Dear Bakers and Friends,
Welcome to the January 2024 issue of Betterbaking.com and happy New Year to you all! I trust this note finds you well, relaxed, healthy and ready for a new season of baking or some kinder, gentler post-holiday baking. I’ve chosen some eclectic recipes this month. For the record, I considered wellness type of baking (whole grains, low fat, gluten-free) but in the end I opted to share recipes that find me where I’m at: wanting simple things that are stunning in taste. Yes, I’ m aware I’m bragging but I’d say that’s the common element in this issue. Each recipe is a portrait in beautiful baking that tastes absolutely like nothing a bakery could do. I mean they could but our inner baker really gets us better which is why we, in this futuristic sounding 2024 are still home-baking. Who would think that something so old-school could be so renegade?
What is ‘good ware” anyway? Who we are as told by the dishes we keep….
As the holidays were recent, it’s still timely to mention one of my seasonal movies of all time is The American President. It’s not a film that’s rife with holiday tones but there is an egg nog moment. One of my favorite scenes takes place in the ‘dish room’ aka the fine China Room in the White House. Created in 1918 by first Lady, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson the room and its Stuckly-designed shelving, the room displayed each presidential family’s stately dinnerware choices. If you research you’ll see the changing tastes of the presidents (and their first ladies) and the dinnerware trends of the times. There are exceptions but oft times American-made dinnerware was patriotically selected. Watching the movie a week ago got me thinking about my own ‘good’ dishes, that and one of my sons casually remarking (at Hanukkah) that my special occasion dinnerware was ‘nice’ but ‘dated’. That sent me down the fine China memory lane as I looked up each set of dishware (ceramic mostly) as well as the few sets of fine bone China dinnerware I had lived with for a time or era in my life. I even researched the dishes I grew up (Sango, with a gold wheat sheaf center my mother used for parties and Ups A-Daisy by Noritake, a cheery turquoise and yellow affair).
My life in dishes
As a new bride, I chose stoneware by Pflatzgraff called Yorktown. At the time my mother was scandalized that I didn’t select something in Royal Doulton, Lennox or Wedgwood but at twenty years old, my tastes ran to countrified vibes. To that point, I got married in a white cotton eyelet dress and carried a bouquet of daisies.
Then I graduated to Villeroy and Boch classic white, bone China Chambord dinnerware which is still manufactured but it’s now made of porcelain and called Manoir. I also considered Denby which was popular at the time but chose Johnson and Johnson ceramic Blue Willow but ultimately I forfeited those along with the Villeroy set in a divorce settlement.
Losing my good ware dishes was somehow symbolic for me (versus what it is: i.e. only ‘stuff’) but it triggered an unheralded determination to reclaim or newly pronounce my independence. I spent years saving to buy new ‘good’ dinnerware, accruing a plate at a time until I had service for twelve along with serving pieces of Villa Cassis by Villeroy and Boch. I was chuffed when I finally completed the set, feeling defined as an independent mistress of my own domain. These dishes have served me and mine for over two decades of happy times at the table and continue to do their duty with pride. I also see them a testimony to my Taurus stubbornness and dubious patience. In my hardest days as a single parent with the boys, the beautiful green and gold Cassis shone like a message that I could achieve anything and also still treat myself well.
For my daily dishes these days, I have bargain-priced, real bone China Maxwell Williams of Australia’s Cashmere because I believe nothing shows food as beautifully as snow-white dishes. I mix and match those with Spode’s Blue Italian, which is as classic as they come, reminiscent of my departed Blue Willow but Blue Italian are made of bone China instead of ceramic so I’m quite content with them.
Like all I of you, holiday times, be it Rosh Hashanah or Christmas and a host of others, means the ‘good dishes’ come out of the cupboards. When your children are little, they know what those dishes herald: more people, more food, traditional recipes, more ceremony, all hallmarks of joyous gatherings. Every set of dishes, from classic Corelle or Rosenthal carry the vibration of the foods they held and the people who broke bread at your table. When I look at one of the teacups and saucers of my late mother’s gold and white set, I can absolutely hear the tinkling of cocktails, chatter and socializing when I was a little girl, peaking out my bedroom door, watching company come and go.
But why wait for special occasions to bring out the fine dinnerware? Mix and match your daily dishes with your good set or use your good set more often and buy a new good set? You can check out Wayfair or Home Sense or Home Goods or find a bargain-priced vintage set on Facebook marketplace or a second hand store. As tastes have changed, fine bone China on Facebook marketplace is a bargain if not an all-out steal. I’m all for turning things over when it’s balanced with traditions but why not freshen and uplift our days with new visuals? Let’s dine with luxury more often. (And by the way, you don’t need a whole set. I tend to just invest in the dinner plates and a few salad or dessert plates and mix and match within the same colour tones). Don’t wait for a few times of year to bring out your good dishes. Celebrate now – in this chilly (snowless) first week of January, a no-man’s land. You deserve to feel special each and every single day and it starts with the very plate you put your (English Muffin Bread) toast on.
If you’d to explore the dishes of your own life, aside from Google check out Replacements
In other news….
In other news, tango is still sublime. I returned to the dance floor in September 2023 and am dancing more than I did when I first started tango twenty-seven years ago and despite two car break-ins which resulted in the loss of four pairs of tango shoes. I call it the Cinderella robbery since it sent me on a mission to replace the shoes, still always thinking the thief would return them.
One of my sons does West Coast Swing, often at the same dance studio as me. It’s convenient – if I leave my scarf there on Wednesday nights, he picks it up on Thursday and brings it to the next family dinner. Other than that, our dance worlds don’t collide. The tango studio is industrious and has rented out their huge space to salsa, samba and west coast groups, so things are always hopping. My favorite tango venue is in an old industrial building that still says Acme Embroidery and Zippers on the door. Forget zippers; now the building is literally rockin’ and rolling with tango, swing, tai chi and martial arts classes above. It’s not unusual to hear crashing bodies on the floor above as you’re dancing a Canero waltz tango. People are coming and going with dance or sport bags in and out of this dull building where inside there is so much life, the building seems to pulse and sway with the energy level. Just in case there’s another pandemic, I want to get in all the dancing I can.
My book club begins in two weeks and if you want to read ‘along’ with me, here is my book list for now through June: Lady Tan’s Circle of Women, The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, Crying in H Mart, Molly Molloy and the Angel of Death, The Vanishing Half and The Regrets (author will be joining us). I’m thrilled to be hosting author Lisa See for our January meeting. I have room for 1-2 more people if you’d like to join us (it’s on Zoom). Just let me know. It’s free. You just have to Zoom in and keep your camera on (you don’t have to talk but you do have to be visible in your human form. Speaking of which, I’ve deep dived into fantasy novels which are modern day fairy tales. Nothing relaxes your mind more than Sarah Mayes series as a start.
Happy new year and welcome back to the kitchen. I look forward to baking with each and all of you.
Warm wishes from my kitchen to yours,
English Muffin Bread with Cheddar and Scallions
I’ve avoided making English Muffin Bread since the outset of my baking career and now I could kick myself. This is an easy, no-knead loaf that is a cross between a roll and a tender breakfast bread. The flavor is incomparable and it’s one of those 'quick 'loaves albeit it has yeast in it.
Dunkin Donut Style Cinnamon Muffins
A full-sized, coffee cake is always welcome but when you tuck this sort of batter it into a muffin instead of a cake or loaf, it brings raves! This is a small-but-small treat to start your day or as a coffee klatch moment inspired by a road trip through New York state and a stop at Dunkin Donuts.It features a molten cinnamon center that is as addictive as it is unique.
Sweet Raspberry Ricotta Scones
There’s something special about baking with ricotta cheese. I call it the ‘ricotta effect’. Ricotta adds a certain tender and moistness the crumb of these scones and the raspberries uplift this in their own, sweet/tart way.
Chocolate Chip Brioche Buns
If you can make challah dough, you can make these. A batch of these tender, poufy sweet buns with chocolate chips disappeared at the tango potluck in less time than it takes to strap on your dance shoes. These are lightly sweet, and some of the chocolate gets smeared into the dough and some of it stays in chunks, suspended in sweet yeast heaven. You can also top them with melted white chocolate.