Friday, April 23, 2010

Beranbaum and a Bake Sale: Alchemy in Action

"Bakers are born, not made. We are exacting people who delight in submitting ourselves to rules and formulas if it means achieving repeatable perfection"
Rose Levy Beranbaum

Last week I was fortunate to be not only in the company of master baker and cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum, but also dozens of talented bakers from San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area.

The week started with a gathering of the Bakers Dozen in San Francisco at Foreign Cinema Restaurant. Thanks to Baker Dozen member and baking goddess Flo Braker, we were gathering to hear Beranbaum, author of The Cake Bible, The Pie and Pastry Bible and other masterpieces speak about her latest book, Rose's Heavenly Cakes.

And not only did we get Rose, but we also got someone who mostly remains behind the scenes but is well known to bakers who follow Beranbaum's every step, her assistant, Woody Wolston.

But before we heard Beranbaum speak, we first got to sample a variety of cakes from her new book.

This seemed like a good idea to me when the organizers of the event requested that members pick a recipe to bake from a list they had compiled from her new book and to bring it to share before the lunch and meeting.

I picked the Hungarian Jancsi Torta -- a flourless cake made primarily with nuts and meringue.

It was only when I was parking for the event that I realized just who would be tasting my cake: ROSE LEVY BERANBAUM! And not just Rose, but many of the leading bakers in the U.S.! I must be crazy!

I looked at the cake sitting next to me on the car seat and thought briefly about not bringing it in. Then I decided to at least taste it. Although it may not look as good as a cake made by Beranbaum or the other master bakers in that room, at least it did taste good.

So my cake (with a bit of a gap in it) and I headed into the restaurant where I hoped I could slip it onto the cake table unnoticed. Of course being all about baking meant that there was practically a receiving line for the cakes. But no one mentioned the gap in my cake and minutes later it was devoured. No traditional appetizers for this bunch!

I even received a compliment on my cake from Rose and Woody who had piled their plates with a slice of each cake and were taking small bites of each one. Of course, I just might have put them on the spot...

After our cake tasting we all crowded into an adjoining room that had been set up for the high priestess of cake to preach to her choir.

The front of the room had already been set up with a plain chocolate cake with all the supplies to glaze it at the ready.

Rose wanted to share with us the story behind the glaze that adorns the Bernachon Palet D'Or Gateau on the cover of Rose's Heavenly Cakes and to demonstrate how easily and beautifully the glaze covered the cake.

The story was almost like listening to a good detective yarn as it involved a trip to Japan, the secrets of a special sugar, a recipe for lacquer glaze, a longing to make it but a fear of failing, a chocolatier in Dallas and finally, a trip to France.

Rose is an engaging speaker and it was enthralling to hear her stories about the many interesting people she has met during her baking career and to hear her humanize these luminaries for us.

Makes me almost hope that her next book is a memoir and not a baking book -- almost.

I don't think I was alone in wondering if we could skip lunch or at least eat it at our seats so she could talk for a couple more hours.

If you follow Beranbaum's blog, you know she and Woody are always discovering new techniques and tips that they then generously share with the baking community.

In addition to encouraging us to make the lacquer glaze, she also wanted to share with us their discoveries about how different types of flour give different results in cake baking. It is an involved discussion so click this link to read more about what they call Flour of Power.

That's just one more reason why Rose is so adored by bakers -- she doesn't hesitate to update even her own methods if she or one of her readers finds a better or just another way to make one of her recipes even better.

As riveting as all this discussion of technique was, I think the most important thing I heard Rose say that day involved how she defines what it means to be a baker.

Rose related a story about how she always felt that her husband was putting her down on some level when he would tell her that he thought of baking as alchemy and her as an alchemist.

She told us that one day during a presentation she was making in New York, she talked about her thoughts on baking and science vs alchemy. Her husband happened to be present at the meeting and later told her that she had misunderstood him. He in fact meant it as a compliment when he called her an alchemist because in his mind, she wasn't just spouting unproven scientific theories but was actually using science to perform the "experiments" and to then 'enchant and transform' the world of baking.

I sat up and took notice of this because I also often feel that baking isn't looked upon as a creative endeavor. But it is this combination of science and magic that helps us create our own masterpieces -- or edible art, as I like to call my creations.

Rose's words inspired me the rest of that week as I prepared for the First Annual Food Blogger Bake Sale that was to be held on 4/17 in front of Omnivore Books on Food. On that day, bakers across the U.S. would be holding bake sales to raise money for Share Our Strength -- a national organization dedicated to ending childhood hunger.

Beranbaum would also be speaking at Omnivore Books later that day so we bakers anticipated a large crowd of Rose's faithful to be tempted by our goodies.

After the torrential rains of the prior weekend we were happy to see the sun shining brightly in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco where Omnivore Books is located.

The beautifully packaged baked good were indeed a sight to behold. There is definitely not a lack of baking talent in the SF Bay Area.

I brought my individual pies -- ipie -- with blueberry filling.

I was happy to see lead organizer Anita Chu of dessert first again and to meet her significant other, Mike. We called him Mike the money man as he manned the cash box that day.

I met many bakers and bloggers that day including Lisa of lisa is bossy, Shauna Webb of piece of cake and Katie Rutledge of i'd of baked a cake. All not only talented bakers, but also caring and goodhearted women.

Please see Anita's post about our great day for a complete list of the bakers who participated.

And this cake! Rachel Boller of milk glass baking baked and donated this amazing cake. It was snapped up within seconds. The cake was such a towering masterpiece that a box to fit it couldn't be found so I actually carried it to the buyer's house who lived nearby!

Later we found out from Anita that we had raised $1,650 for Share Our Strength that day. A sweet day indeed.

When I got home after that exhausting but fun day, I thought about another thing that Rose had said earlier in the week about bakers:

"We don't need to be competitive with each other -- there is room for all of our voices."

And on 4/17 we were heard loud and clear.

So, as Rose also said, "Let us all continue to be alchemists and 'enchant and transform' our world."