Musings

A Humble New Beginning to an Old Habit.

By: Jen Shoop

For most of my life, baking has been a principal passion. It started in high school, when I would bring muffins, sweet breads, cupcakes, and a treat I called “Honey Crackles” (honey and sugar melted and poured over corn flakes and left to congeal into crispy sweet morsels) to my homeroom and to mark the birthdays of my friends. In college, I would mix up enormous tupperware bins of Chex “Muddy Buddies,” long trays of brownies, and “Dirt” — a trifle of highly processed layers of crumbled devil’s food cake, pudding mixed with cream cheese, whipped topping, and oreos. For my twentieth birthday, I asked for a stand mixer. I was assuredly the only third-year at UVA teetering up the stairs of her apartment building in the dead head of a late August Charlottesville with an enormous KitchenAid under her arm.

After college, the interest took a turn for the serious. There were clouds of pavlova topped with whipped cream on New Year’s Eve; heart-shaped linzer cookies sandwiched with raspberry preserves; cheesecakes and chocolate cakes and coconut cakes for birthdays; overnight cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning; nearly every single one of the moist and not-too-sweet “everyday cakes” Orangette was known for in her heyday; enormous, chewy gingerbread men on Christmas Eve; sugar cutout cookies topped with royal icing to mark any occasion; and once, Snickers bars, homemade right down to the nougat. (Highly involved but worth the effort.)

The majority of the first few years of birthday and holiday gifts from my eventual parents-in-law were baking related: personalized spatulas, Fat Daddy cake tins, a landslide of baking books. My mother-in-law is also a passionate baker, and so this was one of our earliest connections. I remember her slipping me corrections to some of the recipes in the Miette baking book we both had. “Something’s off with this recipe — try these proportions,” she said, handing me a little paper on which she’d printed her revisions.

I’d bring spice cakes to dinner parties, icebox cookies flecked with pistachio to backyard hangouts, and homemade peach and blueberry muffins to the hostess welcoming us into her Lewes, DE beach home.

Baking was, in my teens and twenties, as much a part of my identity as literature.

Listening to Stanley Tucci’s memoir and then Nora Ephron’s Heartburn left me hungry, more in the metaphorical sense than the physical one. Both books rotate in their own ways around food, and both Ephron and Tucci are, clearly, passionate foodies. When Ephron describes in the final pages of her book her famous key lime pie — made with evaporated milk, as it should be — I sat in my car outside the Whole Foods and thought: “I’ve got to reclaim that part of myself.”

For a minute, I almost felt — guilty. How could I have let something I love so much get away? How could I abandon a skillset I’d cultivated for nearly twenty years? This latter thought arrived with some heft on the heels of the birthday cake I painstakingly made for Mr. Magpie on his birthday, which turned out irritatingly dry and flavorless despite well north of $40 in fancy chocolate and cocoa powder. I blamed myself for its results, and have vaguely wondered over the intervening weeks whether I’ve “lost my touch” in the baking department. Do baking skills dull over time, like knives and peelers?

But then, I thought —

A pandemic and parenting two young children and living in a cramped New York apartment are perhaps not the optimal conditions for persisting in this time-consuming ritual. (I shudder at the memory of digging my trusty KitchenAid out of the back of very deep cabinet in our first apartment on Central Park West. You’d have to remove about three rows of pans and serving dishes to get to it, and you’d crick your neck and scrape your head, and by the time you’d retrieved it, you were actually angry at the blondies you were attempting to make.) Don’t get me wrong: where there is a will, there is a way, and I routinely remind myself that time is tool to express my values (and interests, and curiosities), and so if I had really wanted to bake, I could have made it work. But my goodness: something had to give, and that something was baking. I can barely accommodate the rituals of reading and exercising, and those pastimes require much less of me. I have felt these past few years as though I have been at capacity, barely mustering enough bandwidth to do anything beyond that which is required, and in the shallow empty space beyond, I have chosen to read, or run, or sit with my husband drinking a cocktail. The profiteroles can wait.

But I have also been feeling this past month or two as though we have turned an enormous corner in our lives. Most of this has to do with the ages of our children. No one ever told me that once your children are three and five, respectively, life begins to open up a little bit more. We are out of diapers, we are out of bottles, we are out of strollers, we are now in a phase where our children can play upstairs, unsupervised. (Too much quiet, though, and I will poke my head in, in vague distress.) It has felt, suddenly, as though there is more air in the room. Looking after my one-year-old niece last month and then spending time around my seven-month-old nephew two weeks ago, I realized all at once how much freer our schedules are, how much longer the windows of opportunity to do one sustained thing, have become. Babies operate in tight two and three hour windows of feeding, sleeping, gurgling. And in between those happenings, they must be tightly supervised. Nowadays, by contrast, we can have an entire afternoon roll out in front of us with nothing in particular planned and no required action on our end. The children more or less conform to our patterns of eating and sleeping. This is not to say there aren’t new challenges. We have attitudes and tantrums and the complicated emotional and intellectual dance of ensuring we are saying and doing the right things to nurture our children and their interests, and I don’t even want to think about the tween and teen years down the road.

But, there is suddenly a bit more give.

So as I sat in my car asking myself why I hadn’t made a key lime pie in probably eight years and straining to even remember the last time I’d made a graham cracker crust (was it really just butter, graham cracker, and sugar? do you bake it off? etc), I realized exactly how I am going to mark this new phase of life:

By baking something.

I thought trying Ephron’s key lime pie would be the perfect choice but then the Whole Foods didn’t have key limes. Of course! Life’s way of thwarting the poetry I seek, and preventing me from becoming too mawkish in its pursuit. I am always, inexplicably, in a rush in a grocery store and so the thought of standing in an aisle, scrolling my phone for alternative baking inspiration, was not an option. Instead, I completed my errand, went home, and turned to Orangette, many of whose cake recipes are so simple as to include only pantry and larder staples. I chose her Gateau au Citron, a recipe I have always loved because of its old-timey measurements, which call for “1 jar plain yogurt,” “2 jars sugar,” etc. As Wizenberg writes in the head-note: “Traditionally, the ingredients are measured in a yogurt jar, a small glass cylinder that holds about 125 ml. Because most American yogurts don’t come in such smart packaging, you’ll want to know that 1 jar equals about 1/2 cup.”

It was perfect, and in fact more poetic than the pie would have been: a humble new beginning to an old habit.

Shopping Break.

+Lessons learned from baking.

+My favorite baking gear.

+What hobbies do you have?

+I really loved Tucci’s memoir.

Post-Scripts.

+My sister wore a pair of belted Zimmermann shorts (more similar Zimmermann styles, also on sale, here and here) with Doen’s Jane blouse tucked in when I saw her last and WOW. A ten.

+You can get her shorts look for less with this chic pair from Sezane.

+ADORE this bag.

+You can get 25% off the retinol moisturizer I mentioned earlier this week here using code FAIRYLAUNCH.

+Personalized camp notes for your little camper!

+This dress stopped me in my tracks.

+How cute is this affordable gingham number? It reminds me of something by Loretta Caponi!

+More my son’s third birthday, I decided to forgo a goody bag and instead bought a range of different books that the children can select out of a bin, and affixed a personalized book plate that reads: “THANKS FOR CELEBRATING WITH ME — HILL SHOOP” on the inside.

+The ultimate party bucket.

+Ordered myself this beautiful embroidered tiered shirtdress.

+This striped knit dress is giving me Missoni vibes for under $50.

+A great gauze top for everyday wear.

+Just the sweetest everyday bubble for a baby — soft cotton, simple stripes! Select colors 50% off!

+Also love this striped linen bubble.

+Super cute embroidered clutch.

+Fisherman sandals for BABIES. STOP. I actually want these in my size, literally.

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18 thoughts on “A Humble New Beginning to an Old Habit.

  1. I really loved this post! I’m so glad you’re picking up baking again now that you have the space to — and I certainly relate to the shifting stages of childrearing! I’m somewhat newly in that teen/tween phase and I love the (rare-ish) occasions when they really open up, one-on-one. I can see how this would happen while baking together … going to try that soon 🙂

    I also forgot how much I loved Orangette in its heyday! Have you read Molly’s most recent book, The Fixed Stars? It’s absolutely fascinating and gave me so much to chew on. I just love her!

    xx

    1. I love her too but you know what? I am realizing I never read The Fixed Stars. Going to add it. Wonder if she’s done an audiobook reading it herself???? Off to check..

      xx

  2. I’m not much of a baker myself, but my mom is, and she always encouraged me to play around in the kitchen. I tried a recipe for a chocolate cake with ganache frosting in my early teens. My brother always liked it the few times I made it, but I chalked it up to his teenage boy appetite.

    This year, on vacation, we were playing a sort of game where each of us shared what our menu would be if we were the prior year’s Masters winner and had to host our own Masters Champions Dinner.

    I never realized how much he loved that cake until he confidently answered that his dessert of choice at his Masters Champions Dinner would be “my chocolate ganache cake.” (For reference, we’re 22 and 25 now.) I was so touched by his answer that I made it and had it waiting for him when he visited me last month. It was the first time I’d made it in probably 8 years and I’m in school and working full time, but it was very well worth the time and effort.

    I’ve always been fascinated by how visceral food can be and I loved your reflections on baking. It’ll be like riding a bike – you’ll pick up right where you left off.

    1. Oh I love this so much — you are so right. Someone cooking for you — eating something with a loved one — marking a special occasion with food can quickly become cornerstone memory content.

      xx

  3. I will echo those above – this post gives me hope for more time to accomplish all the things! Right now, with a 4 year old and almost 2 year old, I’m (we’re) constantly trying to squeeze things into his nap time and her quiet time (which shrinks daily). Soaking up this stage, but also happy to move forward <3

    1. Hang in there! I know how you feel!!! You will get to the other side and the clouds part a bit.

      xx

  4. I love this, and relate to so much of what you say here – down to the memory of over-jammed cabinets that make you grit your teeth before you’ve even begun baking. With a 2-year old (this Friday!) and hopes to grow my family, I know we’re in the thick of the toddler schedules with little relief, but I do reassure myself that the give will come in good time. God willing, life is long, and there are so many stages and phases awaiting us. Thanks for sharing this glimmer of a dream of a long afternoon with no plans 😉

    1. Yes – exactly! Part of parenthood has been letting this drop, trusting you’ll be able to pick them up at some point, and then knowing when you are able to do so!

      xx

  5. Reading this gives me hope! My babies are one (today!) and 2.5 and I was just reflecting on when the last time I made lemon bars (my husband’s fave) was and the answer is….before I had two kids. It’s hard! A friend recently said she thought the shift from zero to one kids was tougher mentally and emotionally but the shift from one to two is tougher physically and logistically and that rang so true for me! Something has to give. Congrats on restarting this ritual. 🙂 xo.

    1. Thank you, Joyce! Yes, there IS hope! I had no idea what a huge milestone three and five would be for us!

      xx

  6. Do not be too hard on yourself for not baking more! If I remember correctly you had a baby, moved to a TINY apartment in a new city, adjusted to motherhood in time to get pregnant and have another baby, pandemic, you had COVID, moved again…Excuse me but it tires me out even thinking about it all. You were not supposed to be baking sweet devoted mother/wife. You lived surrounded by wonderful bakeries and didn’t have time to miss it.
    Now that you’re getting some time back it is all coming back for you to enjoy again.
    I loved Stanley Tucci’s memoir and loved (and recommend) “From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily and Finding Home”.

    1. Thank you for this generous note. I adored Tucci, too, and will need to check out the other book — added it to my tsundoku pile!

      xx

  7. You are not alone. We all give up things we love to do. We cannot do everything all the time. The ebb & flow of life is a constant reality. It’s delightful when we return to something we once imagined would always be a part of our life. Your baking endeavors will be richer for all you have experienced during your baking sabbatical.

    1. Thank you, Judy! You are so right in this: “we cannot do everything all the time.” Seasons of life!

      xx

  8. Hi! I love baking too, and I too, have put in on the back burner, except for family celebrations. You wouldn’t believe, but the person who most asks for cakes is my brother-in-law. Every time we see my sister’s family, he pretends to look for the cooler which would contain a delicious cheesecake with strawberry coulis. Most often than not, he leaves the scene pretending to be heartbroken that the cheesecake did not materialize.

    Your comment on belted shorts triggered the urge to share my new belted shorts from Zara. I love the bold print and colour. https://www.zara.com/ca/en/linen-blend-printed-shorts-p03296741.html?v1=174203959. Zara also has beautiful embroidered shorts: https://www.zara.com/ca/en/embroidered-shorts-p07563047.html?v1=157173986
    Not Zimmermann’s, but still pretty chic for the playground, or the kitchen!

    1. Aw – that’s so flattering about your brother-in-law seeking your cheesecake! You must be a talented baker. One day, you too will get back to it. There is a season for everything…right now, you are prioritizing (of necessity) other things.

      LOVE the shorts — omg! SO chic.

      xx

  9. Your children are a perfect age to begin their own “kitchen stories”. Include them – the end product may take a bit more time and may not be worthy of a 1988 Gourmet cover, but, oh, the memories you’ll make. When they’re teens, they tell you so much when baking. pure magic!

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