Author: Gesine Bullock-Prado
Release Date: September 2009
Publisher: Broadway Books
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
My review: "I saw the Devil at age three and he gave me chocolate. It changed my life forever." The opening sentences of Confections of a Closet Master Baker guarantee this book will be a humorous, delicious and interesting story of a woman and her love of pastry. Gesine Bullock-Prado relays her life story and her history with sweets from a young age up until she is the master baker of her own shop. Every chapter details a part of a day in her life and the significance of a special baked good. The author writes with humor and honesty, drawing readers in to her story and rewards them with the gift of a recipe at the end of each chapter. However, be warned: if you read this book while hungry, you may regret it. But you have the opportunity to try out your baking talents using the author's recipes, complete with details and extra instructions gleaned during the times she baked them.
The author adored sugar as a child. She was shy, awkward and quiet, not overly fond of people but extremely fond of sweets. If they were offered to her by a relative or caretaker, she would do almost anything they asked with little objection. Confections in the form of beautifully wrapped chocolates, gummi bears, marzipan and even store bought Oreos made her happy and for the first five years of her life, sugar was a regular part of her diet. But at the age of five, when Gesine moved to Arlington VA with her family, sweets were relegated to special occasion status as her now retired, professional opera singing mother put the family on a vegan diet. In the author's words: "whole-grain tofu-laced, sucrose-free hell". Complete hell for a sugar-loving child, except on holidays and birthdays when her mother, the master baker, created wonderful sweets from her cookbooks. Goodies better than anything the stores had to offer.
The sugar-obsessed little girl grew up and moved to be near her sister, the actress Sandra Bullock, in Los Angeles. (I was unaware of this relation when I started reading the book.) Gesine went to law school and upon graduation took a job heading her sister's film production company. She doesn't flaunt her famous family connection but couldn't avoid mentioning it because of their close relationship and importance in each other's lives.
Although Gesine met her husband at a production meeting, made very good money and traveled first class to beautiful places, over the years the grown up woman was reminded of the self-conscious and awkward little girl, the one who generally disliked bi-peds. And eventually she came to resent and dislike the vapid, materialistic, self-centered, arrogant and unkind people in Hollywood she came in contact with on a daily basis. She was floundering , wanting to be happy and to like and understand people. But how?
A painful tragedy signaled Gesine's life on the road to change, a change that came about slowly, beginning the day she pulled out her long-ago abandoned cookbooks with notes scribbled in the margins by her mother, perfecting the recipes. And Gesine began to bake because:
"Back then in Hollywood, I was resentful of healthy living and becoming so emotionally guarded that I didn't trust the sincerity of anyone's motives, so I baked in search of balance and hope. And when I baked, the gentle sweetness and soft sponge of a well-made sticky bun soothed my growing bitterness at God and humanity."
Gesine was a closet baker at first, refusing to share her cakes, cookies, muffins and pies with just anyone. Fear of the health-conscious sugar hating masses of Hollywood stopped her from bringing her creations to meetings and sets. But there was only so much her family and friends could eat, so eventually she needed an outlet for the accumulation. She also remembered what her mother, never far from her thoughts, always told her: to live loud and proud. Once she began to share, the requests came in for a particular pie or a kind of cookie that couldn't be found on the West Coast. Gesine discovered that pastry, cakes and pies could make people happy. She had a talent that found the small, happy child inside every person and brought it to the surface. It was her way of connecting with people.
Gesine was content to remain at her executive position, baking after hours at home. But even pastry can't rid people of arrogance born of insecurity and ego-driven nastiness. She and her husband, Ray, periodically escaped to the East Coast for a break from LA. On one such trip they discovered Vermont, which reminded Gesine of the German country-side she loved. And soon they had themselves a pretty country house with a big fireplace and three beautiful dogs. Not too long after moving, with some encouragement Gesine and her husband bought a small shop and Gesine's Confectionary was born.
Ever-mindful of her mother and hoping to one day be the master baker her mother was, Gesine chose for the store logo a large gold owl, a reminder of her mother who was nicknamed Eule, which is owl in German. Gesine becomes more than head baker in the shop when her concern for and love of her employees and regulars brings out her maternal side, an aspect of her personality she believed to be defunct. The author devotes several chapters to regaling us with stories of her employees and her regulars. Some of the passages are laugh-out-loud funny, a few bring a tear to your eye, but all of them are told with love and concern from a woman who doesn't seem awkward or insecure anymore.
Gesine has to wake very early, dresses in "baker's casual", no more expensive suits, fancy shoes and $2,000 bags and spends 10 hours a day baking, beginning with the early morning bake which she considers not so much a routine as a meditation and a chance to make things better than the day before. In fact, she does a great job of telling us what goes into the every day life of being a baker without once making it seem boring or tedious. She injects a lightness and humor that lets us see into what's motivating her and how she sees her life, then and now. Often times I found myself fantasizing about doing the same thing!
She takes this time to think of the people she loves and has loved for so long. Gesine has found her calling, she's doing what she's supposed to do. Some days it's aggravating, occasionally things break down, orders go missing, cakes fall apart but despite this, most days life is pretty near perfect.
Confections of a Closet Master Baker is a story about love and happiness and following your dream. It's a wonderful book about relationships and being able to rely on the people you love and their influence in your life. Gesine didn't always understand the lessons she learned from her mother as a child and young woman, but as she worked to open a business and create her confections her mother's words came back to her. The author shares the ups and downs of following her heart to find her calling and the hard work required in relying on her talent to bring happiness to others. Gesine took the chance to break out of the life she knew to try something different and exciting and, in doing so, she found her nirvana.