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An empty nester and avid home baker goes back to school to learn the basics from a professional perspective

With the impending departure to college of our third and last child, I knew I had to get out of the house. There were volunteer opportunities or retail jobs, but there was also an idea that had been brewing in my brain for the past couple of years, studying culinary arts at Southern Maine Community College.

Among the skills Karen Watterson picked up during her baking basics class? How to make these cinnamon puff pastry twists flaky and crisp. Photo courtesy of Watterson

Food, especially baking, has been my passion since I passed the childhood picky-eater phase. I have a sweet tooth that doesn’t quit, and I’m known as the baker in my circle of friends. If there’s a potluck, sign me up for dessert. I’ve experimented with everything from a pumpkin spice roll for Thanksgiving to Linzer heart cookies for Valentine’s Day. I can temper chocolate, whip up a pavlova, bake a Bundt cake. In 2013, I even won the People’s Choice Award from the Portland Press Herald for their Holiday Cookie Contest. I’ve taken a cooking class here and there and can read any recipe and give it a go, but I never learned the basics. What I wanted was a foundation that would give me the confidence to stray from the instructions and put my own spin on a recipe.

Maine restaurants are stocked with employees who graduated from the Culinary Arts program at SMCC and some Portland chefs, like David Turin, are enthusiastic supporters of the school. Chef Bo Byrne of The Harraseeket Inn has come full circle, returning to teach in the program he finished in 2004.

On the SMCC website, I navigated to the Culinary Arts page and discovered Basic Baking was offered four days a week, almost three hours each day. I didn’t have some of the prerequisites, including college level math, but Culinary Arts Department Chair Maureen LaSalle waived the requirement, as I would not be pursuing a degree. “For many non-traditional students, culinary classes are on their bucket list,” she says. “We have considerations for students not going into the field.”

On the first day of class, I headed to the Culinary Arts building, which has three kitchen labs. I arrived in black leggings, Frye boots and oversized sweater, new notebook in hand. The white chef’s coat (monogrammed!) and checked pants I had purchased the week before were still folded neatly at home. I had assumed the first day would be an overview of the class. That was true but the four other students were dressed in their chef whites, complete with puffy white toques. Being the only 58-year-old in the class, I knew I wasn’t really going to fit in, but did I have to make it that obvious?

Our lab dedicated to baking was a well-cared for playground of gleaming stainless tables, mixers of all sizes, tall stacks of cake pans, pastry brushes, measuring tools and sifters. A lineup of rolling bins held several kinds of flour, sugar, corn meal and cocoa powder, and there were inviting shelves of extracts, nuts, chocolate, dried fruits and other ingredients. The wide, three-bay sink looks out on an expansive view of Casco Bay.

Karen Watterson’s freshly baked buttermilk biscuits cool. Photo courtesy of Watterson

Instructor Meg Broderick has a no-nonsense demeanor, immediately apparent from her instructions. No jewelry allowed except a plain band ring and no nail polish. Be present, in full uniform with clean apron, Sharpie and thermometer secured in pocket. Her stack of hand-outs was an inch thick and included the course syllabus, a calendar of due dates for homework, several take-home quizzes and forms for evaluating our baked goods.

The thought of written homework had not crossed my mind. A sudden flashback to college, decades ago, bubbled up. The same feeling of anxiety arose too, making me wonder if I was up to the task. Yet, my years of home baking gave me a boost of confidence in the classroom and the kitchen. Later, Broderick would tell me, “students don’t think it’s odd to have an older student in the class any more. It’s comforting to them to realize ‘I’m not the only one who doesn’t know everything.’”

My days fell into a rhythm: an hour at the gym, then head to South Portland where I would treat myself to a late breakfast, often at 158 Pickett Café, right next to campus. Head to the women’s locker room to change my clothes. Most of the young women there were similar in age to my own children, but they were also my classmates. As I tried not to compare my middle-aged body to the tattooed twenty-somethings, I listened to daycare struggles, kitchen jobs and boyfriends. We complained about the weather and warned each other of instructors’ moods. A classmate from Skowhegan, newly out of high school, became my friend, our relationship a pleasing mix of part-substitute mom, part-girlfriend. I gave her a hard time about not eating breakfast, but we exchanged knowing glances when the student she had a crush on appeared in the kitchen.

Biscuits and muffins were the first baked items we worked on. Chef Meg taught us the creaming method, the dump method (putting wet ingredients into dry and mixing) and the ways to know when to move on to the next step. We spent a lot of time on the whys of baking. The week before Thanksgiving, we tackled pies. Because pies are not my thing, I never cared much about mastering pie crust. That changed with pressure from the chef to get it right. Don’t overmix, don’t add too much or too little water. “Dump it into the compost and start again,” she would say when we committed one of those errors. I was shocked at first, reluctant to waste food. But what else could you do with a bad pie crust? It took many tries, but I was finally able to produce a stellar crust for my husband’s pumpkin pie.

I feared being judged as someone who wouldn’t do their fair share of the work, so I took to cleaning tasks, maybe not with enthusiasm, but with energy. I hefted the large garbage cans onto my shoulder, took apart mixers for thorough cleaning, and sanitized tabletops. As Bread Week rolled into Cake Week we learned to shape bread dough into consistently-sized rolls that would later be served when guests arrived for Friday lunch. We beat 3-pound blocks of butter into precise rectangles to be folded into puff pastry dough. We tasted and compared varieties of vanilla, bars of chocolate and types of butter. We learned to judge doneness by using all our senses instead of a timer. When our items came out of the oven, they were spread on the table, torn apart and tasted to evaluate.

Putting the glaze on the perfect puff pastry. Photos courtesy of Karen Watterson

“What is your endgame?” I was asked many times by friends and family. “Are you going to open a bakery?” I’d be lying if I said I never considered it. The idea of quiet pre-dawn mornings with coffee, surrounded by the sweet scent of sugar and yeast is highly appealing. As a class requirement, I had to observe in a working bakery. James Beard Award nominee Krista Kern Desjarlais was kind enough to let me stand by her side as she baked in the cozy kitchen of The Purple House in North Yarmouth. It was a priceless opportunity to view the endless cycle of prepping, baking, selling and prepping again.

The thought of doing it on my own may just be a tempting daydream. I’ll need many more skills (and probably a math class) if I ever hope to become a professional baker. But I got what wanted when I needed it most. Baking at home has now become more of an adventure. I can add malted milk powder or sub maple syrup for sugar, feeling confident about the outcome. I was challenged every day, usually by something I thought I already knew. And at middle age, I got a taste of college life again. It was sweet.

Karen Watterson is a food writer and enthusiastic home baker. She is willing to exercise just enough to indulge in croissants and chocolate. Follow @themainefeed on Instagram.