Step into the kitchen of Francine Bryson, America’s best-loved amateur baker!
- Posted on Oct 24, 2014
You won’t find me anywhere near the mall at Christmastime. Nobody ever wants a storebought present from me. “Frannie, will you bake me something?” is what I get, and I’m happy to oblige.
Baking is my favorite thing to do. Especially during the holidays. I get in the kitchen and I’m in the zone. Morning till night, for the whole month of December. My list is longer than Santa’s. Peanut butter cup cheesecake for my husband, Mark. Red velvet whoopie pies for our daughter, Sarablake.
I bake for aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, even the supermarket manager who special orders ingredients for me, like Biscoff spread, a creamy concoction from France (fancy, right?).
Iced pound cakes, my grandma Nana’s fudge and double-chocolate cookie bars. Peppermint bark, salted caramels and pralines. The parade of sweets goes on and on. My oven can’t catch a break.
I’ve got everything down to a science, thanks to 30 years of competitive baking. My crowning moment was winning runnerup in The American Baking Competition TV show last year. Judges scored us on our signature dishes, technical know-how and preparation.
My chocolate bacon peanut butter pie got me noticed in the first round. “Bacon?” the British judge asked, dubious. But I grew up in the South, where bacon is one of the four food groups. We know what a tasty contrast it gives to sweets.
One bite and the judge agreed. Ding, ding, ding! That round went to me.
In the final round I pulled out all the stops with a spiced-peanut torte in a cookie crumble shell. For my Carolina peaches-and-cream puffs I sautéed peaches in brown sugar and butter then added them into the vanilla pastry cream.
I was ecstatic when one of the judges said she liked my surprising flavor combinations. But I can’t take all the credit. My secrets have been passed down over four generations.
I was barely tall enough to reach the countertop when Nana first got me baking, kneading the dough for bread. “Your great-grandmother carried this recipe all the way from Ireland,” she said.
When I was six years old Nana asked me to help make her famous Christmas sugar cookies. I knew it was a big step.
It wasn’t a complicated recipe, mind you, but there sure were a whole lot of ingredients to measure: flour, baking soda, vegetable oil, cream of tartar, salt, confectioner’s sugar, granulated sugar, butter, eggs and pure vanilla extract.
Nana assembled them on the counter and told me to hold out my hand. “Here, Frannie, this is what a teaspoon looks like,” she said, pouring some sugar into my palm. She poured a little more. “And this is a tablespoon.”
To this day I measure with my hands. Nana’s technique is a real time-saver when I have 500 peanut butter balls and truffles to make.
Nana said I had to learn to make a roll cake to wow people. In her honor I bake a turtle cake roll, or roulade, kind of a bûche de Noël simplified for us Americans. It’s a favorite of my stepson Jody’s, and looks so festive.
You can make it look like a yule log by adding chocolate shavings and meringue mushrooms.
My big Christmas showstopper is a peppermint swirl cake. This is the cake that will make people declare, “Okay, now, this is Christmas!” It’s a decadent three-layer affair. When folks take that unforgettable first bite, lips smack and eyebrows raise.
They’re surprised by the fresh burst of peppermint. The fluffy icing looks like swirls of snow, so you’ll have a little bit of a white Christmas even if there’s no white stuff falling outside.
Making red velvet whoopie pies with Sarablake, I’m in heaven. She’s my stick-in-the-spoon-and-test-it helper. I make whoopie pies in every flavor under the sun, but red velvet just feels right for Christmas, rolled in crushed-up candy canes to make them extra pretty.
When I slide a tray into the oven I say a prayer, like I do with every recipe: “Please, Lord, help this thing not flop.” Once my cakes or cookies are in the oven, it’s not up to me anymore. Now it’s up to you and the good Lord to spread the joy of baking. A sweet and merry Christmas to you and yours!
Francine Bryson is the author of the cookbook, Blue Ribbon Baking from a Redneck Kitchen (Clarkson Potter; 2014).