Baking With Love

Kristina Cho has vivid childhood memories of the scene at her grandparents’ Chinese restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. It was the kind of place where literally everyone in the family chipped in to help.

“I remember growing up, all my aunts and uncles and my mom had full-time jobs elsewhere working at hospitals and banks—you know, very normal professional jobs. But they would still come to the restaurant after work,” Her mother was an all-around talent. “She would do everything,” Cho said in a recent interview, from hostessing to making drinks at the bar to being the carry-out runner. “I just remember my mom zipping through the restaurant constantly, even though I knew that she was working at the hospital, like 40 hours a week.”

Her maternal grandparents immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong in the late 1960s and later decided to open a restaurant to support the family. Her family members worked hard to keep the American dream going.

Cho’s family instilled in her a love for food. She recalls regular childhood trips with her grandfather to get dim sum, the Cantonese brunch meal that typically serves bite-sized treats with tea. “When we would order things, he would whisper in my ear and explain” what the different dishes were. Later, while researching for her cookbook, “Mooncakes & Milk Bread: Sweet & Savory Recipes Inspired by Chinese Bakeries,” she discovered a little more about her family history: her grandfather’s first restaurant job was as a baker. The job was a step above dishwasher in the kitchen. “It also was a rare station, because few Chinese restaurants served desserts beyond fortune cookies and sliced oranges. He spent day after day making endless trays of his golden, almond-studded cookies,” Cho writes in her cookbook.

Grandpa’s Influence

This discovery also held special significance—her grandfather’s background as a baker meant that her passion for baking had a family connection. “When I was writing the book and I learned a little bit more about my grandpa’s baking journey, it made me feel like, ‘Oh, there’s some type of connection there.’ I’m not the first baker in the family. My grandpa actually did it first,” she said.

Cho writes in her cookbook that her grandfather, who passed away several years ago, once made his family-famous almond cookies for her before she left for college; the cookbook includes a recipe for the treats as she remembered from that day baking with her grandfather. She also turned to her grandmother for help developing recipes for traditional Chinese desserts (which are often steamed, not baked), but she wished she learned more from her grandfather. “Looking back at it, I wish I took better notes to fully remember how to do this stuff. He always had a mind of tinkering and figuring out how to do stuff. I definitely took that with me as I got older and went through different career paths and ended up doing what I do now,” Cho said.

She wasn’t always a baker; she trained to be an architect and moved to San Francisco to work as a designer for several firms. But being an architect did not satisfy her creative energy the way baking and cooking did. In early 2017, Cho started a blog called “Eat Cho Food,” creating recipes inspired by her family’s Cantonese cooking and developing her own twists on her favorite foods.

Unique Flavors

“Mooncakes & Milk Bread” is a compilation of her inventive projects, as well as an homage to the Hong Kong-style bakeries that are a fixture of Chinatowns across the country. Owing to over 100 years of British rule, bakers in Hong Kong adopted Western baking traditions, creating pastries, biscuits, and cakes “using the ingredients they had access to and incorporat[ing] flavors and ingredients more aligned with the Asian palate. Sugar levels were reduced, cakes became lighter, and ingredients like black sesame seeds and mango worked their way into everything. Thus, the classic Chinese bakery style is a quirky melding of Western and Eastern cultures,” as Cho explained in the book.

(Courtesy of Kristina Cho/Mooncakes and Milk Bread)

Cho said that this is similar to how bakers in America use the ingredients native to their region. “[They] are adjusting their recipes and flavors to wherever they are. So did the bakers back then in Hong Kong. Instead of using cream or butter, maybe they’d use coconut milk or lard, because that’s what they had, you know? So they adapted it.”

Cho melds East and West in her recipes, too, with fun takes on classic Western pastries like black sesame souffle cheesecake, Asian pear turnover, and Thanksgiving “guabao” with leftover turkey, brussels sprouts, and cranberry sauce sandwiched between steamed buns. Sometimes, she celebrates her Midwest upbringing; the book includes a recipe for “pepperoni bread,” what she calls “an Ohio delicacy”: pepperoni stuffed into a roll. Her version uses milk bread, a fluffy bread made with “tangzhong,” a roux of milk and flour.

Cho also pays tribute to pillars of her Cleveland community who are not blood-related, including Auntie Lydia, a close family friend. Cho’s grandmother first got to know Lydia through the latter’s mother-in-law. “After living in Hong Kong and immigrating to Cleveland, she hung on tightly to the practices she’d learned from her own family and found Lydia’s mother-in-law’s food comforting and familiar. Over decades, the three of them bonded in the kitchen as they gossiped, swapped recipes, and made enough food to feed their loved ones and more,” Cho wrote in the book—noting that without Auntie Lydia, her grandmother may not have learned to make some of the traditional recipes showcased in the book.

The baker expressed gratitude for these keepers of important food traditions, too. “I’m thankful that someone like her exists in our small Chinese community and continues to carry on the history, culture, and recipes for future generations. It’s not only the bakeries and restaurants carrying on our food traditions—it’s also the quiet home-cooks and Auntie Lydias of the world,” Cho wrote.


The Fall Harvest—in a Pie

As American as apple pie. It’s an expression commonly used to describe something that completely encapsulates the American character.

But surprisingly, the kinds of apples we commonly see in our markets and grocery stores are not actually indigenous to the United States. The crab apple is the only species in the genus Malus that is native to North America; it was English settlers who brought cultivated apple seeds with them. According to the University of Illinois, the first apple trees were planted by pilgrims in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Americans soon started grafting different cultivars, and today, there are roughly 2,500 varieties grown in the country.

Meanwhile, the earliest forms of pie were oblong—meant to transport food easily and preserve food for longer periods in the age before refrigeration. The crust was often inedible.

The first truly American apple pie recipe appeared in “American Cookery,” by Amelia Simmons, published in 1796. The cookbook is considered to be the first to use ingredients and cooking techniques distinct from the English tradition. True to American taste, the recipe called for cinnamon and mace—the outer covering of nutmeg—as spices.

Expressing Ourselves

Why did the apple pie become America’s signature dessert and a symbol of Americana? Ken Haedrich, author of several pie cookbooks, including the most recent “Pie Academy,” believes the versatility of the pie is a reflection of America’s love for self-expression.

“We’re all cowboys, you know. We like to do our own thing. And an apple pie is great for that. You can use virtually any type of apple that you want, any type of sweetening, any type of thickener, you can put a top crust or no crust, you can put a crumb topping,” explained Haedrich, who describes himself as apie apostle” and runs an online forum devoted to helping bakers with pie-related quandaries. “I think this is one of the things that has made apple pie the quintessential American pie—the fact that we can shape it into anything we want it to be.”

(Courtesy of Storey Publishing)

Pie is not only an expression of individual personality but also of America’s different regional attributes. In parts of New England where there is a lot of dairy production, a tradition emerged to place a slice of cheddar cheese on top of apple pie. “You start to get this confluence of regional ingredients with apples, and you’re going to find that in every part of the country. They will have their own sort of variations of apple pies based on what else grows there or the area is known for,” Haedrich explained.

Some in New England also use maple syrup as a sweetener, while in parts of the country with large Amish communities, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other parts of the Midwest, apple custard pies are common due to their dairy farming.

Pie is a reflection of the American penchant for self- expression. (Lux Aeterna Photography)

But there are other fruits of the harvest represented through pie. In the South, pecan pie is the ultimate fall dessert as the nuts are harvested during that season. In the Pacific Northwest, Rebecca Bloom, founder of the Piedaho Bakery based in Hailey, Idaho, throws in cranberries with local Jonathan and Jonagold apples and thyme for a fall treat. The pie company also uses flash-frozen berries from Washington in pies that are served throughout the fall and winter. Bloom loves the wild huckleberries that grow in Idaho, but she has yet to find a way to source them adequately to make pie—though she hopes “one day maybe we will find a treasure trove of them!”

(Lux Aeterna Photography)

And in Indiana, the Hoosier sugar cream pie—made simply of cream, sugar, flour, and spices—emerged during lean times when eggs and fresh ingredients were not available, explained Capri Cafaro, cookbook author and host of “Eat Your Heartland Out,” a podcast on Midwestern food traditions. “We’re dealing with ingredients that […] could be utilized […] with the resources available to people,” she said.

Also in the Midwest, other types of pie became popular due to the waves of immigrants who settled in the region and introduced their culinary traditions, explained Cafaro. In the Upper Peninsula region of Michigan, handheld pies called pasties reign supreme. They are typically savory and trace back to immigrants from Cornwall, England, who came for mining jobs during the mid-1800s.

But the custardy, delicious pumpkin pie did not emerge as a classic fall dish until Thanksgiving became a regional holiday in New England during the 1800s, Cafaro explained. Many abolitionists in New England featured pumpkin pie in their writings, and it became a symbol of the movement. After President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, pumpkin pie became a symbol of the fall bounty.

There is also the wholly American tradition of making recipes developed by major food corporations to promote their products. One year, Cafaro won the third-place ribbon at the Ashtabula County Fair in Ohio for her peaches and cream pie—which incorporated gelatin. The recipe came from one published by Jell-O. During the mid-20th century, with the rise of industrial food, brands popularized many classic desserts, such as the icebox cake, made with Nabisco chocolate wafers, Cafaro explained. “They oftentimes become heirloom recipes in their own weird way.”

Fall Memories

For Haedrich, who grew up in New Jersey with six siblings, pie-making was a treasured fall family tradition.

“Mom and Dad used to pile all of us in the station wagon. We had an old Woody, and we’d go up into the hills around Plainfield,” he recalled. “They’d buy bushels, baskets full of apples, and they’d come back and they would make their apple pies together.” Mom was in charge of the apple filling, while Dad was the crust maker. He believes these kinds of precious memories are “one of the things that strengthens our ties, our love of apple pie, and our love of pie, period.”

Julianna Butler, a baker in Vermont, similarly feels that pie gives off a “homey feel”—a comfort food that “reminds you of your grandmother.” In fall 2019, Butler won second place in an apple pie baking contest held by a local farmers market. The winning recipe incorporated her experience working at a pie bakery in her hometown in Virginia. Pie is Butler’s favorite dessert; in fact, for her upcoming fall wedding, instead of serving a wedding cake, she plans to give out mini pumpkin, pecan, and apple pies from the Virginia bakery.

Bloom, of Piedaho, said she recalls baking pies—especially her grandfather’s favorite, pumpkin pie—as a young child, and gifting them to him on birthdays. Her grandfather has passed away, but she still makes the same recipe—with a few of her own tweaks—to this day.

Rebecca Bloom, owner of Piedaho, grew up baking pies for her grandfather, who loved pumpkin pie. (Courtesy of Piedaho)

Haedrich said many of the people who email him with pie-related queries mention how much they enjoy the tactile experience of making pie. “You get your hands into it, you get to smell all the lovely ingredients.” For those who are new to pie-making, he recommends that they just practice—and not worry too much about how it looks. “I always tell people, don’t be afraid of strutting your ugly pies. Everybody makes a lot of ugly pies when they first start out,” he said.

He notes the most important thing is to enjoy the process. “Just immerse yourself in it totally. Just enjoy every aspect of it.”

A Love of Learning Lifelong Learning

Life After Facebook

Timing is a funny thing. It’s good to be aware of it. As my young adult children left home, I took up new interests; joined a new magazine blog, took art and design courses, and since it was the new way college kids were communicating, joined Facebook to keep up with mine. In light of my empty nest, visiting online was uplifting and fun. I loved connecting with friends, sharing photos and ideas, giving and receiving inspiration. It was refreshing. There’s no doubt that Facebook helped me through that tough adjustment.

But, as the Bible reminds us, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” What worked for yesterday doesn’t always work for today. My season with Facebook was over. My children had left it years earlier … they’re parents now. But I’d been checking in habitually for something no longer there. Overall, the tone of Facebook had changed radically, in a way that didn’t suit my temperament. Online manners were appalling, and thus affected my mood and well-being. I wasn’t living my best life.

One morning I found myself talking with my brother-in-law’s twin, Matt, on an unrelated issue, but the subject came up. “I deactivated,” he said. “I didn’t delete; I want my pictures one day. I use the time for audiobooks and other things. I’ve found it therapeutic to remove myself from social media. Facebook makes money manipulating feeds and emotions, and it’s not healthy.”

Having experienced it, I couldn’t disagree. When I asked if he missed the connection with his friends, he said, “It’s much better to pick up the phone or go see people.”

So simple—so like it used to be when I felt happier. My time on Facebook was over; so without regret, I deactivated and deleted the app. A calm silence took its place initially, until I experienced my first withdrawal symptom—going back with embarrassing frequency to the app’s old site on my iPad, as if it were still there. Sure, that was to be expected, old habits die hard.

But old habits can be used to develop new habits. By the second day, I knew I needed to replace Facebook’s vacant spot with something I wanted to pursue … Bible reading. As long as I was going to repeatedly return to the same spot, it was helpful to have a new behavior to engage in. So I relocated my bible app to the newly vacated location, and instead of coming up empty in each ‘seeking’ journey, I found something substantial and helpful instead. My outlook and sense of self brightened—that was a good move. I highly suspect it was not really my idea and most likely divine intervention, a call to something better. In addition to the time I had reclaimed, I regained energy.

Soon I experienced a popcorn effect of change. The Bible app was the first ‘pop,’ and a day or two later, I started listening to more audiobooks. ‘Pop, pop, pop,’ more ideas awakened. It was time to learn to make banana cream pie—which, it turns out, wasn’t hard. Why had I waited so long?

Inspiration greeted me as I emerged from my stupor, and pretty soon the popcorn was at full pop. Possibilities abounded. I rediscovered the joy in practicing my instruments and in my needlework. My kitchen beckoned. I was taking new joy in the simple pleasures of cooking and baking. Soon my increased cooking drew my recent-bachelor neighbor over, and my husband and I would sit outside with him at the patio table to share a meal. That began a ripple effect: His children and our grandchildren would gather around us, and soon they became friends.

Tactile activities gave me new pleasure. I loved the sounds involved in playing ping-pong, loved the sound of my knitting needles in action, cooking sounds, and just silence. My husband, Michael, and I started using our outdoor fire pit at unusual times, like at morning coffee.

As a byproduct of enjoying more peace, I sleep better. Sleeping works wonders on your nervous system and cognitive function. My concentration increased, as did my ability to become engrossed in an activity. After a few weeks of being more rested, I conquered a very difficult passage in a piano piece that used to frustrate me, and began learning new songs.

At lunch, my daughter-in-law, Rebekah, talked about exiting Facebook. “At first, I felt guilty,” she said, “like I was keeping secrets. But then it felt wonderful to not put my business out there for everyone to know.” Sweet privacy. We need connection, but we don’t need to share our current lives with everyone we’ve ever known.

Friends and family members have, at times, been triggered into anxiety by being misunderstood or by something hurtful somebody said online. Try as they might, overcoming quickly enough to enjoy their evening or to sleep well was easier said than done. I don’t miss the triggers. Once an emotional fire is put out, sufferers vow to stop playing with matches, but somehow fires will always flare up.

My friend, Carla, often thinks of quitting. “I don’t like ‘quickly checking into my account’ and then realizing two hours have gone by and I have nothing to show for them. I hate wasting my time like that. Before bed, I regret how I spent my day. There was so much I could have done instead.”

Karthi, a friend who helped me realize the vast difference in my post-Facebook life said, “The real value in your quitting is that you’ve discovered newfound peace and freedom. You’re knitting, sewing, reading, learning the cello, cooking, sleeping better. You’re doing what you want. Social media can be so addictive, and we don’t realize what we’re missing out on. Please write an article about it!”

Matt’s sage words he spoke the day I quit are still with me. “Don’t be a victim of social media manipulation; it’s way more powerful than you realize.”

Chicago-born, Boston University-educated, first-generation American, and freelance writer Evelyn Glover has traveled the world with her college-sweetheart husband of 34 years. They live near their grandchildren in Franklin, Tennessee, where they pursue and teach many varied arts: writing, cooking, painting, needlework, piano, and cello.