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Birth Of A Baker

Nora Dreher, in the first stage of making Christina Tosi's signature Birthday Cake

My daughter Nora is 13. She has enjoyed baking on her own for the past year or two, but things have ramped up considerable for her during the lockdown. Her mom and I have been really strict about online access with our kids, but owing to the social effects of the lockdown, we gave her greater access to the Internet, because she wasn’t able to see her friends, but we discovered that we did not like what it was doing to her. She didn’t seem to be herself anymore. It was as if online life was a black hole. She didn’t read as much as she used to, and she was spending more and more time texting with friends. Her personality seemed to be changing in ways we thought unhealthy. So we brought all online life to an end for her, for the time being.

Turns out that was the right thing to do, for reasons that we didn’t anticipate. For lack of anything better to do, Nora dove wholeheartedly into baking. She has been experimenting with different kinds of breads, as well as cookies and cakes. It has been remarkable to watch how seriously she takes it, and what a passion it has become for her. I like to cook too, but I am not adventurous in the kitchen. She is. Nothing daunts her. If things don’t work out, she isn’t discouraged — she just tries something else. But things usually work out; she’s good at this.

One night last week, she and I watched a couple of episodes of that great Netflix series, The Chef’s Table. One of them was a profile of Christina Tosi, the young American chef behind the popular Momofoku Milk Bar dessert shop in New York City. Tosi is from the Midwest, and is an irresistibly cheerful person.

I don’t know what it was about the Tosi episode, but it lit up Nora like a Christmas tree. Maybe it was because Tosi bakes the kinds of things Nora likes to bake. Maybe it was because Christina Tosi is so relatable. Whatever it was, as we watched the episode, I kept glancing over at Nora, seeing the gears turning in her head. We have watched a decent number of cooking shows together, but I had never seen her like this.

After she went to bed, I ordered a hard copy of the Milk Bar cookbook for her, but said nothing. I would let it be a surprise. It arrived yesterday, just after noon. By late afternoon, she had gone through the entire book, and was baking croissants from it. Do you know how hard it is to make croissants? I wouldn’t even try. Nora did … and they were really good. She also made Tosi’s confetti cookies, which also turned out well. She did all this while also getting a sourdough starter going.

Today she has taken over the kitchen, and is making brioche. She is also trying one of Tosi’s signature bakes: Birthday Cake.

Christina Tosi’s Birthday Cake (Bon Appetit)

“But you don’t have the acetate sheets she uses to put it together,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “I’ll figure it out.”

I find this really inspiring. How many young bakers would get a cookbook written by a chef they love, and within 24 hours have plunged in and baked two of the most challenging things in the book? That’s how Nora rolls. Until this point, baking was a hobby for her, but over the course of the lockdown, I have watched it become something more. She might have found her vocation. I’m serious. I now know what she saw when she watched Christina Tosi on TV the other night. She saw a possibility for her own future. She heard Tosi talking about the joy she gets baking, and it all resonated deeply within Nora.

I bring all this up not to brag on my kid — though I am not above doing that! — but to point out that I don’t know if any of this would have happened if not for the lockdown, and if not for her mom and I deciding that online access was bad for her. Being stuck in the house for this extended period, without the Internet, compelled her to bake more, just for something to do. That externally imposed discipline has compelled her to discover something about herself that was always there, but might never have emerged had she been able to dissipate her energies in texting and screwing around online. If Nora becomes a professional baker, she will owe a lot of it not only to Christina Tosi, but to the spring of 2020, and the obstacles it put in the way of a normal teenage life.

UPDATE: A reader comments:

Yes this! My son is a bit younger than Nora but what he discovered during the lockdown was the piano. He’d had some lessons a few years ago but with school out it was like a lightbulb turned on. In 8 weeks he went from scales and children’s exercises to playing simplified classical music and teaching himself chord theory. It’s amazing what young ‘uns will do when parents and schools get the hell out of the way and let them find their passion.

Fortunately for me, my kid’s passion doesn’t end up around my waistline. I don’t know that i could resist fresh bread around the house like that- pass the olive oil and let’s get started.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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