Confessions of a Pro Baker Turned Amateur

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In my many years as a professional baker, countless people told me that they could not bake, as if there were some sort of mystical secret to baking that was not available to them.

Often, that misconception, coupled with their longing for baked goods, translated into weekly or sometimes even daily visits to the Old Town Bakery, a Pasadena restaurant I founded and owned for nine years.

But I am no longer a restaurant owner, and my conscience has been bothering me lately. So I want to use this opportunity to make a little confession: I've known all along that baking ability is a lot like true love. It's out there for everyone; you just need to know where to look for it.

For me, the first place to look for it was inside my Easy Bake Oven. I cannot speculate on how many of the 16 million-plus ovens sold since the tiny appliance made its debut in 1963 have played a vital role in the creation of today's small army of American bakers, but I'd bet the number is way up there. My personal oven, a present from my mother for my eighth birthday that marked the beginning of my lifelong passion for baking, was of the turquoise-green variety. (These days they come in purple and pink and go by the name Easy-Bake Oven & Snack Center.)

To make a cake, I'd pour the contents of the itty-bitty box that looked just like the real thing from the store into a bowl. (Did I mention that Hasbro has sold 100 million of those boxes to date?)

Then I added water and mixed the batter with a perfect kid-size utensil.

Next, I poured the batter into the perfect toy-size cake pan, which I then placed in the oven.

Finally, baked by the magical heat of a 100-watt bulb, the batter turned into my own heaven on earth.

Though I would not have known what to call it when I was 8, I was experiencing baking as alchemy. You mix up some ingredients, add the mysterious power of a light bulb in your very own oven, and voila! You've created the thing that is valued even above gold--love. My father died many years ago, but to this day I can see his eyes light up as he prepared to devour one of my Easy-Baked chocolate cakes. Presenting my loved ones and friends with delicacies from the oven has been a lifelong thrill for me.

A friend of mine recently remarked that preparing meals for her family just never had quite the payoff of baking. She could spend an entire afternoon creating an elaborate dinner, and her family would enjoy the meal and be appreciative, but let her children walk into the house after school and smell chocolate chip cookies baking, or bread in the oven, and suddenly she was Mom of the Year.

Both my sons spent hours in professional kitchens. When my son Josh was a baby, he spent part of each day in a bassinet on the baker's rack of the restaurant kitchen where I worked. I think the constant sound of the mixer nearby was probably comforting to him in his early months.

When Sean was born, I was the owner of the Old Town Bakery, and my life was truly not my own. My boys literally grew up there. Before Sean was old enough for kindergarten, he and Josh were loading stock into the walk-in refrigerator and using their own peculiar sense of order to lay the silverware out on the tables.

By the time Sean was in school, he'd developed a passion for the plain chiffon layers we used for constructing some of our fanciest cakes. It was not unusual, particularly in the summer when it was hot, for one of us to look around and wonder, "Where is Sean?" He was invariably seated on a chair that he'd dragged into the inviting coolness of the walk-in refrigerator, eating his way through the tastiest moist, sticky tops of numerous chiffon layers.

It was not until several months after I left the restaurant business to spend more time with my boys that I had a sudden urge to bake. More accurately, a sudden need to smell the scent of something wonderful baking in the oven.

But for the first time in 20 years, the only oven I had was the one in my kitchen. An oven I'd scarcely ever used, because, like many professional cooks and bakers, I was never at home during the hours when a sane person would throw a roast in the oven or whip up a batch of brownies. I'd spent all those long work days, which turned into longer nights, surrounded by the kind of baking equipment a home baker could only dream of. Now here I was without so much as a mixer. Or even a whisk, for that matter.

I looked around my rather generic kitchen; there were only a few basic pieces of bakeware, a couple of wooden spoons and plastic measuring cups (that came from who knows where) and an oven with a mind of its own when it came to holding a consistent temperature. And you know what? It didn't matter.

It's a common misconception among would-be bakers that they need state-of-the-art utensils and appliances to turn out great baked goods. That's simply not true. In fact, inexperienced bakers learn more when they mix dough by hand than they could ever hope to learn by using an expensive mixer.

Besides, I had the two ingredients that were the most vital to the process: my children, who are now 10 and 13.

Some of the best things I've ever done in the kitchen have been the result of communal efforts. I just had to downsize a little and reconfigure my team. So here I was, after 20 years of professional cooking and baking, ready to sound the call to action to my two new partners.

We started with a quick bread: peanut chocolate chip bread. My kids took little convincing, and they were both good workers. Maybe it's osmosis, as their participation in the actual baking in my professional kitchens was largely limited to eating cake batter, but they both enjoyed the measuring, mixing and cracking of eggs.

And we chatted amiably the whole time. Kids are funny that way. Try asking your children what they did at school and you are usually met with a sort of scary blank look, but in the half hour we spent foraging for ingredients, deciding what we could bake, preparing the batter and popping our bread into the oven, I learned the following:

Tomorrow was the very last day to turn in a class trip permission form that I'd never been told about (whew!); why we should volunteer to take the class rabbit home for the summer (she might have babies, Mom--wouldn't that be cool?); that teachers just always call on you for the one question you don't know (some things never change); and how to say "puppy" in Italian (it's cagnolino).

Maybe it seems odd, but let me tell you, nothing illuminates the pure joy of peanut chocolate chip bread crumbs all over your kid's face better than surviving the relentless insanity of years of professional cooking and baking. So now baking at home is becoming kind of a regular thing, and we're all getting a lot out of it. Sean has even taken to showing off our wares to the neighbors, his teacher, the Little League coach--basically, anyone who is willing, and that pretty much means anybody. I think he may have a little entrepreneur thing going.

The recipes I'm including here smell great, taste great and make us feel great. You could say the course of my life has taken me in a giant circle, but here I am in my home kitchen, and God, it's great to be back!

PEANUT CHOCOLATE CHIP BREAD

1 cup peanut butter, smooth or crunchy

3 eggs

1/4 cup oil

1 cup sugar

2 teaspoons sea salt or 1 teaspoon table salt

1/2 cup tepid water

2 cups flour

3 tablespoons baking powder

1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

Warm peanut butter in microwave on high power until it can be stirred easily, about 45 seconds.

Whisk together peanut butter, eggs, oil, sugar, salt and water in medium bowl. Mix flour and baking powder with fork in separate bowl. Stir dry ingredients and chocolate chips into peanut butter-egg mixture. Do not over-mix or bread will be tough.

Bake at 350 degrees in greased 9-inch round cake pan until bread is firm and knife inserted in center comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes.

8 servings. Each serving:

531 calories; 1,099 mg sodium; 80 mg cholesterol; 29 grams fat; 59 grams carbohydrates; 14 grams protein; 1.06 grams fiber.

BANANA MILK CHOCOLATE BREAD

3 eggs

1/2 cup oil

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar, packed

1 teaspoon sea salt or 1/2 teaspoon table salt

4 very ripe bananas, mashed

2 cups flour

3 tablespoons baking powder

1 cup milk chocolate chips

Whisk together eggs, oil, granulated sugar, brown sugar, salt and bananas in medium bowl.

Mix flour and baking powder with fork in separate bowl. Add flour mixture and chocolate chips to egg mixture and stir to combine. Do not over-mix batter or bread will be tough.

Pour batter into greased 8x4-inch loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees until firm to touch and knife inserted in center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Serve warm with whipped cream if desired.

8 servings. Each serving without whipped cream:

500 calories; 829 mg sodium; 85 mg cholesterol; 22 grams fat; 71 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.37 gram fiber.

DARK CHOCOLATE MINT BREAD

3 eggs

1/2 cup oil

1/2 cup chocolate syrup

1/4 cup cocoa powder

1/2 cup tepid water

1 teaspoon sea salt or 1/2 teaspoon table salt

1 cup sugar

2 cups flour

3 tablespoons baking powder

1 cup dark chocolate mint drops

Whisk together eggs, oil, chocolate syrup, cocoa, water, salt and sugar in medium bowl. Mix flour and baking powder with fork in separate bowl.

Chop chocolate to size of mini-chips. Combine flour mixture, egg mixture and chopped chocolate and stir to mix.

Pour batter into greased 2-quart baking dish and bake at 350 degrees until bread is firm in center when touched, about 45 minutes. Center of bread will fall slightly during last 10 minutes of baking.

8 servings. Each serving:

420 calories; 767 mg sodium; 80 mg cholesterol; 17 grams fat; 63 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.73 gram fiber.

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Cook's Tips

Tips for the Beginner Home Baker:

*Taste as you go. Some people hesitate to taste raw doughs or batters, and then they're surprised to discover they've over-salted or under-sweetened. Of course, when raw eggs are being used, tastes should be minuscule. And small children should not taste dough or batter that contains uncooked eggs.

*Develop a relationship with your oven. This is accomplished the same way you might develop any successful relationship: Spend time together! In other words, use your oven. You can make the perfect bread dough or the most sublime cake batter, but unless you know that your particular oven is, say, twice as hot on the bottom as on the top, that bread or those cakes will burn. It's also a good idea to hang a separate oven thermometer inside your oven to see if the temperature on the oven dial matches the temperature inside the oven. But don't rely on a separate thermometer to tell you how hot the top or bottom of the oven is if you place it in the center. Also, be sure the thermometer your using to check the oven is calibrated correctly.

*Choose the best ingredients. Though fresh vanilla beans or good quality chocolate are pricier than the fake stuff, they more than make up for it in the quality of your baked goods. I personally prefer Guittard chocolate. If a recipe calls for something that is so exotic or so costly that you'll need to apply for a loan before you can buy it, consider baking something else.

*Pay attention to the task at hand. Distractions are the enemy of good bakers. Don't wander off to catch the end of a TV show; if the phone rings, tell the caller you'll call back later . . . when you're enjoying your perfect chocolate cake.

Quick Bread Tips

*These breads can be baked in a variety of pans: a deep cake pan, a large loaf pan, an angel food cake pan or a muffin pan. Try to fill each pan 2/3 full, but if you have batter left over after filling one pan and it's only enough to partially fill a second, go ahead. Just keep an eye on it when it's in the oven because it will take less time to bake. Don't overfill your pans or the bread will either be raw in the center or over-baked on the outside.

*Chocolate chips are "da bomb" to almost all kids, but these breads would be just as delicious using an alternate such as dried fruit, peanut or butterscotch chips, toffee, nuts, even the chocolate-covered peanuts and raisins you can buy by the pound from the bins in most grocery stores or specialty candy shops.

Clarification Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 1, 1998 Home Edition Food Part H Page 2 Food Desk 5 inches; 161 words Type of Material: Correction We've had several calls from readers questioning whether the amount of baking powder called for in the Cover Story bread recipes ("Confessions of a Pro Baker Turned Amateur," June 24) was correct. Yes, 3 tablespoons baking powder is correct. These breads are not intended to be as sweet as cake. We've also heard from readers who made the Banana Milk Chocolate Bread in the 8x4-inch loaf pan as directed in the recipe, only to have it overflow during baking. These recipes can be baked in just about any size pan, as long as you don't fill it more than 2/3 full, as stated in the "Home Baking Tips" that accompanied the recipes. No batter should be left over if you use a 9x5-inch pan. Also, no batter should be left over in the other two recipes if you use the pans suggested. If you do have batter left over, use it to partially fill another pan, as suggested in the "Home Baking Tips." A partially filled pan, of course, will take less time to bake, so keep your eye on it while it's in the oven. Last, note that each recipe calls for whisking together the ingredients by hand. Using an electric mixer to beat the ingredients would create additional and unnecessary volume.
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