After Pastry School – Thank You

This will be my last “After Pastry School” post.  School finished in May, my last baking job in November and while my kitchen is certified for retail home baking, the “kitchen year” is over.  It was something I had dreamed about for a long time.  It was better, and more difficult, than I ever would have imagined.  I learned so much, about the science of baking, commercial baking, kitchen life, city living and myself.  It was an experience that never would have been possible without some amazing people so before moving onto what’s next I owe a big thank you to…

My husband Sam who supported me emotionally and financially over the past year.  There aren’t enough words, or the proper words, to convey just how grateful I am.

The wonderful chef instructors and staff at The CSCA, Chef Delphin, Chef Martha and Chef Simone in particular.  They were patient and inspiring.  Chef Jim’s knife skills and business seminars were two of my favorites, not to mention very valuable.

The amazing lady bosses I had at Sofra and Russell Orchards.  They taught me how to be a better baker, a (marginally – sorry!) faster baker and to take the product seriously but not myself.  Thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge so selflessly and answering my million and one questions.

My friends, fellow bakers and family, in-person and online, who tasted my many tests, told me I wasn’t crazy and liked my Instagram posts enough to make me believe I might know what I was doing. I appreciated that.

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
Walt Disney


OP Beach


After Pastry School – The Long Goodbye to 2015

2015 was a spectacular year, 2014 was not.  2014 was one of those terrible years that was the culmination of several not-so-great, tumultuous years.  Happily, 2014 is now two years in the past and the momentum of 2015 will hopefully carry me into a bright and shiny new year in 2016.

By December of 2014 it didn’t make sense for me to continue doing the same things that weren’t making me happy.  If you do the same things, you get the same results.  With my acceptance to The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts set to expire it seemed the only logical thing to do was to resign from my corporate job and move forward with a long-time plan of getting a pastry certificate and industry experience.  Pastry school started in January, quickly followed by an internship at a fine dining restaurant in February.  By the spring I had moved onto another internship, this time at a busy urban bakery, and finished out the fall with my first non-intern baking position as a seasonal baker at a farm bakery during harvest season.  Along the way I did a couple of one-day stages, a long-term stage at a weekly doughnut bar and volunteered at the Dana Farber Chefs Cooking for Hope event and the Nantucket Wine Festival.  After the farm bakery closed for the season I got my kitchen certified by the city of Gloucester to sell baked goods from home.  And bake I did, with great gusto, from mid-November through Christmas Eve.  There were (too many) pies, scones, cookies (oh so many cookies), cinnamon buns, cakes and cupcakes, all baked, packaged and labeled.  I had wanted to make the most of my “kitchen year” and I did, if I do say so myself.  I also created this blog, which started off strong and then, like most blogs do, somewhat fizzled.  I had a lot more time and a lot less house/yard to deal with when I was in school and we were living in Somerville.  The ‘burbs are great for long walks and lazy afternoons playing cards by the fireplace but the city is where you want to be when you need energy and inspiration to be creative.  At the end of the post I’ve included a slideshow of some pictures from November & December.  The goodies I baked, and sold, under my business name – Blue Salt Baking Co.

Most people aren’t fortunate enough to be able to drop out of “real life” for a year and pursue a longtime dream, something personally fulfilling and rewarding but financially challenging.  With the tremendous support of my amazing husband, Sam, a cashed out 401k and lack of tiny humans to care for, I made it happen.  In the first few weeks of 2016 I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I learned in 2015:

  • Baking is my passion but not my calling.  I love to bake and cook, I always have, I always will.  Food will continue to be a very important part of my life.  Someday in the distant future I’ll have my own place.  It will be tiny, the food will be fabulous. In the near future, ideally I’ll find a job that allows me to combine my love of food with my finance career.  That’s what I’m pursuing now.  Please send good thoughts my way!
  • Age is just a number, but if you don’t take care of yourself (eat right, drink your water, get exercise, sleep 8+ hours, etc.) your body will give you a number, and you won’t like it.
  • Mistakes and failures are going to happen.  You can think fast, act fast and fix it or let it become a disaster.  It’s up to you.  Most things are fixable or can be re-purposed.
  • Just because people are nice to you and ask for your help doesn’t mean they want to be your friend or even that they like you.  Yes, this should be obvious to a 38 year old woman but my mother was an optimist, and perhaps a little naive, and I guess it rubbed off a bit on me.  But I know better now.  Big thanks to those jerks along the way.  Lesson well learned, thank you.
  • I’m ready for a change, ready for the future and there isn’t anything I can’t do.  There are things I’m too old to do (be a state trooper, an astronaut) and things I’d rather not do (skydive, go back to school again, be a garbage man in NYC) but many things in life are attainable with hard work, sacrifice, a good spouse/friend/sibling in your corner and a whole lot of faith in yourself and the universe.

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Thanksgiving – The High Food Holiday

Growing up the holidays were a really big deal in my house.  The season started with my mom hosting Thanksgiving, aka Turkey-givings Day.  My parents had bought the house from my grandparents, a six bedroom, ONE bath three story behemoth that was hard to heat, time consuming to clean and always in need of repairs, where my grandparents has raised seven kids and sheltered several extended family members and the occasional stray.  It was the “family ” home.  Aunts, uncles, cousins and the random friend/girlfriend/boyfriend would descend upon the house on the 4th Thursday of November to eat too much, drink too much, smoke various brands of cigarettes and (mostly) avoid talking about politics or anything  more controversial than when the Drambuie would be served.

Sounds like fun, right?  I’m sure it was, if you were a guest.  If you were the eldest daughter of the host, prone to endless worrying, with a borderline obsessive need for cleanliness and organization it was not fun.  At all.  My mom claimed to cherish this annual ritual of food and family, and she did, but even for the the most patient person there were challenges.  With a crowd that fluctuated from 12 to 22 depending on the year you would think that people would help and cooperate.  Ha!  Aunts would arrive with side dishes that were maybe cooked,  sometimes assembled and often just a bunch of ingredients in a bag.  Uncles would stand directly in front of the pantry blocking access to platters, ingredients and the one place to hide on the first floor.  Seating took forever, wrangling everyone around a dinging room table and several folding tables, everyone trying to avoid the “inside” seats that left you stuck until Nana had finished eating.  And that took forever.

The food?  There was so much, so very much.  The portions rarely varied with the crowd size so there was always enough and often more than enough by a factor of ten.  The menu didn’t vary.  That was not allowed.  I would sometimes make something new, i.e. cornbread dressing, chocolate chip pie, but it would be served along the standards, not instead of.  Tradition always trumped taste.  Mom did the stuffed celery, pickles/olives, canned cranberry, turkey, mashed potatoes, boiled onions, butternut squash,stuffing, canned corn (for the cousin who ate no other vegetables) and apple pie.  The aunts supplied the green bean casserole, broccoli casserole (the one dish made by an Uncle), turnip, pumpkin pie and a pudding dessert.  The sweet potatoes had various origins, ending up in my early twenties with my youngest sister. I helped mom with her cooking (including getting up at 5 am to make the stuffing and put the turkey in), did the house cleaning and as I got older added cranberry apple relish, chocolate chip pie and various stuffings and casseroles, depending on what looked good in the food magazines that year.  There were no rolls, no salad and the wine was an afterthought.  The wineglasses were filled, some with wine but most with soda or cider.  The beer stayed in the cans.  Savages.

Due to the logistics involved in cooking and serving for a gaggle of relatives this size my mom sat in the seat closest to the kitchen and jumped up and down for the duration of the meal.  Other than her last Thanksgiving, when a few special people stepped up and co-hosted with her, I don’t believe she ever ate hot food.  Once seconds, thirds and dessert had been eaten there was the epic cleanup.  Wine glasses, china and good silver making their annual 24 hour appearance were not going in the dishwasher, being washed and dried by hand.  Guests promised to come back on Friday for their share of the copious leftovers.  They never did.  The folding tables would linger until it was time to put up the Christmas decorations.  Mom loved it and the guests did too.  I got out as soon as I could.

In the years since I’ve graduated college we’ve spent about four of the sixteen Thanksgivings with either my family or Sam’s family.  There were a few years I got nostalgic and thought, hey it will be fun to go to Mom’s house.  We’d go and then I’d remember I don’t like crowds, chaos and inconsiderate people.  Sam comes from a much smaller family and for a couple of years the nice wine, beautifully set table, quieter holiday was attractive.  But the food wasn’t as good, I mean, the same.  And as the family grew the table and the portions didn’t.  If I can’t eat ’til I’m sick it’s not Thanksgiving and watching people host who aren’t used to crowds is painful and downright uncomfortable.  I decided early on in our marriage that my philosophy on how we spent the holidays would be the same as my life philosophy…my way.  Yes, we went rouge, upsetting parents, frustrating siblings and making countless cousins and friends jealous of our rebellious ways.

Our first married Thanksgiving we spent together in our little apartment in Charleston, SC.  Being accustomed to cooking for a crowd I made a 21 lb. turkey and all the fixings for the two of us.  We ate turkey through Christmas.  We spent one Thanksgiving in a little rental cottage in Kennebunk, ME.  I brought a chicken to roast and an apple pie, we ordered sides from a nearby inn.  It was a delicious meal followed by a weekend of walking on the beach and watching the Food Network. Another year we went to Stowe, VT and enjoyed an absolutely delicious resort buffet with a nice bottle of wine and ate while watching the first snowfall of the season.  The hot tub, massage and iPod shopping by the lodge fireplace made it a truly DINK experience.  We’ve been to Mexico (didn’t even miss the traditional meal), to California to celebrate with friends and enjoyed several Thanksgiving together at home, sometimes being joined by a good friend, another large family refugee.  I don’t miss the big celebrations, but I do like to see pictures and hear about the day.  I prefer less formal, no seating arrangement gatherings to mingle and catch up with the family.

This year I’m working Monday until noon and then baking for others from Monday afternoon through Wednesday evening.  The mere thought of cooking a meal makes me slightly sick to my stomach.  We might get Thai or Chinese takeout.  I may cook a Ken’s Kickin’ Chicken Thanksgiving pot pie and make mashed potatoes and green beans to go with.  There will be pie, at least three types.  Variety is the spice of life, especially as it relates to dessert.  Later in the season, after Thanksgiving has passed and Christmas is in the rear view mirror, I’ll do the full Thanksgiving meal.  If I’m feeling festive and nostalgic I’ll invite people to share in the feast.  If I’m feeling like nesting and hibernating we’ll eat turkey into February.

Next year, who knows? Not I.  Perhaps I’ll be baking for others as I’m doing this year and take out will become a new tradition.  Maybe I’ll be working an office job and we’ll check out Lake Placid Lodge, exploring upstate New York and enjoying a meal cooked entirely by others.  Maybe I’ll be baking and decide to cook at home, taking a break from sweet to practice my savory skills, finally brining a turkey as I’ve wanted to do for years.  Another possibility would be joining one of my aunts and her family in Maine.  She’s a great cook.  One year when I was about 11 or 12 we somehow managed to escape hosting and travel north.  Four adults and eight kids, that’s it.  We feasted on a huge fresh turkey and there were almost as many different kinds of pies as there were diners – apple, pumpkin, mince, chocolate cream, pecan, coconut cream and more.  Fat kid heaven.  It was fun yet not too crazy or overwhelming.  My absolute favorite type of holiday.

Wherever you are and whomever you are with, enjoy the day.  Watch the Macy’s parade.  Watch football.  Take a walk in the fresh air, listening to the crackling leaves underfoot.  Whatever makes you happy.  Eat ’til it hurts.  It’s one day to celebrate turkey, fabulous fall veggies and pie, pie with ice cream. You can worry about sugar, gluten, low fat, low carb, paleo, wheat grass fasts, etc. on Friday.

 Happy Thanksgiving!


One of Mom’s Christmas Cacti, blooming right in time for Thanksgiving!

After Pastry School – October is in the Books!

By mid-October we were settled back in Gloucester, or at least as settled as we’re gonna get.  While Sam commutes to and from Burlington for his corporate gig I spent my time working part-time at farm bakery, practicing my baking, doing some recipe development and taking care of all things domestic.  It sounds relaxing, it’s not.  As a type-A person who embraces their true nature, I thrive on routine and excel under pressure. And, as someone raised in a very traditional family where the goals are money, health insurance and job security changing careers and doing something non-traditional, less secure and horrifyingly low-paying is proving to be somewhat more stressful than I had thought/hoped.   And let’s not even start on the topic of self motivation… November is bringing a whole new set of adventures, a whirlwind of excitement and panic.

After a few slow weeks at the beginning of the month I got back in the kitchen and made baking a priority; before, between and after laundry, work, vet appointments, errands and house cleaning.  Below are the projects I got pictures of.  What’s not pictured?   Pumpkin jam, apple jalapeno jam, apple/cheddar/sage scones, chocolate chunk pie, pumpkin caramel white chocolate candy bark, pizza dough and some savory projects inspired by my 6 week Techniques of Cooking Class at The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts including Southwestern Squash Soup, Roasted Squash Soup and Cheese & Mushroom Strata. Got in lots of practice with my knife skills as well.  Couple (5) more years and I should be a pro, or at least faster than your average home cook.

Let the holiday baking begin!

After Pastry School – Tools of the Trade

Building a well-equipped home pastry kitchen takes time, space and money.  Three things that are in limited supply for most of us. The best strategy is to shop smart (Amazon, Overstock, department store sales) and really think about what you need before you buy.  It’s wonderful to have a beautiful 10 inch cake pan, but only if you’re actually going to make 10 inch cakes on a regular basis. Otherwise you are going to have spent your money unwisely and will have to find storage space, which you won’t have.  You can also ask for, and hope to receive, some of the more expensive pieces (stand mixer, food processor, immersion blender, etc.) as gifts. This is one of those rare situations where weddings, showers and milestone birthdays can be quite helpful.  I have met fellow bakers that have found serviceable stand mixers on Craig’s List but I’m not a fan of used; whether books, clothes, cars or appliances I want new.  The way most people treat their things and keep their homes doesn’t make me want to inherit their poorly maintained, sketchy stuff.  But, to each their own.  You gotta do what you gotta do to become properly outfitted.

The one thing I think is the most important is a good stand mixer.  In fact, I believe it’s so important I have two, a 5 quart and a 7 quart, both Kitchen Aid brand.   I love them both, differently, yet equally.  Sam bought me the 5 quart Artisan for our first married Christmas in 1999 and the 7 quart was a corporate job funded purchase a couple of years ago, something I “had” to have to make brioche.  As the little white guy is getting older and gets tired (hot to the touch and making strangling noises) it’s nice to have the newer, more powerful big red for doughs and meringues.  I use the stand mixer for everything – cookies, bread, cakes, frosting, creams.  Most recipes will include instructions on how to do things by hand or with a hand held mixer and you can go that route, but I personally don’t think the results will be half as good and it can be a tremendously frustrating process.  A stand mixer is a big investment, but a worthwhile one.

The other big purchase is the food processor.  My Cusinart workhorse is 15 years old, a Christmas gift from Mom, and I find it important for both pastry and savory cooking.  On the pastry side I use it for pie/tart/bar crusts, scones and fine chopping tasks.  On the savory side it’s key for sauces, dressings and chopping.  There are many tasks for which you can substitute a stand mixer, blender or immersion blender for the food processor, if you’re limited in funds or space, but I like it so much for pie and tarts crusts that it’s a must have for me.  The smaller, hand held immersion blender has made the traditional blender obsolete in my kitchen (except for smoothies and frozen summer beverages) and the whip attachment is amazing, no more lugging out the stand mixer for a couple of cups of boozy whip cream for pie or ice cream.

Also pictured below is my pastry school scale and my recipe/notes book.  Almost all professional bakers and pastry chefs use weight versus volume measurements.  It’s more accurate and so much easier.  The scales are inexpensive and take up little space.  Buy one.  My fabulous little hot pink Kate Spade notebook was a parting gift from my boss at Sofra.  I’m using it to keep track of all my recipes, once they’re tested, retested and finalized, and some of the tips and tricks I learned at school and in professional pastry kitchens.  I wish I had been taking notes and keeping successful recipes in a central place throughout my baking adventures over the years.  If you bake or cook, start a notebook, start now.  No apps, programs or spreadsheets for this old-school girl.  I like to hand write, have it portable and private.  In the wise words of Gandalf, “keep it secret, keep it safe”.  And of course, eat cake for breakfast!

Even if you don’t have the bigger appliances you can still cook and bake quite well at home. Most of the basics will be in almost every kitchen and don’t have to be expensive or fancy, unless you want them to be.  In that case, enjoy your splurge shopping at Crate & Barrel, Williams Sonoma, Sur La Table and Pottery Barn.  A set of stainless mixing bowls, some sturdy glass liquid measuring cups and a few wooden spoons along with a couple of nice sauce pans, a sharp chef’s knife, tongs, a peeler and absorbent dish towels are what I would consider the “prep” equipment.

Then there are the smaller items such as whisks, strainers/sifters, spatulas and scoops. The scoops may seem like an indulgence and kitchen drawer hogs, but they ensure consistent cookies, cupcakes, muffins, truffles and biscuits.  I lived without them for years and I have no idea how.  Larger off set spatulas, kitchen scissors, a ruler and juicer aren’t used in every project but often enough to earn their space in the drawer.

For my smallest and most key items I decided to buy a kitchen drawer organizer and keep it right on the counter, between the mixers and the oven.  We had these tools easily accessible in a bin on the baker’s table at Sofra, adapting this at home has been life changing, keeping my  white drawer fronts clean and my swearing to a minimum. Measuring spoons & cups, bench knife, bowl scraper, grater, off set spatulas and measuring tape.  I also like to have a small timer, my new oven chirps softly.  When I’m multitasking I need to be screamed at.  This little guy does the job, attaches to metal and can clip to an apron.

Now that your batter or dough is mixed, you’ll need to bake it.  Yes, you will need pans of all shapes and sizes. No they will not fit nicely into your cabinets.  They will likely live in your coat closet and/or under your bed but you need them.  Sheets pans (in two sizes), a glass 9 x 13 and 8 x 8 along with a metal 9 x 9, a nice solid 8″ cake pan, a 9″ spring form and some disposable pie tins and loaf pans will enable you to make most any recipe.  Aside from the pans pictured I also have muffin tins, mini muffin tins, a round tart pan with removable bottom, a 10′ cake pan, two 8″ cake rings, a popover pan, several glass pie plates, a tin pie plate, a glass 7 x 11 and several dark non-stick loaf and cake pans that I no longer use.  The non-stick rusts and the edges cook too fast.  On my wish list is two 6″ cake pans, another 8″ cake pan, min tart pans and a couple of rectangular tart pans.  I’m very happy that my “have” list is much longer than my wish list, finally.


The last must haves in my kitchen are good plastic wrap (this brand is almost as good as food service grade and available at Stop & Shop), freezer storage bags, parchment paper and heavy duty hand cream for my sore, dry, cracked hands.  After all there is no kitchen support staff at home, all the dishes are yours to do.

So what else is in my kitchen that’s not pictured?  A couple of aprons, a green paring knife, my pastry school kit and a small, but growing collection of cake decorating supplies.  I used to enjoy cute, stylish aprons, but they get stained and die a slow death over dozens of washes.  The sturdy ones from school are practical but not photogenic.  My paring knife is a tool I use to cut, chop, open flour/sugar bags and do pretty much everything else.  I was introduced to these knives during my internship at Flour Bakery and they are perfect for pastry chefs and bakers.  The school kit hangs conveniently on our rolling kitchen island and gets taken out from time to time for involved projects or when I need my candy/fry thermometer. The cake decorating supplies will someday get their own post, once I’m a bit happier with my decorating skills.  There’s improvement, now I pursue consistency.

I would love to hear from others on what’s in their kitchen that they can’t live without. What did I miss? I usually don’t do gadgets, but I could be convinced if anyone knows of any time or space savers.  Let me know in the comments.

EVENING UPDATE – How could I have forgotten?!?!?

No handles, solid wood, don’t wash just wipe clean.


After Pastry School – Baking a Bit of This and a Bit of That

My last baking posts were in early/mid July and covered some practice baking I had done over the spring and a bit of dirty baking I indulged in for beach treats.  Given the long hours I spent in the kitchen at work, the tiny size and lack of equipment in my Somerville kitchen very little baking got done this summer/early fall.  There were some projects here and there, including a few cakes I did for Wilton Cake Decorating I and II at A.C. Moore.


I assumed that by July I would used to a standard baking schedule, four 10 hour days. Ha!  Not so much.  Not even close. Especially given that July brought the heat and afternoon kitchen temps reached 100+. Four days working, three recovering.  The last thing I wanted to do on my days off was to be in front of an oven.  I did however know that I needed some motivation and structure around my pursuit of better cake decorating skills.  Happily enough the A.C. Moore across the way in Somerville offers Wilton cake decorating classes.  Nothing motivates me more than the idea of not getting my money’s worth.  If I’ve paid for the class, I’ll go and put in the practice time. Always admired, although never understood, those with tons of self motivation.

Here are two cakes and a few brownies I did for the buttercream basics class, along with my dirty baking ingredients and some JP Licks vanilla sharing a bowl with homemade salted caramel ice cream topped with funfetti bar crumble.


August was hot.  Too hot for kitchen work, IMO.  The bakery slowed down, I reduced my schedule to three days and spent more time up in Gloucester, enjoying the beach, the deck and cooler coastal temps.  Any baking was done early in the morning and as quickly as possible before doughs, buttercreams and ganaches got too soft or runny to work with.

Using the last of my freezer reserves of Pastry School scraps I made some absolutely delicious roasted tomato, thyme and goat cheese hand pies.  The same day I made raspberry lemonade shortbread bars and s’mores bars (graham layer, dark chocolate brownie, marshmallow buttercream & ganache).  When you bake you have good days and bad days.  Occasionally you have a great day.  That was one.  Only change I would make is too use a slightly less rich brownie recipe.  Up next was a recipe test for work (white chocolate apricot halawa), which was very well received at Sam’s work although not a huge hit at home.  Only other time spent in the kitchen that month was either prepping for the grill or practicing cakes.  Seemed like a lot of effort at the time, even though I did just two!  One was vanilla with a lemon soak and blueberry buttercream the other a chocolate cake with peanut butter filling and milk chocolate buttercream finished with a homemade chocolate crumble and ganache drip.


I love September.  A long warm farewell to summer, wonderful fall flavors, cool starry nights.  Fall has long been a busy time for me, a time of transition, and this year was no exception.  Over Labor Day we celebrated our last long weekend in the city, a few weeks later took a whirlwind mini road trip north, I finished my internship and at the end of the month we moved out of Somerville, back to Gloucester full time.

Embarrassingly little baking was done.  I freely admit we ate out and got take out almost every night, enjoying the many varied options of Somerville and Cambridge. When we were home, at either location, we were getting ready to move.  In the last week of the month I practiced/tested some cookie recipes – peanut butter with a butterscotch buttercream filling, oatmeal rum raisin with a maple rum glaze and triple chocolate chunk (white/dark/bittersweet).  The oatmeal and peanut butter were clear winners while the chocolate chunk were great but went stale too quickly.  The quirky little cake was test vanilla cake layers and milk chocolate buttercream from the freezer with a chocolate chunk cookie buttercream.  Making good use of the leftover, slightly past peak cookies from earlier that week.  In a proper kitchen nothing goes to waste.*

  • Public Service Announcement/Clarification – This does not mean that you can serve, sell or gift substandard or stale baked goods.  It is not license to use suspect, old ingredients.  If a cookie/cake/bar/pastry is fresh for x number of days, don’t think people won’t notice when they taste it days past.  They notice, they remember.  It’s gross.  Food is love should be treated as such!

Halfway through October and we’re still settling back into life in the ‘burbs.  Trying to enjoy the quiet, beautiful foliage, kitchen space and fresh air in Glosta.  Trying not to miss the amazing food, proximity to movies/music/festivals and wonderful people we left behind in the city.  Spending quite a bit of time in the kitchen but much of it is making dinner; pizza dough, soup, frittata, strata, roast chicken, and more.  Below is one of my new favorites, chicken and waffles – rosemary waffles with buttermilk tenders and an apple maple compote.   IMG_2257

Looking forward to lots of fun apple, pumpkin, maple and Halloween projects in the next few weeks.  Nothing better than a nice size kitchen, some warm spiked cider and a great recipe.

Somerville, I Bid You Farewell

mystic river

All good things must come to an end.  A crappy but all too true cliche.

Two weeks ago today Sam and I left our apartment at Assembly Row in Somerville for the last time.  For nine months it had been our home away from home.  The decision to rent this little, modern one bedroom in a brand new building was a bit (hugely) impulsive, although having a second place or living in the city is something Sam & I have wanted to do for years.  Almost 10 years of 2 plus hour car-train-walk commutes, each way, had grown more than tiresome and we were feeling a bit out-of-sync with our peers in the ‘burbs.   The whole reproduction/tiny human thing and whatnot.  We decided to put travel on hold for a year, embarking on a different sort of adventure, the kind with a lease.  Shortly after we moved in, I decided to leave my corporate job and enroll in pastry school.  My philosophy is that you’re in the pool or you’re out of the pool.  May as well go all in.  I envisioned a year of the best of both worlds, city living in Somerville and country retreat in Glosta.  Discovering whether we were city mice or country mice would, in theory, help us figure out our next move. It pretty much turned out that way.  I won’t say what we decided, I don’t want to give away the ending.

We LOVED Somerville.  It is a vibrant city that is diverse in it’s people and it’s neighborhoods, but in a way that everyone feels welcome.  There’s a fun vibe.  Sure it’s rapidly becoming gentrified, but (trust me) it’s still got that rough around the edges feel in more than a few places and the city’s residents (both lifelong and newbies) are taking great care to continue to foster a sense community.  You cannot beat the location, central to Boston and Cambridge via the orange line or bus and easy access to Rte. 93 for commuting to the ‘burbs, heading down the Cape or up north to Cape Ann.  There’s so much I could say about our time in the city, much of which I have documented here, but I live for lists.  I can be in the middle of three personal and four professional disasters and nothing quite soothes the mind like a tidy to-do list, and a drink, of course. For the sake of brevity I’m going to stick with places in Somerville proper.

Best Food, Casual

  1. Three Little Figs – Breakfast sandwiches to die for and amazing pastries like the dirty chai muffin and apple cider doughnut muffin.  Great coffee.  Strong, not bitter.
  2. Ball Square Cafe – Best breakfast in Massachusetts and the friendliest waitstaff and owner ever.  Plus self serve coffee and heated awning for cold weather waits.
  3. Sweet Ginger – We’ve never had better Thai food and they deliver.  Discovered very late into our stay.  So sad.
  4. Dave’s Fresh Pasta – Working man’s gourmet market.  Fresh pasta (duh!), fabulous pre-made food, dessert bars so good you wonder why you bake your own and lots of fresh produce.  But here’s the thing, everything is delicious and it’s reasonably priced. It’s so awesome that I just don’t get why every city and town in Massachusetts can’t have a Dave’s/

Best Food, Date Night

  1.  Sarma  – Mediterranean tapas style food is the best way I can describe, but Sarma is so much more.  I did a spring/summer internship at Sofra and Sarma has common owners, as does Oleana, but it was on our to try list long before I had my employee discount.  Two of the best meals we had this year.  The flavors of the food are amazing, space is lively and service is great.  Parking is a challenge but it is so worth it.
  2. Highland Kitchen – Great food, great beer list, great music at three levels too loud.  Our favorite “neighborhood” place where you’d see families, couples, groups and everyone else.
  3. Rosebud Diner – An old diner that was revamped to a “new” American restaurant with southern influences and pie.  Oh god, the pie.  Fried chicken, buffalo brussell sprouts, a roasted cauliflower entree and turtle pie.  The perfect meal.
  4. Trina’s Starlight Lounge – Highlife sign.  Dark, wood interior.  Adorable waitresses with blue hair and tattoos.  Reasons enough to go but the fried chicken and waffles is too good to share.  And the mac & cheese, GTFO good.  Voted best Hipster Bar by the Improper Bostonian, they were kind enough to let us old folks in, preppy clothes and all.

Best, Fun

  1.  AMC Theater – Advance tickets for this movie theater is a must.  Reserve early enough to get the two seats off to the side.  Two recliners and half walls, plus a side table  = feeling like you’re the only ones in the theater.  Now that is priceless.
  2. Mystic River – A book, a movie, a uniquely Boston body of water.  The sunrise and sunsets over the banks of this city river convey the sense that you’ve arrived and that anything is possible.  That you’re at the gateway of something special. Sounds corny, but take a stroll and you’ll see.  *Castle Island in South Boston is perfect for this as well and has the added bonus of junk food at Sullivan’s and parking.

Somerville, you’ll be missed. Maybe we’ll be back some day.  We’ll certainly visit.

mystic river_2

(Mini) Road Tripping, or What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Most years we take a “summer” vacation in late-June or early/mid-September.  The shoulder seasons usually offers the best weather, the smallest crowds and some decent deals on hotels/vacation rentals.  Our top destination is Nantucket, of course, followed closely by Bar Harbor, Maine.  As 2015 has been a very different year in many ways (pastry school, baking internships, apartment in Somerville, Sam’s new job, etc.) it followed that our summer break would take a different direction.  Time and money constraints dictated the length (4 days/3 nights) and the place (within 3 hour drive).  I considered Providence & Newport, RI, the outer Cape and Western MA.  In the end we decided to a) stay in our comfort zone and b) visit a bunch of places on our to-try list; a mini road trip north to visit bakeries, drink craft beer and visit a couple of art museums. We’d cram in a summer vacation’s worth of fun into a few days.

Day 1 – Slow start on a somewhat dreary Friday morning.  Rte. 133 to Rte. 1A to Mad Martha’s on Plum Island.  This tiny little breakfast & lunch place has been on the list for years.  Always seemed just too far to drive for a quick meal, but a perfect first stop on our way to Portsmouth, NH.  Experience was fabulous.  Think cute little greasy spoon on the beach with the food two levels above what you’d expect including an interesting and fresh fruit side, turkey bacon, chicken sausage and delicious Portuguese rolls for the breakfast sandwiches.  Service was quick and friendly.  Definitely not too far and you can take a walk on the beach after breakfast, always a bonus.  From Plum Island into downtown Newburyport for a stroll around town, some window shopping and to pick up a couple of Eat Cake! cupcakes to try later in the evening.  A 45 minute drive found us in Portsmouth, arriving for an early check in at The Hotel Portsmouth.
hotel nh_2hotel nh

This was our favorite hotel of the trip, bigger than a B&B, smaller than a traditional hotel.  Modern nautical decor, walking distance to downtown and a quiet room on the 3rd floor = ideal accommodations. We had an excellent late lunch at Row 34, where Sam fell in love with Stumptown Coffee, and then indulged in the mandatory late day hotel room rest before heading out for the evening.

row 34 stumptown

Earth Eagle Brewings was by far the most fun stop of the trip.  A tiny little “brewery & gastropub” with what appears to be a very devoted and large local following.  We got lucky and landed two seats at the bar.  The beer was phenomenal and they offered snacks, including goldfish, for $2 per pint glass.  This is an ingenious idea, an inexpensive little something to have with a drink without investing the money and calories in an appetizer.  Bartenders were fast and friendly, even on a busy night.  earth eagle brewing

Friday night = pizza night.  Dinner was at Flatbread Co.  It was quiet at 9:30 and the pizza was awesome.  Can’t beat wood fired crust, ever.  We ended the evening with the Eat Cake!  cupcakes, a Butterfinger and a lemon raspberry.  The cake was moist and the frosting was sweet and light.  Enjoyed both.

Day 2 – As one might imagine, we weren’t super hungry in the morning and having many more culinary stops on the trip we sampled the light complimentary breakfast at the hotel before checking out and heading north to Portland, ME.  Prior to getting to Portland proper we stopped in South Portland at Scratch Baking Co.  If I were to open my dream business it would look a lot like Scratch, from the decor and product to the outgoing staff and quiet neighborhood location.  A bagel, a scone and a cookie walked out with us, sadly leaving behind the homemade ring ding and almond croissant that wanted to come too.  I completely understand why they sell out of bagels almost every weekend morning.  That good.  Scone and cookie were that good too.  I would say that this is one of those places that would be worth the trip a of couple times per year from out of state.

scratch bakingIt was time to get a little culture in our lives so we headed straight to the Portland Museum of Art.  We love this museum, the building, the size, the layout, the special exhibits.  A few very well spent hours admiring the art, seeing some new pieces and visiting our favorites.dutchs  Lunch was at Dutch’s and the avocado toast and fried chicken biscuit sandwich were out of this world, so were the tater tots.  Love me some tots. Unfortunately they were out of doughnuts, next time. Side note – we walked in and were put off by the no doughnuts, limited weekend sandwich selection and odd decor/atmosphere, walking right back out.  Given few options in the area we went back in and were so glad we did. It was a beautiful day and there were two more bakeries I was determined to visit as they were closed on Sundays.  Ten Ten Pie and Tandem Coffee.  Ten Ten Pie was a bit of a walk and seemed to be on the outskirts of an “up and coming” neighborhood.  It was a smallish, homey place and selection was limited but we did enjoy the praline macaron and kouign amann pastry.  Tandem Coffee was on the way to the hotel, located in an old remodeled gas station.  The inside was as cool as the outside and the pistachio cake and coconut tea cake were moist, full of flavor and had the perfect loaf cake crumb.  Their house made rosemary limeade was sweet, tart perfection.  Highly recommended and now on the to visit again list.
tandem baking_2
tandem bakingHome for the night was the Portland Harbor Hotel.  A bigger hotel than last night and not as newly renovated.  Couldn’t beat the location, but it was pricey and despite paying for an interior courtyard room we could still hear the neighborhood nightlife.  Keeping with our craft beer quest we had a couple of beers and a pretzel at Liquid Riot Bottling Company, a brewery and distillery that had somehow escaped our attention for the last three years.  Great space, good beer, horrid service.  You win some, you lose some.  Later that night we had a small, impromptu dinner at MAPS.  A very lively, tiny beer/wine bar that has a great jukebox and serves two things – cake and grilled cheese.  We had beer (Maine Lunch) and traditional grilled cheese with blueberry jam on Portuguese bread.  Yum and yay! for vacation.

Day 3 – In light of the last night’s “light” dinner we wanted real breakfast.  AFTER a stop for doughnuts.  We’ve been to Portland many times but only recently learned where those in the know go to worship on Sunday mornings.  The Holy Donut.  Doughnuts made with Maine potatoes and, given their taste and texture, a whole lotta love.  Small, fun, clean shop with a line 15 minutes prior to opening, despite the drizzle and early hour.  We tried a blueberry, maple and dark chocolate sea salt.  I almost ate them all by myself but decided I couldn’t deny Sam his share of this deep fried sugary goodness.

holy donutWe then walked several blocks to Marcy’s Diner.  Apparently it’s famous.  I had heard the story but didn’t make the connection.  The food was fantastic, especially the hash browns, and as an added bonus the waitress reprimanded Sam for looking at the menu for too long, telling him it was time to decide.  This place is serious.  Love it.  After checking out of the hotel we decided to skip the last few places on our Portland list as we had hit our bakery testing max.  North to Rockport with a short detour to LL Bean in Freeport was the agenda for the first part of the day.  The drive up Route 1 was lovely, the lines for lobster rolls at Red’s Eats was long.  Glad we had tried them on a previous trip on a weekday.  Slightly peckish but not needing lunch we did something we never do,stopped at a Circle K for drinks and snacks.  I got Frito’s and Sam got a Starbucks drink in a can.  We regretted both later but hey, vacation is for making bad food choices, no?  Our final night was going to be spent at Glen Cove Inn & Suites.  Not our usual standard for accommodations, but again 2015 was an unusual year and funds are tight.  It was recently updated, clean enough and quiet.  The reason for this destination was it’s proximity to Rockland where we had dinner reservations at Primo, one of, if not the, best restaurants in Maine, a James Beard award winner and organic garden to table concept.  Before another big meal we were in desperate need of some exercise.  Sam spotted a walkable breakwater within a short drive on the map.  We walked out to the Rockland Breakwater Light and back in the fog and drizzle, enjoying the sound of the water, fresh sea air and sharing our walk with very few other visitors.  breakwater

It is a well known fact in my culinary circles that I’m a savage with a terribly unsophisticated palate.  I like Doritos and Oreo’s, would eat pizza, sandwiches or cookies for every meal and won’t touch beets, mayo or brussell spouts.  I’ll eat off of roadside food carts if the food is amazing and feel slightly to very uncomfortable in white tablecloth restaurants.  So it wasn’t a complete surprise to me that I didn’t love Primo.  Our waitress was a bit stiff and awkward, our fellow diners were horrible people with too much money and while the food was all uber fresh and on-premise local it didn’t make me want to run back, unlike Sarma, Picco and Myers & Chang, all places I could go again and again.  I did enjoy my meal, especially the lobster and pea risotto and the bread was perfect, which as a baker makes my heart sing.  Sam’s entree was better than mine and the only dish captured on film.  Ambiance was lovely and the hostess was gracious, professional and friendly. Overall I’m glad we went but it was a very expensive one-time dining experience.   primo

Day 4 – The realization that vacation was coming to an end was settling in.  Before succumbing to the real life blahs we decided to make our final day a fun one.  Breakfast at Home Kitchen Cafe, known for one of my all time favorites, the cinnamon bun.  It’s a popular place with a wait for a table, on or off season.  We split a cinnamon bun and tried a couple of the breakfast sandwiches.  The brioche was great and the amount of icing was perfect but it was really lacking in cinnamon/sugar/butter filling resulting in a somewhat dry, not sweet enough bun.  Not the end of the world, but disappointing.cinnamon bun

We weren’t disappointed at all in the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland.  Our first visit, but certainly not our last.  In addition to the main building there’s an additional gallery in an old church across the street.  Beautiful art in beautiful buildings.  We learned quite a bit about the Wyeth’s, including that we enjoyed their work much more in person than in pictures.  Small, well curated museums are such a treasure and a treat to visit.  More than worth the price of admission.  love sculpture

We headed south around 1 pm with a planned stop in Ocean Park, Maine.  The idea was to get lunch at the Soda Fountain or grocery store deli and see the memorial brick dedicated to my mom on the walkway to the Ocean Park brick  We saw the brick, I love it and hope she would have liked it too, but the Soda Fountain and grocery store were closed.  Such is one’s luck on the last day of vacation.  A sunny afternoon perfect for driving the Jeep saw us home.

Three hotels, two museums, too many bakeries, just enough craft beers, one long lighthouse walk and about 500 miles of driving.  Whirlwind trip leaving us needing…a vacation.

Happy Fall!

Summer is over, Fall is here, pumpkin spice to drink, sweaters to wear!

Settling into new routines is what fall is all about.  New classes, new jobs, new teachers, new commutes, new students, new recipes, etc.  Everyone has something fun and exciting going on.  Shorter days, longer nights.  Cooler temps prevail. And then there’s this little blog….

coming soon

In a few short days Erin & Sam’s Big (City) Adventure will come to an end when the moving van arrives to take us from Somerville back to Glosta.  Blogging will recommence shortly thereafter.  Upcoming topics:

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Somerville Wrap-Up

Tools of the Trade (Kitchen Equipment)

Kitchen Ink (Tattoos in the Culinary Industry)

And more…

After Pastry School – Chocolate Chunk “Research”

Sam & I had a roommate in college that made an incredible chocolate chip cookie.  He wouldn’t give us the recipe.  As far as I know he has not yet been made wealthy or famous by these cookies so I’m not 100% sure what all the secrecy was about.  It was over these butter laden, chocolate chip studded masterpieces that Sam & I discovered a mutual love (obsession) of cookies and embarked on a quest for the perfect cookie, a crispy, yet chewy cookie with notes of vanilla and brown sugar with just the right type and amount of chocolate chips.  We have a notebook with dozens of recipes, some good, some great, but haven’t yet managed to recreate that exact cookie.  That’s ok though, chocolate chip cookies are like pizza, even the mediocre versions are really pretty good.  Our recipe “testing” has been on hiatus for some time, I’ve found several excellent and reliable recipes, but I expect we shall take the quest up again this winter when we’re back in Glosta.

The chocolate chip cookie may be the most humble of all baked goods, but I believe the quality of an establishment’s chocolate chip cookie tells volumes about the overall standards of a place.  I have tried chocolate chip cookies across the U.S, in Paris, London and Aruba.  My best-loved are on Nantucket, sold in my favorite type of “restaurant”, the small, superior quality sandwich shop offering the penultimate lunch; sandwich, chips, cookies and a drink.  Best consumed in a park or on the beach.

In most bakeries and cafes, there are no chocolate chip cookies.  They are chocolate chunk cookies.  It’s a fair distinction, very few bakeries and cafes use chips, they prefer chunks or discs of higher quality chocolate and for the natural variations of size/shape of chunks that make for a better textured/tasting cookie. Of course I have tried cookies all over the Boston area, from Shaw’s bakery and local coffee shops in Glosta to well-known Cambridge bakeries and hipster cafes in Somerville.  Rather than the more comprehensive research I did for macarons, I decided to re-taste and compare my four favorites from Cafe Madeleine (South End), Flour Bakery + Cafe (South End), Pain D’avignon (Hyannis via SoWa Market) and Sofra Bakery (Cambridge).  Results below.

And the winner is….

Sofra Bakery &Cafe

The fact that I am currently an intern at Sofra played no part in bestowing the first place honor to this truly magnificent cookie.  A tender, buttery cookie almost an inch thick.  Crispy at the edges, chewy in the middle.  Stuffed full of Tcho chocolate discs.  The batter is made on day 1, scooped on day 2 and baked on day 3.  The resting time allows the flavors and texture to develop.  The commercial convection oven gives them the perfect, “puff and crack”.  My one and only complaint?  Size. I wish these were about twice as big.  That way I’d only have to eat half as many.

The runner up…

Pain D’Avignon

Pain D’Avignon’s cafe & bakery in Hyannis is our last mainland stop before boarding the ferry for Nantucket and our first stop back in America.  Everything there is phenomenal, the croissants, sandwiches, house made potatoes chips, pecan cranberry rolls, etc.  I always buy at least three cookies, one to eat immediately, one for when we get home and one to freeze for later.  That’s how good they are.  Crispy edges and bottom, tender, almost chewy interior and tons of really tasty chocolate.  Not sure what type, but I would guess a high quality bitter sweet.  And they come in that wonderfully shareable bakery cookie size.    When not on your way to “the island” you can find Pain D’Avignon’s baked goods at SoWa Market on Sundays.

A close runner up…

Cafe Madeleine

Cafe Madeline is, IMO, the best French style bakery in the Boston area.  Their croissants are as good as we had in Paris and their French pastries are always fresh and delicious, particularly the eclairs.  I was quite pleasantly surprised to find that they also make fantastic chocolate chunk cookies.  They’re a bit thinner than I usually prefer, but they still have a chewier center with a good 1/4 inch of perfectly crispy edges.  Ratio of chocolate to cookie is spot on.  The cookie could have a touch more vanilla and/or brown sugar to impart more of that rich, almost caramel taste in the cookie.

Last, but certainly not least…

Flour Bakery + Cafe

Flour is an amazing place.  I first tried this cookie some time around 2006 or 2007 and never looked back.  It was when I realized that no matter what you’re making, a commitment to using the best possible ingredients and approaching everything with thought and passion is what produces wonderful, consistent and uber tasty results. It was also my introduction to Tcho chocolate and a turning point from being a chocolate chip cookie enthusiast to a chocolate chunk cookie lover. Over the years I’ve come to prefer a less crispy, more chewy cookie and one with a higher cookie to chocolate ratio. The size is also a conundrum, somewhere between almost small enough that it’s ok to have my own but not quite big enough to share.  These cookies are great and will always have a special place in my heart.

The chocolate chunk cookies at Something Natural, Sconset Market and Provisions on Nantucket are all excellent.  Maison Villate in Falmouth also makes a strikingly good chocolate chunk, and is also the best French style bakery this side of the Atlantic. Period.  That good.

Hoping to do some further “research” projects in the fall including doughnuts, cupcakes and chocolates.  It’s hard work, but someone has to do it.  Might as well be me.