Baking up a Storm

by: Marianne R. Stanton

My nana infused in me a love of baking. Her kitchen was warm and inviting and equipped with everything a serious baker needed back in the 1950s: a large keddigan always filled with flour, well-worn baking pans and a small brown box filled with recipes handed down from aunts and other relatives dating back to the 1850s.

Aunt Lu’s molasses cookies used ginger and spices from the East Indies. My nana made dozens of these cookies the size of saucers every Saturday, packaged them in brown bags to fill orders from islanders she’d received throughout the week. There must have been a dozen bags, folded over at the top and lined up on her washing machine by noon every Saturday, waiting for regular customers to come pick them up.

Pineapple Upside-Down Cake

Nana was famous for her molasses cookies and spent hours trying to teach me how to make them. Though there was an official recipe, following it did not yield nana’s cookies, which were soft in the middle, fragrant and utterly delicious. As any seasoned cook or baker knows, the true genius lies in the baker’s intuition, experience, fingers and sense of taste that can’t be duplicated exactly by anyone else.

My first memory of cooking in nana’s kitchen was the end stage, sitting on the linoleum floor, legs splayed, with her large green mixing bowl between them and a spatula in my hand, scraping and licking the chocolate-cake batter from the bowl. I still have a mental picture of myself, about 4 years old with short blond hair in a Dutch bob, courtesy of Joe the Barber, who made me presentable after I’d decided to give myself a haircut and had to be taken to Joe’s for remediation.

Chocolate cake with chocolate frosting was a favorite of mine, but nana always went one step better and added a secret ingredient to her frosting – coffee – and called it mocha. How exotic a variation for a young girl from a time gone by, living on an island far out to sea.

There are many recipes out there for chocolate cake, some called “The Best Chocolate Cake Ever.” Highly doubtful, in my estimation. But recently I found a recipe for a sheet cake from Ina Garten which I like quite a bit and which channels my childhood memories of nana’s chocolate cake with mocha frosting. It is rich and indulgent and best served in small squares with a swirl of whipped cream to the side. You’ll even be tempted to lick the bowl after you’ve put the cake in the oven.

Pie-baking is an art, and one which intimidated me for much of my adult life until I took a baking class at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vt., right across the river from Hanover, N.H. where this magazine is printed.

“Make it cold, bake it hot,” was the mantra in my pie-baking class. Keep all the ingredients, even the flour, chilled until the combining stage. This allows the cold butter to melt in the oven during baking, creating flaky pockets and a light and flavorful crust. Mastering the art of making a good crust will open up a whole new baking world to you, for pie-baking is spectacularly fun and engaging. Fillings are the easy and creative part.

Once we turn the page into November and start planning for Thanksgiving, thoughts of pumpkin, apple and mince pie come to the fore with their deep, dark and delicious flavors of cinnamon and clove, nutmeg and ginger. But sometimes these pies can be a bit dense for an ending to a meal that was already heavy. Enter the Shaker Lemon Pie, which features a light, citrusy filling of thinly-sliced lemons in a buttery crust. This slice of tart sweetness is much more welcome after a bowl of stew or a winter roast and far less complicated to make than, say, a lemon meringue pie. The recipe here is from “The Art of Pie,” by Kate McDermott.

Two more seasonal recipes for pie come from Boston-area bakers. A&J King Artisan Bakers in Salem is our first stop for bakery items when we are visiting family on the North Shore. The husband and wife duo of Andy and Jackie King who run this shop are true artisans, and it is hard to choose from the array of breads, scones, pastries and such that line the shelves here.

Recently the Kings put out a cookbook, “Baking by Hand,” with recipes for some of their favorite breads, pastries and even sandwiches. The Spiked Pecan Pie, liberally laced with bourbon, is my first choice for Thanksgiving and what I’ll be making this year. The ingredient amounts are weighed, as is the case with all professional bakers. Don’t be intimidated by this. Just go out and buy a scale. Look on Amazon. You can get everything there.

Flour Bakery and Café was created by Joanne Chang, a Harvard grad who got more satisfaction from baking than working in the corporate business world. Hence, her string of very popular bakeries throughout Boston that keep area residents happy and sated with croissants and scones.

Chang is also an excellent writer and teacher, and her cookbooks, “Flour” and “Flour Too,” make it possible to create her treats at home. The Roasted Pear and Cranberry Crostata in “Flour” is a delicious option for a holiday dessert. The framework of a crostata means the fruit takes center stage, and the bottom-crust pastry is a shell for cradling wedges of golden pears and jewel-like cranberries. The flavors here are tart and sweet at the same time.

When I am looking for the fall flavors of cinnamon and ginger I often turn to a simple recipe for gingerbread that has been around for years in the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. You know, the one with the red-checked tablecloth cover. But recently I found something that takes a bit more work, but which I like a bit better for its complexity and moistness, and that is a warm gingerbread pudding from the “Baking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America” cookbook.

Lastly, when I was a kid, one of my favorite desserts was pineapple upside-down cake, a tender yellow cake with a brown-sugar topping studded with nuggets of golden pineapple and maraschino cherries. It’s not really a Nantucket cake, but the whalers brought pineapples back from their voyages to tropical lands, and the pineapple has always been a symbol of hospitality. Serve this easy-to-make cake when company comes, or for a simple Sunday-afternoon snacking cake.

Marianne R. Stanton is the founder, as well as editor and publisher, of Nantucket Today, and editor and publisher of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821. She writes frequently about travel, food and wine, and island personalities.