my favorite Thanksgiving tradition

chopped cranberries

a mountain of chopped fresh cranberries ready to get folded into the batter of goodness

Now that my mom and I live 3,000 miles apart, we text — a lot. She loves texting. So much so that she often taunts my dad with how easy it is to talk to me because she texts. (He doesn’t text. This is a man who leaves insanely long messages on answering machines, but never uses his cell phone. Ever.) This past Sunday she texted me one of her weekend updates — which more often resemble full emails than quick texts (love you, mom!) — and she said, “I hope I have enough time to bake the cranberry bread, would not be Thanksgiving without it!” [heart emoji]

Cranberry Thanksgiving book

photo courtesy of

We have been making this cranberry bread every Thanksgiving since as long as I can remember. It’s from the back cover of a story my parents used to read to me when I was little called Cranberry Thanksgiving. Amazingly, it’s still in print, the original copyright date is 1971. It’s a classic holiday story of a good guy and a bad guy, with a twist! The guy you think is the bad guy turns out to be the good guy! (Sorry if I just ruined it for you. It’s still a good read.) I absolutely loved the illustrations. I remember them vividly, they were so bright and detailed and delicious. I wanted to eat everything in the book. This is one of the first things I remember baking with my mom, even before the famous chocolate cake, because everything is mixed by hand. My whole family eats it for breakfast on Thanksgiving morning. It’s my dad’s hands-down favorite — he’ll pass up everything else for a slice of this. If you have kids, this is a perfect dish to bake with them. I hope it becomes a beautiful Thanksgiving tradition for your family, too.

cranberry bread

the recipe for this cranberry bread is older than I am — and that’s hard to do

From the book: Cranberry Thanksgiving by Wendy Devlin, Harry Devlin


  • 2 c. sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 c. butter
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 tsp. grated orange peel (*you can use fresh zest or dried peel)
  • 3/4 c. orange juice
  • 1 1/2 c. light raisins (*light raisins look better than dark, but if you only have dark don’t stress about it)
  • 1 1/2 c. fresh or frozen cranberries, chopped (*I find a mini food processor or hand chopper is best for this)


1. Sift flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda into a large bowl. Cut in butter until mixture is crumbly.

2. Add egg, orange peel, and orange juice all at once; stir until mixture is evenly moist. Fold in raisins and cranberries.

3. Spoon into a greased 9 x 5 x 3″ loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from pan and cool on a wire rack.

* = my commentary, not included in the original recipe

chocolate chip cookies.

chocolate oatmeal cookies

chewy cherry chocolate oatmeal toffee cookies cooling obediently on their rack

When I lived in London, chocolate chip cookies were almost as alien as pumpkin-y things. I searched high and low for a bag of chocolate chips that would be large enough to bake a batch of cookies, to no avail. And once again my London team nodded their heads in acknowledgment that I was correct, they don’t have proper bags of chocolate chips there. One of my coworkers in the New York office felt so bad about my chocolate chip meltdown that he bought me a giant bag of Nestle chocolate chips at Costco in New Jersey and carried it with him to London on a business trip (one could say he put it in his purse).

I never fancied myself as a chocolate chip cookie aficionado until then, and soon found myself giving lessons in the London office kitchen about how to make a chocolate chip cookie. (I might have gone one step too far, turning those cookies into ice cream cookie sandwiches — to which most of my coworkers shook their heads and politely passed. Too much Americanness, I guess.) But it was during those lessons that I realized all the important and seemingly small nuances that go into making the perfect chocolate chip cookie. Apparently, Martha Stewart has taught me well.

In a nutshell, you can have a chewy chocolate chip cookie or a crispy one. These results are based largely on the amount of butter you use, and how long you bake them for. I’m partial to the chewy gooey kind myself, but even that world is vast and full of options. Every fall, I love to bake these chewy cherry, dark chocolate, oatmeal and toffee cookies. They’re hearty and gooey at the same time, and for some reason have always embodied fall for me — especially when pumpkin and apple fatigue have set in. Even raisin haters can get on board because the dried sour cherries add the same stretchy texture as their dried grape friends with a more subtle flavor. And they stay soft for  a few days so they’re very gift-able and cookie swap-able.

chewy cherry chocolate oatmeal cookie close-up

fresh from the oven, these guys will look pale and almost underdone — but wait two minutes and watch the magic happen

The original recipe is a Martha Stewart oldie but goodie. I’ve modified it slightly to change the amounts of all the mix-ins to what I feel is a better ratio, and to add a wee bit of salt to the dough to act as a foil to all of the sweet elements. You could also sprinkle the cookies with sea salt before baking instead of adding salt to the batter. The crucial part about this recipe is taking the cookies out of the oven at the right time. (But that’s actually the crucial step in baking any chocolate chip cookie, in my opinion.) Depending on your oven, they will bake for anywhere between 14-16 minutes. Even at 16 minutes they’ll likely look a bit raw and underdone — but they’re done! Trust me. When the edges start to turn golden brown, that’s your cue to get your oven mitts out. At this stage, the center will be pale and very soft to the touch but the edge will be firm and brown. As soon as they come out of the oven and cool on their baking sheet on top of a cooling rack for two minutes, the puffy centers will firm up, turn even more golden brown in color and sink down slightly. Sinking is good. It means gooeyness. Keeping them on the cookie sheet for just a few minutes will add that extra boost of heat and keep them from overbaking in the oven. (It’s almost as if magic fairies sprinkle their finishing dust on them at this stage and transform them into perfection.) Then transfer them directly to the cooling rack to finish up. If you have kids, let them watch this part as it really is magical and awesome.

Modified from


  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup packed light-brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups oats (no quick-cooking oats, please!)
  • 1 cup dried cherries — I use Trader Joe’s dried pitted tart Montmorency cherries
  • 5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped — I use half a bag of Ghiradelli bittersweet 60% cacao chocolate chips (no chopping needed)
  • 1/2 cup toffee pieces — I use Heath English toffee bits



  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside. In a large bowl, mix together flour, baking soda, and salt with a whisk.

  2. In the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and both sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed during mixing. Add the egg; mix on high speed to combine. Add the vanilla; mix to combine. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

  3. Add flour mixture to egg mixture, and mix on low speed until well combined. Add the oats, cherries, chocolate, and toffee pieces; mix to combine after each addition. *At this stage your standing mixer will get tired, so be gentle with it. Small bursts of power are best.

  4. Use an ice cream scoop to spoon a heaping tablespoon of dough onto a lined baking sheet. Repeat, spacing 2 inches apart.

  5. Bake cookies until golden brown, 14 to 16 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through. Remove from the oven and let cool on the baking sheet on top of a wire rack for 2 minutes. Then transfer cookies directly to the wire rack to finish cooling. Store in an airtight container.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies, depending on the size of your scoops. 

Tool Note:
I’m very particular about tools when I bake. OK, let’s be honest, I’m very particular about lots of things in life — but this is a big one. I bake cookies always and only on aerated baking sheets. I totally drink the Kool-Aid on this one and truly believe that they help the circulation of air enough to make a big difference. I bought this set at BBB for my mom and it has changed her life, too.

’tis the season… for pumpkin

mini pumpkins

we love our pumpkins, especially wee little ones

Americans love pumpkin. We can debate all we like about how festive a red coffee cup might be, but there is no debating how much Americans love pumpkin. I never understood our (perhaps slightly overzealous) attachment to all things pumpkin until I lived in London a few years ago, and the fall (aka autumn) was absolutely devoid of pumpkin. There were no loaves of pumpkin bread at the bakeries, definitely no pumpkin spice lattes at Starbucks, and when I suggested that my coworkers just buy a sugar pumpkin at the store or the farmers’ market, they all looked at me like I had seven heads. It was a sad, sad season, made even more sad by the fact that I didn’t have the foresight to pack some Libby’s canned pumpkin in my purse before I crossed the pond. A transatlantic chocolate mule I was, but a pumpkin mule I was not.

I’ve been baking pumpkin bread since I was in third grade. My class took a field trip to the Crane House, which is a federal-style home that was built by Israel Crane in 1796 in Cranetown, NJ (now Montclair) and is part of the Montclair Historical Society. It is exactly everything you would imagine an historical colonial house would be like, down to the tiny chairs and little tables where the nice women in period dress showed us how to make pumpkin bread. (Amazing how they had pumpkins in America in 1796 but they still don’t have them in London!) It was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted to date. And so I have been baking THIS pumpkin bread every year since. My mom still has the original “ditto” in her kitchen pantry, which was likely made with a mimeograph machine since the now-faded text is blue.

I’ve modified the recipe slightly because, let’s be honest, we didn’t really think too much about sugar in 1985. Or vegetable oil. So I’ve experimented over the years and have decided that this slightly healthier version is just as awesome as the original, and I don’t feel nearly as bad eating half a loaf in one sitting anymore.

pumpkin bread

ahhhh… pumpkin bread


Preheat oven to 350F (180C) degrees. Grease 2 long loaf pans or 3 standard loaf pans (this puppy makes a lot of batter).

WET INGREDIENTS — Mix together in the biggest bowl you have:
1/2 c. canola or vegetable oil
4 beaten eggs
1 c. water
2 c. canned or cooked pumpkin*

DRY INGREDIENTS — Mix together in a separate bowl:
3 1/3 c. sifted flour (I use 1 c. whole wheat and 2 1/3 c. all-purpose flour)
2 c. organic cane sugar
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
2 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. baking soda

Add the dry mixture to wet mixture and fold together with a wooden spoon.

Optional additions:
1 c. raisins
1 c. chopped nuts
1 c. mini chocolate chips
Grated orange or lemon peel

Fold in any additions, and pour into prepared pans. (Sometimes I sprinkle finely chopped nuts on top of the loaves.)

Bake for 1 hour at 350F (180C).

*For my British friends, you’re in luck! It seems as though Libby’s canned pumpkin is available at Waitrose now. It might be ghastly expensive, but it’s worth it. For everyone, make sure you buy the pumpkin puree and not the pumpkin pie filling. They are very different things! As my friend Julie will attest to….

Happy autumn.

Sunday in France

[I just stumbled on this post in my drafts folder — I wrote it in September 2015 when I was traveling in France for the month. And while today is Sunday, albeit a Sunday in San Francisco, I thought I might as well publish it…]

vineyard in Bordeaux

a vineyard in Bordeaux

I’m going to count yesterday as my first Sunday in France, and forget about the actual first one when the “putain de merde” stole my wallet in Paris. After a full week in the country, I was finally starting to feel like I was in the France I remembered.

I went to France looking for something, but I have no frigging idea what. Or maybe I went to France looking to run away from something, but I’m not exactly sure what that would be either. I guess I just felt lost, and I often turn to France to find my way. Since I’m a homing pigeon for Paris, I decided I should see some more of the French countryside as well on this trip. So after three days in Paris (most of which were spent in the police station, in the bank, or on the phone), off to Bordeaux I went. I went seeking wine, and the familiarity of the French lifestyle to comfort me. But I didn’t find it, right away.

Bordeaux vines

hiding in the vines

I did find the wine. And it was pretty good. Some bottles better than others. But I’ve come to realize that I’m becoming a California wine snob. I realize that the French love to blend their wine, making it more “complex” and in their opinions, more interesting. But I think it’s really hard to beat a great bottle of a California cab or pinot or zin — the purity of the respective grape variety really coming through, with each different vineyard showcasing the mastery of their winemakers and their terroir. I’ve also realized that I’m becoming a San Francisco food snob. I expect every meal to be mind blowing, if not life changing. And honestly, about 95% of them in SF are. The meals I had in Bordeaux were mediocre at best, most of them actually quite terrible. And it made me sad. Very sad. Where was the France I knew, that used to blow my mind with each meal? Do I just have a different perspective now, after living in California with the amazing produce at my fingertips daily and after going to culinary school with a better appreciation that it’s pretty hard to funk up quality ingredients if you know what you’re doing? Maybe. Or is not all of France created equal in that regard? Maybe. Or am I just looking for something I’ve already found?

Bordeaux, France

a picturesque part of the Bordeaux countryside

I think the later became clear on Sunday morning when I went for a run along the Garonne River. I stumbled on the biggest, longest, nuttiest farmer’s market I have ever seen in France. It seemed as if it stretched on for miles. And then it all made sense. This is the part of the world where you put the food together yourself. The crappy touristy food I was eating in Bordeaux was likely just that — for tourists. I walked up and down the endless stalls of fish mongers, cheese makers, bakeries, farms, crepe stands and such about three times to soak it all in. This was the France that I remembered. This was the France that I love.

[… Fast forward to today, May 28, 2017, a year and a half after I wrote about France. One thought in particular still resonates quite strongly — “Am I just looking for something I’ve already found?” Most days I feel like I’m looking for something, searching for something new, ready to take on a new challenge or adventure. Will that ever go away? Will that ever change? I hope not. I often think that search is a large part of what keeps me going. And I’m excited to see where it takes me next.]

baking is love

For as long as I can remember, I’ve associated baking with love. As cheesy as it sounds, that’s how I roll. (Pun slightly intended.) From baking a loaf of sourdough and adding “loads of love,” to the simple, pure happiness I feel every time I take anything out of the oven — baking is love. And then there are those I bake for. And with.

pluot fruit tart

this “Aunt Judith fruit tart” made with Cali pluots got more likes on Facebook than I have friends

Aunt Judith’s fruit tarts and I go way back. On a visit to Maine so many years ago I lost count, she presented a wild Maine blueberry tart at the end of the most perfect lobster dinner, and I fell in love. Since that night, I’ve baked countless Aunt Judith fruit tarts — her mother’s recipe from Iowa. Between her mother, her sons, herself, me and whomever else is lucky enough to have the recipe, I can’t even imagine how much love has been spread via “Aunt Judith fruit tarts.” Last week, Aunt Judith lost a very dear friend. She texted me today to say what she had been cooking for the family and simply said, “I’m baking tarts to take over. He loved dessert.”

Those same tarts have welcomed babies, celebrated successes, feted birthdays, completed dinner parties with good friends, and mourned losses. They are love.

sourdough bread baking

Aunt Judith snapped this one while my hands were full… sneaky

Last week when I visited Aunt Judith in Maine, we baked bread together. I put my sourdough starter in my purse (OK, technically my checked luggage) in San Francisco, and whipped it out as soon as I arrived. We named her Gracie, fed her every day, and by mid-week, there was bread. Sam and Judith are possibly the coolest, most hilarious people on the planet, so the event was not without its fair share of shenanigans. But it was worth every minute. They are love.

baking chocolate cake

we have chocolate cake! but sadly, no oven

Today I surprised my two favorite munchkins, my nieces, who thought they were just heading to Oma and Opa’s house for Sunday dinner and standard Mersel shenanigans. I told them I flew 3,000 miles because I really wanted to bake a chocolate cake with them. And it’s true. We’ve been baking together since Jamie was just learning how to read and Lauren was just able to sit in the kitchen chairs and not topple over. We’ve made countless chocolate cakes (and cookies, and brownies, and cupcakes, and cheesecakes — but it should be noted that Lauren doesn’t actually like cheesecake, she baked it because Jamie really likes it — and flag cakes for Oma’s July 4th birthday, etc. etc.), but today we made Aunt Judith’s mom’s chocolate cake with fudge frosting (yes, Julie, I saved you a piece). Well, we sort of made it. The oven broke and we ran out of time to make the frosting, but like the awesome little troopers that they are, we all went over to the neighbors’ house together to ask if we could use their oven for about 35-40 minutes. Within minutes, my nieces were playing with the neighbors’ kids and not too long after, we had chocolate cake and big smiles. They are love.

The first time I baked a chocolate cake with my Godson, Alden, he was barely one year old. We gave him the beater to lick at the end and he looked at it like an alien from Mars. His Dad had to show him what to do with it, and skeptically he followed suit. Within about three seconds, the smile on his face was bigger than Mars. I can remember that day like it was yesterday, seven years ago. He is love.

My mom and I used to bake a lot of chocolate cakes together. Her famous German chocolate cake (to be noted: chocolate cake from Germany, not the kind that was named after an American chocolate maker) graced many birthday parties.  We had the special dark chocolate glaze sent over to the U.S. from relatives in Germany. From my mom, I learned how to tell when the batter was completely mixed, how to properly fold in chocolate chips, how to grease cake pans and unmold them after the cake had cooled, and how to perfectly melt and spread the special German chocolate over the top. It’s the first thing I can ever remember baking, and it’s pretty much what I attribute my love for baking to. There’s not much in this world that can beat baking a chocolate cake with your mom. In its purest form, it is love.

German Chocolate Cake

from left to right: my mom, brother, random stranger and my aunt at my brother’s first birthday party… with the famous German chocolate cake (which my brother seems oddly scared of)

“it’s just bread”


my crusty brown baguettes, all lined up like good little soldiers

I never thought any of this would be easy. But I never thought it would be this hard, either. Hard in ways that it didn’t need to be, which is probably the most frustrating type of hard there is.

I baked my last loaves of bread on Saturday… for now. Loaves that are sold to other people, I should clarify — the home baking will never stop. I woke up this morning, not at the usual 2am but at a reasonable 7am, and I was sad. It’s time to move on, I know that in my gut, but the closing of the metaphorical door is always hard no matter what the reason.

My bread partner-in-crime, aka Sugar Bottom, and I, aka Sassy Cat, had a good run. He taught me how to shape baguettes, mix dough to the perfect texture, and smile while I baked. On the days we didn’t work together, he’d leave me notes, always ending with the reminder that no matter what craziness might be in store that day, “it’s just bread.” I still need to learn how to not cut myself when changing the razor blade on a lame, how to stay within the lines when scoring baguettes, and how to be easier on myself. That last one is the hardest one.

bread deck oven

big oven, little me

My bread mentor reminds me often that when he wakes up in the morning, he loves going to work, and why should we accept anything less? He’s right. I loathed going to work. The 2am wake-up calls aside, I hated walking into the dark and lonely bakery by myself, wondering what chaos would be waiting inside for me. How long would it take me to find the pastry brush for egg-washing the croissants? Would there be any egg wash? Would there be any eggs? Would the scale work to weigh the eggs if we even had any? Hard and frustrating for the stupidest reasons. The owner and I got into a tiff on my way out the door on my last day at the bakery. I hate tiffs. I hate animosity. I hate unhappy endings. But as my dad always says, “No one said that life is easy, Muffet.” He’s right, too. It was during my tiff with the owner when I was speaking my mind that I realized how the bakery even stayed alive at all — a kick-ass team, who busted our dedicated and passionate asses despite the conditions in which we were asked to work. Sugar Bottom always smiled. Pastry Cat always meowed — and bought milk every time we ran out. The woman with the awesome pink hair who shaped croissants, shaped perfect croissants. The culinary team left me surprise hot breakfasts on my bread bench when they knew I was back in the bread cave for hours sweating my ass off. And that’s when I realized that starting every day there sucked, but ending it was awesome. My blood, sweat, tears and burns were shared with awesome people making awesome products every day. The people make or break a business. Although I’ve always known that in my other lives, it was never as lightbulb-moment clear as it was when I was closing the door on my first chapter of this one.

bread cooling rack

filling the bread rack one last time

The other day I heard Tom Petty’s Learning to Fly on the radio. I haven’t heard that song in years, but man is it a good one. It struck a chord (literally and figuratively) and then things started to make more sense about where I am in my journey right now… lost but excited, scared but inspired.

“Well, some say life will beat you down
Break your heart, steal your crown
So I’ve started out for God knows where
I guess I’ll know when I get there
I’m learning to fly but I ain’t got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing
I’m learning to fly around the clouds
But what goes up must come down”

breaking bread


proud bread mamma: the first baguette I made entirely by myself

I’ve been ensconced by dough lately. I start my days at 3am now, coffee mug in hand as I quickly and quietly descend the stairs in my building and into the UberX waiting for me outside, and head off to my new job at a French bakery. Without fail, the driver is surprised that I’m not drunk. (I like to think that I make their night shifts a little more humane by having a sober conversation as we drive down the big hill on the way to the bakery.) Once I get there and flip everything on — lights, ovens, fans — and I get down to business. I’ve worked out an almost militant-type order of doing things (thanks to the tutelage of my counterpart who mans the ship on the other days) that involves cookies, muffins, at least four types of croissants, kouign amann, and of course bread. Bread is why I’m there at 3am. Time to bake the bread. Time to see what we’ve created. Time to break open the bread and see what it looks like inside — poke it, squeeze it, analyze the crumb and the crust and how they live symbiotically together. Time to make people happy. My favorite part of the morning is around 6am when the baristas come in to start setting up. The music kicks on, pastry shelves start to fill up, and after three hours by myself I finally have some human contact. My favorite barista always asks me as soon as he gets in what I’d like to drink, and my answer is always: COFFEE! I have no idea what he puts in it but he makes it perfectly, it always comes to me with a heart in the foam (it’s the little things), and it can keep me going for another seven hours. God bless him. My days start this way now and usually end about 10 hours later, at which point I’m covered in a flour snowstorm and dough tornado. And I’m finally beginning to love it.

walnut country levain bread

sometimes i like the bread i bake, this was one of those times

I just finished Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and no book has made me think, and question, as much as that one has in a long time. In the preface he says so accurately, “I’m asked a lot what the best thing about cooking for a living is. And it’s this: To be a part of a subculture. To be part of a historical continuum, a secret society with its own language and customs. To enjoy the instant gratification of making something good with one’s hands — using all one’s senses. It can be, at times, the purest and most unselfish way of giving pleasure.” He’s right. When people ask me how I’m not fat baking as much as I do, I say because I don’t bake for me, I bake for others, and I give it away. And I bake with kids because I love to see the joy in their faces when they finish icing a cupcake or putting sprinkles on a birthday cake. It is pure unadulterated joy. But then there are those other times.

My first few days of baking alone at the bakery would count under the umbrella of “those other times.” And follow suit with the rest of what Bourdain exposes in his expose about the culinary industry. It’s tough. It’s grueling. I burn myself. It can be thankless. It can get into your head and have you asking yourself why the F you are doing any of this in the first place. I asked myself that often during my first few days.

I had a great conversation with my bread mentor the other day about the passion of a baker. The real, gritty, animalistic, can’t-do-anything-else-but-this kind of passion. It was like he was personifying the pages Bourdain wrote. And I needed to hear it. Boy did I need to have that conversation, exactly at that time. And part of me thinks so did he, it’s always good to remember why we do any of this. I needed to remind myself that I have some of that in me. How much of it is yet to be determined, but at least I know that I have some of it in me. Enough of it to leave my old life behind and jump into this one. Any rational human being would shake his or her head at the idea of it all — no health insurance, practically no money, insane hours, intense physical labor, scars, etc. etc. etc. And perhaps this rational human being might shake his or her head directly at me, if I didn’t have some of a baker’s passion in me. But those who know me know better. And thank God for them. They keep me going.

Le Marais bread shelves

the bread shelves at Le Marais beginning to fill up with my loaves

So does the bread. Thank God for the bread. Because no matter how crazy an 11-hour day can get, how mad I can get at myself for not scoring one loaf deep enough or over-proofing another, I’m still making bread. I leave at the end of my shift and look up at the racks of bread and smile. I made those. “The instant gratification of making something good with one’s hands.” That’s exactly it. And that’s exactly what I was missing in my old life. Sitting at a desk, in the corner, without purpose. No one knew what to do with me, so there I sat. No more team, no more boss, no more support, no more purpose. I would venture to guess that it is probably one of the worst feelings in the world. At least it felt like that to me. Reading Bourdain’s book, I realize more clearly now that everyone questions the job and the industry they are in, at some point or another. Or at a lot of points. How could we not, we’re human. But what I think it all comes down to is the balance — how many days do we question it and how many days do we smile. Smiles of pure satisfaction. Smiles of unadulterated joy.

For me, it all goes back to breaking bread, the social sharing of food. And in its most simplistic form, that’s why I’m doing this. I love feeding people. So on the days when I feel like I’m breaking my back more than I’m breaking bread, I remember that. Every time I question why the F I’m doing any of this, I remember what my teacher Tracie said to me one day in the kitchen at school in Ireland, “You love food and food loves you.”

the crumb of my walnut and pear bread

in baker’s speak, the inside of the bread is called the “crumb” — lots of holes are a good thing

At the end of his book, Bourdain talks about how the food industry has changed since he first started in it. Still largely Latin in workforce, the great three-star kitchens are now “staffed by the itinerant sons and daughters of the middle class” bouncing around the world and often working for free. “People with perfectly good jobs as stockbrokers and attorneys chuck it all to attend culinary school — enamored by the perceived romanticism of a cooking life. Most of this latter group are, of course, soon ground beneath the wheel.” And that very well might be me one day. But not yet.

my buns are out of the oven

Last weekend I gave birth to my first two bread babies. Why such a strong analogy? Because it’s accurate. Starting on Friday night and ending on Sunday afternoon, I only left my apartment to eat (once) and go to a yoga class (once). Every other minute was spent making bread.

sourdough bread

my first San Francisco bread baby, just out of the oven

When friends ask me innocently, “How long did it take you to make this loaf of bread?” I think they expect the answer to be something along the lines of, “A few hours.” So when I say, “About two and a half days,” the looks I receive in response are awesome. Shock, awe, confusion — it’s brilliant. A few months ago, I wouldn’t have believed it either. I know very few people who bake real bread at home — there was the guy I had a crush on in London who did a bagel experiment with the water I brought him from NY (and then documented our adventure in his book, The Breakfast Bible); my friend Gail’s husband, whom I need to clone; and the guy I “dated” last fall, whom on our first date brought me a loaf of fresh sourdough he had just taken out of the oven (perhaps I fell in love with his bread more than him, in retrospect; darn bakers get me every time). But seeing as I can count them on one hand, I don’t have many bread makers in my life, so I was blissfully unaware of how much of a labor (arguably a labor of love, thankfully) it is to bake a loaf of bread.

So, cooking school was the first place where I really learned and understood how much is involved in making bread — and how a few simple ingredients (flour, water, salt, yeast) could require so much care and feeding, quite literally. But at cooking school, we did it together. As a team, as a supportive group, occasionally with some wine. Here at home, I’m all alone. I’ll admit that it took so long after getting back home (about a month) to start making bread here because I was scared. Scared that I wouldn’t remember how to do it. Scared that I would fuck it up. Scared that I would realize I couldn’t do it, and then what?

sourdough starter

my starter in its first home — it’s now grown up into a bigger bowl

Eventually I got my ass off the couch and started to start a starter. I was insanely motivated, ready to jump out of the gate, ready to take on the world one bread at a time, until… I couldn’t find the right flour. Boom. Feelings of defeat as I walked from store to store to store (I tried five) to find whole wheat bread four. Nada. There was literally every other kind of flour available (especially in this hippie dippy city where gluten is often an enemy) except the kind that I needed. (Now I’ve come to learn that most, if not all, whole wheat flour is bread flour, unless it’s identified as whole wheat pastry flour. Phew.)

I gave in and called the big guns. My bread mentor. For whatever reason this person has come into my life (probably the universe’s doing, and sometimes I believe in that kind of stuff), I’m thankful for it.  I was panicked and deflated, searching for flour, the San Francisco May winds literally pushing me backwards on my journey from store to store. It sucked. I needed help. So, I gave in and asked for it. [Those who know me well know that I’m a classic Type A, overachieving perfectionist. As much as I hate to admit that and as long as it has taken me to admit that, it’s true. I’m fiercely independent and insist on doing things on my own whenever possible. It’s quite ironic, though, since I love being around people and too many hours spent alone make me very sad. But it is what it is and I am who I am. At least now I can recognize these traits and try to be self aware whenever possible.] In the baking aisle of Whole Foods on Franklin Street, after I had been staring at the endless bags of flour that were not the ones I wanted for what felt like hours (and must have looked like it to all the people walking by), I pulled out my phone. “Can I use regular whole wheat flour for my starter? –> Yes, of course.” Wow. It was that easy. And so it began, my weekend of bread love.

sourdough dough

my favorite part is when the dough ball flops out onto the counter, holding on for dear life with its stretchy bits

Starter aside, the process of making the dough takes hours. After you’ve mixed up the initial combination of flours, water, and levain (aka starter) based on whatever set of percentages you are following, you let it sit for 20 minutes. This is called auto lease. It’s French 🙂 I need to read more about the science behind it, but essentially this short resting period helps the bread start relaxing. We like it when bread is relaxed. After the auto lease, you sprinkle on the salt, add the second batch of water (referred to as the second hydration), and massage it all together. Bread likes to be relaxed and massaged. I can totally relate. Then patience needs to kick in. You fold the bread once every 30 minutes for three hours. Yes, three. It’s important to keep it warm during this phase, so that it can, you guessed it, relax. After those three hours of folding are up, you let it rest for another hour untouched. (Finally a break to fold laundry, go to the store, be a human.) Once it is sticky and stretchy and all around yummy, it’s ready for the first shaping.

the key to shaping is tension -- the tighter the better

the key to shaping is tension — the tighter the better

The nuances of shaping are almost impossible to describe in words (even bread God Chad Robertson uses pictures in his book), but in essence you need to carefully, gently fold it into a beautiful ball. Again, all while keeping it relaxed. Then you wait. About 20 minutes should do the trick, but environmental factors definitely come into play here — warmth, cold, drafts, etc. So I’ve been instructed by my bread mentor and all others who have ever made bread that you just need to feel it and trust your gut. The more you do it, the smarter your gut will get.

Next comes the basket phase, another gentle mission that could fuck up your final product if you do it incorrectly. First you conduct the “final shaping” (again, too complicated for words) and then carefully, delicately but with assertion, but your dough baby into a basket lined with a tea towel covered in flour (rice flour is ideal because it’s slightly grainier than regular flour.) Then you let it rest. Again. For an hour. California is honestly the best place to make bread because all it wants to do is chill out.

sourdough basket

tucked away neatly in her basket, chillin’ yet again

After an hour, you can pop it into the fridge to retard (aka proof or rise slowly) overnight. And if you’re like me, you’ll peek at it constantly throughout the night like you would a sleeping child, just to make sure it’s OK. Holes and bubbles are good. In fact, they’re great. My bread mentor says you want a dough that’s full of air and full of life. (To be honest, at first I thought that was a bit corny and romanticized, but that was before I made the dough. So now I love my bubbly bits.) The next morning when you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to the highest it will go. Yes, really. I set mine to 500F degrees and let it preheat for one hour. Ideally, you’d be baking it in a Dutch oven (aka cast iron casserole dish) turned upside down so that the lid is the base, and you’d be preheating this, too. If not, you’ll need a spray water bottle so you can mist inside the oven at least every 10 minutes to keep the moisture level up. Dough likes to be relaxed, massaged, and moist. And that’s all we’ll say about that.

bread half baked

my baby emerging from her casserole dish

When the oven and Dutch oven are hot and ready, you’re ready to roll. Do the following as quickly and as carefully as you can:

1. Find the most durable oven mits you own to remove the dish from the crazy heat

2. Invert the dough ball from its basket onto the lid of the dish (you’ll thank the rice flour at this stage) in one quick but controlled motion

3. Score the dough in a square pattern using a sharp razor blade; hold the blade at an angle and make quick but firm cuts — show the dough who’s boss

4. Pop the bad boy into the oven and lower the temp to 400F degrees

After 20 minutes, carefully remove the whole dish from the oven and slide her out, directly onto the oven rack. She’ll be pale and hopefully her square design will have popped up from the rest of the loaf. During this next baking phase, she’ll get golden brown and develop a crisp, thick crust. Arguably, this is probably when you should watch her the most because EVERY person I know who makes bread says there is no exact cooking time. You just have to know.

When she’s golden and crispy and sounds hollow when you flip her over and knock her bottom with your fist (yes, do this, really), she’s ready. My loaves took about 25 minutes more, but I prefer a darker color. I like to gently push the top of the loaf underneath the square design to check for the perfect balance of squishy soft inside and serious crust. You’ll know what I mean when you do it, if you ever do any of this, just push it like Salt-n-Peppa taught you. The rest of the crust should feel very crisp — the longer it’s in the oven, the thicker the crust, so bake it as you like it. There’s just as much to how a bread looks as how it tastes, so this is when you can really have fun geeking out about color and texture and crust and all that jazz.

sourdough crumb

lots of bubbles = good crumb

But the true golden ticket lies inside. Inside is affectionately called the “crumb.” Will there be bubbles? Will they be big? Lots of bubbles mean you done good. The crumb on my second loaf was way better than on my first. I’m still trying to figure out why, but all of this is, after all, an experiment — and that’s half the fun.

sourdough sesame loaf

the next day I did it all over again, and added some sesame seeds

To celebrate the end of my weekend of solitude, I invited some good friends over to eat my buns — hot from the oven, smothered in soft cheese, ridiculously ripe farm tomatoes and fresh basil. With wine. Lots of wine.

We might have fallen victim to some bread comas that night, but hell if it wasn’t worth it, I don’t know what is. If you don’t break bread with the ones you love, you’re missing out. Big time.

My friend Collin's bread coma (note the piece of bread still in his mouth)

My friend Collin giving in to his bread coma (note the piece of bread still in his mouth)

two days at Tartine

Tartine Bakery bread baskets

just like NYC skyscrapers, every time you look up, there are baskets piled as high as the eye can see

Somehow I seem to find myself in these Devil Wears Prada “a million girls would kill for this job” situations. My first job interview ever, for an assistant job in the fashion department at Marie Claire magazine, lasted a generous 90 seconds. But while my first career was quite literally in the throws of fashion magazine craziness not unlike the movie — Starbucks runs, racks and racks of clothes everywhere, late nights, early mornings, and hours spent at fax machines (yes, fax machines) — I’m so glad that my second career is starting out in the throws of flour and bread baskets and sourdough starters. And I’m very thankful that I know what it’s like to start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.

I love and appreciate that my close friends and family think that I can just walk into Tartine Bakery and get offered a job on the spot. “What? They’re not going to hire you?” But hiring me would entail that a) they actually have a job opening, and 2) that even if they did, hundreds of other (more qualified) people wouldn’t also want it. What they did offer me, however, was a two-day stage (that’s French for internship) in their world-renowned bakery under the tutelage of their amazing team. And those two days were nothing short of amazing.

Starting over isn’t easy, and never was that more apparent then when I was standing over a wooden work bench pitting about 8,000 cherries last Thursday — after I had just finished peeling two cases of oranges. I was essentially tasked with doing the filing equivalent of a corporate job, where the biggest challenge is not letting your mind wander too much into the dark side of “why am I doing this again?” My internship at InStyle magazine during the summer after I had just graduated college was in the research department. Although it may sound glamorous, I was tasked with reading through page proofs to make sure there were no typos, and then calling the stores listed on each page to make sure they sold X bag or Y shoes for the price listed on the page. Then I put my initials on the top of the page proof and handed it off to the next person. And waited for the next one.  Each page took about 30 minutes, tops. Sometimes I got one page a day. There are only so many times one can visit the supply closet looking for new highlighter colors, so I would sneak upstairs to the fashion department and ask if they needed help. Quite proud of my stealth, it took weeks before anyone in the research department knew I was moonlighting in the fashion department, and by the time they caught wind I had already been offered a full-time job somewhere else. But hey! If looking for typos and sorting clothes helped me get where I am today, then I can pit cherries with the best of them!

Tartine Bakery bread

loaves proofing in the back, eager to be shaped

To be fair, I think my fruit-filled first morning was a way for the pastry team to gage my competence and willingness. I guess I passed muster because by the first afternoon, I was glazing cakes and shaping cookies. I completely forgot to drink any water in those eight hours, peed maybe once, and probably wouldn’t have eaten had they not invited me to family lunch (OMG, Arturo’s Mexican red chicken). I left the first day feeling OK, inspired and exhausted, knowing that I need to get faster but thankful that at least I’m a quick study. Then I went back for day two with the bread team…

The Head of Bread (can I just say I would kill for that title on a business card?) is like no one I have ever met before. When he called me to ask that I come in for a meeting, I could have chatted to him for hours — until that awkward point in the conversation when you both realize you actually haven’t met in person yet so it might be best to carry on face-to-face. Maybe it was the British accent, maybe it was the fact that we were talking about sourdough starters within the first minute, but I was smitten. (Not like that, although it should be noted that finding a job and dating online are not that dissimilar, for better or for worse I’m trying to hone my skills with both.) Our face-to-face meeting was surreal. Not only did Diana Kennedy (my idol of Mexican cuisine) happen to be in the bakery that day (a rare happenstance, as I hear that she rarely leaves her serene spot in the Mexican jungle), but Chad Robertson (Tartine’s owner, deemed “the baker of the world’s best and most imitated bread”) was also there. When we met, by the awe-inspiring bread oven overflowing with fresh loaves that had just finished baking, he said to me: You have a very impressive background. When they showed me your resume I said, ‘Yes, call her back!’ It took everything in my power not to faint right there in front of him, and topple over into the very very hot oven. This man is a bread-making messiah. I don’t think it will ever fully sink in that he thinks my background is impressive.

Tartine Bakery queue

the queue at Tartine never goes down, ever

Fast forward to one week later, when I am standing at yet another wooden work bench shaping country loaves with the Head of Bread, when Chad walks in. Although I did a crap job of trying to hide my wobbly, misshapen loaf, he thankfully had a lot more important things to focus on at that moment. And whilst he was discussing said important bread business with the team, I finally stopped for a second to think about all I had done that day: Sprouted two giant containers of rye berries, learned how to make oat porridge bread, stacked and unstacked a lot of bread baskets, made and shaped their Danish-style ancient sprouted rye bread by myself, learned how to load a deck oven, shaped a few loaves of their famous country loaf, and practiced some Spanish. Not too shabby for a “green” baking stage just off the boat from cooking school.

Tartine Bakery bread dough

i just love dough close-ups

So, Mom and Dad: I don’t have a job at one of the country’s best bakeries, yet. But I’m working on it. I got to geek out about bread for a day, meet some amazing and passionate people who were nothing short of inspiring, and got my hands dirty, quite literally, in how this all works. Feck, even just walking around the back of the bakery in an apron was magical. In the meantime, I’m going to keep practicing in my lab (aka San Francisco kitchen) and feeding as many friends as humanly possible while I figure out what’s next. It may take me a little bit of time to figure it out, but I will. I promise.

My hands were stained from the cherry juice for three days after I left the bakery and my shoes still have spots of crusted-over sourdough starter, but every time I look down at them, I smile. Let the new journey begin…

the day I fell in love with bread

Tartine Bakery Country Bread

Tartine’s famous country loaf

When I studied in Paris during college, I lived on a small, residential street in the 13th arrondissement, just off of the Place d’Italie metro stop. On the walk from my flat to the metro, there was one lone bakery, so small it was indistinguishable as a bakery. And it was never open. Puzzling to say the least, I never thought too much about it, except for the occasional sadness that it must have fallen on hard times and been forced to close. Until one day when I was walking home from the metro around 5pm (a rare occurrence, as we left the flat every morning at 9am and often didn’t return until 12 hours later), and to my shock, it was open. There was a queue out the door of people in their work clothes, laden with shopping bags on each arm and talking to each other at a bustling pace. They were all buying bread for dinner.

Not until I moved to San Francisco almost three years ago did I think about that bakery again. My good friend, Arif, knowing well of my baking escapades in my own kitchen, said that I MUST go to Tartine Bakery as soon as I moved to SF. (I did him one better and went during my initial visit to the city, and promptly decided that I could in fact move to SF, I wouldn’t be deprived of legit pastries and croissants upon leaving New York.) And on my visit I learned that they did this crazy thing — they baked bread in the afternoon so customers could have it fresh for dinner around 5pm.

All who know me know that I think about Paris often. Every day, probably. And on my yearly visits to the City of Lights, I pack as many pastries, croissants, baguettes and other warm, fresh, floury goodies into my purse as I possibly can. For my birthday last year, I even designed my itinerary around the five new bakeries garnering croissant acclaim across the city. For my trip this spring, I devised a part deux to my original croissant pilgrimage, with the help of my friend Seb’s croissant safari — although he and I respectfully disagree on which is the best in the city. So ending up at a cooking school in Ireland, not France, was enigmatic to many people. Sometimes even to myself. But now I can proudly say that it was in Ireland when I truly fell in love with bread.

sourdough starter

the school’s seven year-old sourdough starter

It all starts with a starter. Still a novice to the craft, I won’t dare to explain all of the science behind the art (for that, you should read the first chapter of Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread cookbook — 39 pages for one bread recipe). But essentially, a starter is where it all begins. A combination of flour, water, salt and yeast from the air (natural yeast) makes this bubbly, active, smelly, wonderful mixture that you use some of for each loaf of bread. At cooking school, we carried ours around in Kilner jars like babies — kind of like the hard-boiled eggs in a basket they give you in third grade to teach you what it’s like to be a parent. We labeled them, we named them, we fed them, we loved them. There were daily discussions about our starters like only a group of bread-obsessed culinary students could have. I started my starter from the school’s starter, which was seven years old. Yes, seven. There are different schools of thought around if you should keep a starter in the fridge or at room temperature, how often you should feed it, etc. etc. But we kept ours in the kitchen, not the fridge, and I fed mine weekly — the day before I wanted to start a sponge.

sourdough bread

my first loaf of sourdough ever

The sponge is the second part of the process — where you take a bit of your starter (about 100g) and add equal parts flour and water to it to bulk it up. Leave it overnight and do the same the next morning. By mid-day, you can take 340g of this new “sponge” and get going, adding various flours, more water, some salt and then set the dough up in the stand mixer to be kneaded with a dough hook. Once it pulls away cleanly from the side of the bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit in the fridge overnight.

The next day takes patience. For about one hour, you fold the dough every 20 minutes using a dough scraper in a very particular way. Then you wait another hour for it to rise. Then you can finally shape it into a ball, put it into a flour-lined basket and back into the fridge it goes, overnight.


sourdough bread

my last loaf of sourdough on the farm

Finally, the following day, you’re ready to bake your work of art. High heat and constant moisture are key, and about 45 minutes later your sourdough baby is born.

This may seem like a hell of a lot of work for one loaf of bread. And let’s be honest, it is. But after doing this weeks and weeks on end, I now understand that it’s a labor of love. It is the true merging of art and science in a way unlike any other I have known before. So many variables can affect the final product — temperature, temperature change, moisture, your hands, etc. It’s like a game that changes every time you play it, while you’re always striving for the same finish line.


If someone had told me five months ago that I would become obsessed with baking loaves of sourdough, I would have laughed. I’m obsessed with cakes, yes. And tarts, definitely. Cookies aren’t anything to sneeze at either. But this new love was of one of the seemingly most simple forms of baking, but through its complexity and through my patience came a deep connection and infatuation.

So yesterday when I ventured down to Tartine Bakery to meet with their head of bread and Chad Robertson and the team, I thought of that tiny bakery in Paris that I walked by every day 17 years ago. And I smiled when I thought about all that has happened in the 17 years since. And I smiled even bigger when I thought about next week — and how I would be baking Tartine bread, at Tartine Bakery, under the tutelage of the masters. Following my heart, and my new love.

cutting hot loaves fresh from the oven boarders on orgasmic

cutting hot loaves fresh from the oven boarders on orgasmic (mine at left, my cottage mate’s beer loaf at right)