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Regan Daley: Writer, Glorified Home Baker

In the Sweet Kitchen, Regan Daley's first book, won The International Association of Cooking Professionals' prestigious 2001 Cookbook of the Year Award despite the fact that at the time it had been published only in Canada.

Regan DaleyPerhaps the judges were impressed with the chapter, nearly three hundred pages in length, dedicated to demystifying every aspect of 700 baker's ingredients. Or maybe it was Daley's decision to provide fifty pages of incredibly useful substitution charts and troubleshooting lists. Then again, a reader need only turn the first page to fall under the spell of the author's guide to "Tools," which not only describes in detail almost every piece of equipment used by bakers and pastry chefs but also tells you how much is worth spending on each one.

"I would have been quite happy if it had just been a reference book," Daley explained. "Really, the inspiration for writing the book was to put all the reference material together in one place, but the publisher insisted that it be a stand-alone recipe book first."

Which brings us to the hundred-fifty sumptuous, straightforward dessert recipes: The World's Sexiest Sundae, Guava Cheesecake with a Cashew Ginger Crust, Macadamia Nut Biscotti, and All-in-the-Pan Chewy Chocolate Cake, a staple of the author's home kitchen - she swears she can have it out of the oven, cooled, and iced by the time her two-year-old twins have finished their naps.

Holding this massive store of information together is Daley's warm, fluid writing style, which turns a section on eggs - from available varieties to storage and handling advice, then of course their diverse uses in baking and explications of techniques for each - into a friendly, page-turning, expert-at-your-elbow lesson.

The Calgary Sun raved, "This whopping cookbook is one of the best investments anyone interested in baking could make."

Dave: How does one become a pastry chef or a specialist, making desserts?

Regan Daley: Probably not the way I did. I went to cooking school, but not for baking. I went to cooking school for cooking.

I wanted to work in small, high-end restaurants, places that seated no more than forty-five to sixty people. That meant they had a relatively small kitchen staff - maybe four on staff, two or three working at any one time. The nature of the work in that kind of kitchen is such that you have to be interdisciplinary; you have to know how to do a lot of different stuff. And because of the quality of the places, each wanted to make its own, in-house desserts. I ended up getting jobs in some great restaurants with some great chefs, fast-tracking my career, because I could bake competently.

That was only because I had two grandmothers who were great bakers, and my mother is a great baker, so I'd always done it. All these hot chefs were great on the line, but they weren't very good bakers. I came in and said, "Yeah, I just got out of school, but I can do this tart; I can do that cake." That's how I began doing desserts, as opposed to just being a cook. Also, I just really liked it. But until the last six months of my professional career, I wasn't exclusively a pastry chef. I did both, sweet stuff and savory stuff; I worked the line at night and did the pastries in the afternoon.

I knew the last three years I was working professionally that I was on my way out of the profession, but I was working with really talented chefs at two different restaurants, the kind of people who are innately gifted at what they do and happen to be gifted teachers, too. So even though I knew I wasn't going to be in the food business permanently, just as someone who really liked it and was interested in it, it was a rare opportunity to learn and get paid for it. That culminated in this gig as the pastry chef at one of their restaurants.

But I don't know that it's accurate to refer to me as a pastry chef. That implies more training than I had in some of the things a pastry chef is often called upon to do: candy work, sugar work, all that filigree and fine stuff. I had a taste of that in school but no more than anyone else. Call me a glorified home baker.

Dave: If I'm introducing you to people later, that's what I'll call you. Hi, this is Regan Daley, a glorified home baker.

Daley: I was talking to someone else today who said the phrase she likes is "dessert cook," which I like, too. That's kind of the way I look at it. Pastry Chef is a very honorable title, but I think it might present me in a way that isn't so accurate.

Dave: Why did you want to get out of the restaurant business?

Daley: I had always written. I had a hiatus from it while I was going to school and cooking professionally, but I missed it powerfully. I tried to wean my way out of cooking and back into writing, but it was kind of clumsy; there's no time to do anything when you're cooking professionally. It's twelve and fourteen-hour days, and weird hours. You're exhausted. So I started to cut back hours. When I was finally working as a pastry chef I did that nightmarish four-thirty to eleven a.m. shift, and I thought, It'll be great. I can write all afternoon. But I was so completely tanked by two o'clock in the afternoon that I couldn't do anything but sit in front of a cup of coffee.

Once it became clear that it was going to be a choice between cooking and writing, it was easy. There was no question. I left cooking to write. I'd been doing some freelance work and wanted to do a little more of it. I thought I would do some food writing because it parlayed one profession to another; it was a good transition.

Dave: At what point did you decide that you wanted to write In the Sweet Kitchen?

Daley: I didn't think I'd ever write a cookbook. I thought I might write commentary, essay-type stuff about food and culture, also some topics that had nothing to do with food, and ultimately some fiction - not a cookbook. But when I left the restaurant jobs to write, I needed an actual job, so I worked in a bookstore called The Cookbook Store, a fabulous place in Toronto that's been there for about twenty years.

The idea for this book had insinuated itself while I was still cooking. It's the book I kept looking for and couldn't find. After about six months at the store, I realized that it wasn't a matter of not being able to find it; the book didn't exist. When I mentioned it to the two women I was working with, each of whom has a comprehensive knowledge of cookbooks and bookselling, they trumpeted it. They thought it was a great idea, a good foot in the door.

It turned out to be a pretty easy thing to sell to the publisher. No one had done it, in terms of approaching baking from the point of view of ingredients and flavors, as opposed to technique, say, or construction or recipes.

I would have been quite happy if it had just been a reference book. Really, the inspiration for writing the book was to put all the reference material together in one place, but the publisher insisted that it be a stand-alone recipe book first.

Dave: That really comes out in the book. I found myself learning more about eggs, for instance, than I'd ever imagined. I'm thankful for the recipes - and, actually, I tried the Oatmeal Stout Cake, which was great - but it seems funny to call it "a cookbook." The recipes only take up about a third of the pages.

Daley: An interviewer told me earlier today that she'd been thrown off because she doesn't usually enjoy reading "the wordy bits" in cookbooks. I told her, "Thanks!"

Most of the people who write cookbooks are food promoters in some way; they're not just cookbook writers. They're teachers and chefs. They may be on television. They may consult. Writing is just another way to present their knowledge about food. If I had to classify myself, instead of a food person who writes, I'm a writer who writes about food.

In retrospect, it may be why the book has managed to be as accessible as it has. I'm not a Thomas Keller. I don't think of myself as someone innately gifted with this knowledge. This is stuff that I couldn't for the life of me figure out, and when I did I was kind of stunned that it was so simple. Yes, it's a lot of information, but it's not supposed to be assimilated instantly. For the most part, the things that people think are so tricky about baking were the same things that made me anxious each time I'd try something. But it's a short step to get from there to knowing what you're doing. Then the anxiety and trepidation is gone; it's fun and it's relaxing. It's very commonsensical.

I feel like someone who was allowed on the inside for a few years and is now coming back to tell people, "It's not that tricky."

Dave: At one point when I was reading, I wondered whether you had worked with a ghostwriter.

Daley: No!

Dave: Well, not knowing anything about you? First of all, there's about forty times more text in this book than in most cookbooks. But also, I'm sitting there thinking, Why is reading about eggs so engaging? It was fun, of all things.

Daley: That's great. I'm honored.

Dave: How long did it take?

Daley: Working from a detailed outline, it took two years. The outline didn't take very long to develop because the idea for this had been swirling around in my head for long enough that deciding what should be included was pretty easy. Also because I was of the mind that pretty much everything should go in it. If it's going to be comprehensive...

If it was something I was aware of, in terms of the ingredients section, for example, and it was available when I wrote the book, between '96 and '98, it's in there. And there are actually things that weren't available then that are available now that have been added.

My mother is a project manager. She was very helpful. We sat down and literally mapped the whole thing out so I knew exactly what week I'd be testing which recipes. But that's how I was able to do it so quickly - I really knew when I started.

Dave: Have people responded more to any one particular part of the reference material?

Daley: It seems to vary based on their experience level. The charts, the things that are easy to reference, substitution charts and that sort of thing...to people who like cookbooks that stuff is like candy because it means you don't have to go to the nine cookbooks on your shelf that might have this or that bit of the information. And to people who are more novice bakers, the stuff about the flavors and the ingredients, the stuff that's more inspiring, not as technical, seems to be what they gravitate towards.

I've been thrilled that it appeals to people of widely varying experience levels, right from people who've never baked before to professionals. That's kind of what I was hoping. Having cooked professionally, I knew what would be useful in a restaurant environment, but like I said before I never considered myself more than a glorified home baker. I knew what I'd learned at home, at school, and in the restaurant business, so I hoped - it was conceivable, at least - that people in each of those environments would benefit.

Dave: Are particular recipes in this book your own staples at home?

Daley: A lot of them, actually. And the book is handy for me because now I have them in one place instead of all over my house on pieces of paper!

Dave: No more index cards.

Daley: Yeah. I've got into making homemade ice creams. I only have one of those forty-dollar tabletop machines, nothing fancy, but they're so easy and people get wildly impressed. And who's going to say no? "Do you want homemade ice cream?"

I'm totally a chocolate person, so I make the Chocolate Chunk Cookies, which my kids love, and I make the brownies a lot, but the recipe I make most often now - and I don't know if this will be embarrassing or not - the one I make the most is the All-in-the-Pan Chewy Chocolate Cake. I have two, two-and-a-half year olds. They don't give me more than twenty minutes to do anything. I can get that cake in the oven in ten minutes. It can be out of the oven, cooled, and iced by the time they're down from their nap. And they love it! It's a great cake.

What else? The Old Fashioned Lemon Bundt Cake is really good. There's a Lemon Blueberry Tart. And in the summer I think I make at least one of each of the Double-Crust Pies, the raspberry, the blueberry, and the apple.

Dave: So you're a good mom.

Daley: I have a son who eats dessert, breakfast, and peanut butter, so I'm real popular if I make dessert, but I get nothing if I make a great dinner. I probably bake these days more than I cook.

Dave: What makes The World's Sexiest Sundae so sexy?

Daley: Sundaes are totally simple, and they can seem really trashy, but even the trashiest sundae has the components of a fabulous food.

The best meals are about great contrasts. Even a hamburger or a peanut butter and jam sandwich is an example. In a sundae, you have the cold ice cream, the warm fudge sauce, the light and creamy whipped cream. In this one, the fudge sauce is totally simple, though it sounds really fancy - Dark Chocolate Ganache - it's about as hard as chopping up chocolate and pouring hot cream over it. But as intense a chocolate as you use, that's what the sauce will taste like, so you can use a really bittersweet, adult kind of chocolate. The ice cream, at best, is the Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, which has a really intense vanilla flavor. Then softly whipped whipped cream. And crushed praline, which is just hazelnuts and caramel.

It's the classic combination of textures and flavors reduced to its simplest. It's not overly sweet. It's not a kiddy, maraschino cherry sundae. It's pretty good. It's pretty sexy.

Dave: What else do you want to write? Are you working on anything now?

Daley: I'm working on trying to get some time to work on something now.

Dave: Two, two-year-olds, you say?

Daley: Twins. That and a twelve-city U.S. tour this fall is about all I can do. In January, hopefully, some of the time I've been devoting to this can go toward developing some of the ideas I've had over the last couple years. In a roundabout way, a couple of them have to do with food - nonfiction essays about culture and eating, social conventions, that kind of thing. Some of them have nothing to do with food. I'm not sure at this point which ones will take precedence and what form they'll take.

I'm in desperate need of some time to figure that out. It's been pretty intense with this book. A year after I delivered the manuscript I had my twins, and that's its own challenge. Eight months after they were born we started the intensive editing, and that was a big job with this book. The editing was really active, back and forth with my editor. A month or so after all that finished the book was out and I was doing a tour in Canada. That continued until about this past February. Then in March came the nomination and the award. Then revamping some of it for the U.S. market and preparing for the tour.

Dave: Well, it's a foot in the door, to say the least.

Daley: Apparently!

Dave: There's so much food writing now that's really good and really popular. Ruth Reichl was here in the spring; that was fun. Anthony Bourdain is coming in January.

Daley: He's carved out his own little niche.

Dave: He sells a ton of books.

Some of the people I work with playfully make fun of me because I wind up interviewing what seems like a disproportionate number of cookbook and food authors, but it's a subject with legs, I think. Everybody eats. Everyone talks about food. Everyone's curious. When you write about cooking with oils in this book, for instance, you explain the differences between saturated and polyunsaturated fats, and how each is affected by heat. These are topics of interest to just about anyone.

Daley: And I think it's the opposite of the making-you-feel-lousy-because-you-can't-do-it food books. The food and recipes in some cookbooks can be marginalizing to many people, but hopefully that's not the case here. I hope this book makes people less scared, not more scared to try.

Dave: What do you like to read?

Daley: I'm reading a book by a Canadian author named Bonnie Burnard called A Good House. It won the Giller Prize a couple years ago. I just finished Last Orders. What did I just read that was really neat? The Fig Eater.

Dave: I haven't read that.

Daley: It's pretty cool. That was another airport pick-up. And I haven't read Larry's Party yet, but I think that's on-deck.

Dave: Do you have an A-list cookbook shelf at home?

Daley: Leaving the baking books aside, I have lots of cookbooks that I consult, but I hardly use them. Patricia Wells' Bistro Cooking I'll use start to finish and a few others like that. Baking books: Stars' Desserts, which I don't think is in print anymore. Anything by Marion Cunningham. Alice Medrich's books are great.

I have about seven shelves of cookbooks, but do you think I can think of any? No.

Fortunately my kids are huge into books so I spend about an hour and a half a day reading. Kids' books I'm so up on.

Dave: What's your recent favorite? Not the kids' favorite - that can be another category.

Daley: The one that cracked me up was Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type. I actually starting howling in the middle of the kids' section, so I figured I had to buy it.

I like Chris Raschka's books. Charlie Parker Played Be Bop was great. And my kids have gotten into Robert Munsch.

Our house is falling over with kids' books. For the longest time, they wouldn't play; they'd just read. We'd turn on the television and say, "Watch t.v. Stop making us read all day!" It was hilarious. They're crazy about books.

Regan Daley visited Powell's Books for Cooks and Gardeners on November 27, 2001. To honor her visit, three staff members each made a dessert from her book to serve at the event.

This interview was conducted in the store's tiny upstairs office, a small paneled room more like a tree fort than a modern media studio. Regan kept herself warm with a coat and scarf while we exchanged stories about Ottawa, where she spent her early years and where most of my college friends went to high school.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.


Books mentioned in this post



Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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