An Interview with Cindy Mushet on the "Art & Soul of Baking"

Cindy Mushet's definitive book, the Art & Soul of Baking.

If you don't know the name Cindy Mushet, let me introduce you. She's one of those people in the background who makes amazing things happen. Her contributions may not always have her name blazed on them, but her impact is evidenced by a rich history in the culinary world. Cindy was a contributor to the Joy of Cooking, has taught throughout the United States for Sur La Table and is currently an instructor at Le Cordon Bleu. Her recipes have appeared in Bon App├ętit, Fine Cooking, the New York Times, and the National Culinary Review.

Cindy's currently on a whistle-stop book tour...and coming to a Sur La Table near you!

During her 24 hour stay in Seattle, I had the opportunity to meet with Cindy and it was kismet from the beginning. We chatted over lunch and then strolled over to my favorite bakery for a little nosh. She was just days into her 3 week tour, and despite having already done an early morning TV spot, a pod cast interview and a newspaper interview, by the time we talked she was still a fireball of energy.

A long history of teaching permeates Cindy's culinary style. She understands how her students feel, going through the effort to bake something, only to fail with a dessert you can't serve. "That's when people go to Costco and pick up something cheap." But there are so many things wrong with cheap: desserts are packed with preservatives to extend the shelf life and the ingredients stray far from anything that might be good for you...or flavorful.

Her mission became: Teach a Man to Bake, Don't Give Him a Cake.

Warm and engaging, Cindy's got an analytical mind that probes with a laser focus until she lands on the answer. While there are some excellent baking books, many of them lack direction in the most basic steps. One of the most frustrating steps both she and her students struggled with was the familiar: cream butter until light & fluffy. "What does that mean?" In her frustration she surmised, "Butter never looks fluffy...or light." Eventually she learned "light" meant light in color, not texture. And "fluffy" spoke to the incorporation of air into the butter. It's that attention to the intention that makes her recipes a step above.

To perfect her baking, she applied a scientific approach -- baking cakes repeatedly, changing the ratios at each attempt. Then, she'd study the results and determine what yielded the best outcome.

This scientific approach came from an early influence by the San Francisco's Baker's Dozen group. At the time, she was living in Berkley and there were a number of bakers in the area. They'd gather and talk about issues they were having, "I'm having a problem with this you know anything about that?"

Eventually, the group gelled into something more formal. They'd meet once a quarter and learn from each other. Tackling Angel Food cake, for instance, each person brought a finished cake and the recipe. "You wouldn't believe the variety! They all fell under the category of Angle Food cakes, but they were so different." Getting to the heart of the differences, the group sampled each cake, decided which characteristics were ideal, and then compared recipes. Side by side, they'd see the ingredients were the same. "Okay, now what did you do differently?" They'd analyze the techniques that arrived at an excellent finished product. Not surprising, this process deeply influenced Cindy's approach to baking.

When she was first asked to write a book on baking, Cindy thought, "What could I say about baking that hasn't already been said?" After further reflection...and before she'd given a final answer, she tapped into her own collection of over 200 baking books. Laying multiple books out on the living room floor, she poured over them with an analytic approach ---what's here? What's missing? And most importantly, what did her Sur La Table students struggle with when using the recipes?

Because she had years of contact with students who are often unsure, she could see firsthand where the issues where, and modified her own recipes accordingly.

Then Cindy turned to the bible of cooking science, Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. While the book is a treasure trove of information, admittedly, it's a very dry read.

So, Cindy asked herself, "How can I combine both solid recipes and provide enough information to help people understand the science behind what's going on?"

She was determined to prove success in baking is built on a solid foundation...not a fluke. Tapping into an analytical approach, combined with years of teaching, the result is her latest book, the Art and Soul of Baking.

It hits the mark on every level.

In fact, she gives a lot of credit to Sur La Table, who was the impetus behind the project. They were very "hands off" in the creation of this book. None of the directions were cropped or modified to save space. And they gave her the time necessary to create a book of substance. Two years to write it, one year for editing means this book is much more than just a collection of recipes.

Baker's Dozen alum, Alice Medrich, wrote the forward and she highlights two key points: the chart for Baking Pan Volumes (What's the difference between a 9 x 1" Pyrex pie pan and a 9 x 1 1/2" Emily Henry fluted pie pan? It's here.) And a handy chart that converts measuring cups and spoons into exact weights. Alice notes, "The book's two essential double-page charts should be photocopied and hung inside a cupboard door for easy reference." Taking a cue from Alice, mine are laminated and stuck to the side of the refrigerator...and I refer to them, regularly.

The Art & Soul of Baking is packed with relevant information designed to bring success into the kitchen. Whether you're a novice or a seasoned baker, I found her discussion on the Eight Main Ingredients invaluable. And the photos for bread dough detailing the different stages: underrisen, perfectly risen, and overrisen doughs provides the visual cues necessary when conquering the land of yeast. Tips in the margins, "What the Pros Know" layers the knowledge base, providing multiple "ah-ha!" moments.

I consider myself a fairly accomplished baker and I've got dozens of books on the subject. Frankly, this is the book I have been looking for. Cindy is a perfect guide -- explaining not just how, but why. Surely I'd be a better baker today if I'd had this book sooner.

The good news is, there's still plenty for me to learn. And with Cindy as my guide, next up...conquering my fear of yeast!


Now, if you're a serious baker, no trip to Seattle would be complete without a stop at Bakery Nouveau. The owner, William Lehman, has a stable full of accolades, but most notably, he was the Captain of the Bread Bakers Guild, Team USA in 2005. Teams from around the world competed at the prestigious event and William's team took home the gold. (You can still catch footage of the competition on Food Network re-runs.)

After lunch, Cindy and I made a beeline to Bakery Nouveau.

This is what Cindy called "research":

One of my favorite things about dining with chefs, is watching the way they eat. I'm fascinated by how they truly tune into what they're eating. Look, smell, touch come into play and mentally, each dish is deconstructed before the first bite. Cindy was impressed with the crumb on William's baguettes and took note of features in the crust.

This caramel and custard beauty is one of my favorites. Cindy's book tour escort joined us and just before we tackled this dish, Cindy took a moment to explain how the caramel coating was brought to a dark amber, creating an intense caramel flavor that is actually balanced by bitter notes from the depth of the caramelization process.

As you can see, this is a visually stunning dessert and I love the gold leaf detail. This dessert is called the Phoenix. It's three layers of mousse (chocolate, pear and caramel) on a bed of candied pecans, bathed in a caramel glaze.

Pause for a swoon. This is my absolute favorite dessert at Bakery Nouveau: a crispy thin praline base with a uber creamy chocolate-hazelnut mousse, topped with milk chocolate shavings. Prailine Dream, indeed.

Finally, I just have to share this photo. When we first sat down, this was Cindy's initial reaction!