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!

 

 

 

 

Literature as a Salve for Grief: Books that Healed my Broken Heart

My father died suddenly almost five years ago. As it is for everyone who loses someone they love, I was devastated. It’s impossible to describe a loved one to others–to capture the special qualities that make their absence so profoundly felt–so all I’ll say about my father is that he epitomized that old saying: Any man can be a father, but it takes a special man to be a daddy. My dad was a very special man.

After his death, the profound weight of grief settled on my shoulders and wrapped around my spine, refusing to let go. Breathing was difficult. Prayer left me more drained as I grappled with my anger at losing our family patriarch so unexpectedly and early in his life. Mothering and remaining a partner to my husband felt like play-acting sometimes, as I tried to be brave in the face of my shattered grasp on what my life now was. I’d never known a life without my father.

Words have always been a place of solace for me, but during that turbulent time my own writing became splintered, as though I couldn’t hold a full thought inside my mind (which, in fact, is exactly how I felt). Instead, a trip to my local library proved the proverbial window that opens when a door closes. Ultimately, three authors guided me through and out of my grief. I’m sharing them below, in hopes that they might offer similar comfort to you in a time of great struggle.

  1. Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

Image result for death comes to pemberley

In my writing career I think it is well-established that I am an adoring fan of P.D. James’s entire catalogue. What may not be as well known is when my affinity for her work began.  My library has a stack of shelves at its entrance that features new books and recommendations from its resident librarians. In the first month or two after losing my father, I stumbled into the library in search of some piece of mind between work and bus stop duty for my children. The cover of this book caught the corner of my eye as I rushed past: Pemberley! Scarves! My heart gave an encouraging flutter. Who is this P.D. James?

I took the book home and devoured it in two days. For the first time since losing my dad, I felt fully distracted from my grief while reading it. James’s prose and her intricate plotting, along with the setting of the story in the familiar and beloved environs of Austen’s Pemberley, allowed the hole in my heart to, though not be filled, at least be swaddled for a time from the crushing pulse of life moving on without my father. I quickly went on to the read James’s other mysteries, including her stand alone novels and her series featuring Det. Adam Dalgliesh. Discovering that she was widowed early in her life and began writing as a relatively young single mother only further confirmed the power of her writing over my grief: She had lost and yet survived. She had come through and so would I.

2. My Life from Scratch by Gesine Bullock-Prado

Image result for my life from scratch

Gesine’s memoir of losing her mother, leaving Hollywood, and moving to Vermont to start her own bakery offers a very different style from James–one that is informal, humorous, and self-deprecating at times–but which is equally perceptive and razor-sharp in its prose. This memoir describes several phases in Gesine’s life, but the universal thread tying them all together is her love for her mother and her struggle to come to terms with her death. For Gesine, baking became an outlet for her mourning, and for each chapter of her book  she offers tried and true recipes from her eponymous bakery (now shuttered in order for Gesine to focus on writing her exquisite cookbooks). After I finished the book, it remained in my kitchen (and resides there to this day) as I tried out each and every recipe from the book. Sinking my fingers into a mixture of flour, sugar, and butter as I knead together pie crust, or sift flour and salt together in preparation for a cake, I entirely understand the healing powers of baking. In a world where events often are inexplicable, the certainty that you will have a tender cake after whipping butter and sugar until 3x its original size is something to hold onto.

  3. The Report by Jessica Francis Kane

Image result for the report jessica francis kane

I discovered The Report by chance walking through the displays at my local book store and picked it up because of the intriguing cover.  On the surface, it might seem strange to find comfort from a writer whose self-proclaimed interests lie separate from “happy” fiction, but digging deeper it would hopefully become obvious how Kane’s capacity for bringing witness to the small frailties of life, and how one can reconcile with them, would bring solace to any reader, especially one at the loose ends of grief. The Report, set in the bomb shelters of WWII London, chronicles a tragic series of events, and the subsequent choices made by their participants, that forces the reader to question whether actions can be right without being moral. Kane is a highly calibrated craftsman of words (reminiscent of Amy Hempel) and I continue to find great satisfaction in her short stories, published in her collection This Close. By examining the dark selfishness in all of us, she also reveals our shared humanity as we struggle to overcome it.

Image result for this close jessica francis kane