Friday, May 7, 2010

A Tale of Two Bakers

My Mom is a beautiful woman, inside and out. She also happens to be the most amazing baker I know.  Her delicious eats are coveted by many people. She spoiled us rotten when we were kids.  Every day when my brother and I came home from school, there were homemade tasty treats ready for snacking on.  It was a bit like growing up on "Leave it to Beaver". A glass of cold milk and a warm cookie melted away all the pressures of elementary school.  It also curbed our ravenous appetites until dinner. I loved it when Mom made one of her famous apple pies. With a pairing knife, she would peel each granny smith apple into one long continuous peel. That always amazed me. Then my brother and I would fight over them all to see who got the longest peel before gobbling them up.

For as long as I can remember, my mom has baked the same way.  And to this day, when I go home to visit my folks, she's barefoot in the kitchen with a dish towel thrown over her shoulder.  It's her trademark look.... and it's never changed in my 30+ years of watching her in her domain.  Growing up, she was always trying to teach me the "art" of baking, but I always had more important things to do.  My interest was minimal at best.  That all changed though, when I left for college.  Suddenly, I realized the value of learning to cook, and I freaked out.  I called my Mom every other day to ask how to prepare things.  That was before cell- phones.  I really racked up the long distance collect calls in those years, because my burning desire to know every detail of every recipe had to be fulfilled.  It was during this "culinary awakening", if you will, that I realized I was not going to be the same kind of baker as my mother.  Our phone chats went a little like this:

Me: "Hi mom, I'm trying one of your recipes today and it says to add a little cinnamon.  How much is a little?"

Mom: " Oh, you know, until it looks right."

Me: " What do you mean...until it looks right?  Like....a Teaspoon, or a Tablespoon?"

Mom:"You know, just sprinkle some on there until it looks like you have enough."

Me: " It says to mix in raisins and nuts.  How much? 1/2 a cup full?"

Mom: " Oh, a hand full or two."

Me: " A big hand full with fingers touching, or a little fist full? (I'm getting frustrated)"

Mom: (now laughing)..." Either way will be fine."

This type of instruction led me to believe that my mom and I are absolute opposites in the kitchen.  To my mom, baking is an art form.  It's all about the feel of the dough, and  the look of the toppings. For me, baking is a very exact science.  I have to know the exact measurements of all ingredients, precise mixing instructions, and a detailed plan of putting the dessert together.  Therefore, every recipe my mom has given me has elaborate notes scribbled all over the page by me.  God forbid something would happen to the woman before I had a chance to add notes to every family recipe, or no one would be able to duplicate them.  They are sooooooo vague.  Some even leave out vital steps.  I make frantic calls in the middle of  baking her recipes because she left out the most important details.  My mom doesn't feel the need to write this stuff down, because these techniques are so much a part of her every day routine that it seems a bit redundant.  But for me, the details are EVERYTHING.

When my mom cooks, she uses two things.... a mixing bowl and a fork.  These are her instruments of choice.  She skillfully cradles the bowl  with one arm and balances it on her hip.  Then she mixes ingredients like a mad woman with her fork.  I own no less than 100 "must have" kitchen gadgets to aid in my baking.  My most treasured and well used appliance being my state of the art industrial Kitchen-Aid Mixer.  My life would be incomplete without it.  I would be hollow and empty inside. I use it several times a day, and it works it's magic on my batters and doughs.  I love it so much that I decided my mom needed one too.  Our whole family bought her one several years ago.  It resides in her laundry room where it has been completely untouched for over 5 years.  That's like owning a Ferrari but keeping it locked in the garage and riding your ten speed to the mall. I just don't understand it.  I guess old habits die hard.

My mom doesn't even have a full set of measuring spoons.  She owns a teaspoon, and a tablespoon.... and I think she only had them for when I was home.  She doesn't need them.  She just pours a little vanilla in the bowl, or shakes the salt shaker a few times.  I have no idea how much salt comes out in one shake, but I'm certain my mom knows.  I own 3 sets of measuring spoons ranging from 1 1/2 TBS to 1/8 of a tsp.  I really wanted to buy a set that measured a pinch, a smidgen, and a dash but I wondered if that would be a bit excessive.  I even own a scale to weigh dry ingredients on.  One can never be too precise when measuring.  Mom's other "must have" object in the kitchen is her towel.  She uses her towel as an oven mitt, hand wiper, dish dryer, and fly swatter. Occasionally, my dad would steal the towel, twist it up, and swat her on the back side with it when she tried to keep him from tasting something that wasn't finished. I bet you'll never see THAT on "Leave it to Beaver". 

The thing that gets me the most is that my mom's simplistic style of baking is far superior to mine with all my gadgets and  precision.  Everything she bakes turns out fantastic.  From simple cookie recipes and old fashioned pies, to decadent desserts with meringues and mousses topped with chocolate curls, the woman has a magic touch.  I can follow simple instructions, but that can't compete with years of experience in the kitchen.  My mom makes every dish with a sprinkle of love for her family and friends.  And that's the one ingredient that makes every meal extra special.  I may be a scientist at heart, but I've learned that preparing delicious desserts is definitely more of an "art" than a science. When you bake with love, every dish is delicious!


  1. I LOVE YOU TOO!! And, you ARE a chip off the ole block. You may be a "scientist" in the kitchen with all your goodies, but the results are coming out the same. I'm so glad we share a good "burrito love" for desserts. I'm so tickled that my grandbabies are now enjoying those same wonderful delights from their mom. I was as proud as a peacock at your first solo coconut cream pie made just the way my mother taught me. I know she was smiling down from heaven. :) One day Mariah and Gracie will be making their first solo pie...makes me cry just thinking about it. I can still remember when you were their age. How the time flys. I LOVE you Nellie Belles. MOM

  2. I'm a detail girl too! I def like my gagets! Although I try to only have what I absolutly need :-) It's hard not to want all the new kitchen stuff! But I do try to fly by the seat of my pants and try new things and make stuff up but that takes lots of work because my brain doesn't work naturally that way. Fun stuff!!

  3. Hollow and empty without your Kitchen-Aide!!! LOL
    I SO feel you on that one!!! :)
    You probably wouldn't want to cook with me since I am NOT a scientist in the kitchen...means more things to wash...measuring spoons waste precious space in my dishwasher! ;)
    Can we call you "Nellie Belles" too or would that be pushing it??? ;)