I Made Macaron for My Spring Break: Baking at the Sugar Glider Kitchen

img_2473.jpg

I’ve been a fan of Gesine Bullock-Prado ever since I discovered her memoir, My Life From Scratch (which many fans remember in its hardcover version was called The Secret Confections of a Closet Master Baker, a title that gives you a great sense of Gesine’s irreverent yet always spot-on approach to baking–and life, for that matter ). Four cookbooks and many, many blogposts later, I remain a devotee of Gesine’s exquisite (and impressively precise) recipes and the overall joi de vivre that she communicates via her candid commentary for each of her recipes, whether in book or blog form.

Let Them Eat Cake isn’t featured in this shot–I received my copy in class, which Gesine signed for me! Oh, and she has another book coming out soon (in other news, I need a bigger bookshelf).
When I recently saw via her Facebook page that she was opening her home commercial kitchen for classes, via the launch of her Sugar Glider Kitchen, I knew that I absolutely needed to sign up. Spring Break for Penn State was coming soon, and so I signed myself up for two classes (and also looked up what exactly a Sugar Glider was–turns out it’s a small possum that glides through the air. Who knew? Well, now you do). When our week of break hit, I piled the kids and hubby into the van and we drove the 8 hours to Vermont in anxious anticipation of all the baking wisdom I’d be learning.

Image result
Here’s a Sugar Glider. . . cute, aren’t they?
Driving up to Gesine’s home was a little surreal for me–her small farm in VT has been immortalized on her website in photo, gingerbread, and animated versions over the course of her baking career and I can attest that it is just as lovely in person as it is in cookie form. Heading around the side from the parking lot to the former carriage house-come-commercial kitchen left me pinching myself a bit–I was actually there! And then Ray, Gesine’s husband, opened the doors to welcome me in with the offer of a homemade maple cappuccino and, well, it just got better from there.

IMG_2409
On our way. Can you see what we’re listening to? #Childrenofthe90s

IMG_2470
Ray’s Maple Cappucino
My first class, Macaron Madness, was held on a Saturday and lasted for three hours. I was thrilled this class coincided with my Spring Break because I’ve admired Gesine’s macaron recipe in SugarBaby for a long time, but have always been too intimidated to try it on my own. What better way to venture into the dangerous waters of French patisserie than under the steady hand of an expert baker?

Each of the eight students in my class were given an apron, utensils, and kitchen counter to work on. Those of us not in pairs already were partnered up with another student (my partner was Marne, and she was fabulous!). The lesson began with Gesine taking us through the basic steps and demonstrating key features of creating the macaron batter. As she instructed at her head counter in the front of the kitchen, we were all able to comfortably gather around to see what she was doing and to ask questions along the way.  Gesine is a gifted teacher who is able to do what so many of us teachers aspire towards: Communicating knowledge to her students in a way that is engaging, entertaining, and ultimately creates a lasting foundation for learning. I will never forget her description of how most recipes state macaron batter should resemble magma–and her commentary on how ridiculous that guidepost was! Gesine knows so much about the chemistry of baking that I dare you to try and find a baking problem she can’t remedy. During my time in the kitchen with her, she helped me solve my deflating bagel issue (baking soda bath), the flat ginger cookies I couldn’t seem to get puffy again (less sugar), and my weepy caramel (re-calibrate my candy thermometer).

A peek into our Macaron Madness (and that rich buttercream–Huzzah!)

After her demonstration, Gesine sent us back to our counters to create our batter. She visited each team, finding utensils, providing feedback on the progress of our meringues and sugar syrups, and just chatting with students about their baking interests and questions. If you make mistakes–Marne and I encountered an unfortunately reluctant meringue at  first–she helps you troubleshoot the issue and provides quick support to get you back on track. Oh, and she also has her own baked goods that she passes around for students to enjoy while they watch their egg whites whisk or their sugar boil–my two classes featured her own macaron, palmiers, and fruit tarts. And, damn, were they  delicious!

Every class comes with your own set of recipes to take home, and the chance to try a variety of Gesine’s own decadent desserts–like this Linzer Macaron Cake

Halfway through the class we regrouped so Gesine could demonstrate how to make the buttercream filling and assemble the macaron. As we proceeded to make our own fillings, Gesine once again moved around the kitchen, checking in with everyone on their progress. At one point she asked other students to gather around for a look at our buttercream as an example of what it should look like–I just about died from pride (especially considering the many buttercreams I’d ruined over the years until I finally got the technique down)!

IMG_2477
Gesine made this for me. . .
By the end of the class I no longer felt frightened by these fancy French cookies. Indeed, I felt confident I could make them on my own at home. That’s the gift Gesine’s cooking classes give you–the confidence to try those difficult bakes you’ve always wanted to do, and the techniques and know-how you need to get them perfectly right.

IMG_2437
We met Gesine!!!!
At the end of the class Gesine welcomed in my entire family (who of course wanted to meet her in person, after hearing me wax poetic about her baking skills for so many years) with hugs and macarons to take home. The three hours just slipped by. . .

 

 

 

Which brings me to Sunday’s class, Confetti Cake. Another 3-hour hands-on class. With it being a Sunday morning, and a smaller class of five students, the vibe in Gesine’s kitchen was a little more relaxed even than it was before. The bake itself was less challenging than the macaron and everyone seemed to ease into their recipes with the brunchy attitude of enjoying a process that was to be experienced without any sense of rush.

Capuccinos were made once again by Ray (who also, by the way, does dishes for the class between baking stages) and Gesine passed around her lovely pastries for us to enjoy. We gathered at her counter for demonstrations, and this time my baking station was seated at the front where Gesine was essentially my partner (our cakes ended up sharing a sheet pan and, like Gesine assured me despite my hesitation at having my baked goods so close for comparison to hers, they turned out exactly the same).

I went into the Confetti Cake class thinking, “I’ve made lots of cakes–I’ll just be in this class because it’s Gesine and I’m bound to learn a few tricks.” Instead, I learned about an entirely new type of cake batter–the paste method–and a frosting I’d never encountered or eaten before, but plan on making often now that I have tasted its loveliness (that’s ermine frosting, for the record). In other words, although I’ve made many a cake in my time, I still came away from this second class with a much stronger sense of the technique and chemistry behind baking the most delicious of cakes. I know, I could have guessed that’d be the case 😉

IMG_2471
Can you tell which is mine?

IMG_2474
And which is Gesine’s?
 

Our classes ended with a relaxed timeframe for decorating our cakes with our yummy and fluffy ermine frosting. Gesine gave us tips for getting a perfectly smooth coat, the importance of different baking tools, and even how to use a kitchen torch to ensure the most unblemished of frosting applications. Each of us had our own cake to take home with us, which my family promptly devoured in our hotel room.

Although I was sad to see my cooking time with Gesine come to a close, I left with a variety of new skills, a healthy boost to my baking confidence, and with the knowledge that I met my baking hero and that she thought I could make a mean buttercream.

Meeting and baking with Gesine is an experience I will treasure–and one I hope to repeat again very soon.

IMG_2491

For now, though, I’ll have to be satisfied with baking with her through her cookbooks–here I am making pizza dough from Pie It Forward in another keepsake from my trip to the Sugar Glider Kitchen: a bespoke apron hand-made by Ray Prado himself. Fits like a dream, gorgeous material, and just looks so darn cute. Can’t make it to VT? You can still get an apron with your own little possum here.

Happy Baking!

 

 

 

 

Write On: Cornering the Market with Elgon Williams

Sparks and Stephens Header

Today for Write On, we speak with Elgon Williams, author of Fried Windows (In a Light White Sauce) and the just released Become Thuperman. Elgon is also a publicist with Pandamoon Publishing and he was kind enough to take a few moments from his hectic book-release schedule to give us his insights into the best way to market your book. Enjoy!

  1. As a publicist for Pandamoon Publishing, what do you think is the biggest change occurring in the marketing of books?

The use of social media versus more traditional advertising and marketing vehicles is a key differences in the marketing of small publisher releases as well as self-published books. Some of this is budget related. For example, traditional publishers take out full page ads in the Sunday Editions of major market newspapers to announce book launches. Those usually accompany a book review. The cost of such marketing is astronomical. Another key point is that traditional publishers focus on the first 30 to 90 days of a book’s life and withdraw direct marketing support afterward. Small publishers view book promotion as a longer term effort and a book’s life spanning years not months. Since the advent of Amazon the real growth in publishing has come from small publishers and independent authors.

2. How have you used the changing marketing landscape to promote Pandamoon books, including your own novels?

I’ve found using a combination of social media to be most effective. One cannot be successful focusing on simply one medium. Also, each medium has its challenges and limitations. Twitter is much more effective in announcing events and promoting other people’s work. Self-promotion on Twitter is largely ignored. Maybe that’s because of the volume of people doing it. But tweeting and retweeting other author’s messages gains attention. Facebook is better for selling. Also there isn’t a 140 character limit to the message. Having said that, messages still need to be concise. No one except die hard friends reads long posts. Google + has been effective for some promotions. Instagram and Pinterest are also effective in promoting through images like book covers.

3. Do you see advantages for indie authors in today’s market, compared to publishing before social media became so accessible?

Twenty years ago getting a book published was much more difficult. I received rejections that were obviously generic form letters. In other words, the major publishers were inundated with so many submissions they could not possibly look at all of them. The advent of computers and desktop publishing software including word processing software meant that almost anyone who wanted to put for the effort and devote the necessary time could create a manuscript. There were small publishers back then. Some were vanity presses. But authors who chose to use those risked their books carrying that stigma. As self-publishing became more prevalent small publishers gained acceptance. Quality of editing is the indispensable difference between many self-published books and those from small publishers. It is something Pandamoon has always taken very seriously.

 4. If an author could do one thing to help promote their writing, what would you recommend they do?

Authors must first set goals and work their local market with book signing events and public appearances. They must also think outside of the box for venues. For example, having a book signing in a local gift shop, public library works just as well as a small bookstore. Although getting books on the shelves of major book retailers may be a goal it is next to impossible without establishing a following or readers. Shelf space is granted for books that the retailer expects to sell. So, if you can demonstrate demand a major chain may carry your book locally. Also the store manager has a great deal of discretion for supporting local authors. Otherwise, the single most important thing an author can do is brand building on social media. You don’t need to wait until a book is launched to build a following and create interest in your book. Submit other work or excerpts from your book to magazines. Participate in writer’s groups. Anything you can do to build your credibility as an author adds to your brand. Once brand is established locally, an author can branch out to regional and eventually national and international marketing.

5. What do you feel is the most common mistake authors make when promoting their work?

Trying to do everything alone is the biggest mistake. An author needs to create a street team to  channel promotional messages to the public. Locally, a street team can consist of friends and family. But using social media the street team can expand nationally and internationally. To a large extend building such a team will require the author support other authors. But even such efforts builds brand and credibility. Posting reviews and commenting on Tweets about books goes far in establishing an author’s authority in a genre.

400 px wide pandamoon logo

6. Given your own background in marketing, what are some techniques you’ve honed in your career that have fit well with the publishing industry?

Years ago, my first job after receiving my degree was writing editorial style advertising copy for a small agency. The ads were placed in promotional pages published weekly in local newspapers. I proved to have a particular knack for writing short blurbs. Writing a pitch with Twitter’s 140 character limit isn’t all that different. The same rules apply, really. You write for an intended audience and fit as much information as possible into a given space. Every word in a pitch becomes important. I suppose there is a sort of promotional poetry about the process, using an economy of words to convey a message.

7/ Where do you think book marketing is heading in the near (or distant) future?

Near term, the Big 5 publishing houses aren’t going anywhere. I mean that in two ways. They will continue to dominate their portion of the book market, though it is shrinking. The reason is that the infrastructure that is still used was designed to support their model of distribution and marketing. It is also exclusive and expensive by its nature, preventing small publishers and independent authors from direct competition. In the longer term, though, the influence of the Big 5 over the industry will continue to decline. It’s simple business and a matter of survival. Once the demand for small publisher and independent books exceeds that for the major houses’ offerings, the model will change significantly. And I believe that shift isn’t all that far into the future. If you look at the present book market, it is evolving toward a more Internet-based sales and distribution paradigm. This is happening around the world, though perhaps not as rapidly as it is occurring in the US.

ElgonWilliams AuthorAbout Elgon Williams: Born in Springfield, Ohio, Elgon Williams grew up on a farm near the town of South Charleston and the village of Selma in rural southeastern Clark County, “…about two miles from nowhere and between cornfields.” Williams graduated from Shawnee High School in 1974. In the fall of that year he began studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, receiving a BA in Mass Communication in 1978. Later, in 1981 he received a degree in Marketing Administration from The University of Texas at Austin.

In 1983 he joined the US Air Force and studied Chinese Mandarin at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey in California. Upon completion of military training he spent two years in the Far East. Shortly after returning home Williams left the military and began a long career in retail management. Periodically, he also served as a vendor advocate for a national marketing firm representing computer technology and software companies. He has also worked in advertising, sales and was a computer technician and technology consultant.

Although his early writing is considered sci-fi and fantasy, his later work defies any single genre. For example, Fried Windows (In a Light White Sauce) is a combination of urban fantasy, science fiction and spy thriller.

New projects include the just-released Becoming Thuperman, a story featuring budding superheroes, and the long anticipated epic fantasy Wolfcat Chronicles, coming from Pandamoon Publishing.