For most of my life, baking has been a principal passion. It started in high school, when I would bring muffins, sweet breads, cupcakes, and a treat I called “Honey Crackles” (honey and sugar melted and poured over corn flakes and left to congeal into crispy sweet morsels) to my homeroom and to mark the birthdays of my friends. In college, I would mix up enormous tupperware bins of Chex “Muddy Buddies,” long trays of brownies, and “Dirt” — a trifle of highly processed layers of crumbled devil’s food cake, pudding mixed with cream cheese, whipped topping, and oreos. For my twentieth birthday, I asked for a stand mixer. I was assuredly the only third-year at UVA teetering up the stairs of her apartment building in the dead head of a late August Charlottesville with an enormous KitchenAid under her arm.
After college, the interest took a turn for the serious. There were clouds of pavlova topped with whipped cream on New Year’s Eve; heart-shaped linzer cookies sandwiched with raspberry preserves; cheesecakes and chocolate cakes and coconut cakes for birthdays; overnight cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning; nearly every single one of the moist and not-too-sweet “everyday cakes” Orangette was known for in her heyday; enormous, chewy gingerbread men on Christmas Eve; sugar cutout cookies topped with royal icing to mark any occasion; and once, Snickers bars, homemade right down to the nougat. (Highly involved but worth the effort.)
The majority of the first few years of birthday and holiday gifts from my eventual parents-in-law were baking related: personalized spatulas, Fat Daddy cake tins, a landslide of baking books. My mother-in-law is also a passionate baker, and so this was one of our earliest connections. I remember her slipping me corrections to some of the recipes in the Miette baking book we both had. “Something’s off with this recipe — try these proportions,” she said, handing me a little paper on which she’d printed her revisions.
I’d bring spice cakes to dinner parties, icebox cookies flecked with pistachio to backyard hangouts, and homemade peach and blueberry muffins to the hostess welcoming us into her Lewes, DE beach home.
Baking was, in my teens and twenties, as much a part of my identity as literature.
Listening to Stanley Tucci’s memoir and then Nora Ephron’s Heartburn left me hungry, more in the metaphorical sense than the physical one. Both books rotate in their own ways around food, and both Ephron and Tucci are, clearly, passionate foodies. When Ephron describes in the final pages of her book her famous key lime pie — made with evaporated milk, as it should be — I sat in my car outside the Whole Foods and thought: “I’ve got to reclaim that part of myself.”
For a minute, I almost felt — guilty. How could I have let something I love so much get away? How could I abandon a skillset I’d cultivated for nearly twenty years? This latter thought arrived with some heft on the heels of the birthday cake I painstakingly made for Mr. Magpie on his birthday, which turned out irritatingly dry and flavorless despite well north of $40 in fancy chocolate and cocoa powder. I blamed myself for its results, and have vaguely wondered over the intervening weeks whether I’ve “lost my touch” in the baking department. Do baking skills dull over time, like knives and peelers?
But then, I thought —
A pandemic and parenting two young children and living in a cramped New York apartment are perhaps not the optimal conditions for persisting in this time-consuming ritual. (I shudder at the memory of digging my trusty KitchenAid out of the back of very deep cabinet in our first apartment on Central Park West. You’d have to remove about three rows of pans and serving dishes to get to it, and you’d crick your neck and scrape your head, and by the time you’d retrieved it, you were actually angry at the blondies you were attempting to make.) Don’t get me wrong: where there is a will, there is a way, and I routinely remind myself that time is tool to express my values (and interests, and curiosities), and so if I had really wanted to bake, I could have made it work. But my goodness: something had to give, and that something was baking. I can barely accommodate the rituals of reading and exercising, and those pastimes require much less of me. I have felt these past few years as though I have been at capacity, barely mustering enough bandwidth to do anything beyond that which is required, and in the shallow empty space beyond, I have chosen to read, or run, or sit with my husband drinking a cocktail. The profiteroles can wait.
But I have also been feeling this past month or two as though we have turned an enormous corner in our lives. Most of this has to do with the ages of our children. No one ever told me that once your children are three and five, respectively, life begins to open up a little bit more. We are out of diapers, we are out of bottles, we are out of strollers, we are now in a phase where our children can play upstairs, unsupervised. (Too much quiet, though, and I will poke my head in, in vague distress.) It has felt, suddenly, as though there is more air in the room. Looking after my one-year-old niece last month and then spending time around my seven-month-old nephew two weeks ago, I realized all at once how much freer our schedules are, how much longer the windows of opportunity to do one sustained thing, have become. Babies operate in tight two and three hour windows of feeding, sleeping, gurgling. And in between those happenings, they must be tightly supervised. Nowadays, by contrast, we can have an entire afternoon roll out in front of us with nothing in particular planned and no required action on our end. The children more or less conform to our patterns of eating and sleeping. This is not to say there aren’t new challenges. We have attitudes and tantrums and the complicated emotional and intellectual dance of ensuring we are saying and doing the right things to nurture our children and their interests, and I don’t even want to think about the tween and teen years down the road.
But, there is suddenly a bit more give.
So as I sat in my car asking myself why I hadn’t made a key lime pie in probably eight years and straining to even remember the last time I’d made a graham cracker crust (was it really just butter, graham cracker, and sugar? do you bake it off? etc), I realized exactly how I am going to mark this new phase of life:
By baking something.
I thought trying Ephron’s key lime pie would be the perfect choice but then the Whole Foods didn’t have key limes. Of course! Life’s way of thwarting the poetry I seek, and preventing me from becoming too mawkish in its pursuit. I am always, inexplicably, in a rush in a grocery store and so the thought of standing in an aisle, scrolling my phone for alternative baking inspiration, was not an option. Instead, I completed my errand, went home, and turned to Orangette, many of whose cake recipes are so simple as to include only pantry and larder staples. I chose her Gateau au Citron, a recipe I have always loved because of its old-timey measurements, which call for “1 jar plain yogurt,” “2 jars sugar,” etc. As Wizenberg writes in the head-note: “Traditionally, the ingredients are measured in a yogurt jar, a small glass cylinder that holds about 125 ml. Because most American yogurts don’t come in such smart packaging, you’ll want to know that 1 jar equals about 1/2 cup.”
It was perfect, and in fact more poetic than the pie would have been: a humble new beginning to an old habit.
+What hobbies do you have?
+You can get her shorts look for less with this chic pair from Sezane.
+ADORE this bag.
+Personalized camp notes for your little camper!
+This dress stopped me in my tracks.
+How cute is this affordable gingham number? It reminds me of something by Loretta Caponi!
+More my son’s third birthday, I decided to forgo a goody bag and instead bought a range of different books that the children can select out of a bin, and affixed a personalized book plate that reads: “THANKS FOR CELEBRATING WITH ME — HILL SHOOP” on the inside.
+The ultimate party bucket.
+Ordered myself this beautiful embroidered tiered shirtdress.
+This striped knit dress is giving me Missoni vibes for under $50.
+A great gauze top for everyday wear.
+Just the sweetest everyday bubble for a baby — soft cotton, simple stripes! Select colors 50% off!
+Also love this striped linen bubble.
+Super cute embroidered clutch.
+Fisherman sandals for BABIES. STOP. I actually want these in my size, literally.