My mother and I had a joke that whatever gene makes a baker skipped her generation. I think the closest she ever came to baking was spearing bright orange peanut-shaped marshmallows on a carving fork and toasting them over the stove. When I married — I was 19 and a college junior — the only culinary experience I could claim was burning down my parents’ kitchen seven years earlier, a misadventure involving frozen fries and boiling oil.
Marriage (and a budget constrained by student loans) made me a cook; my mother-in-law inadvertently made me a baker.
She was a funny, spirited woman who was guarded, cool and singularly unsentimental, except when she talked about her parents, both bakers by trade. Her expression would soften as she remembered the warm cinnamon buns that waited for her after school. Watching her mime the motions of spreading sweet butter on a freshly baked poppy-seed roll — every bit of the roll’s surface had to be covered — was like hearing her declare: My family loved me!
Could baking really do that? If it could, I wanted to bake.
The galvanizing experience, the one that sent me into the kitchen, occurred the evening I dropped by my mother-in-law’s house in Brooklyn. I found her whistling and making knishes, those potato pies I’d have sworn only machines could produce. I barely had time to take off my coat before she pushed the dough toward me. “Touch it,” she said, “Feel how silky it is — this is how it should feel.”
I’d never touched dough before then, or even seen anyone bake. But something about my mother-in-law’s almost childish delight in what she had made, and the way she looked at me when she placed the dough in my hands, stayed with me.
She gave me the recipe, and on the way home, I bought flour. I found a little counter space in our made-for-gnomes kitchen and set to work. The last instructions my mother-in-law gave me were my mantra: If the dough is dry, add more oil; if it’s wet, add more flour. And so I added more oil and added more flour and added more and more until I had a mountain of dough that was as rough as a horse blanket. I went to bed knishless.
Had I been more experienced, more attuned to the language of baking, I might have understood that everything I needed to know about that dough was in my hands. Had I held more dough, I would have known to cup my hands around it, to rub my thumbs against the surface, heft the ball, sink my fingers into it, tug at it to discover if it stretched, if it sprang back, if it was airy or tight. But my hands didn’t know enough then. Today they’re my trustiest tool.
I lift pie crust from the counter on my palms, fit it into the pan and then flute the edges with my fingers. I shape bread dough into loaves by hand. Using every part of my hands, I coax a thin sponge cake into a jelly roll (and there isn’t a time when I don’t take a moment to admire the chubby spiral I’ve crafted). Crescent cookies are formed with my fingers, not perfectly, not evenly, but with pleasure — a pleasure similar to the one I feel when I twist puff pastry into long curlicues or pleat it to make elephant-ear cookies.
Baking is handwork, and for me, all that is joyful, comforting, gratifying and even magical about this work is packed into the simple act of making biscuits. I practice a kind of meditation while I make them. I concentrate on how each step feels — not so much because it makes a better biscuit (which it does) or because it’s more satisfying (which it is), but because I like having my senses on high alert, anticipating and responding to the dough’s changes. With apron on and sleeves rolled high (biscuits are a messy business), I dig my hands into the flour and butter and mash, squeeze, smoosh and press the ingredients together, watching the cold butter jump from my fingers at first and then feeling it yield as it warms and softens and I fall into the rhythm of it. I love how the dough is lumpy, how I find chunks of butter here, shards there, and how the higgledy-piggledy mixture teeters toward hopelessness until I reach into the bowl again to knead and fold it. And when, under my hands, the misshapen nuggets become the dough they’re meant to be, I’m still always surprised.
By the time I pry open the baked biscuits, cover them with strawberries — some gently cooked into jam, some fresh and glistening with sugar — and top it all with whipped cream, my handprints are baked into them. So are a large measure of joy and a small pinch of hope: Maybe what I’ve baked will linger in someone’s memory; and maybe, just maybe, it will make a new baker.
This story and recipe appeared in The New York Times Magazine. It was my first On Dessert column. The photograph is by Gentl & Hyers and the food styling by Maggie Ruggerio.