Malcolm Jolley finds out why Daphna Rabinovitch must bake.
Daphna Rabinovitch told me she has very strong feelings about baking, and I believe her. Rabinovitch is well known in food circles for her work as part of Elizabeth Baird’s team at the Canadian Living test kitchen and the Food Network television program that came out of it. She has just published The Baker in Me. It’s her first cookbook written just by her, and it’s self-evidently dedicated to the branch of cooking she so dearly loves. With over 450 pages of recipes and pictures, it’s comprehensive and also personal. Above all, it’s informative, Rabinovitch takes care to explain the why’s behind a baking recipe along with the how’s.
Rabinovitch was kind enough to host me at her home recently, where we sat in her kitchen and conducted the interview below over coffee, cookies and scones. The interview has been edited for style, clarity and length.
Daphna Rabinovitch: I went to cooking school at Tante Marie’s in San Francisco, where I did both savoury and sweet. I remember our main teacher, Mary Risley, saying there are two kinds of kitchen personalities: one who cooks and one who bakes, implying never the twain shall meet. It was like saying cooks are creative, but by there very nature bakers aren’t. I really took offence to that! [Laughs.] But then I realized that once you know why baking works, and learnt he foundations of certain things, you can spread your wings and be creative as anybody. So, I guess with the book I just decided that I did have something to contribute and something to say, so I said it.
GFR: Who did you write The Baker in Me for?
DR: I wrote it for people who love to bake or who want to bake. So, you can be a novice baker or you can be a more accomplished baker and still not understand certain things. Once you understand them, you’ll be a more confident baker. To me, whether you’re a cook or a baker, the foundation for being comfortable in a kitchen is confidence. If you’re a cook, it’s the confidence to throw in a bit of curry powder that’s not called for but you know it’s going to work. It’s the confidence in baking to put together things. So, I want people to understand certain things and then march right into their kitchen feeling confident that they know the right temperature that yeast has to be proofed at, so they didn’t have to do the proofing three times.
GFR: You write about being a kid in Montreal and baking with your mum. And I thought about how when my kids are in the kitchen, we’re usually baking.
DR: Yes, I do think that baking is inter-generational. My son and I would make cookies together, or we would make our challah together every week for Friday night. And I certainly learnt right beside my mother. My mother was a brilliant baker, she really was. And her mother was a brilliant baker.
GFR: Is the book a way of continuing that exchange of knowledge?
DR: I do. I give talks on food trends. There is a huge trend going on right now, as I am sure you’re aware, that’s called ‘culinary illiteracy’. So, if I can help keep the culinary tradition alive in any small way, then I would be a happy person. I think people should be cooking, and people should be baking. Traditionally Canada is a nation of home bakers. From whatever heritage you come from, whether it’s Scottish, Ukranian, Jewish, Iranian we are a nation that loves to bake and we keep our cultures and traditions alive through baking. Certainly, if you’re Jewish, that holds a community together. So, I am all for that.
GFR: OK, going back to the cooks versus bakers thing, I am afraid that I am just a cook. I find baking really intimidating because I think you have to be so precise and organized.
DR: You know, I don’t think cooking and baking are so far apart. Even as sort of haphazard cook, you still have to do a mis en place, right? So, in that sense, baking is not so different. If you’re making a stir fry or a coq au vin or whatever, you still have to cut your onions and make your mirepoix, cut up your chicken and have your wine on hand so you’re not running out tot he grocery store at the last minute to get the things you need. So, there is an organizational aspect to cooking well. You have to have your pantry stocked, and your fridge stocked the way you want want it. Well, the same goes for baking. You have to have flour, you have to have sugar or brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, butter and eggs. And then you ight have to go out and buy chocolate chips. It’s not that intimidating. You just have to have that same mis en place. Once you have it all out and ready, you can just get going. But… you do have to measure properly.
GFR: That’s what scares me.
DR: I spend a fair bit of time in The Baker in Me explaining how to measure properly.Why you have wet measures, and why you have dry measures, and what they’re both used for. But once you absorb all these strategies – I don’t want to call them “rules”, but they are rules – it becomes second nature. Before you came, I was in the kitchen at five to nine and then I had to take my dog out at twenty to eleven before we met. In that time, because I am going to be on television tomorrow, I made two galette doughs, I made two short crusts, and I made a pie dough, I baked these [scones] off, and I made those [cookies]. So, do you see what I mean? If you’re confident and you’re well used to baking properly, and measuring properly, it can be a breeze. And it can be so satisfying.
GFR: There was also a really lovely smell when I walked in, which is pretty nice too! These “strategies” seem to be really just based on laws of nature?
DR: Yes, they’re scientific laws, and that’s the foundation of baking. I do think that people who love to bake have a sort of calling. Joanne Yolles, who I know and who used to be the pastry chef at Scaramouche and now teaches George Brown, emailed me after she bought the book. She said we’re kindred spirits becuase she wakes up in the morning and just wants to bake. That’s how I feel. Sometimes I just got to get up and bake.