Sarah Kieffer has had an extraordinary career arc. The English major and barista-turned-baker channelled her passions into thevanillabeanblog.com, a popular “baker’s soliloquy” that in turn recently morphed into The Vanilla Bean Baking Book, a cookbook that’s as beautiful as it is useful and inspiring.
Baking for her husband and their two children, Kieffer uses the kitchen in her Columbia Heights, Minnesota, home to develop foolproof recipes of lovable goodies, including chocolate chip cookies, banana bread, chocolate layer cake, apple pie, caramel rolls and other approachable favourites.
You write that despite having worked in commercial kitchens, you’re really a home baker at heart.
Most people are home bakers, not professionals. Sometimes it can be intimidating to open up a pastry chef’s cookbook, because they’re so exacting and scientific. Of course, being exacting and scientific is important in baking, but there’s also a lot of flexibility in baking. I don’t want people to give up, because I think it’s important to bake at home.
How did you begin as a baker?
I had a rough high school experience, and so I would come home from school and bake cookies. I was basically baking cookies so that I could eat cookie dough. It was comforting.
We had this old church cookbook; it’s the only one my mother had for baking. I went through all the chocolate chip cookie recipes to find the best one. I’m slightly obsessive that way.
In college, there were a couple of coffee shops close to campus, and I started working at what was called the Natural Habitat.
When it was sold off, I came with the store. I was the Wolners’ only employee for a while.
They wanted everything from scratch, and they were working around the clock. Finally, Larry, exhausted, asked me if I could try making chocolate chip cookies.
And a career was born, right?
I said I’d try. They were terrible, but he was desperate, and I kept at it. They finally started turning out, and I started to love it. I started baking pound cakes and banana bread and finally moved into soups and breads.
After college I moved up here, and I was a barista and bookseller for a few years. A friend of mine opened Bordertown Coffee. He was going to use frozen stuff, but I talked him into having a kitchen and baking from scratch.
I was the only one in the kitchen for the first year and a half, and I had no idea what I was doing. I was winging it, and working 50 to 60 hours a day, but people loved it. I did that for three years, and then I had kids.
Is that when the blog started?
It was my husband’s idea. He would come home every day from work to these piles of cookies and muffins, and he suggested that maybe I start a blog.
I started with a mom blog, but then I started the all-baking site, because that’s what people were looking for. It slowly started, from a handful of readers, and began to grow.
Do you have a lot of interaction with your blog audience, and, if so, what’s that like?
My readers are so wonderful. I wouldn’t have a platform, or a cookbook, without my readers. The blog started as a way for me to write about my family food history, but what I’m really doing is blogging for my readers. The food blogging community has been so supportive and kind. Everyone wants everyone to succeed.
I love that you write, “I know there are a million recipes for banana bread,” and then you go on to share yours. Why?
Because it’s so good.
Your pies look beautiful. What do you say to someone like me who needs to be talked off the pie crust ledge?
It does take some practice, but if you can make biscuits and scones, then you can make a pie crust. You want to pay attention to the temperature of your kitchen; you want to keep that dough chilled.
Also, not thinking “I can’t do this” helps a lot. That, and practice. Pies can be intimidating. When I was writing the book, I spent all summer long making pies, sometimes three of them a day, to get it right.
What’s your recipe testing process?
To me, a recipe is perfect when I take a bite, close my eyes and all I can think is, “This is so good.” If I don’t get that feeling, I keep testing.
I tested some of the book’s recipes 30 or 40 times. It’s important to me that someone could pick up this book and not fail the first time they make a recipe. I want people to love the recipes and use them in their daily lives.
Writing the book has changed my approach to writing recipes. I feel the need to test things even more, and I want to work on a recipe for weeks. The blogging world wants things faster than that, so that’s the challenge.
Can you describe your kitchen? I envision a baker’s paradise.
It’s not my ideal kitchen. We moved into the house just when I signed the cookbook contract, and we didn’t have the time or the money to remodel.
There are a lot of challenges. It’s not arranged helpfully, and there is limited counter space — I’ve got stuff shoved everywhere. It’s not the kind of kitchen that has three ovens. It has one, and it’s not amazing.
Of course, one day I hope to have my dream kitchen, but then I try to remember that there are people with nothing, and then it’s fine.
In other words, you have the kitchen that 95% of your readers have, so that’s kind of perfect, right?
Exactly. I can bake here, and it’s OK.
It’s not enough that you’re a skilled baker, but you’re also a self-taught photographer?
I’ve always loved taking pictures. I talked my husband into getting a basic DSLR camera, with a crappy zoom lens. I would take pictures of my kids, chasing them around with the camera; that’s how I learned. It started to click. Food was easier, because it doesn’t move. Photography is a little bit like recipe testing. It brings out my obsessive qualities. I just sit and shoot until I get the one that I love.
In the cookbook world and blogosphere, who do you look to as a role model?
Sarabeth Levine. I bake out of all of her books. And Alice Medrich. She’s so exact with her recipes, and they’re foolproof. When I’m writing recipes, I think of her, and how she approaches them. They’re both so inspiring.
You were once a novice baker. What’s your advice to those starting out?
It’s about being open to being a lifelong learner. There’s always something new to learn. You can turn on any food show and see people coming up with new techniques. I go to the library, check out cookbooks and bake my way through them. Also, don’t give up. Play around in the kitchen, all the time. – Star Tribune/Tribune News Service/Rick Nelson
BLUEBERRY-APPLE CRUMBLE BARS
Makes 12 large or 24 small bars
2½ cups flour
1/2 cup rolled or quick oats
1 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 cups (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, and sliced into 1-inch pieces, plus extra for pan
5 cups (heaping) blueberries
1/2 cup grated sweet apple such as Gala, (about 1 small apple)
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch
Preheat oven to 175°C. Grease a 23x33cm (9×13”) baking pan and line bottom and sides with parchment paper, with parchment hanging slightly over sides of pan.
In a bowl of an electric mixer on low, mix flour, oats, sugar, baking powder, salt and cinnamon until combined. Increase speed to medium, add butter and mix until mixture resembles coarse sand.
Press half the flour-oat mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan and bake 10 minutes.
While crust is baking, prepare berry filling: In a large bowl, mix berries, apple and lemon juice. In a small bowl, combine sugar, cornstarch and salt. Pour sugar mixture over berries and stir gently with a spatula to evenly combine.
Remove pan from oven. Spread berry mixture over the crust. Sprinkle remaining crumble mixture evenly over berry mixture. Bake until crumbly top is light golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove pan from oven and transfer pan to a wire rack to cool completely. Refrigerate at least 4 to 6 hours before serving. Bars can be served cold or at room temperature, but are best kept stored in the refrigerator.
Note: This recipe must be prepared in advance. From The Vanilla Bean Baking Book, by Sarah Kieffer.