Wednesday, December 2, 2009

To Jack Sh*t, Why I Bake

In my post Upping the Ante, my fellow blogger Jack Sh*t asked why I continue to bake for holiday gifts.

Well Jack, it's all about remembrance. Proust may have needed to take a bite out of that Madeline to send him on his journey of remembrance of things past, but for me its the actual baking that does it.

You see, my Grandmother was a holiday baker extraordinaire. Nana would bake at least a dozen different types of cookies every December. There were sugary cookies with an orange glaze she called "Aunt Louise's Cookies" after my Grandfather's aunt, rum balls, Jewel Cookies that were crusted in nuts with a dab of jam, these amazing almond meringue cookies that were covered in pinoli nuts, and so on.

Nana never used a written recipe. Although she only baked each cookie once a year, she kept every recipe in her head. Me, my mother and my sisters often baked alongside her, and had the foresight of actually writing most of the recipes down. We'd ask questions like "how much flour do you use?" and Nana would answer "about three handfuls." From there we had to concoct that "a handful" generally meant about 1/2 a cup.

Nana also made Fruitcakes which were actually baked as early as October and were an alcoholics delight. The process began by soaking dried fruit in rum for a week. After the fruitcakes were cooked, they were wrapped in cheesecloth and carefully tended to with generous douses of rum to preserve them every week for two months.

And she also made Stollen, which is a bit unusual because Stollen is actually a German Christmas bread. My Italian Grandmother usually never diverged from the Italian repertoire, but for some reason, which nobody understands why, she made Stollen at Christmas and not the more traditional Italian Panetone.

I often made the Stollen with her. We'd start the night before by making a starter of yeast, flour, eggs and butter. The next day we'd form the dough by adding more flour, then adding raisins and currents soaked in rum or brandy, dried fruits and nuts. Then we'd need the dough until it was soft and silky and left it to rise. It was then formed into loaves and allowed to rise again. Then we'd bake it, and when cooled dust the bread with powdered sugar.

None of us bakes the repertoire that my Grandmother did. My mother, me and my sisters all seem to have inherited a few of the recipes.

I bake two or three different cookies a year and have become the official Stollen baker (the Stollen is then passed out among family members). Whenever I do this baking, my Grandmother comes alive again. As I knead my dough, I can still hear her voice over me, guiding me, to make sure I get it right.

So now when I bake I bake with my children. It's through them that my Grandmother, and our traditions will survive.

I've often heard weight loss referred to as being a journey. But I think we need to remember that although moving forward is progress, we can't forget where we came from.

I doubt that for any of us Twinkies, Big Macs or crappy over processed foods really connect us to who we are, and our families.

But, if there is food that connects us to our past and our loved ones who have passed on, then we shouldn't give it up simply because we are trying to lose and maintain weight.

Eat less of it for sure, but if it's part of who we are, then we shouldn't just leave it behind.


  1. Well, I suppose that answers that.

    Excellent post.

  2. Weight loss and maintenance, or just "healthy eating", has to be balanced with indulgence. Otherwise it's just a lesson in deprivation and we can't be deprived of favorite things forever.

    I started reading about how other cultures eat about 15 years ago. Our whole approach to weight loss/maintenance and healthy eating is so different. It's much more restrictive and far less enjoyable.

    It's like Michael Pollan says in "Our National Eating Disorder:"

    "...They found that of the four populations surveyed (the U.S., France, Flemish Belgium and Japan), Americans associated food with health the most and pleasure the least. Asked what comes to mind upon hearing the phrase ''chocolate cake,'' Americans were more apt to say ''guilt,'' while the French said ''celebration''; ''heavy cream'' elicited ''unhealthy'' from Americans, ''whipped'' from the French. The researchers found that Americans worry more about food and derive less pleasure from eating than people in any other nation they surveyed.

    "Compared with the French, we're much more likely to choose foods for reasons of health, and yet the French, more apt to choose on the basis of pleasure, are the healthier (and thinner) people. How can this possibly be? Rozin suggests that our problem begins with thinking of the situation as paradoxical. The French experience with food is only a paradox if you assume, as Americans do, that certain kinds of foods are poisons. ''Look at fat,'' Rozin points out. ''Americans treat the stuff as if it was mercury.'' That doesn't, of course, stop us from guiltily gorging on the stuff. A food-marketing consultant once told me that it's not at all uncommon for Americans to pay a visit to the health club after work for the express purpose of sanctioning the enjoyment of an entire pint of ice cream before bed."

  3. I'll have to read that Pollan book. And, I agree. Eat healthy, but eat to enjoy yourself as well.

    We're obsessed with weight here, and fatter than the Europeans.

  4. "Our National Eating Disorder" is an article by Pollan published in the New York Times. it's also on his website:

    Scroll down -- it was published Oct 17, 2004. I think a lot of the content is in In Defense of Food.