upstairs, shook the snow from our hair and ate warm cookies in quiet awe. We dubbed them First Real Snowfall Chocolate Chip Cookies. They were delicious. Twenty-odd years later, my mum calls me from Ohio each year when she makes them.

In fact, I was so proud of my recipes, I might have tried to bribe my way into graduate school with brownies. I applied to three graduate programmes in cognitive psychology, and in my application to the best of the three, I closed my essay by describing how much I liked to bake. I can't recall what I was thinking at the time - maybe something like "I am a complete and interesting person" - but I knew my chances of being admitted were slim, and I wanted to stand out. So I threw in a sentence or two about my killer raspberry chocolate brownies. A non sequitur, I'm sure, but those brownies were my pride and joy. The best part of this story? I got into that graduate programme.

I'd never been to that particular university, and I wasn't sure I wanted to spend most of my twenties there, so I flew out for a visit. I spent my day on campus talking with five amazingly high-powered researchers, famous people whose names I knew from my textbooks and research articles. All five had agreed to meet me, presumably looking to see if I would be a good fit for their labs.

It was intimidating and exciting, and the professors seemed a little, well, odd, to be honest. There wasn't much small talk. They asked hard questions about my past research projects and gunned down the one I wanted to do next. Two of them even quoted parts of my application, word for frightening word, but only one of them mentioned my baking. He said something like: "If I remember correctly, you said you like to bake brownies. Is that right?" When I nodded, his eyes widened. "Did you bring any?" He's the only person who made me laugh that day.

In the end, I decided to do my PhD there. Can you guess which of those five professors I worked with?

In that stress-filled day of interviews, he connected with me, and that's my most cherished pleasure in all of the baking and recipe-collecting that I do. I want to connect with people. Those 200 cookbooks in my kitchen? They're not just new taste and texture combinations that may stop me in my tracks: they are memorable moments I may share with someone else.

You see, most people wouldn't guess this, but I'm an introvert by nature. By introvert, I mean that I get my energy by spending time alone. I would choose a quiet walk in the woods over a cocktail party with amazing food any day.

One challenge this poses for me is that the most basic way that people connect with their friends and family - namely by talking, sharing stories and laughing until it hurts - that kind of connection wears me out much faster than I'd like. But when I bake, I can connect with people in another way. I can give you something I've made and see you smile, and I know we've shared an experience.

From the Easy-Bake Oven when I was eight all the way to the drizzled lemon cake I'm going to bake and take into the office next week, I'm finding ways to connect with people. I'm finding covert ways to say, "You matter to me", and in the academic world where someone is usually jockeying to be the smartest person in the room, it's a wonderful thing to hear.

http://www.theresehuston.com/recipes

• First Real Snowfall cookie recipe, see box on right

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