Classically trained pastry chef, baking expert, cookbook author, and baking instructor Abby Dodge is a Fairfield, CT native on a mission to “bake the world a better place one recipe at a time.” She is a long-time contributing editor to Fine Cooking magazine, founding its test kitchen. In addition to her contributions in print, Abby is also leads a baking boot camp called “Cakes and Pies” you can enroll in on Craftsy.com, and an avid blogger where she hosts the online community #baketogether.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Abby on the occasion of the release of her tenth and latest cookbook called The Everyday Baker. You won’t want to miss her advice for home cooks on baking during the holiday season (advice I am promising myself to heed this year!), which transcends baking and is really applicable to all things in life.
If you have questions for Abby, she has graciously agreed to answer your baking questions left in the comments section below.
Connecticut is home to you, where did you grow up? And what are some of your favorite spots in your neighborhood?
I live in Southport. I grew up in New York and Connecticut. My mom’s family has been in Fairfield Green’s Farms since the late 1800’s. I do like Happy Hour at Local. The fish tacos are delicious. My favorite bakery in town (if you’re not baking from scratch, of course) is Michelle Jaffee's Sweet and Simple Bakery in Greenfield Hills.
When did you first know you wanted to be a pastry chef?
I grew up baking alongside my mom. It was our Sunday activity. I have three older brothers, so baking with her was something fun we could do, and we knew every Sunday night it would be devoured.
Throughout the years my mom would quietly share her wisdom. When I was in college my mom passed away, it was a turning point in my life, because I needed to make decisions for myself and my future. I always came back to what she said: “you’re gonna have to work for living, so make it something you like.”
I always came back to making food. I did some research and decided I wanted to go to Paris to learn the classic techniques. It seemed like a perfect fit.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
Certainly my early experience with Michel Guerard the founding father of nouvelle cuisine where I also worked with Alfred Portale (of Gotham Bar & Grill fame) and the esteemed Guy Savoy. When I moved from restaurants to editorial work, I worked at Women’s Day magazine, and the editor there, Elizabeth Alston was one of the greatest mentors. She taught me a lot about writing and editing a recipe and producing a magazine.
You founded the test kitchen at Fine Cooking, part of Taunton Press, in Newtown, CT, and have worked with them for many years, what is that like?
That was about 21 years ago. I am a contributing editor which means I will contribute recipes and stories but I also do a lot of work on their website and their videos. As a contributing editor I am a sounding board, I often get emails from their test kitchen. I know Fine Cooking from the inside, the attention to testing and detail that Fine Cooking puts into every single recipe in print and on the web is beyond belief. Each recipe is tested at least 3 times by three different people of different skill levels. As an author, I am impressed with that.
You just wrote your tenth (!) book called The Everyday Baker. Can you tell us a little bit about it and how it came about?
For my tenth book I wanted to do a comprehensive sweet and savory baking book. By comprehensive, I mean 200 176 sweet and savory and delicious recipes but also to dive into the techniques that any baker would need to know how to make these. Over the years I have heard from readers being flummoxed, and asking “how do you do that?” The book has over 1000 how-to images, most have my own hands showing readers how to do specific techniques. It was time we paired technique with recipe, hence why it is over 600 pages long, and 4 pounds 4 ounces. The publisher, Taunton Press, did such a beautiful job on the book. They gave me unwavering support for this project.
We are smack in the middle of the holiday season which means lots of home cooking and baking. What are some of your go-to recipes for your own home this time of year?
My Banana rum truffled tart with a pretzel crust … it’s an approachable but elegant party dessert you can make ahead. I have also been making the two biscotti recipes to make or mail ahead. I also love the rosemary cornmeal shortbread, which balances the line between sweet and savory.
What is one of your favorite stress-free strategies or simple techniques to share with your readers or students?
The first one is I implore people to embrace imperfection as the new perfection. The term “perfect" is completely unattainable and completely unnecessary. If we can just embrace that all that we make will never be perfect. The point is it doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be delicious.
Second, around this time of year, it is important to be realistic about your available time before you start baking. Read through the recipe. It will tell you how much time you need. People try to squeeze too much in too little time.
I think I saw on your Instagram feed the sunken result of accidentally swapping baking soda for baking powder. Do you have any particularly memorable baking fails?
Thanksgiving I celebrate with my brotehrs and their family here in Southport. One of the big hits is a cornbread recipe. One year I made three of these cornbreads in a pie plate. My nephew, who usually loves them, refused to bring one home. The next morning when I went to toast a piece, and I realized I had used baking soda instead of powder, it tasted like soap!
I love to ask chefs this question. What is in your refrigerator?
Hold on I’ll look: it is not jam packed at the moment. A slew of dairy. Heavy cream, half and half, buttermilk, whole milk. a couple of pounds of unsalted butter. A container of sour cream. My essentials. And a large Trader Joe’s maple syrup. And leftover cheese cake from Thanksgiving.
How do you stay inspired to create new recipes?
Inspiration comes from everywhere. A great example… I had the most delicious appetizer of seared foie gras on ginger bread toast. That inspired my gingerbread biscotti recipe. That flavor profile stayed with me. That crisp texture.
Also, I keep a mental and physical story board of flavors, textures, types, and techniques.
For our CTbites readers, some of whom may be baking novices, where should we start?
The Everyday Baker is the most comprehensive book I have ever written. It has everything that a new or nervous baker has to feel comfortable. I describe ingredients so there are no surprises. I show the equipment that is needed. That is a comprehensive section that could, for example, guide someone who is looking to buy a kitchen scale. I think it is about taking some time and looking through the recipes and techniques, it will give you a feel for what is expected. Then just dive in. Trust your instincts. Have some courage.