Ever since I was sixteen, I would tell anyone who’d listen that one day I would write a cookbook. Though I said this often, a big part of me never actually expected it to happen. After I graduated from university, I moved to downtown Toronto with high hopes and big dreams of a career in media, but ended up working at the Eaton Centre for minimum wage. If you had told me back then that today I would have my own lifestyle blog and be sharing my recipes with the world, I would have called you crazy and returned to folding underwear at my retail job.
I spent my nights baking and my days off exploring the city, spending every cent I could spare at the latest trendy restaurants. It wasn’t long after moving to Toronto that I met Justin. On our third date, I made us dinner, and he brought banana bread for dessert. A slight miscalculation had resulted in Justin doubling the required amount of butter—this was a man after my own heart! My lonely nights of baking were soon replaced with Food Network binge-watching with Justin over a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. But my baking journey started long before Justin, with many turns and detours. Let’s go back to the beginning . . .
Growing up in a traditional Italian family meant spending hours in the kitchen with my mom and grandmothers. From an early age, I played with pasta dough instead of Play-Doh. My grandmothers were happy to take advantage of my tiny thumbs and kept me busy rolling tray after tray of cavatelli and gnocchi, and before long, I was rolling out fresh pasta dough with a hand crank from the 1960s. We also spent lots of time outdoors, picking strawberries at neighbouring farms (although, honestly, more of them made their way into my mouth than into the basket) and canning a summer’s worth of peaches and tomatoes from our garden. As I got older, and my overprotective grandmothers finally allowed me to use the stove and oven, I fell in love with baking. Of course I wanted to learn my grandmothers’ cherished recipes. However, as you may know, Italians take their recipes to the grave. I remember one day helping one grandmother to make her famous braciole, and she sent me to get more flour. When I returned, I saw that several more ingredients had been added to the mixing bowl, and when I asked what they were, she told me, “Don’t worry about it.”
So I learned the basics from my grandmothers, but I also knew that I would have to create recipes of my own. The main lesson I took away from my years spent in the kitchen with my mom and grandmothers was how to make simple dishes with fresh, seasonal, local ingredients. No two ways about it, fresh produce tastes best when it’s in season. Bonus points if it was grown right in your own backyard. When fruits and vegetables are at their best, they are the star ingredients in any dish.
When I headed off to university, I quickly found myself daydreaming about recipes when I should have been paying attention to my economics professors. My sister was in her third year, which meant her dorm had a kitchen, so a few times a week I would go to her place and bake cakes, cookies and other tasty goods while she studied. While my friends went out to bars and clubs on the weekends, I was watching the Food Network—Bobby Flay, Ina Garten, Michael Smith, Giada De Laurentiis, Anna Olson—I couldn’t get enough. I admired Bobby’s love for grilling and using blue corn in just about everything, Giada’s spin on the Italian dishes I grew up eating, Ina’s . . . well, I love everything about Ina Garten. Her confidence in the kitchen and her classic approach to cooking mixed with her enthusiasm for quality ingredients captured everything I wanted to be. When I discovered that Anna Olson lived just around the corner from where I grew up, I felt a flicker of hope: if she could do it, maybe one day I could too. But I didn’t want to just mimic recipes I had seen on TV; I wanted to create my own, with the same finesse as the chefs on the Food Network. (Except for Ina—no one can compete with the Barefoot Contessa.)
I was always excited to return home to help prepare our annual Christmas dinner, and I begged my mom to let me help with the cooking—I didn’t want to just wash fruit and peel potatoes. No surprise, Mom was reluctant to give up her reigning title as the best cook in the family, but after much back-and-forthing, we came to an agreement: she would cook and I would bake. And so began a new tradition. While the first few years were a little rocky (there was a pumpkin pie fiasco I will never live down), the more I baked, the better I became. Through trial and error, practice indeed made perfect. Each year I would come up with an even fancier and better dessert than the year before. What started as Christmas baking turned into baking cakes for every family occasion.
I will always love baking for my family, yet what I really wanted was to make a career of it, and in 2013, Justin finally persuaded me to start a food blog. He wanted me to share with the world what makes me happy and what I do best. I never expected anyone to read my blog—other than my family and friends—but I dreamed that recipe developing would one day become my full-time job. I knew that success in this field would take hard work, but at the very least, having a blog would provide me with the creative outlet I desperately needed and would be the perfect place to document my latest kitchen triumphs.
The more recipes I created for my blog, the more I improved as a baker and recipe developer. I began breaking out of my comfort zone, working with ingredients and flavour combinations I would never have thought to try before. I developed my own style by modernizing rustic dishes, making these not-so-beautiful desserts beautiful. As the months passed and my blog following grew, not only did the cooking and baking motivate me, but I began to fall in love with the photography side of things. I could see how my photography was bringing my recipes alive and enticing people to bake alongside me, and so I taught myself everything I could about this second form of art.
As the years passed, I found myself growing tired of city life. I dreamed of cooking on my own Lacanche range, and that was never going to happen in a one-bedroom condo with the tiniest nook of a kitchen. My kitchen cupboards were overflowing with supplies, so much so that I was keeping things in the spare tub! I knew it was time for a bigger place—somewhere Justin and I could settle down with our family (of dogs). We found our dream house in the small town of Fonthill, and traded in our subway passes for a compact car. I don’t have the kind of backyard garden my grandparents relied on for their produce, but I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by the endless farms and orchards of the Niagara region, as well to have a mom who drops off a weekly supply of fresh herbs, tomatoes, zucchini and peppers throughout the summer.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have an orchard steps away from their front door, so I recommend exploring farmers’ markets and supermarkets for locally grown produce. These flavours constantly inspire me, so much so that Bake the Seasons
was born from that passion. Each chapter in this book explores how to bake with fresh, seasonal produce, as I let you in on my favourite sweet and savoury baking recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. I have even included my favourite baked comfort dishes, like Roasted Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese (page 171), because when it comes to baking, I don’t believe in limiting myself to just a traditional dough or batter.
Baking with seasonal and local ingredients works to the advantage of a home baker for a variety of reasons. Not only does in-season produce provide better flavour in a recipe, but it will be readily available at local grocery stores and farmers’ markets. There is nothing enjoyable about spending double the price on sour strawberries in the fall. And have you ever tried to make a peach pie in the winter? Let me tell you, I didn’t know a peach could be so dry. When a season like winter lacks produce, you’ll find that my sweet baking relies more heavily on the flavours of the season—like eggnog, spices and candy cane—and my savoury dishes centre around hearty greens, root vegetables and bread baking.
The recipes in this book may be arranged by season, but I encourage you to experiment with substituting one season’s produce for another. The Rhubarb Oat Squares (page 21) can be switched up in the summer with peach compote instead of rhubarb, and in the fall by using homemade pumpkin butter or apple butter. Dishes like Cherry Almond Dutch Baby (page 39) and Apricot Raspberry Clafoutis (page 84) will work beautifully with any sweet fruit you can get your hands on. The recipes for my baked goods are simple and involve only a handful of ingredients, so treat them as base recipes for whatever you dream up throughout the year.
The simplicity of the recipes in Bake the Seasons
reflects the simple style of baking I blog about each week. I want home bakers to be able to recreate these dishes without having to run to the store to purchase a long list of ingredients. While a few showstopper recipes do require a little extra love and elbow grease, and are perfect for special occasions, on the whole I like my everyday baked goods simple. Many recipes in this book are easy enough to whip up on a weeknight or on a relaxed Sunday morning when a brunch craving strikes.
I hope you’ll find inspiration within these pages, and that you’ll find yourself switching on your oven all year round, whether you need a quick party appetizer in the winter (try my Roasted Garlic and Cheese Pull-Apart Bread, page 213), a flavourful addition to a neighbourhood potluck in the summer (I can’t speak highly enough of my Jalapeño Cheddar Cornbread, page 112), an Easter dessert for a crowd in the spring (my Maple Carrot Cake on page 25 is the perfect option) or a new, flavourful breakfast option to kick off the fall (you can’t go wrong with my Pumpkin Pie Granola, page 123). There really is nothing more satisfying and comforting than baking throughout the seasons.
Copyright © 2019 by Marcella DiLonardo. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.