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Confessions of a Pro Baker Turned Amateur

June 24, 1998|AMY PRESSMAN | 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.)

FOR THE RECORD - 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.

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.

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