My mother and I had a joke that whatever gene makes a baker skipped her generation. I think the closest she ever came to baking was spearing bright orange peanut-shaped marshmallows on a carving fork and toasting them over the stove. When I married — I was 19 and a college junior — the only culinary experience I could claim was burning down my parents’ kitchen seven years earlier, a misadventure involving frozen fries and boiling oil.
Marriage (and a budget constrained by student loans) made me a cook; my mother-in-law inadvertently made me a baker.
She was a funny, spirited woman who was guarded, cool and singularly unsentimental, except when she talked about her parents, both bakers by trade. Her expression would soften as she remembered the warm cinnamon buns that waited for her after school. Watching her mime the motions of spreading sweet butter on a freshly baked poppy-seed roll — every bit of the roll’s surface had to be covered — was like hearing her declare: My family loved me!
Could baking really do that? If it could, I wanted to bake.
The galvanizing experience, the one that sent me into the kitchen, occurred the evening I dropped by my mother-in-law’s house in Brooklyn. I found her whistling and making knishes, those potato pies I’d have sworn only machines could produce. I barely had time to take off my coat before she pushed the dough toward me. “Touch it,” she said, “Feel how silky it is — this is how it should feel.”