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A Passionate Baker

Rose Levy Beranbaum didn’t taste a scratch cake until she was 17, but she’s made up for lost time by dedicating her life to creating recipes that show us all how to achieve baking perfection.

By Sue Tomchin
Purim 2015
Rose Levy Berenbaum portrait
Legendary baker Rose Levy Beranbaum is the award winning author of nine cookbooks, including The Baking Bible (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), her meticulously written and gorgeously illustrated new book featuring all-new recipes for cakes, pies, tarts, cookies, candies, breads and more. Despite her international renown, Beranbaum is delightfully down to earth and as easy to talk to as a friend of longstanding. Jewish Woman spoke to her recently about her new book and her passion for baking. 

Q: I noticed that Maria Wolf, a Minneapolis-based attorney, wrote the forward of your new book, The Baking Bible and heads a group of women, called the “Beta Bakers,” who tested many of the book’s recipes. Do you find that many professional women still aspire to become great bakers?

A: I just had a haircut yesterday, and the woman who cut my hair has been doing it for 40 years. She was a real professional and gave me the best haircut I’ve ever gotten. And guess what? She wants to go to culinary school. It seems like everybody is into cooking or baking. 

Q: Why do you think that is?

A: With all the social media and all the TV shows, around the world people seem to be focusing on food. I don’t know why or how it has happened but it doesn’t surprise me. We should always have been this interested. France was so ahead of us. I used to think that I would need to go live in France in order to be appreciated and understood. Because I was so focused on food, people here would kind of laugh at me. And now the people from France come here to open [food related] businesses because they feel there is more freedom to do what you want to do. We’re world leaders now in this arena. 

Q: Is there a feeling you get when you bake that you think people respond to?

A: I have always loved crafts and baking is a craft. You have a feeling like an artist with a palate of colors which are the ingredients and with these few ingredients you can create magic—and with this craft you get to eat it! It makes people so happy. All of that is part of the sensibility that you are feeling. You have to pay attention [when you bake] because it’s very easy to mess up. If you mess up with baking you can’t fix it. If you overcook a lamb chop you can always turn it into lamb stew. If you leave out salt in cooking you can add it later, but If you leave out an ingredient of a cake, it’s all over. It changes the entire way it tastes. Baking offers an unusual moment where you can bury yourself in the activity at hand. It’s a great escape in a way.

Q: In your golden rules of baking, you have the rule, “no substitutions.” Yet Jewish bakers who keep kosher are accustomed to substituting because they need to make recipes pareve or non-dairy, so they can be eaten with meat meals. What do you suggest?

A: I think it is much better to use recipes that are intrinsically non-dairy when you need them to be pareve. If you plan to eat a dessert after a dairy meal, that’s when to choose the things that have butter. With so many things to choose from why choose something where you’ll make it less good by substituting? In my book, there are a number of wonderful pareve options: Honey Cake for a Sweet New Year; Molasses Crumb Cakelets (has neither dairy nor eggs); The Renee Fleming Golden Chiffon; Banana Split Chiffon Cake and more. My Deep Chocolate Passion Cake is made with oil—the chocolate gives it so much flavor and the oil gives it an amazing texture. I would say that’s now my favorite go-to chocolate cake.

Q: Would someone ruin your Cran-Raspberry Upside-Down cake, for example, by substituting margarine and non-dairy sour cream for the dairy ingredients?

A: I wouldn’t do it if I couldn’t use butter. I would rather do my Renee Fleming Golden Chiffon and use cranberries as a topping. I think my upside down cake would be compromised [without the butter]. If people are used to that [making substitutions] and wouldn’t know the difference, then it would be a really good cake. But I know the difference. Butter is not just the flavor of butter, it enhances other flavors. Butter and vanilla are two things that often stay in the background but make a significant difference in flavor. In pie crust, if I can’t use butter, I definitely wouldn’t want to make it. Other ingredients in the pie crust have no flavor so why have the calories without the flavor? It doesn’t make sense to me. 

Q: You are known for the precision of your recipes. Is there still room for individuals to make their own mark on a recipe? 

A: Yes, of course. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t ever experiment, but if you want things to come out right you should at least know what the recipe is intended to be like. Once you make it the way it’s intended to be, then they can go about thinking about how you’d like it to be different. But if you are going to prefer three different things from what I put in the recipe, then you really should change one thing at a time. For example, butter has milk solids and water. So if you are substituting oil, you have to use less oil than you would butter. 

Q: How did you initially discover your affinity for baking? Did the women in your family bake? 

A: Not at all. One time, my grandmother who lived with us and did all the cooking (because my parents both worked) made apple pie. I was a problem eater. I discovered later in life that I was a supertaster [someone who experiences the sense of taste far greater than the average], so if things tasted bad to me I would rather starve. So she was always trying to get me to eat through whatever means she could. When she made this pie I remember saying, “This, I’ll eat.” And she said, “This isn’t worth the effort to make again.”

I [later] discovered how good things could taste when I made them myself. Of course it wasn’t wonderful right away because I had to learn. 

If you grow in a tradition where you watch your mother or grandmother bake, it’s different. I had to learn the hard way. That’s why I stick to the letter of the law and try to create precise recipes because I know what it’s like not to know anything at all. 

Q: What got you involved with baking? 

A: I tasted my first scratch cake when I was 17. Before that I had had only cake mix birthday cakes. I thought the texture was lovely, but I never liked the flavor. When I tasted the cake made from scratch with butter I felt “Wow, if only cakes made from a mix could have the same flavor!” Cake mix cakes have a better texture but scratch cakes have a much better flavor. It became my goal to achieve both. It was ultimately what I did in The Cake Bible —to achieve both flavor and texture in a scratch cake. 

Q: Are you a self-taught baker or did you have formal training?

A: Both. I have both my masters and undergraduate degrees in food. I learned a lot on my own when I was doing the dissertation for my master’s on sifting flour. There was very little written, even in the scientific books, about how baking worked. My hypothesis was that sifting affects the quality of a yellow cake. A simple statement becomes very complicated when you follow it to its logical conclusions. I did 22 pages and the teacher gave me an A+. That simple statement led to so many possible experiments. Doing all these experiments took years and resulted in The Cake Bible

I went to several other cooking schools including the James Beard school. I also went to France to study because I wanted to see what I had missed and it was amazing to see how many things I had come up with on my own that they were doing there. I studied cake decorating at the Wilton school in Chicago. 

Q: After school, what did you do?

A: When I came back from Wilton, I loved cake decorating, but to me the look of anything is secondary to the way it tastes. I wanted to teach but didn’t want to teach just cake decorating, so I started a cooking school that I had for over 10 years out of my apartment. During that time I started writing for Cook’s Illustrated magazine. The editor Chris Kimball was the only one out there who really wanted to know how things worked and was willing and eager to publish it. My first article for them was on understanding the American layer cake. 

Q: Which recipes would you recommend for Jewish holiday parties?

A: There are so many good cookies in this book: There’s my New Spin on Rollie Polies, the brownies are amazing, and rugelach are my absolute favorite. But cookie strudel may be the way to go. It is so luscious-looking and is so much easier than rugelach since you make it in long, slim rolls and then slice it. It’s really special and unique in a good way.

Q: Is this originally a Jewish recipe?

A: Remember in the movie, The Frisco Kid, when the Rabbi from Europe played by Gene Wilder meets the Pennsylvania Dutch family and is so thrilled, because they seem like him. It’s so touching. This recipe is also from Pennsylvania Dutch country via Eastern Europe. It’s almost Jewish.

Q: Your Hamantaschen recipe is different from any I’ve ever seen in that you introduce not only butter but cream into the dough. How did this come about?

A: I never enjoyed bakery hamantaschen because I didn’t like the sturdy sweet dough. I wanted my dough to be softer and cream gives it such good flavor. This dough is tender, slightly flaky, very buttery and vanilla imbued. Many people think they don’t like hamantaschen because when they make them themselves, and use ground poppy seeds, the seeds may have a bitter taste because they are oxidized. When you buy them they may have already been sitting around the health food store a good while and may be over the hill. Canned poppy seed filling is not bad if you add lemon zest and apricot lekvar or preserves [as specified in the recipe].

Q: Do you have a favorite recipe in the book?

A: The Kouign Amanns, a butter and sugar rich yeast pastry, on the cover is probably my favorite, but is a lot of work. People thought they couldn’t make it at home but I figured out a way to do it. Another favorite is the Cream Cheese Butter Cake with the lemon curd buttercream topping. This is a very simple cake and is so good. Read more the about The Baking Bible and other new cookbooks.

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