Stone Bracelet in a Jewelry Box
Thoughts from a Shadow Dancer

on Baking

Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.   ~Helen Keller

Here is how it happened: We were traveling with friends last March and stayed at a hotel on the Isle of Palms, South Carolina. I went out for a run on the beach and then I stopped in the little breakfast area for a quick OJ and maybe some toast, and I spotted it:

cinnamon raisin bread.

No one in my family likes this, so I haven’t eaten it in years. But I stood there in that hotel lobby, my skin sticky with two kinds of salt and the moisture from the Atlantic, and I ate two slices, toasted, with butter. The soft sweetness the raisins give counteracted by the kick of the cinnamon, and then the hot salt of the butter, all of it crisp and satisfying.

(I don’t understand not loving cinnamon raisin toast.)

Since that moment, I've brought that deliciousness back into my life. I found a source and I decided: I can buy cinnamon raisin bread. Even if I’m the only one who eats it. Do I always finish the loaf before it gets stale? Well…I confess, yes, usually I do. My kids and husband say “that’s gross!” but I don’t care—it makes me happy. It’s delicious to me, and maybe even more importantly, it connects me to the person I used to be before all of this adult nonsense started, when I could eat some toast and read my book on the patio in our backyard and I didn’t feel guilty over not doing something productive or worried about carbs, when my starting up at the mountains was because I was imagining something lovely, not something dangerous or destructive that might happen to my kids.

I had cinnamon raisin toast and it was a little spark of happiness.

Then my source dried up.

So on Sunday, I decided to make my own cinnamon raisin bread. I know how to make bread, and while I don’t do it often my husband and kids do love a nice soft white loaf, so I made two, one plain and one just for me.

Cinnamon raisin bread

Baking bread is a deeply sensory experience. That scent of rising yeast itself is nostalgic and comforting all at once, but when I opened the cinnamon and nutmeg to sprinkle on my loaf, now there was also the hint of Christmas eves and Thanksgiving eves, late nights up baking, but also chocolate chip cookies (I put a dash of cinnamon in mine) and peach crisp in the summer and apple crisp in September.

There is a secret to baking with raisins. It must be a secret because not many recipes that call for raisins have this step. My mom taught it to me when I was young: you have to soak the raisins in hot water, and then let them sit on something absorbent so they are damp but not dripping. So a half hour before the dough was finished rising, I put my raisins in a glass Pyrex, covered them with water, and put them in the microwave for a couple of minutes. When I opened the door, the hot, raisiny steam flowed out, and instantly, instantly I was back in the kitchen with my mother.

How old was I? Five or six, maybe seven. We were baking oatmeal raisin cookies together and I was helping because no one else was home. The kitchen was still its original orange 1970s self, linoleum floor and leatherette countertops, and I don’t, anymore, remember the exact steps of that recipe, but I remember that: the waft of scent as she poured the soaked raisins onto a clean kitchen towel. And her voice telling me that any time you put raisins into something you’re baking, you soak them like this, so then they won’t dry out what you are baking, but be juicy and more flavorful.

I ate the first cookie, hot from the oven, spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, the oats just barely crisp, the cookie soft, the raisins plump.

And then there I was, crying in my own adult kitchen. Wishing to be back there, where I felt safe and happy and loved and I didn’t even know that I was carefree, but I was. When I didn’t know how complicated the world was, or even just my own little family, or my relationship with my mom. When the happiness was simple: learning how to do something, and then eating the results of your knowledge.

Plus, just having my mom with me.

And then—it isn’t just that she’s gone. It’s that you can’t hold on to time, except by memory. Because I also thought about the late December afternoon I baked cookies with Haley when she was two, three days after Christmas. I was hugely pregnant with Jake but it was just me and her, baking cookies together. She poured in the flour because that was her favorite part, and when they were baked we sat on the rug on the floor with our backs against the cupboards and ate some cookies, and she had a smear of chocolate on her cheek that stayed there until I bathed her that night. Days later, when I came home from the hospital with Jake, there were still some cookies left, and I ate one and cried my heart out, because I loved this new baby but I already missed those days of just Haley and me. I wasn’t just crying and holding a newborn and eating a slightly-stale cookie; that cookie itself was what I felt, the confusion and love and ache and happiness and sadness and fear and joy.

Just one of so many memories connected to time in the kitchen.

For me, it’s never just a chocolate chip cookie, a loaf of bread, a cinnamon roll. A slice of cake. Baking is about sugar and eggs, butter and vanilla. Sometimes nuts, sometimes raisins, sometimes blueberries or lemon or pumpkin. It is about the delicious thing you get to eat at the end of the process.

But it is also memory. It is also connection. It is always the ghosts gathering around me, the people who are gone, the versions of myself I used to be but can never be again. It is, yes, about sweetness and sugar, but there is always salt there, too.

This morning, I had cinnamon raisin toast for breakfast, sliced from the first loaf I’d made for myself. I didn’t worry about carbs and sugar content. I just sat at my kitchen counter. I slathered butter on the hot bread. I remembered my mom, I remembered myself. My kids laughing in the kitchen with me while we frosted sugar cookies during a snow storm. The birthday cakes (and birthday pies, fruit pizza, cheesecakes, lemon bars), the bread, the pizza dough. I remembered the kitchen in the house I grew up in, and my grandma’s tiny kitchen filled with cigarette smoke and the scent of coffee where she made me toast in the morning. All gone, in one way or another.

But I am still here and I will savor every bite.



What wonderful memories! Love this.


Who doesn't like cinnamon toast!? Huh. I hadn't considered this as a possibility.

And also: this made me sigh a good "Amy is such a good writer" sigh.


I loved everything about this post! Now I'm off to bake some bread...

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