Kitchen Conversations: Baking with Bridget

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that as a child I was a very picky eater. I wanted nothing to do with the seven fishes stew my mom served on Christmas Eve. I wouldn’t touch the sugar-dusted Linzer tortes my sister baked, taking some unfathomable offense to the texture of jam. My sister has always been worlds ahead of me in this regard. While I munched on sugar cookies and inspected the presents under the tree, Bridget was improvising with spices for her latest batch of gingerbread or glazing a freshly baked poppy seed lemon bundt cake.

Every December 13th, as the snow on our outdoor table rose steadily in inches and the days grew shorter and darker, we celebrated St. Lucia, that bringer of light and joy. The legend goes that Lucia wore a wreath of candles to free her hands and light her way as she carried food to farmers and their animals. I always associate Lucia with my sister, who baked saffron and raisin studded buns every Christmas. Last year, I watched my sister become a mother as she brought the brightest light possible, her daughter Idouna Grace, into a cold, dark winter world.

I asked Bridget a few questions as she (and a little helper) made St. Lucia buns…

What is your first memory of cooking or baking?

I remember I had a little book with recipes for dolls’ tea parties. I decided to make the cream puffs for afternoon tea. They turned out pretty salty. It was one of those Little Women moments where my mom pretended to like said cream puffs, and then secretly threw them out the window.

Who taught you to cook? How did you learn to cook?

I learned to cook from my mom. And from eating everything. The bigger your food vocabulary, the more interesting your own creations will be, I think.

Do you remember the moment you realized you could cook?

While I was in college, I worked at a farm and ended up cooking meals for the staff. I realized that people liked my food, and that I loved planning meals and cooking more than your average Joe.

Who influenced or inspired you most as you were learning to cook?

Mom, definitely. Food—growing, cooking, and eating it—was such a warm pleasure growing up. Mom taught me how to truly enjoy food, without over-thinking it. I feel lucky to have grown up with a holistic sense of food as both nourishment and pleasure.

What is one dish that best represents your cooking style and why?

Probably Risotto. The process of making risotto epitomizes everything I love about making food. It’s slow. You stand by the stove drinking wine, talking to family or friends. You stir and stir. You add whatever’s in the garden. Little pearls of rice transform dependably into something silky, rich, satisfying. I love cooking for people, and risotto is something you make for friends.

What is your favorite part of the cooking process? Least favorite part?

I’m a supremely disorganized person in most aspects of my life, but not in the kitchen. I like the juggling act of making a meal, finding a rhythm of chopping, stirring, frying things all at once.

I dislike measuring, reading annoyingly complicated recipes, or baking things that don’t make any sense until they are finished–even if they turn out okay. 

What is your favorite food travel destination?

I was recently in Taiwan  and that was amazing. Warm soy milk and donuts for breakfast. Fresh eggs with bright orange-gold yolks at a friend’s house. Steaming soup dumplings. Stinky tofu. Handmade noodles. Skewered street food of all kinds. Candied lotus root. I really want to go back. 

What is something you wish you could cook?

I’m trying to learn how to make Korean food. It’s labor intensive and I lack the knowledge to do it easily. For me, cooking has a lot to do with intuition, which has to do with, probably, knowing your ingredients on a deep level and having a reference when it comes to flavor experiences. When I try to make a Korean dish, I don’t feel like I know how to improvise, and yet following the recipe, it never comes out quite right. But I’m working on it. 

What is one ingredient you can’t live without?

Butter. I’m always running out, and always running out for more.

What is your guilty pleasure food?

I’m trying to never feel guilty about food. But private pleasure? Eating jam with a spoon.

What is a good first dish to master?

Maybe soup? I feel like if you learn how to make a good soup base, you learn a lot about how flavors compliment each other and how to trust your best judgement, and be confident. It’s hard to really stress out or freeze up when you are making soup.

What is your favorite/most used cookbook?

I’m not the biggest cook book user. I love Deborah Madison’s Greens. I love Deb Perelman’s blog, Smitten Kitchen. I guess I’m into Debs. I’m into whatever my little sister recommends.

What is your favorite restaurant?

Probably Udapi Palace, a South Indian restaurant on Devon Street in Chicago. They serve mainly Dosas, the thin, crispy pancakes made with fermented rice or mungo beans, filled with spicy potatoes and served with little bowls of coconut, mint, and tamarind chutneys. Dosas are the best food ever, and although you can eat better ones elsewhere, Udapi is suffused with beautiful nostalgia for me.

Do you drink coffee or tea? Why?

I used to be an avid coffee drinker, but have recently started drinking tea. Coffee makes me anxious. For me, drinks are all about aesthetics and ritual. I try to embrace whatever phase I’m in with the proper edible accessories.

If you could write a cookbook, what would it be called?

Hmmm. The first thing that comes to mind is “Nutmeg and Pear.” Maybe because I’ve been singing this song to my daughter a lot:

I had a little nut tree

Nothing she would bear

But a silver nutmeg

And a golden pear.

Choose three words to describe your relationship with food;

Gardens, Gluttons, Seconds

Comments

  1. Susan Goodwin says

    What a wonderful interview! Grace, I love your blog. The photos are inspirational and your writing makes me feel like I’m there with the two of you. Lovely to get to know Bridget! Keep on writing.

  2. says

    Grace,

    Thanks for the lovely blog. I love reading it first thing in the morning with an espresso while organizing breakfast and lunch for my son, Casey.; much better than the Weather channel these days. I even baked the rustic tart for Thanksgiving. It was a hit.

  3. Katie Carlone says

    Grace I just ADORE this blog!! So full of warmth and the fullness of life and love, great food memories, and great food. The fabulous pictures and your conversation with Bridget bring us right into the kitchen with you, as we sit on a stool, sip tea and take it all in (while snatching dough & sampling St Lucia buns, of course). Please give us more interviews from time to time – you know I will gobble them up! (In fact, I’d love for Bridget to interview YOU one day — sisters RULE!) Oh, and to see precious Idouna Grace in your family kitchen – now that’s a thrill! Thank you so much!!

    • Grace Mendel says

      Dear Katie,

      Thank you so much for your encouraging words! I’m so glad you liked this post because YOU are on my list of dream cooks/bakers to interview! XOXO

  4. Annie H says

    Oh my goodness. Everything about this post is so beautiful. All the lovely ladies and family and food and love. Thanks so much for sharing.

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