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The Charmian Christie Interview

Charmian Christie Gets Messy

Charmian Head Shot

There is a new book on the shelves called The Messy Baker. Right away, I was excited – because sometimes baking is a messy affair and it is not only nothing to shy away from, it is something in which to indulge! Think about when you dust your counter with flour and get kneading. Or when melted chocolate is dripping here, there and everywhere. That’s not a downside as far as I am concerned. I don’t know about you, but I have never been able to be one of those cooks who keep their apron clean. That’s what it’s there for, right? Author and blogger Charmian Christie takes just such an approach. This is baking at its best. Dive in with gusto, use great ingredients, sling that butter and sugar around and have fun. And end up with some delicious baked goods. Charmian chatted with me about her new book and her Chocolate-Orange Gingersnap Drops and Welsh Griddle Cakes.

 

Recipes from The Messy Baker: More Than 75 Delicious Recipes from a Real Kitchenby Charmian Christie. Published by Rodale Books, 2014.

Dédé Wilson: Charmian, I love the tile of your book. Baking is messy and it is about time that we come celebrate that. Getting my hands in the ingredients is what I love…the tile The Messy Bakerreally resonates with me. When I was last baking an apple pie I was mesmerized by the pile of peelings and thought, this is just as beautiful as a finished pie! You are speaking my language…

Charmian Christie: I get such a positive response…people laugh and say they are messy to, like it’s a private confession! Now professionals say, “how can you be that messy”, but I say this is what baking is! Things drip and drop and it gets messy…the book is definitely for people cooking at home…it’s an organic process and it is the process that’s enjoyable. I have to say, I don’t like the cleanup as much…

I do wonder how much creativity comes into if you are so orderly, setting up mise en place and what have you? It limits you from you breaking the rules that help you improvise. I like the surprises that sometimes happen…that’s how life goes. You need a cup of milk and all you have is a half-cup, so you sub in sour cream and you realize you like this new creation even better!

Neither approach is right or wrong – but they are different. I look at it this way: are you a creator or into analytical precision? Do you want the same cookie day after day? Then you need to be precise.

 

OMG, that’s what happened to me with my bakery years ago. I hated it, making the same exact things every day. It stifled me. I mean, I get it, as a customer you want to know that you can come in every day and get that same cookie that you love so much, but I am definitely more of the creator type.

I think something is wrong with me…I don’t find comfort in repetition (we both laugh).

 

Oh no, I get it…I am the same way.

There are only so many things recipes in the world… a scone is a scone; there is nothing ground shaking about it…I want to have fun.

 

Do you teach?

I do. There are some schools in the area…

 

So how do you encourage people who are scared? Is it contradictory to say baking is precise, yet you want to encourage them to relax and not get hung up on specificity?

There is a difference between being a professional baker and having to make that same cookie every day and being a home baker creating for friends and family. People are told that a half-teaspoon of something is too much and that frightens them. Or they see an ingredient list that says 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons…it’s scary!

Look, you might not get the same cookie every single time, and some batches might be better than others, but most will work – and you will enjoy the process!

I tell them I’ve written these recipes to be successful because I don’t want angry emails (laughs). I do try and set bakers up for success, but there are some things that should be adhered to. There is a substitution guide in the back of the book. The more you bake, the more you learn. You can swap chocolate chips for dried cherries but there are some ingredients that shouldn’t be swapped.

I explain what you can fiddle with, but I always suggest that you make it first the way it is written. Students come in with a sense of what you can and can’t do. They have a recipe for a lemon recipe and they think, “I can’t make this! I don’t have any lemons”. And then I help them understand that you can swap orange zest for the lemon and they have a light bulb moment.

It comes down to this: are they accountants or artists? Neither is better or worse but they are different. I have one friend who won’t stray from a recipe at all and her dishes always work out and they are good. Another friend is much more spontaneous and sometimes her recipes don’t work, but when they do, they are fabulous! Hey, if it is made with love and good intention, it usually works out. If you make a cake and it falls, just slather it with whipped cream and say it was intentional!

 

We are featuring your Welsh Griddle Cakes. Any special tips for those?

Well, first of all I have to apologize to all of Wales for making them square! According to a lovely 85-year-old Welsh woman that I met they would never be square! My Mum always made them square so…

 

Well, you also avoid waste!

Yes, and the need to re-roll…but apparently it is a rebellious move if you are Welsh! My pan is well seasoned…if you don’t have nonstick, line it with parchment paper.

 

Oh, and this is on top of the stove! That’s fascinating!

I was doing a demo and there was a gorgeous stainless steel pan and the cakes were sticking. The parchment was an improvisation! And it worked beautifully.

 

See, there you have that improve in action leading to brilliance! Okay we are also featuring your Chocolate-Orange Gingersnap Drops.

These are so easy, but sophisticated, which was my goal. I actually had the flavor combo in mid but was going to use them in a cheesecake, but it was too complicated. It didn’t fit with the rest of the book – too involved. I was thinking about how people like ginger and chocolate and orange and chocolate and orange and ginger and how all three really go together. A fabulous trinity. And then making a super simple recipe starting with the gingersnaps. And the Lyle’s Golden Syrup

 

Oh, yes too! We love it, too. It is like buttery, liquid toffee…

I’m Canadian and the British imports are here and it is well known. Not all Americans seem to be familiar…

 

I am trying to change that! I know Rose Levy Beranbaum is too. She is a huge fan.

You can use corn syrup but I would emphasize the Lyle’s makes a difference. These are fun for kids…super messy…kids can mush up the gingersnaps…you can’t really go wrong because by melting the butter with the syrup you won’t burn it or scorch the chocolate…as long as you don’t check email in the middle it will work out very well…you can drop by spoon or scoop…you can freeze them or chill in fridge…they are portable…. people bite into them and don’t know what to expect and then there is this look they all get. The eyes light up and they say, “These are really good!” Maybe it’s the texture; they aren’t sure what they are biting into…they will melt in your hands and can be messy in that way too. Warning: you can’t eat just one…they are a lovely little teatime mouthful.

 

Charmian, give us your top 3 tips for home bakers

  1. Make sure you have enough time to make a recipe. When I was a university student I would want to bake and I would think if I just combine steps and hurry it up so that I could make it to class and it never works. So read the recipe and know how much time you need. In the book I didn’t put timing in because everyone works at a different pace…

This is so true…

But by reading it you will know what your own pace will be. Also look for where you can break it down into stages. If it is a more involved recipe, wait and take a Sunday to spend time in the kitchen!

So, number 2 is really do read the recipe all the way through. It will tell you pan sizes, when to preheat the oven, whether you need to grate something ahead of time. One time I was so excited to make a recipe that called for lemons and poppy seeds – I love them both and had both on hand – and I dove right in and then saw that the first step was to soak the poppy seeds for 2 hours.

And number 3 is making sure you have the ingredients on hand. I will make assumptions, but I don’t love alone…

 

Good point!

Exactly, just because there was milk in the carton the last time I touched it doesn’t mean it’s there now! People eat things!

 

Charmian, thank you so much for your time and recipes – and the way you embrace the messy process of baking.

 

 

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