Confections of a Closet Master Baker: A Memoir, by Gesine Bullock-Prado (NY: Broadway Books, 2009)
This is an engaging and lively account of the author's transformation from unhappy Hollywood film producer to happy, flour-dusted baker in America's smallest and funkiest state Capitol, Montpelier, Vermont. I was delighted to receive an advance copy of this book through the good folks at A Blithe Palate and Dispensing Happiness, who are cohosting The Edible Word event, wherein participants read a book, cook up some inspirational edibles and then blog about it.
Gesine (rhymes with subpoena) had an interesting upbringing as the daughter of an Alabama dad and German opera-singer mom. During her preschool years, she and big sister Sandy were reared in Germany, looked after by a collection of maternal relatives and nannies while mom was onstage. When Gesine was five years old, they moved to the U.S. and Mom (Mutti) seems to have retired from singing to rule the family with a strict regimen of health-conscious foods. No more Continental sweets unless it was a holiday or birthday. Instead, it was "a dietary lock-down of whole-grain, tofu-laced, sucrose-free hell".
Gesine grew up and moved in with Sandy, a struggling actress, to share an apartment while she went to law school. Sandy, whom the rest of the world knows as Sandra Bullock, achieved star status during this time and after passing the bar and going to a few dispiriting legal job interviews, Gesine signed up to work in her sister's new production company.
While working with the ebullient Sandy and meeting her future artist husband, Ray, helped "dull the pervasive ick of work", Gesine was still unfulfilled by her work, filling her free time with a frenzy of recreational baking. She bakes and bakes and bakes her way through various pastry arts until finally, while helping nurse Mutti through a terminal illness, she realizes that she is happiest in the kitchen. She and Ray chuck the Southern California lifestyle, pack up their fuzzy dogs and relocate to Vermont, where Gesine plans to attend culinary school.
A huge mail order for her specialty French almond-based macaroons that she had continued to pack off to Sandy and friends puts school on hold while she finds a commercial-scale kitchen in which to crank these out. Soon after, she and Ray buy a little building in the outer orbit of Montpelier and a bakery is born. The rest of the book details her daily adventures in catering to various customers, developing new recipes, and enjoying her new lifestyle. As a small business owner myself, I especially enjoyed the war stories about the mix of cranks and angels one gets in the shop each day. Gesine is a very descriptive and witty writer and can quickly place the reader right into each of the scenes she describes, whether it is sharing a cup of coffee and a pastry at tea-time with her Oma in Germany or performing the balletic pre-dawn bakery routines in a dark, chilly winter kitchen. Husband Ray Prado's delightful illustrations further season the book and they are humorous and affectionate portraits of scenes in Gesine's world.
Gesine offers a generous serving of recipes throughout the pages, and one can also find some recipes, further writing and even a video about how to make Golden Eggs on her blog, where you can absorb even more of her sparkling and sarcastic wit while she whisks and pours. Alas, it is at her blog, that I found out that Gesine's bakery is now shuttered while she is on hiatus working on other projects, so one cannot make a pilgrimage to Montpelier to sample some of her wonderful creations. (Montpelier is a fun town to visit, nonetheless, and I offer a little tour of bookshops and restaurants here).
Though I am more partial to the savory end of cooking, I really enjoyed this trawl through a baker's life. My only negative comment is that I found the many descriptions of Gesine's late mother disturbing. She strides about the book, clad in leather pants, stilettos and a Foxy Lady belt buckle at school functions (okay that's embarrassing but forgivable), seems to always have a critical comment for Gesine on her tongue, noting things down in her "endless ledger of unforgivable venialities" (that seems pretty harsh), and then humiliates her daughter in a school cafeteria scene that made my stomach clench (Mutti Dearest crossed the line there). I realize everyone's parenting styles are different, but reading these scenes made me uncomfortable. Gesine would always counter these maternal descriptions with a sentence about how much she missed her mom, but they added jarring notes to an otherwise interesting foodie memoir.
It was easy enough to select a recipe that I wanted to make from the book. I ran down the list to my dear husband, and without hesitation he chose the Espresso Cheesecake. Of course, Gesine's recipe would require some fiddling to make this gluten-free for our household. Thankfully, cheesecakes don't require much flour and the architectonics of gluten molecules to make them stand up. Mercifully too, my local supermarket stocks the gluten-free chocolate sandwich cookies needed for the crust so I didn't have to spend three days on this dessert project.
I got 2 cups of cookie crumbs ground up finely in my food processor and then added the 2 sticks of butter called for in Gesine's recipe. Maybe 2 cups of non-GF Oreo-style cookies absorb much more oil than my cookies did, or perhaps there is a typo in the cookie crust recipe for the Espresso Cheesecake. I think 1/2 stick of butter might have sufficed. I had an oily, liquidy bunch of chocolate crumbs that would just slither through the springform pan, so I ground up the second 8 oz. package of GF chocolate cookies to make another 2 cups of crumbs which I mixed in for the crust. Then I spooned up as much butter as I could off the top of the mixture, spooned it into the bottom of my pan and blotted up as much excess butter as I could with paper towels. In it went to bake (I put a foil lining on my cookie sheet underneath to absorb more oily excess) and then I blotted again as it cooled.
The rest of the recipe went smoothly and my family enjoyed this not-too-sweet, pleasantly caffeinated cheesecake just fine (I also subbed in white rice flour for the wheat flour called for in the filling). It is particularly nice with a cup of coffee on the side and garnished with some chocolate-covered coffee beans for extra Javanation.
I am looking forward to the roundup of book reviews and blog posts about this book on the Edible Word, which will be posted later this week. Thank you to the sweet hosts for the book and thank you to Gesine for a great read. I hope the author will continue to explore baking and will write some other books for us to enjoy about her creative adventures.