The Bread Baking Bug

Although I do enjoy cooking, I truly love baking. My journey into baking began with my mom and me making Christmas cookies together when I was about five years old. From there I went on to bake all types of cookies, brownies and cakes by myself. Although my dad loved pies, I rarely made them except for Thanksgiving. Through the years I most often baked cookies, particularly chocolate chip cookies. I have always found the process very joyful and relaxing. Even visualizing making the cookie batter calms me. But I never baked bread. That is until the bread baking bug hit me.

My bread baking path started innocently enough in 2020 while I was reading Mirabai Starr’s book Wild Mercy. In one of her chapters she described a beautiful way to approach the Friday night Sabbath. I had never before celebrated Sabbath but Mirabai’s words lead me to want to create my own ceremony including homemade challah. My great grandmother Honey Mama made challah regularly. My mom has her recipe but it includes eggs. I have been vegan since 2017 so I needed to come up with a recipe for challah that didn’t use any animal products. Given how much I love baking, I have done a fair amount of research and experimentation to create vegan versions of all my usual baked goods. I have made many vegan variations of chocolate chip cookies, chocolate, vanilla and lemon cakes and cupcakes, frostings, coffee cakes, muffins, pastries and every other kind of cookie imaginable. But I had never made a challah before, let alone a vegan challah.

Reading recipes for baked goods as well as savory dishes is one of my favorite past times. Bread recipes were not part of my usual genre. So I dug into reading recipe after recipe for challah. Some were vegan and some were not vegan. I finally found two vegan recipes that I liked so I took a little bit from one recipe and a little bit from the other to make a recipe that appealed to me. (I combine recipes all the time to get just what I want). Making challah was a good place for me to start bread baking because I love the art and beauty of the braided loaf. I watched many videos with different challah designs and decided on the 4-braid loaf. It came out quite lovely. And it tasted really good. A few weeks later I tried a variation with orange juice and olive oil that is a bit denser and has a yellow tint like the traditional egg-based versions and has a square braid. Very tasty.

Since 2020 my bread baking seemed to be limited to an occasional challah around the High Holidays in the fall. However late last year the category of my regular recipe reading hobby expanded to include breads of all types. Then in March of this year I took out a half dozen or so bread books from the library. I read probably upward of sixty bread recipes between those books and online trying to get the courage to make a traditional rustic loaf. I was a bit intimidated because I have a friend who bakes beautiful sour dough breads and spends a great deal of time creating her delicious loaves. I finally was ready to take a stab at baking a crusty bread and decided for simplicity to make it all white and not bother with sour dough.

I am fortunate that we have four different sizes of Le Creuset dutch ovens that we got at their outlet store many years ago. We use them for many different dishes but mostly at Thanksgiving when we make two types of stuffing (technically called dressings since they aren’t inside a turkey). A dutch oven is a wonderful way to get a beautifully crusty loaf of bread in a home oven. But the Le Creuset pots don’t come with knobs on their lids that can handle the high heat needed for baking bread. After a quick online shop I was able to get inexpensive stainless steel handle replacements. I was ready to go! My first try was a simple so called “no-knead” bread and the results made me so happy that I have made four more loaves since then. I have the bread baking bug.

My first rustic bread

I didn’t need to buy any specialty tools beyond the stainless steel knobs. It turns out that many years ago Andy’s mom gave us a bread making kit from King Arthur that we used once then put away. Hidden in the kitchen drawers and cupboards I found a lame, a Danish whisk and even a banneton proofing basket (that I have yet to use). I have since bought a large bucket to hold enough dough to make four, one-pound loaves over a few weeks time. I also got a new lame to try different slash designs. I am, however, going through much more flour that I was used to when only baking cookies and cakes.

I can’t say what comes next. I feel fairly comfortable with the no-knead approach and I already have whole wheat and rye flours ready to expand beyond white. My friend has generously offered up her sourdough starter if and when I decide to take that on. For now I am very happy to know that I can create a beautiful and tasty loaf of bread whenever I want. But I know that cookies will remain my bread and butter so to speak.

xoxo Rachel


Holiday Traditions Old and New: Baking Christmas Cookies with Mom

Little Rachel with MomOur family lore goes something like this. I was just four years old when Mom and I began the holiday tradition of baking Christmas cookies. Apparently while baking cookies that first time with my mom, I saved her life. Well not exactly her life, but her hand. We were using the electric mixer when my mom got a spoon stuck in the beaters that pulled her hand into the mixer. Being the brilliant little girl I was—according to lore—I pulled the power cord out of the outlet in a flash.

Beloved Cookie RecipesMy memory of the event is dim at this point but it must be true according to our family story. That first cookie baking experience—scary event with the mixer notwithstanding—set the stage for a lifelong love of baking in general and more specifically baking Christmas cookies with my mom. Each year while I lived at home, we baked Christmas cookies together. Starting in the 70s, we selected recipes from the December issue of various magazines such as Women’s Day, Family Circle and Ladies Home Journal. One of my favorite memories was going to the grocery store to pick up the December issues that always had special inserts of holiday cookie recipes. Many of the magazines still do today.

Me and my mom December 2014Since that fateful day, I have baked Christmas cookies with my mom every year while I lived at home. When I left home for college and beyond, the days of baking Christmas cookies together with my mom stopped. Not living near my mom, I continued the tradition of baking Christmas cookies on my own or with Andy. Each year we did at least get to eat the cookies together when my mom and dad visited at Christmastime.

Ready, Set, Bake!Sometime over the years of baking the holiday cookies on my own, my mom sent me a Xerox copy of our favorite magazine cookie recipe pamphlet—Women’s Day Kitchen #203 December 1973—so that I could bake our favorites. Then sometime later, she sent me all the original pamphlets that I lovingly keep in my cookie recipe file. The usual suspect recipes include hazelnut studded fingerprint cookies, mocha pecan balls, crescents of some sort and Greek Christmas cookies. Of course I always bake chocolate chip cookies and often oatmeal scotchies and more. But alas, I had to bake the cookies without my mom.

Rachel the cookie bakerThis year was different. For the first time since I left home, my mom and I baked Christmas cookies together at her place—which happens to now be just 10 minutes away from my home. We arranged to spend a day together baking our old standards. I gathered all my recipes and bought a bunch of the ingredients. My mom bought a bunch of other ingredients and so began the day-of-baking-cookie-frenzy. It was a delight! When I arrived first thing in the morning, my mom was already in a pretty vintage apron and she had several aprons for me to choose from. The dining room table was chock-a-block with bowls and cookie sheets and cooling racks and ingredients. In the kitchen that is open to the dining room, the mixer (no, not that mixer—it is long gone) and measuring cups stood nearby ready to use.

Ready, Set, Bake!We have always worked well together in the kitchen and this year was no exception. Mom acted as prep chef, nicely chopping nuts and measuring ingredients, while I operated the mixer. Being new to the apartment and the kitchen, my mom wasn’t sure whether her oven was true to temperature, but it turns out that it was perfect. We mixed and rolled and baked and talked to our hearts delight. After 7 hours, we had plenty of yummy cookies to be enjoyed together and also to be shared with others.

Before I left, I gave Mom back the Xerox copy of the Women’s Day Kitchen #203 booklet that she made for me so many years ago. IMy beautiful mom kept the original. So the tradition of baking Christmas cookies with my mom restarts. I am so lucky to have my beautiful and loving cookie-baking partner nearby!

XOXO Rachel

I First Learned to Bake with a Light Bulb

60s Easy Bake OvenFor many girls (and some boys) in the 60s and 70s, their first experience baking was under a light bulb. For some it was the light bulb of an Easy Bake Oven or, in my case, the light bulb of a Suzie Homemaker Oven. I remember being a bit envious of my friend Nathalie who had the Easy Bake Oven because it seemed so modern at the time compared to my oven that looked just like—well—an oven. The Easy Bake oven you push the cake through as if it is on a conveyor belt. Push it in on one side unbaked and when it is done, push it out the other side beautifully baked. Yes, it is a manual operation but the concept seemed so cool to me.

60s Suzie Homemaker OvenNonetheless, I loved my Suzie Homemaker Oven. It came with little cake pans and little boxes of cake mix. You mixed up the batter by adding water, and then poured the batter in the pan. Then you just slid it into the oven, turned it on and the light bulb did the rest—very slowly. I remember that I used up the boxes that came with the oven fairly quickly. But figuring out how to make the right amount of batter—not too much and not too little—on your own was too difficult so I reverted to baking in the big-girl oven, my mom’s gas oven (see also Ode to baking chocolate chip cookies). Yes, I still played with the Suzie Homemaker Oven but I baked in the real kitchen.

Modern Easy Bake OvenI was reminded of my early mini-baking experiences when the Toys R Us Christmas catalog arrived in the mail last week. It was so much fun to comb through the catalog and see what is “hot” this year for kids. What caught my eye—besides the ride-able for kids miniature electric powered Kia Soul in green—was the Easy Bake Oven. It is now shaped like a microwave oven though you still slide the pan through it. And the Easy Bake Oven is celebrating its 50th Anniversary. I wonder if it still uses a light bulb. There were no Suzie Homemaker Ovens in sight.

The other items in the toy catalog that I would have loved to have as a little girl—hey, I would even consider getting one at my current age—are the amazing kitchen playsets. Listen to this description: Deluxe Kitchen with Realistic Sounds, Granite-Style Countertop & 38-piece Accessory Set. It has an oven, a microwave, bread-baskets (with bread) and condiments☺. And the fridge even has a front water and ice dispenser. That’s better equipped than my current kitchen. They offer it in pink and also in “Neutral” as they describe it that is shown with a little boy and girl playing together. Those sets make me want to go in my kitchen and play. Hey, that’s what I do whenever I bake! Let the holiday baking begin. This time without a light bulb!

XOXO Rachel

Aunt Ellie, Mom, Rachel and Coco admiring cookies that Andy and I baked

Ode to baking chocolate chip cookies

Getting ready to bake!I always keep a package (or two) of Nestlé’s semi-sweet morsels in my pantry.  You never know when the urge to bake chocolate chip cookies will overcome you.  In my case, that desire to bake comes on sudden and strong.  I may put it off for a few days if I am really busy, or as is the case these days, until I find a morning cool enough to turn on the oven (alas, no air conditioning).  But I must bake the cookies once I have it in my mind to do so.

As much as anything else I consider myself to be—psychologist, researcher, romantic, writer—I am a cookie baker.  I love to bake cookies, all kinds of cookies.  It started out when I was very young, about 4 or so years old.  I began baking Christmas cookies with my mom.  I’m not certain when the desire morphed to baking mostly chocolate chip cookies.  What I do remember very well is that I have always had an almost desperate need to bake.

Aunt Ellie, Mom, Coco and me admiring Christmas cookies that I baked with AndyAs a girl I would scour the Joy (The Joy of Cooking, of course) for any kind of cookie recipe that used whatever we had in the house.   And what we had in the house was never all that much—in the eyes of a baker, anyway.  We didn’t stock nuts or chips or other baking accouterments, but we always had margarine (Fleishman’s, I believe), eggs, sugar, flour, vanilla, baking soda and baking powder.  If I was really lucky we might have an old box of brown sugar at the back of the cupboard that was solid as a rock.  With determination, I would pulverize the sugar and manage to make do.

Sometimes in a pinch I would pull together bar cookies from whatever cereal we had on hand like Special K (never Rice Krispies) or Cocoa Krispies glued together with corn syrup and peanut butter.  To this day I really love Rice Krispy marshmallow bars—though I have never stocked marshmallows, there is always an old jar of corn syrup available because no recipe ever uses very much.

One of my fondest memories of baking as a little girl started out with great frustration by the lack of ingredients—but the outcome was wonderful.  The only items in the kitchen that day were brown sugar, eggs, flour, vanilla and baking powder.  Of course we didn’t have any of the optional items like nuts or coconut or figs or dates so I remember being a bit disappointed that they were so thin—but they were sweet and golden and buttery (well, as buttery as margarine is) and they really didn’t need anything else.

Butterscotch Brownies from The Joy of Cooking, 1975 edition
About 16 Thin 2¼-Inch Squares
An all-time favorite, easily made.
Preheat oven to 350°.
Melt in a saucepan:
            ¼ cup butter
Stir into it until dissolved:
            1 cup brown sugar
Cool these ingredients slightly, then beat in well:
            1 egg
            1 teaspoon vanilla
Sift, then measure:
            ½ cup all-purpose flour
Resift it with:
            1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
            ½ teaspoon salt
Stir these ingredients into the butter mixture. Add:
            ½ to 1 cup finely chopped nuts or
                ¾ cup grated coconut
Chopped dates and figs may be substituted for the nuts.  Use a little of the flour over them.  Pour the batter into a greased 9 x 9-inch pan.  Bake about 20 to 25 minutes.  Cut into bars when cool.

I made the occasional cake when I was young (though I imagine what is “occasional” to me is probably “often” to non-bakers), but that required other items like chocolate or powdered sugar and more margarine if I was going to frost.  We usually had a box of unsweetened cocoa in the house and if it wasn’t too much after Christmas I might hit the jackpot and find Baker’s squares of unsweetened chocolate.

Andy and Rachel's Cakes & CookiesMy mom was a goddess at making something from nothing like jellyrolls or my favorite, mocha rolls.  I am not much of a jam or jelly person so it didn’t register to me to try to do something with whatever jam we had around.  Nor was I ever any good at making the sponge cake for a jelly roll so add that to my reasons for sticking with cookies!

10th Wedding Anniversary Cookies that Andy and I bakedIn hindsight, I have no doubt that had I asked my mom 45 years ago to keep other baking ingredients on hand including the almighty Nestlé’s morsels, she would have gladly done so—but it never dawned on me to ask.  These days I always keep chips on hand (butterscotch, peanut butter and milk, dark, semi-sweet) and a ton of butter, flour, sweeteners of all kinds and anything else you can imagine is useful for baking.  If you find me with a large bowl in hand and a wooden spoon (preferable to an electric mixer), I will most likely be making a batch of chocolate chip cookies.  You will notice a big grin on my face because I am a cookie baker—echoing the words of a baker Andy and I met very early one morning at his bakery in Silver Plume, Colorado.  When we asked him, “How are you?” he responded with a smile, “I am a baker!”  And that is a very happy thing indeed.