Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Guest Post: Erica Bauermeister & Giveaway!

My Humble Rendition of Carl's White Cake
Recipe Below The Post

With summer on the way, I’ve decided I need to enjoy some warm-weather pleasures.  At the risk of becoming a blogger that does a lot of interviews and very little creating in the kitchen, I’m going to share one more great source of inspiration before delving back into my dessert vault.  This is the season for summer vacations and lighter fare.  If you also love to read about folks who love food, you will thoroughly enjoy my guest post today. 
This might be one of the most intimidating posts I’ve done to date.  I’m about to post about someone who is a writer.  A real one, an admired one, a national bestselling one.  I’m intimidated because I am none of those things despite my affection for playing with words.  I hope she’ll be gracious and encouraging. 

Photo: Courtesy Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

In the spring of 2010 I read a national bestselling book called The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister.  I wanted to start a book club, and gathered some girlfriends together around this work of food and friendship fiction.  I was the stay-at-home mother of a young toddler looking for some sort of catalyst to rediscover myself.  This book made a huge impression on me, inspiring me to take the everyday routine and find beauty, healing, memory, and joy.  I was so affected that I reached out on Erica’s website and told her about our book club, asking if she might be able to phone in to our discussion. The timing didn’t work out, but she was gracious and encouraging. 
In May of 2010, spurred by Erica’s novel, I took a class on baking artisanal bread.  The experience was so vivid that I wrote about it in my personal blog and thanked her for helping me to find my essential ingredients.  I began to look at food in a different way, to savor in the preparation as much as the consumption.  This led to playing with ginger, nutmeg, cardamom and orange zest in shortbread of my own invention, finding the aromas coming from the steaming oven like music in my nose.  I spent the winter making homemade marshmallows, “whipping the sticky” into just-right sugar syrup.  I took pictures of my creations because I found them lovely.  I shared my recipes with anyone who would listen.  By January 2012, I decided to create a blog dedicated to sweet, comforting food.   I reached out and thanked her again.  I invited her to do a guest post.  She was gracious and encouraging. 

Erica’s second novel, Joy for Beginners amplified my energy.  Facing a new, difficult or scary challenge was the main theme, and its undercurrent probably had a lot to do with my ability to be brave and attempt my own baking fear: macarons for my Mom.  It was therefore appropriately timed that Erica reached back this month after Mother’s Day, agreeing to do this interview.  I think you’ll find her gracious and encouraging.

ST:  Your fiction deals with the powerful sensory-memory connections people have with food.  Why do you think desserts in particular trigger this?

EB:  Three words – sugar, chocolate, love.  The first two are primarily biological, but also linked to the third.  In our house, I was the cookie maker, beginning from the time I was nine years old or so.  Without even thinking about it really, I would make them on days when my older sisters were dealing with adolescent angst, when my younger brother had something to celebrate, when no one had noticed all the work my mother was doing for the rest of us.  Somehow I understood I could change the whole atmosphere of a house, just with the smell.
I still do it, even today.  We are currently adding a room onto our house.  By this point, the construction guys all know that 10:30 is cookie time.  It’s made our job into a family, and that’s a nice thing to have when you are otherwise surrounded by dust and noise.

ST:  Are you a reader of food blogs?  (If so, what do you enjoy most about reading them?  Any favorites?)

EB:  I am not a consistent blog reader, although I love every time I find a new one.  One of my favorites is teaandcookiesblog.com.  Funny thing about blogs – often you are reading about someone who lives far from you, but then I found out Tea and Cookies lives 10 blocks from me.  Now we’re in a writing group together.

ST:  Are there any celebrity chefs that you follow on television?

EB:  OK, so now I really am going to sound like a complete Luddite.  I have never had cable TV, so I am utterly out of the loop when it comes to most cooking shows.  I have seen a few of the competitive cooking shows, however, and they felt utterly antithetical to the way I approach cooking and food.  For me, food is about joy and creation and generosity.  I’ve worked in enough restaurant kitchens to know it can also  be about egos and yelling, but that wasn’t generally my experience.  I’m sorry that’s the part we so often choose to glorify, honestly.

ST:  How did your time experiencing “slow food” in Italy influence your writing?

EB:  It changed everything.  Before we moved to northern Italy, I was a mother of young children, who had been brought up to live and die by recipes.  That kind of cooking never spoke to me, any more than the boxed macaroni and cheese my children loved.  But then we moved to Italy and food was an entirely different thing.  There were no recipes; there was only a basic grammar of cooking and the best ingredients possible.  I learned to smell and taste and listen to the ingredients, to play with my food, as it were.  My character Lillian in The School of Essential Ingredients is the personification of that experience.

ST:  You have a way of gathering characters around the table of your novel that are in various stages of life.  Did you find it difficult to get inside any particular characters’ head?

EB:  You know, it’s a fascinating thing.  Before I hit the age of 43, I couldn’t create a truly fictional character; every one was some thinly veiled version of myself or my sisters.  And then, suddenly, everything changed.  It’s a mystery to me, but I am deeply grateful all the same.  Maybe it was spending two years in a foreign country, trying every day to get inside the minds of people who thought differently, that gave me some training.  Maybe it was my children growing older and leaving me with some imaginative space in my head.  I really don’t know – but now the characters just show up, and it makes me happy.
The other interesting thing is that the less they are like me, the easier it is.  I think part of that is that it is easier for me to let go – I’m not comparing, just intrigued.

ST:  Are your characters based on people in your life, parts of yourself, or perhaps both?

EB:  I do think there are parts of me in the characters, particularly some of the characters in Joy For Beginners.  There is a saying in writing – all of the characters are me, and none of them are me.  I agree with that. 
Rather than basing a character on someone I know, I’ll sometimes find I’m writing to understand something about that person.  For example, Isabelle, in The School of Essential Ingredients, was written because my father had frontal lobe dementia.  Isabelle has Alzheimer’s, which gave me a chance to explore what it might feel like to lose a mind you had loved all your life.  Isabelle is nothing like my father, but she was created because of him.  Kate, in Joy For Beginners, is a breast cancer survivor.  I had had several friends who died of breast cancer, but I wanted to know – what would it be like to survive?  Kate gave me a chance to explore that.

ST:  The characters in your fiction novels are notably accessorized by food.  For example, Carl from The School of Essential Ingredients had his chapter about white cake.  Do you find that most people could be defined in terms of essential culinary ingredients?

EB:  I think it’s fun to think about.  That was one of the challenges with The School of Essential Ingredients, pairing each character with the food that would take them to the next place they needed to be in their lives.  For some of the characters it was easy, but Carl was trickier.  I tried eggs, salt, apples.  Finally I realized it needed to be cake, which was a real problem because I really am not a very good cake baker.  It took six months of research and practice before I felt qualified to write that story – but I’m glad I did it because in the end, making a cake fit so beautifully with the stages of a marriage.
By the way – if you look at Carl’s recipe for white cake (you can find it on my website, or posted here), you’ll see it has egg yolks in it.  Now, anyone who knows their cakes knows that a white cake doesn’t have egg yolks (that would make it a yellow cake, wouldn’t it?).  But because I was writing fiction and not a cookbook, I wanted to use the ingredients to make a point.  Carl and Helen’s marriage wasn’t perfect – some things happened that were unexpected, but it ended up beautifully.  And thus, egg yolks in a white cake.  Which, by the way, makes for a lovely, dense, moist cake.  Much better than fluffy, if it is symbolizing a 30-year marriage….

ST:  In Joy for Beginners, allowing one character to choose the others’ challenges sets the journey.  If I were to choose a culinary challenge for you, what food would be most difficult for you to tackle and why?

EB:  To eat or to cook?
To eat, oysters.  Which is crazy, because we have a cabin on a rocky beach that is covered with oysters. We have friends who take an oyster knife and go sit on the beach and eat until they are stuffed.  Me?  I can’t do it.  I’m just not a big fan of slimy.  Blame it on living in a climate that breeds slugs.

To cook?  I would love to learn how to make a truly perfect chocolate croissant.

ST:  Describe what our interview might have been like if it had taken place in your “heaven”: the dessert room at Il Riccio on the island of Capri.

EB:  Oh, well, we would have had our mouths full, so it wouldn’t have been nearly as articulate.  I had the opportunity to visit that room when I was invited to a Food and Literature festival put on by the Naples Chamber of Commerce (this is why it is a good idea to write about food!).  We had many amazing meals, but that setting was spectacular – overlooking the water, all white walls and bright blue trim.  And the food!  Best fish I’ve ever eaten.  And then, on a little walk-about between courses #3 and 4, I discovered that room.  It was like a shrine to dessert.

ST:  Rumor has it that you’re nearly ready to set another book on the table in 2013.  Might we be revisiting some past characters?

EB:  The Lost Art of Mixing is scheduled to come out in the winter of 2013 (perhaps late January?).  It’s what I would call an extension of School of Essential Ingredients, rather than a sequel.  We get to see more of Lillian and Tom, Isabelle and Chloe – as well as four new characters whom I think readers will really find intriguing.  Mixing, in this case, has more than one meaning, as each of the four pairs is in the midst of a misunderstanding.  The challenge, and the fun, was to write sympathetically from the perspectives of each of these people, even when they were in direct opposition to each other.

ST:  I talk about my “satisfaction meter” on Sweet Teeth.  From a scale of 1 to 5, where is your meter with the release of Joy in paperback?

EB:  I love hardbacks, because they feel all grown up and elegant.  And then you get the paperback, which feels like a friend you’ve had for a long time who has finally come to visit.  The paperback is the version you can kick off your shoes and cuddle up with.  So I am looking forward to June 5th when the paperback will be in bookstores – and it’s got a beautiful new cover, too.  5 on the 5th – it has a nice ring to it.
It has been a tremendous treat to have Erica guest post with me.  Her novels have been such a gift to me, and we’d like to spread the inspiration for my sweet readers by giving away a signed copy of Joy for Beginners in paperback!  Know a foodie? Know a reader?  Send them here, they won't be sorry!
Photo: Courtesy Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Here are the rules:

Congratulations, MarthaT!  Enjoy the Joy!

1. Leave a comment ON THIS POST* and tell me what dessert characterizes you best.  No duplicate comments.
2. Want an extra chance to win?  Login and visit Erica’s Facebook Page {HERE}, click “like” and leave a comment about Sweet Teeth in the updated page.
3. Contest will close on June 8th, 2012 at 8pm EST.
4. This giveaway is open to U.S. Residents age 18 or older. Winners will be selected via random draw, and will be notified by email. You have 72 hours to get back to me; otherwise a new winner will be selected.  *Please make sure your comment leaves me a way to reach you via email if you are chosen as a winner!

Good luck to all!

Carl’s White Cake
(Adapted from a previous guest post on Bookingmama.blogspot.com)

2 2/3 cups sifted cake flour
3 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter (room temp)
1 ¼ c sugar
3 egg yolks
3 tsp vanilla extract
4 egg whites
¼ cup sugar
¾ cup milk

Heat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter and flour 3 – 8” cake pans.  Separate eggs, set aside.  Sift together flour, baking powder and salt.  Set aside.  Beat butter until soft.  Add sugar; beat several minutes (until fluffy).  Add one egg yolk at a time, beating after each addition.  Add vanilla. 
Add flour mixture alternately with milk.  (Flour-milk-flour-milk-flour.)  Beat egg whites until soft peaks form.  Add sugar and beat until stiff peaks form.  Over beating WILL produce a dry cake. 

Fold egg whites into flour mixture.  Pour batter into cake pans. 
Bake 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.  If you press gently with a finger on the center of the cake, it should spring back.

I frosted my cake with a version of stabilized whipped cream icing, recipe from  allrecipes.com.  It was a great contrast to the weight and texture of the cake!


  1. crumb cake... because I am a bit of a mess.

  2. Anything with lemon curd because I am sweet and sour.

  3. I like Erica Bauermeister on Facebook and posted about Sweet Teeth.

  4. Thanks for a wonderful post, and a very fun interview experience. Best of luck with the blog and the baking!

  5. Very nice interview, I also loved Erica's Joy for Beginners as did my members at B&N.com, we started off the year with it. Hmmm, what desert characterizes me, I don't know but i do know that carrot cake is my favorite.
    Great seeing you again Erica and I look forward to your new novel

  6. A dessert with honey, like honey cake because I am sweet.

    Anne - amberenson@juno.com

  7. I liked Erica on Facebook and posted about Sweet Teeth.

    Anne - amberenson@juno.com

  8. I haven't read many Blogs, but I enjoyed reading this one!
    Interesting questions for Erica, and I loved reading her responses.
    They made me want to cook or bake something!
    My Mom's homemade apple pie is my favorite dessert. It characterizes me the best because it is simple, warm and comforting, with just the right amount of spice and sweetness.
    Cyndi cag111@sbcglobal.net

  9. Love the giveaway!

    A dessert that characterizes me would be dark chocolate fudge cake. A little bit serious but a softy on the inside!


  10. What a great blog post! I absolutely love The School of Essential Ingredients!! Hmmm, what dessert characterizes me? That's a really tough question. Well, I think I would have to go with the dessert I make most often: key lime macadamia pie - a little sweet, a little tart, and a little nutty!!

  11. Fantastic blog! Love chocolate chip cookies! They're kinda like me, too....simple, sweet, soft on the inside, a tiny bit crunchy on the outside and got to have the nuts (the nuttiness makes everything interesting!). Yep, that's me to the T. Thanks for the wonderful posts!! -coolbreeze_lu@yahoo.com


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