By Peter Vankevich
It’s fun to start thinking about how to approach a book review when its contents defy an easy classification. “A Baker’s Daughter: Recipes & Memories From a Family Bakery” by Marcy Brenner and Kristin Donnan is one of them.
This book begins from the eyes of a young girl. It provides nostalgia not only for those who remember Brenner’s Bakery in Alexandria, Virginia, but for those who love bakeries in general.
And it is much more. Brenner weaves a multitude of recipes throughout chapters of her family and her reflections of them and her own life. This book is especially a loving tribute of a daughter to her father, Max Brenner, the whistling baker who would rise at 3 a.m. and return home in the afternoon dusted in flour, sugar and bits of dough.
Marcy Brenner is an Ocracoke professional musician, recording artist and songwriter, who with her husband, Lou Castro, make up the musical duo, Coyote.
In the intro, she describes herself as a self-taught baker. I can attest to that. For several years, she has run a weekly winter literary evening called Word Play at the Coyote Music Den. These evenings were set up for writers to read excerpts from manuscripts they were working on and seeking feedback. It also provided the opportunity for poets to share their creations and for others to come and listen and share passages of their favorite creative writings.
Brenner would read from the various chapters she was working on and provide the context around them. All fun stuff. She would often bring out a plate of cookies she had just baked with the famous Brenner chocolate fudge icing–“the icing.” Those cookies provided as much reassurance that this book would be a success as her readings.
This labor of love, nearly 300 pages, was many years in the making. “As word is getting out, and after the initial wave, I ship about a baker’s dozen of books each week. It feels like I’m steadily passing out sweet bits of my father and his bakery, like loaves of Max’s bread,” she said.
“My main focus has always been to recreate the recipes for kitchen use,” she writes in the prologue on the challenge to downsize the large quantities needed for a commercial business. Many of the recipes with detailed instructions began from just hand-written index cards of ingredients, expanded upon from discussions Marcy had with Max, other family members and lots of testing.
I am not a baker. My popularity for invites to potluck dinners is due, in part, to a no-bake key lime pie and a garlic-soaked hummus I make.
In this strange time of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am like others, sheltered at home . So, I thought I would give it the old college try. I leafed through the pages in search of the simpler recipes. I didn’t have the confidence to try the chocolate eclairs or the seven-layer cake recipes, which might be, well, a piece of cake for real bakers.
Fortunately, there are many recipes that even rank amateurs like myself can do. My favorite and mostly successful were the coconut chocolate chip cookies. The shredded coconut was subtle and a surprise. I say mostly successful. I filled up two sheet pans on parchment paper and popped them into the oven on the top and bottom rungs. I focused on the top rung cookies to be sure they were sufficiently baked. Once satisfied, I cut the heat, partially opened the over door and let them sit. When I took them out, the lower cookies were burnt on the bottom. Did someone once say, it takes practice to be a good baker, or a good guitarist, for the matter?
There are also stand-alone recipes like vanilla custard and the chocolate fudge and buttercream icings that can be used with many desserts.
Brenner’s Bakery had its roots in Poland. Her grandparents, Louis Brenner and Sadie Weiss, arrived in America and had nine children, many of whom got involved in the bakery business. Originally, the bakery sold only breads and hard rolls; the sweets came later.
This book has plenty of recipes for rolls and breads, including croissants, oatmeal and French sour bread. Those with a “rye” sense of humor may describe it as a good starter for would-be bread makers.
I made the basic white bread. This time, I won’t burden you with some of the mistakes I made, but even if not aesthetically pleasing, it tasted great.
Among the excellent baking notes at the end are tips on the art of bread making as well as how to make bread sours, aka, starters.
I won’t go into the fascinating details of the Brenner clan included in the book other than to say to I have known Marcy Brenner for 20 years and after reading her family background, I can say I know her better and see where her passion and talent for music began.
Co-author Kristin “Krissy” Donnan and Marcy have been friends since high school. Donnan is a free-lance writer and editor who lives in South Dakota.
The book has been reviewed by the Washington Post and the Alexandria Gazette.
“A Baker’s Daughter: Recipes & Memories From a Family Bakery” is $24.95 for paperback, 39.95 for hardcover. They can be purchased at www.abakersdaughterbook.com.