March 13, 1989, 20 years and 359 days ago, I took a baking lesson. This was organized by my grandmother, who was close friends with Lillian Kaplun of “Lillian Kaplun’s Kitchen” fame. This may mean something to the Canadians out there, or it may not, I could never be sure of the level of Mrs. Kaplun’s fame.
My grandmother was a fairly decent baker, relying heavily on Mrs. Kaplun’s recipes, while my mother was not. My mother refused to measure or follow recipes, ever- even while baking. This made her a very productive and creative cook, but not a baker. She once, when asked for a recipe to include in a celebrity cookbook, dictated an off the cuff recipe for muffins. After several rounds in the test kitchen, and perhaps several test-chefs later, the lady called back distraught. They could not get the recipe to work: they must have made a mistake; the muffins consistently came out like rocks. My mother quickly substituted the recipe for a savory dish.
Part of me believes that my grandmother’s enthusiasm for getting me to this lesson, as well as the stern talking to I received throughout, may have been an attempt to make a baker out of me, despite my home influence. Mrs Kaplun, a stern older Jewish lady, taught me a lesson of “musts”. You MUST sift the solids; you MUST cream the butter and sugar until your arm literally falls off; you MUST use butter at the right consistency (too hard or soft will NOT work.) The outcome of deviating even slightly from these MUSTS, was complete and utter failure. The stern-ness may have been enhanced by my being a stubborn and somewhat argumentative child. I have a vague recollection of saying things to the effect of: “my mother NEVER measures” and “my mother beats eggs with the Cuisinart.”
What we did make, using all the MUSTS, was a rather unremarkable coffee cake. Perhaps if we had made a delicious chocolate confection the outcome of this lesson would have been different. As it was, I left the lesson absolutely terrified of baking. Dole cookies were good enough for me.
Today, almost 21 years later, I remembered some delicious bars my grandmother used to make and called my mother for the recipe. They were from Lillian Kaplun’s book and, tucked within the pages, were my notes from my ill-fated past lesson. There are two somewhat intriguing aspects to this note. This first is what I meant by “if you keep the machine on #1 the air dies.” The second is why I saw fit to draw a mustachioed, balding, man with an earring.
Perhaps this says something about my attention span, then as now.
Since the balding man was first born on these cooking notes, Mrs Kaplun has now passed away: living, if I remember correctly, to 99 years. My grandmother no longer bakes, but is as spunky as ever, if a little hard of hearing. After yelling “bars” into the phone, and then spelling out both “bars” and “squares”, she triumphantly concluded I was asking about pie. When this was cleared up, however, she brightly remembered several tricks to the recipe. My mother still does not bake. I, on the other hand, am a casual baker, aided by the beauty of electronic mixers and the mature knowledge that an un-sifted coffee cake is not, in fact, a complete failure. Before making my bars today however, I did study my old notes: my butter was soft, my flour was sifted, my eggs were grade A large. I was not able to incorporate the balding man.
My picture was taken today as I shopped for baking supplies and picked up my bib for a race tomorrow. It was through the window of a consignment store that was packed with customers. Likely enjoying the spring-like weather and the sunny weekend day, as I was.