Sarah Kieffer has had an extraordinary career arc.
The English major and barista-turned-baker channeled her passions into the Vanilla Bean Blog (thevanillabeanblog.com), a popular “baker’s soliloquy” that in turn recently morphed into “The Vanilla Bean Baking Book” (Avery, $27, 336 pages), a cookbook that’s as beautiful as it is useful. (Kieffer also acts as photographer.) And inspiring.
Baking for her husband and their two children – and also for what has to be one of the state’s most appreciative and fortunate friends-and-family circles – Kieffer uses the kitchen in her Columbia Heights, Minn., home to painstakingly develop foolproof recipes of lovable, all-American goodies, including chocolate chip cookies, banana bread, chocolate layer cake, apple pie, caramel rolls and 100 other approachable favorites.
In a recent phone conversation, Kieffer discussed pie crust strategies, the glories of no-churn ice creams and the benefits of practice.
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Q: You write that despite having worked in commercial kitchens, you’re really a home baker at heart. How did you make that an advantage in your role as a first-time cookbook author?
A: 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.
Q: How did you begin as a baker?
A: I had a really 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 (at Winona State University), there were a couple of coffee shops close to campus, and I started working at what was called the Natural Habitat.
When Larry and Colleen (Wolner) bought it and renamed it the Blue Heron, I came with the store. I was their 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.
Q: And a career was born, right?
A: I said, “Sure, I'll 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 loved the feeling of bringing pleasure to our customers with my cookies. 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 book seller 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.
Q: Is that when the blog started?
A: 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.
Q: Do you have a lot of interaction with your blog audience, and, if so, what’s that like?
A: 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.
Q: I love that you write, “I know there are a million recipes for banana bread,” and then you go on to share yours. Why?
A: Because it’s so good.
Q: It’s definitely a keeper. Is it the recipe you’ve always used?
A: We made a similar one at the Blue Heron, and I have lots of nostalgia for it. My father-in-law is obsessed with this banana bread. He'll trade chores for this banana bread.
That’s how good the recipe is. I can get people to do things with this banana bread. The sour cream gives it a little bit of tang, and makes it so moist. And I really like pecans. Walnuts have bitter edges, but pecans are slightly sweet, and they’re even better when they’re toasted.
Q: Where did your fascination with no-churn ice creams come from?
A: I started making them a few years ago. I ended up selling my ice cream maker. I don’t need it any longer. What’s great is that you can make it in the morning, and by evening it'll be ready for dessert. They take 10 minutes to make, so they’re an easy make-at-home dessert that you can surprise your guests with.
Q: Your pies look beautiful. What do you say to someone like me who needs to be talked off the pie crust ledge?
A: 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.
Q: What’s your recipe testing process?
A: 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.
Q: Can you describe your kitchen? I envision a baker’s paradise.
A: 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.
Q: In other words, you have the kitchen that 95 percent of your readers have, so that’s kind of perfect, right?
A: Exactly. I can bake here, and it’s OK.
Q: It’s not enough that you’re a skilled baker, but you’re also a self-taught photographer?
A: 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.
Q: In the cookbook world and blogosphere, who do you look to as a role model?
A: 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.
Q: You were once a novice baker. What’s your advice to those starting out?
A: 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.
Blueberry-apple crumble bars
Makes 12 large or 24 small bars
Note: This recipe must be prepared in advance. From “The Vanilla Bean Baking Book,” by Sarah Kieffer.
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup rolled or quick oats
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon 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 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch 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.
Per bat, based on 24: 195 calories, 8 g fat, 80 mg sodium, 30 g carbohydrates, 5 g saturated fat, 16 mg total sugars, 2 g protein, 20 mg cholesterol, 2 g dietary fiber
Blood orange no-churn ice cream
This recipe must be prepared in advance. From “The Vanilla Bean Baking Book,” by Sarah Kieffer.
One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup freshly squeezed blood orange juice
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon triple sec or other orange liqueur, optional
2 teaspoons freshly grated blood orange zest
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 cups heavy cream
In a large bowl, whisk the sweetened condensed milk, orange juice, vanilla extract, triple sec, orange zest and salt until completely combined.
In a bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk and on medium speed, beat cream cheese until smooth. Reduce speed to low and add cream in a slow steady stream, mixing until combined. Increase speed to medium-high and whisk until stiff peaks form, 3 to 4 minutes.
Add half the whipped cream mixture to the sweetened condensed milk mixture and whisk until completely combined. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold in remaining whipped cream mixture until no streaks remain. Pour into a 9-inch loaf pan or Pullman pan with a lid and freeze until firm (about 6 hours). Ice cream will remain fresh if covered, and frozen, for up to 1 week.
Per serving: 490 calories, 34 g fat, 240 mg sodium, 41 g carbohydrates, 21 g saturated fat, 41 mg total sugars, 8 g protein, 120 mg cholesterol, 0 g dietary fiber
Makes one 8-inch loaf
Note: To toast pecans, place nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat, and cook, stirring (or shaking the pan frequently), until they just begin to release their fragrance, about 3 to 4 minutes. Chocolate fans can substitute 1/2 cup chocolate chips for the pecans.
From “The Vanilla Bean Baking Book,” by Sarah Kieffer.
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup pecan halves, toasted and chopped
1 cup very ripe bananas, mashed (about 3 bananas)
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for pan
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
2 eggs, at room temperature
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 4-by-8-inch loaf pan and line bottom and sides with parchment paper, with parchment hanging slightly over sides of pan.
In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt and pecans. In a medium bowl, mix the bananas, sour cream and vanilla extract.
In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter until creamy. Add granulated sugar and brown sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl. Add eggs and mix until combined. Reduce speed to low, add flour mixture and mix until almost incorporated. Add banana mixture and mix until just combined. Scrape down sides of bowl and finish mixing with a spatula until batter is completely combined.
Pour batter into prepared baking pan and bake until top is dark brown and a wooden skewer or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 to 55 minutes. Remove from oven, transfer pan to a wire rack and let cool for 20 minutes. Using parchment, lift loaf out of pan, peel off paper and let bread finish cooling on wire rack.
Per slice, based on 12: 270 calories, 14 g fat, 320 mg sodium, 35 g carbohydrates, 6 g saturated fat, 20 mg total sugars, 4 g protein, 55 mg cholesterol, 1 g dietary fiber