My obsession with cake started in an unexpected way—with the humble Twinkie. It was tucked inside a Charlie Brown lunch box, unfortunately not mine, and that little cake opened up a whole new world. A lifelong love affair with all things cake was ignited on my very first day of kindergarten. Perhaps the average kid wouldn’t even have blinked at that iconic tube of sponge cake, with its freakishly white and delicious filling squished inside, as if by magic. But, I wasn’t average.
I grew up with my parents on a series of communes, which absolutely had its benefits. In 1969, I could toddle sans clothes around the Woodstock Festival with a backdrop of screaming guitars, as if it were any other day; in fact, I did just that.
I have visceral memories of sitting in my dad’s vast garden with the smell of tomato plants vining around me, mixed with dirt, pine trees, and wood smoke. The counterculture to which my parents adhered included a back-to-the-land philosophy on food. We lived in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, on a dirt road that was impassable by anything other than foot for long stretches of the year, due to mud or snow. Geography compelled our self-reliance. So, growing our own food was a necessity, not merely a fashionable trend, and we raised chickens for eggs and meat, a rather nasty-tempered collection of rams and sheep, and a cow for milk and the resulting cream that also became our butter.
My first kitchen memory as a wobbly toddler was standing inside the “Big House.” This was the only permanent structure on the land and where everyone on the commune gathered for cooking and a respite from the winter. The room was filled with singing and music while sharing the chore of churning cream into butter. That is probably why, to this day, I find music (and butter) essential parts of baking. If you know my Instagram baking tutorials, you’re familiar with the soundtracks that often start with Joni Mitchell and bring it all home with the dance beat of Drake by the end of the recipe.
Along with tending the gardens, my dad kept bees. The beeswax was transformed into ornate candles in a makeshift factory we had within a geodesic dome built out of VW car hoods (because it isn’t really a commune without a geodesic dome). We sold the candles at the local co-op, along with homemade granola and bread that my Aunt Melissa baked.
There was also sap collected from the maple trees on our eighty-plus acres of land. We brought the sloshing pails to a neighbor’s sugarhouse, where it was processed into syrup. Honey and maple syrup were the only two sweeteners I ever knew, and I was quite fine with that. Until that Twinkie. . . .
Today, those cylindrical cakes with the mystery creme on the inside are synonymous with junk food; but to a sugar-deprived flower child, they were a revelation—a parting of the seas, as it were, and the source of a newly born passion. I must have given my folks an earful about the deception they’d been pulling on me all those years. Carob was the actual lie—and decidedly not chocolate—despite all their lip service to the contrary. Grapes were fruit, period. Drying grapes in the sun to shrivel into raisins does not change them into candy. I fought that injustice with all the fervor and dedication those wonderful hippies had instilled in me.
The baking began soon after, tossing ingredients and a handful of hope in a bowl and expecting some sort of alchemy to return as cake. I was eight or nine years old before a miracle occurred by way of a Dutch Baby recipe, courtesy of my friend, and fellow commune-dweller, Sasha. That glorious mix of flour, eggs, and milk puffed to the point of exploding in the oven. We wolfed it down with maple syrup and slices of McIntosh apples from our yard. It was an auspicious beginning.
A parade of knowledge marched into my kitchen after that. First came the Time Life books on French cooking, which still hold space on my stuffed cookbook shelves. Through them, an attempt at a chocolate mousse was a gritty disaster, because I didn’t know that adding coffee didn’t mean Folgers coffee grounds. Lesson learned: mousse should be velvety, not chewy. The next batch was spot-on. Soon I had baked my way through Lee Bailey’s Country Kitchen, Baking with Julia,
and Martha Stewart’s everything; Ina Garten’s brownies were on high rotation. Over the years, my affection for sugar only deepened, along with a determination to figure out its transformational powers.
Copyright © 2021 by Zoë François. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.