OMG. Dudes. Dudettes. I am so excited to say that I got to interview Judith Fertig about her new book The Cake Therapist.
My first contact with Judith's work was in the cookbook All-American Desserts: 400 Star Spangled, Razzle-Dazzle Recipes for America's Best-Loved Desserts. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, it was one of those comprehensive books that has all sorts of recipes spanning all sorts of styles, from humble puddings to fancier fare like layer cakes and a killer brownie recipe. Every recipe I tried was absolutely solid, but it wasn't recipes that made the book a treasure to me. It was the headnotes.
Somehow, even in a huge book like this, the headnotes each included interesting anecdotes, historical tidbits, and informative recipe notes. I realized, in reading them, that I liked the author, just from her writing. It was almost like receiving a huge file of recipes from a friend with handwritten, witty notes to accompany each one.
Since coming across that first book, I've followed Judith's recipe books, which are impressively wide-ranging: she's written about everything, from BBQ to plank cooking to even, yes, an entire book about cinnamon rolls.
And now, she's branched out into foodie fiction. The Cake Therapist is an absolutely engaging story about a woman starting over in her hometown after a stint as a fancy pastry chef in NYC. But what unfolds as she opens a bakery in a sleepy Ohio town goes much deeper than just a fresh start. It's a story that spans generations, includes plenty of delicious food descriptions, and will leave you feeling as comforted as if you just ate a huge slice of your favorite layer cake.
OK, so DO buy the book. But before that, enjoy this interview:
You are well known as a cookbook writer...was it an odd leap in any way to dive into fiction after writing so many non-fiction cookbooks? I was an English major before I got into the culinary arts, so it was like writing a headnote for a recipe that turned out to be 62,00 words! Sort of. . . .
I felt like I learned so many cool baking tips from the book. What did you learn while writing this book? That the strawberry cake in The Cake Therapist (and on the cover of Bake Happy) really does take me back to my childhood. Something about the combination of strawberry and rosewater. My mother never made strawberrycake, but this one has the simple, summery flavor that just makes me want to go play outside. I learned that flavor--especially in desserts--really can resonate with us just like a favorite song or the smell of suntan lotion or the feel of cool sheets on a hot night.
The lead character, Claire (Neely) O'neill, says that she makes sense of the world by flavor and taste. Is this something that you identify with? Can you expand on that? I think we've all had times in our lives when we're hungry for something, but don't know what. So we sample this, sample that, until we hit on just the right thing. It's emotional eating. What we're craving is the feeling that that flavor or texture will hopefully induce--like all is well, we're safe, we're loved, we're gonna be all right. Food and flavor can be the vehicles to self-enlightenment. We finally taste the right thing and voila, "So that's what's going on with me!"
I love the fact that the lead character is an unofficial "cake therapist". What therapeutic benefits do you believe cake and baking can offer people? Unlike cooking, which can be spur-of-the-moment, baking is more methodical, more meditative, more repetitive. It give us a chance to just chill out, be in the moment. Baking is also transformative. You take butter, sugar, flour, and eggs, put them together in the right way, and end up with cake! Small-batch baking, like Neely does in her bakery, has the true flavor of homemade, of honest ingredients. Flavor is telling, sort of like a test to determine if you have a diamond or cubic zirconia.
What kind of research went into the historical parts of the novel? When writers say they can get carried away by research, I can relate. You Google something and all of a sudden, you're down the rabbit hole and find out so many more things that are related. And then other things just turn up. Ethel Parsons Paullin really did visit Stearns & Foster in Lakeland Ohio, with Ben Nash. She went on to paint religious art as well as commercial. Ireene Wicker, the Singing Lady, also had a long career. I just happened on a little cereal box with a Singing Lady story on the back at an antique mall.
Tell me more about your inspiration for Rainbow Cake bakery. My first job in high school was at a mom-and-pop bakery that made all of our family's celebration cakes for birthdays, graduations, and so on. I remember walking in and smelling that wonderful bakery scent. I also saved a story from the late, great Country Home Magazine with an inspiration bakery that I put up on a vision board I made for The Cake Therapist. I also visit bakeries or macaron shops when I'm in a new city--or an old one, like Paris.
Writerly question: where, and when, do you prefer to write? What is your working style? I write when I have big blocks of time, any time of the day. When I think I just don't have "it" that day, I do other things like order books from the library or research or bake.
What is your favorite type of cake or dessert? I love a tender yellow cake with a secret filling and a fluffy coconut frosting; I'm also a sucker for a really moist, fudgy chocolate cake.
I'm intrigued by the idea of different flavors having different significance. Is that fictional, based on fact, or anecdotal? Like there can be a language of flowers (a 19th century conceit written about by Vanessa Diffenbaugh in her novel The Language of Flowers), I think there's also a language of flavor. Some of that language is in the scent, taste, and mouthfeel of a flavor. Sometimes it's the chemical properties in the spice or the fruit. A rich, luscious, homemade caramel says "luxury" better than a designer handbag. Cinnamon actually contains properties that help lower blood sugar, so it does sort of hold your hand as you get started in the morning or want to calm down when your flight is delayed at the airport--the power of cinnamon rolls!
In the book, it is mentioned that people who crave salty desserts have secrets. Um, if I like to sprinkle salt on top of my dessert, does that mean I have secrets?? Yes, you have secrets. That makes you very interesting!
What's next for you? I'm finishing the second novel in the series, The Memory of Lemon. It starts out with a "hillbilly" bride who wants pie, not cake and clashes with her high society mother, Neely's growing relationship with Ben, and her homeless father's struggle with PTSD. Two flavors--citrus and spice--and the stories that emanate from them turn out to have a surprising connection to Neely. Maybe families have signature flavors, too.