April Hall helps student Harper Roukey with a roasted red pepper bread dough at Lakes Region Community College’s kitchen at the Canterbury Shaker Village. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)
CANTERBURY — Holidays and baking go together like butter and sugar. April Hall, chef instructor at Lakes Region Culinary College, said it isn't necessary to have a degree or years of experience to include baking in your holiday activities. For those who are new to baking, Hall has some suggestions to get their hands floury. And, for expert home bakers, she has a suggestion for a new approach to the family dessert.
Baking quickly defined Hall's professional life. When she was a girl, Hall stayed home sick from school on one fateful day. She doesn't recall exactly how old she was, but she was old enough that she was allowed to be home alone. Soon, she felt better, and to ease her boredom she decided to bake a pineapple upside-down cake. It's her earliest memory of baking.
"I kept calling my mom at work with questions for every step of the recipe," Hall recalled. By the time she was 12, she was working at the Inn at Long Sands in York, Maine, where she was officially a dishwasher but was soon helping create the plated desserts served to dinner guests. In culinary school, she met her husband, Pat Hall, and the two of them opened a restaurant in Franklin. And for a little more than the past decade, she has been a Chef Instructor at Lakes Region Community College, where she teaches baking and pastry classes at the college's kitchen and restaurant in the Canterbury Shaker Village. There, she instructs students who are looking to convert their passions into a profession.
Eva Bush, a Belmont resident, is one of those students, and is turning to baking as a career change. She made her first cake at age 11 to mark a milestone in her mother's life and has been a home baker since then.
"Usually, when I get together with the family, someone wants a cake," she said. She likes to get creative with her baking, and is planning to go with a monstrous theme with cakes this year. "I think I'm going to make some monsters this year."
For Bush, baking is an antidote to the stresses of life.
"It's kind of like a meditation, it's really relaxing and uplifting," she said. And then there's the finished product to share. "When you give your cake to somebody, their face lights up, they love it."
Harper Roukey, another of Hall's students, came to baking later in life. Her family struggled financially when she was growing up, and the kitchens of her childhood weren't places with appealing options. Baking found her, though, when she became an adult.
"I was working a job I didn't like and got kind of depressed," she said. Out of the blue, she decided to bake something, and it helped her to feel better. "It just fell into my lap." Now, she works at a job she likes – The Bakeshop on Kelley Street, in Manchester – and dreams of opening her own bakery. But, first, she's looking forward to the holidays – and the challenge of baking cannoli for her boyfriend's Italian family.
Baking with family over the holidays doesn't have to be as intimidating as cannoli or monster-shaped cakes, said Hall. For people who aren't completely at home in their kitchen, she suggests buying frozen cookie dough – or even pre-made cookies – and some colored frosting and sprinkles, and make the decorating a shared activity.
A step up in complexity would be making dough ornaments, by making a decorative dough with four cups of flour, a cup of salt and 1-1/2 cups of water. After mixing and kneading, the dough will be ready to be rolled, shaped or cut into ornaments – use a toothpick to poke a hole for string, then bake for an hour. This dough won't be edible, but it will keep for weeks if not months. It will keep indefinitely if painted or varnished after baking.
Then there's the tradition of gingerbread cookies and gingerbread houses, which Hall encouraged home bakers to try. The dough is firm and workable, and freezes well, for those who like to work ahead. It's also easy to make some candy, such as bark, that could be used to decorate a gingerbread house. Hall suggested melting some chocolate chips, pouring the melted chocolate into a pan, and then sprinkling the chocolate with toppings such as Heath Bar crunch and coconut flakes.
These are all a bit too elementary for Hall, though. For her family Christmas celebration, she's planning to make a cornucopia out of decorative dough, filled with fresh greens and berries, for her centerpiece. And, rather than cakes or pies for dessert, she will be serving pots de creme – individual cups filled with a rich, chocolate custard – and Hall will flex her creativity to decorate and garnish each one. She figures that most people have just finished their leftover pies from Thanksgiving, and they've been eating cookies all month, so individual desserts, plated and garnished as they would be at a restaurant, provide a special experience befitting a once-a-year meal.
Whichever the level of difficulty, Hall encouraged families to spend time baking together, especially with the younger family members, whether it's making gingerbread houses, making custards or even just adorning cookies with frosting and sprinkles.
"All kids love it, they love to bake," she said. "They get to use their hands, they get to make a mess and be creative."
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