I spent the first years of my life living with my mom and dad with Granny, my mom’s Iraqi mother, in her one-room apartment in Shanghai. Granny baked and cooked all our meals. I don’t know how she managed to make all that she did in that tiny corner of a kitchen, with its small gas stove and oven, but I do remember loving to eat her delicious food.
The one thing Granny always had in supply was kahk, savory crunchy rings I’d munch on just about anytime. Most of the time they were plain, but sometimes she kneaded flavorful seeds of anise or fennel into the dough, which gave me a jolt of surprise when I bit down.
Years later, after we emigrated to San Francisco, I happened upon a cooking show on television. Although the host, Edith Green, didn’t look at all like Granny, her manner and joy brought Granny back to me. I didn’t know the first thing about how one actually went about cooking or baking, so I watched and wrote down recipes and one day I felt ready to try making something myself.
The simplest thing I could find was a recipe for baking-powder biscuits in Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, the only cookbook we owned. Step-by-step photos led me through the process. My first biscuits were a failure, but my next batch turned out beautifully, thanks to the advice of our landlady who lived above us. From then on, I was hooked.
How was it possible for flour, salt, baking powder, and some fat, mixed with buttermilk, to become biscuits, something that hadn’t existed before? It’s the wonder of it all that made me want to do it over and over again. Over time I began trying my hand at the recipes I’d jotted down from television. Success! The more I baked, the better I became. Making the same thing over and over again didn’t always turn out exactly the same, and that gave me an even bigger kick.
I wondered if Granny had felt the same way every time she baked. Or was it something she did so routinely that skill masked the underlying magic?
Why do you bake?
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The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
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