One bite of Catherine Goodman's Italian Anise-Orange cookies told cookbook author Greg Patent that this recipe had lost connection with its past.
"The cookies were terrible," he says. "They were dry and tasteless. I didn't see how anyone would want to eat them. I just knew that somewhere along the line something had gone terribly wrong, so I started asking questions." Goodman, who got the family recipe from her aunt who still lives in Italy, didn't have the answers, but she knew where to find them. "She called her aunt, and sure enough, she found out that the cookies were originally made with olive oil and that her measurement for flour was way off," says Patent.
Getting that recipe right isn't just about earning compliments for the baker, says Patent. It's about preserving a family's heritage, making sure that the traditions of the Old World are kept intact and preserved for future generations.
"Recipes are a form of oral history that connect people to their past," he says. "They are a part of who they are. Preserving those recipes takes effort. So often, people will have the intention to save those special recipes, but it doesn't happen. Maybe it doesn't get recorded, and by the third generation the recipe is lost." Patent's passion for old-world recipes prompted him to spend two years criss-crossing the nation in search of favorite recipes from more than 60 immigrant bakers for his book, "A Baker's Odyssey," (Wiley Books, $34.95), which also includes a one-hour instructional DVD featuring Patent.
Gathering the recipes, he says, was not nearly as simple as asking for ingredients on paper, since so many of the recipes are as much about technique as they are about flour and sugar.
"In every case, I would come into their kitchens and bake with them," Patent says. "I wanted to fully understand their methodology, and the only way to learn that was to put my hands in the dough. The other thing I found is that the sharing happens when you work with people. They'll talk to you because they aren't onstage, they're not performing. They are teaching you."
Tastes of home
Patent gazes at a trio of glass cases filled with cream tortes and sugar-dusted Hungarian pastries at Crixa Cakes in Berkeley and shares a bit about his own connection to the art of baking.
"I am an immigrant baker myself," he says, further explaining that he grew up in Shanghai with his Iraqi mother and Russian father. Patent started baking as a preteen and started winning awards. At 19, he won the Pillsbury Bake-Off and $1,000. He studied and even taught zoology before realizing that his real passion was baking.
His first book, "Baking Across America," earned him a James Beard Award, plus plenty of freelance writing gigs, which he attends to from his home in Montana. Those books, he points out, had an entirely different purpose from "A Baker's Odyssey."
"This book is about authenticity, not about adding an ingredient or changing a recipe to make it simpler."
The book includes recipes from 32 countries, including four from the Bay Area: Maria Elena Flores, in Sacramento; Rudy Klopp, a pretzel-maker from Esther's German Bakery in Palo Alto; Cammie Hinshaw, a Scot from San Anselmo; and Bernadette Iribarren, a French Basque from San Francisco.
Scoring Iribarren's recipe for Gateau Basque, he says, was one of the toughest of the entire project.
"I had met a friend who introduced me to her by phone. I never called anyone cold. But when I called her she was very tentative. I convinced her to set a date for us to meet. When I got there and started baking with her, I found out that she'd been making this cake for 50 years and she had never shown anyone how to make it."
Documenting the recipe while she baked required careful observation, he adds. "She measured everything with a spoon 11 spoons of this, 13 spoons of that. Then she added 'just enough' milk. Thankfully, I have the same spoon at home and I understand how to make pastry cream."
Rolling in dough
Now and then, Patent admits, he would encounter baking techniques that were challenging even for a veteran baker. The recipe for strudel, for example, calls for stretching a mound of dough across an entire table, until it is paper thin.
"I made strudel all summer before we filmed the segment. We happened to do it in March and it was cold, so we had to use a lot of heat in the room. I knew the floor heater would dry out the dough, so I told the cameraman that we were going to do it very fast."
Although Patent had to call an official end to his reporting and writing for the book, he can't help but be curious about immigrant bakers such as Elizabeth Kloian and Zoltan Der of Crixa Cakes, who opened their bakery as a way to share the traditions of their own childhoods. Kloian is Armenian and Russian. Der is Hungarian.
Wiping her hands of dough for a quick conversation, Kloian shares that while she was born and raised in the United States, her food memories center around her family's roots. Every day, she bakes a few of her favorites: kifli, pave, rugelach, vatroushka, and kolacky.
"I used to live in San Francisco, where there were these wonderful Russian bakeries. You would walk by and there would be this very distinct aroma that you remember. The bakeries would make a lot of the same things, but they would be different. If there was vatroushka in the window, you knew that at one bakery it would be sweet. At another it would be squeaky on your teeth because of the differences in the kind of cheese they use.
"In my family we had great bakers on both sides of the family. My mother's mother would make these Siberian dumplings. And when she made them, she wouldn't make one dozen or five dozen. She would make 100 dozen. She had to have an extra freezer to store them all. When she made sauerkraut, why use one head of cabbage? She would use 12 heads. I think the idea was let's put some up for later. That's the way you did it back then." Not all of the recipes Kloian and Der make come from family, however.
"We get our recipes from all over. Some are from our families, some we research. You have to understand that even the recipes from the family are not recipes. It's like this: You add about this much until it looks like this, then you add just enough of that." Also, Kloian points out, baked goods have little to do with geographic boundaries. "We don't see our bakery so much as ethnic as cultural. These are foods that are shared across borders, which are mostly arbitrary."
That sharing, Patent points out, is one of the underlying themes of his book. "Organizing this book was simple because every culture has a flatbread, and a doughnut-like pastry and filled pastries. There are these similarities even though the flavors are different."
Patent, who plans to turn the book into a cooking series, hopes that the book will inspire people to try new baking traditions and to preserve the ones that they already have.
"It's my hope that this book will encourage people to take the time to record their own recipes and traditions. Sometimes kids have every intention of getting Mom's recipe, but she dies young or something else happens and it's completely lost. I tell people that they don't have to be a cook to get the recipe down on paper. If they don't cook, they can find someone who does. They won't regret it."
Reach Jolene Thym at 510-353-7008 or firstname.lastname@example.org.