A Christmas Tale of a Jewish Baker

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Beautiful sugar cookies for any holiday

It’s that time of year: the winter holidays and as is my bent, I feel like I am brimming to the point where I pretend to contain it just so I pass as a regular citizen. No one talks on the phone anymore and even the biggest feelings are relegated to texted emoticons so you can bet that happy, smiling, irrationally joyful people like me are hardly in fashion. In fact, to me, the world can be one big, outer Scrooge. But when I’m baking or bestowing baking, I’m in good company. People cheer up. Plus there’s joy in the fact that December is oh-so-cozy inside so there’s no one chiding me to go outside and play. Instead it’s perfectly legitimate to stay indoors and bake. And bake I do.

This time of year is inherently nostalgic and the other day I caught myself remembering a moment some thirty years ago. I was a relative newly-wed and as was somewhat a regular thing in my early-twenties, I was between jobs or to put it more succinctly, I was again unemployed.

To make the task of job-hunting worst it was almost the holiday season plus I had a tenacious virus that had me in bed for days. Ten days in, I felt almost surreal. Then I saw an saying there was to be a free Christmas baking lesson at a local department store. Free Baking Lesson! I don’t know what it was that made me drag myself out of bed, shower, dressed, bundle up and head across town. I was sick, job-less and feeling beyond weird but magnetically pulled to go to that baking lesson. The guest baker was Janice Murray Gill and she was a Canadian baking legend. Capable as only a Maritimer could be, Ms. Gill put her captive audience of twenty, ensconced at a baking counter between the Waterford and Wedgwood, through her Christmas baking paces.

In short time and short work, a ton of flour morphed into sweet yeasted candy canes, fruitcake, shortbread, sugar cookies and a myriad of holiday morning brunch dishes. Fascinated, I watched as she crushed candy canes with a rolling pin and sprinkled the sweet dust on dough. Cranberries were crushed to a crimson tide that decked out cranberry crumb bars and the shortbread? My goodness, she kneaded it like bread for ages and it came out tough but crumbly, sandy, buttery and amazing. I never saw anyone make shortbread like that. I remember finally warming up, forgetting my cold and blocked ears, and letting my down coat loop on my chair and finally removed my woolly hat. I forgot I was unemployed and nursing the flu (the chill went right out of me). I remember thinking with absolute clarity: THIS is what I want to do. It’s not just a hobby or a phase I love. I want to bake as a career. Somehow, some way, I would find a way to make this happen.

And that is what I did. I went home and threw out the job clippings from the (yes) Classified Ad section of the (print) newspaper. Instead, I ordered a portable convection oven and an extra freezer from Sears. I bought fifty pounds of carrots and laid in a stock of chocolate chips and frozen blueberries (for Lawsuit Muffins which had yet to be invented). I made business cards which cost me as much as my month’s rent (no Vista Print in those days either).

Soon after that baking lesson, happily, I also recovered from that strange cold soon. When I was totally on the mend, I started to bake like a house afire or a woman on a mission. On non-baking days, I visited restaurants and cafes, toting muffin and cake samples and didn’t stop until I had enough customers to keep me busy and earning. The first thing I bought was a Canada Savings Bond and a second-hand piano (which, as destiny would have it, was purchased by Montreal-based Arcade Fire when I advertised it on Craigslist).

The rest, as they say, is history.

I became a professional baker, food writer, cookbook author, baking teacher and host of this baking website.

That Christmas baking lesson wasn’t the first time I knew I loved baking; that started at age six or seven. But that baking lesson on that day was the lightening rod moment of knowing exactly what I was meant to be. It was like finding extra gravity which I sorely needed at the time and has since and evermore been grateful for. Searching for your purpose on the planet? That’s common and most human. Knowing what it is? Priceless.

Baking has been one of many soulmates I have and one I fall in love with it again every time I have eight good hours sleep. It’s an overdue debt but let me just say that I am forever grateful to Janice Murray Gill, wherever she may be, for sharing the magic of Christmas baking with this Jewish baker and inspiring me, as she did, did her best to keep baking legacies alive.

Happy Holidays anytime of year. Be grateful, be generous, and be kind. It will never steer you wrong and your baking will be better for it.

This is not baking; this is life.

Written by

Cookbook Author, Master Baker, Writer, contributer to Huffington, Washington Post, PBS Next Avenue. Find me and betterbaking.com.

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