Friday, October 30, 2009

Book Review: Confections of a Closet Master Baker

Title: Confections of a Closet Master Baker
Author: Gesine Bullock-Prado
ISBN: 978-0-7679-3268-4
Pages: 223
Release Date: September 2009
Publisher: Broadway Books
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Publisher: As head of her celebrity sister’s production company, Gesine Bullock-Prado had a closet full of designer clothes and the ear of all the influential studio heads, but she was miserable. The only solace she found was in her secret hobby: baking. With every sugary, buttery confection to emerge from her oven, Gesine took one step away from her glittery, empty existence—and one step closer to her true destiny. Before long, she and her husband left the trappings of their Hollywood lifestyle behind, ending up in Vermont, where they started the gem known as Gesine Confectionary. And they never looked back. Confections of a Closet Master Baker follows Gesine's journey from sugar-obsessed child to miserable, awkward Hollywood insider to reluctant master baker. Chock-full of eccentric characters, beautifully detailed descriptions of her baking process, ceaselessly funny renditions of Hollywood nonsense, and recipes, the ingredients of her story will appeal to anyone who has ever considered leaving the life they know and completely starting over.

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.


  1. I can't wait to read this book! I'm so glad you loved it!

  2. You've convinced me, I am getting this book! I love to bake and have always thought a pastry shop would be hard work but rewarding. I think I would enjoy reading Gesine's story.

    I'm off to visit her blog!

  3. "I saw the Devil at age three and he gave me chocolate. It changed my life forever."

    Hmmm ... This sounds really intriguing! And as far as catchy opening lines go, you almost can't beat that one!

  4. Sounds like a very interesting book. I'll have to add it to my must read list!

  5. I am always taken with stories about people who fearlessly follow their dream. Even better when they do it by cooking! This is why I am so enamoured with Julia Child. I love to cook (not bake!). But I understand the inherent, pathological need to create things that make people happy! I will need to read this. Amy, truly a thoughtful, excellent review!

  6. What a lovely story! Thanks for sharing this review. I have read about the Sandra Bullock side of the story and I knew that she had a sister, but I didn't know the rest. Good review!

  7. Great review. I am so going to get this book...and check out the blog Thanks!


  8. I love foodie books and this one sounds wonderful. I have a copy to read and can't wait to get to it, it sounds inspiring! I also like that she includes recipes. Thanks for a wonderful review!

  9. bermudaonion: I really enjoyed it. The author wrote it very well, she's funny, interesting and tells a good story! I hope you like it!

    Willoughby: I think you'll really enjoy this. The author tells us that it's not easy running the shop but she finds it very rewarding and loves it.
    I'm going to try some of the recipes soon!

    Laughing Stars: It's a great opening line and sets the stage for the rest of the book very well! The authors mom was anti-sugar most days and that makes the opening line even more interesting!

    Natalie W.: It really is and it's not too long, which is nice! Thanks for coming by!

    Sandy: Thank you! And I know what you mean - people who take the chance and follow their heart impress me. So often it really works out for them which may be a lesson to us all. Maybe you should write a book! I know it would be good!

  10. Kathy: Thank you! Part of the reason Gesine opened her shop was Sandra Bullock did an interview with InStyle Magazine in early 2000 and she told them about her sister's fabulous macaroons!

    Holly: Great! I think you'll really enjoy it. The blog is wonderful. Enjoy it!

    Bonnie: It's great that you already have the book. It's a fun, really interesting read. I don't know how she wrote it while in the early stages of having a new shop but she did a great job. I haven't tried any of the recipes yet but I'm going to!