Baking My Way Back To Joy, One Pastry At A Time

Eighteen months after my daughter Carly’s death, I was lost.

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I have loved to bake since I was four years old and got my first Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas. The source of heat in my Easy-Bake Oven was a light bulb. To protect small children from burning their little hands, there was a latch on the oven door that wouldn’t unlock until the cake tin was cool enough to touch. I couldn’t wait that long. I needed to check my product to see if it was done, to see it with my own eyes. So I’d break that child protective safety lock and be back in business. I baked as often as my mom would let me — tiny vanilla cakes, sugar cookies, brownies. Everything came from mixes that were cleverly sold with the Easy-Bake Oven. None of it was very good, but I had baked it with my own hands.

So began my long love affair with baking.

Eventually, I graduated from the Easy-Bake to the standard oven. Lois Osborn, our beloved neighbor, taught me how to bake chocolate chip cookies at age nine. The secret she said was to never plop cookie dough onto a hot baking sheet. She taught me to use two or three baking sheets interchangeably, letting one cool while the other was in the oven. I studied Lois in the kitchen on Saturdays and learned exactly how to make cookies like she did. And hers were the best anyone in Enumclaw had ever tasted.

I baked chocolate chip cookies for everyone in my world nearly every Saturday. I gave them to the mailman, my neighbors, the clerk at the grocery store. You can imagine I was very popular. But I got more out of it than just being liked. Baking calmed me down. It grounded me when I was anxious. And I was anxious a lot. I baked when I was upset. I baked when I was overwhelmed. I baked when I was sad.

Fast forward to January 2012. Eighteen months after my daughter Carly’s death, I was lost. I didn’t want to coach executives; I didn’t care about any of the things they said or did. I didn’t have any confidence in my ability to work. I couldn’t focus for more than an hour or so. One early morning, I got online and typed in “culinary school.” I thought maybe I would take the opportunity to change careers. It came to me that I could become a professional baker.

So I applied to the culinary school at the Seattle Art Institute. I figured out how to pay for it (school loans again at age 51!). And then I called my business partner, Carol, to talk to her about what I was thinking. She had been with me through the first eight years of growing the business and through Carly’s death. She was steadfast. She was my friend and my confidante. She was worried about me. As I talked her through my decidedly sketchy plan, she listened. Then, she did something amazing. She told me to go for it. She said that I should do whatever might heal my broken heart. And getting my hands on some pastry dough seemed like just the ticket.

I enrolled. When my three white chef’s coats arrived, along with the knife kit, the shiny bench scraper, the spatula, the large spoon and all of the other required tools, well, it was better than Christmas. I couldn’t wait to go back to school. This was going to work out just fine. Good choice, I thought to myself.

The first day of school, I arrived at 5:30 am for my 6:00 am start. I was nervous. It had been 20 years since I’d finished graduate school. I felt like I was eight again. There were 24 students in the class, most of them in their early twenties. We lined up for presentation for our chef like soldiers in the military: white chef hats, white coats buttoned up the right side, white scarves around our necks, black and white checked pants, white socks, sturdy shoes. Over our chef’s coats, we tied a crisp white waist apron and tucked a mop towel into the top of it. We were ready to bake up some deliciousness for the world.

Chef Deborah was perfect for me. On the one hand, she was cool and detached. She knew her stuff. She insisted we call her “Chef.” On the other hand, she cared about us. She wanted us to succeed, though she never really said as much. I could just tell. She pushed us to learn, even when we were frustrated and on the verge of tears.

One morning, I was attempting to make Pâte à Choux, the foundation for French pastry — think eclairs and crème puffs. It’s tricky to make. You have to cook the egg and flour together in a saucepan, stirring constantly until there is a film on the bottom of the pan. That’s the indication that it’s done. Three times I failed the technique. Three times I turned my failed Pâte à Choux dough over into the large trash can behind me. My neck and arm ached. I was exhausted. I felt hot tears stinging my eyes.

Chef Deborah was at my side immediately. She had a sixth sense about these things. She looked at me and said, “Make it again.” It wasn’t a question. It was a command, but not from a harsh place. She was willing me to keep going even when it was hard. She had no idea that that was exactly what I needed to do in my life. I made the dough again and it came out perfect! I was happy.

Happy. Something I had not felt since the day before my daughter died. I had baked my way back to joy.

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