Mason jars filled with baking supplies line the shelves. She pulls one filled with white powder laced with long slivers of black and shakes vigorously, spins off the top and dives in with as much glee as a banker fanning through a stack of thousand dollar bills. “It’s my vanilla sugar, it just tastes better,” says Charmian Christie, author of my favourite baking book, The Messy Baker.
Charmian lives in a beautiful, 100-year old farmhouse in Guelph. Her kitchen is filled with yellow-pine cupboards, flooded with soft light from the multi-paned windows and infused with a sense of peace from giant trees shading the kitchen from glaring sunlight. It’s a kitchen that would inspire anyone to bake and here I am, invited to spend a day baking with the Messy Baker in her century-old, inspiring kitchen.
If I were to write a cookbook about baking, I’d like to think I could write one as good as this. The recipes are simple enough to keep you relaxed in the kitchen with flavour combinations so creative they make your mouth water, seductive photographs that stir you into action and it’s crammed with so much of Charmian’s personality that it makes you feel like she’s with you baking in your kitchen.
Charmian pours some vanilla sugar over a twisted knot of dough; it’s her homemade pastry. She begins to roll it out. The chilled dough layered with cold, hard butter flattens easily beneath her rolling pin. It’s easy to see who’s in command. “I thought I’d make Palmiers,” she says as she feels the top of the sheet of pastry every so often, gauging the thickness like a medium studying her crystal ball. Like any other skill, “you have to practice to get good at it.”
She’s making Vanilla-Scented Palmiers from her cookbook, the little ears of flaky, sweet pastry. She continues to sprinkle handfuls of vanilla sugar over the dough and roll. She shakes her foot as some of it falls to the floor. She laughs, talking about some of her baking disasters then shrugs her shoulders and says, “life is not perfect, baking is not perfect but they’re both pretty good.” When the pastry is ready, she pours more sugar over the top, running her hands over, ever so lightly to make sure it’s coated evenly. She flips the dough over and does it again until the raw dough is covered in coarse vanilla-scented sugar. Like any good baker, she’s anxious for the flavours that will materialize when the pastry and sugar bake together and she can’t wait, “I love the caramel flavour from all the baked sugar.”
She trims the edges to carve a perfect rectangle shape on her large pastry board. “It’s my lucky pastry board, it was my aunt Hilda’s and now it’s mine.” She folds the pastry into a long log shape, wraps it in plastic wrap and spins around to put it in the refrigerator. It needs to chill again. The little trimmed bits go into a sandwich bag, “these are the bakers treats,” she says with glee.
The Messy Baker cookbook is filled with both sweet and savoury baking, it’s for people who cook and would like to bake if only someone made it easy enough or fearless enough. “I tried to remove as many barriers to baking as possible.” Inside the book are recipes for Chili Cheese Twists and Blueberry-Lime Muffins, Smoky Mushroom Crepes and Boozy Chocolate Torte. “It’s important to make food yourself, (that way) you control what’s in it.”
She begins to clear away all the sugar and wipes down the board. Out of the refrigerator comes another knot of dough that she flattens with ease. She’s now making a leek and mushroom tart. “You can buy the puff pastry dough if you want, just make sure it’s an ‘all butter’ puff pastry. It cooks up with the best flavour,” she advises. Back to the board, Charmian is rolling the dough into another rectangular shape. She trims it to perfection, maneuvers the soft dough onto her rolling pin and maneuvers it to the centre of a parchment paper lined baking sheet. She scores the edge, about an inch all the way around. “This edge will puff up creating sides to the tart.” She pops it into the refrigerator to chill and she turns her attention to the stove.
In a large skillet she melts a huge knob of butter and microplanes a garlic clove. The garlic pulp dissolves into the frothing butter and fills the air with the seductive aromas of butter and garlic. Now we’re getting hungry. As it bubbles away, in go the leeks and mushrooms and they cook until they’re both soft and firm. She seasons them with thyme, stirs one last time and tosses them into a large strainer that hovers inside an even larger bowl. She’s draining the mushrooms and leeks, “so they don’t turn the dough soggy.”
“If you want to switch the vegetables up for others that you like better, go ahead,” Charmian talks while she wipes down the counters, “the toppings are up to your imagination, it’s the dough that you don’t want to mess with.”
Charmian doesn’t remember when she first fell in love with baking, she thinks perhaps she was born with a wooden spoon in her mouth except for Charmian, the spoon was covered with cookie dough; “chocolate chip,” she declares. Some of her earliest memories were of her mom making cookies and giving her the wooden spoon to lick clean. Sadly her mom was such a good baker that the bowl was almost completely cleaned out by the time Charmian had finished the spoon and set her sights on the bowl.
When she was old enough, Charmian would come home from school and bake up a batch of cookies almost every day. “I love chewy cookies, the kind that have a chewy bite. I think that’s why I love cookie dough so much,” she says, “food is memories and my fondest are of my mom and I in the kitchen baking.”
The tart shell comes out of the refrigerator. She begins to top the dough with heaping spoonfuls of the mushroom and leek mixture, careful not to place any over the score line. “Think of it as colouring inside the lines,” she laughs, the edges will become the puffy sides to the tart. Lastly she grates a thick coating of Gruyere cheese over the tart before popping it back into the oven.
Now comes the best part of baking: the eating. We dig into the tart and the warm cheese strings as a piece is pulled away. I sink my teeth into it and the rich savoury flavours of the earthy cheese, meaty mushrooms, sweet leeks and crisp buttery dough fill my olfactory senses with divine satisfaction.
I sip on my warm mint tea and set my sights on the vanilla-scented palmiers. They’re little, the perfect size for a sweet treat. The caramelized sugar has cooled and it crunches beneath my teeth as the fine, layered pastry crumbles into buttery shards. As I chew I get that big caramelly, sweet taste that creams across my tongue and works so seductively well with the buttery, flaky dough. This is simple food, good food, food to live by.
As I bask in the aromas and daylight that is Charmian’s kitchen, it appears pretty neat and tidy, certainly very clean for the amount of activity that just went on. For the messy baker I imagined a face covered in streaks of flour, open jars and canisters of baking ingredients littering every counter and smears of food from the various stages of cooking across every counter, stovetop and cupboard door. But rather than being a messy baker, Charmian is really giving everyone who has ever hesitated to bake, permission to ‘get messy in the kitchen’.
Written By: Lynn Ogryzlo