A Recipe from one of the hardest projects of my life(so far), my first cookbook + THE EVOLUTION OF ITS COVER
Have you heard the new Jay-Z album 4:44 yet? We’ve had it on repeat at home since it’s been out. Give “Marcy Me”, “Smile”, “BAM” and..well the whole thing a(nother) listen if you can. I’ve also had the audio of some of my favorite self help/inspirational books playing while I’ve worked too (Gabrielle Bernstein, Jen Sincero), which isn’t abnormal, but I’ve noticed and found it amusing how the vibrations and incantations from good Hip Hop can be equally as uplifting for my spirits.
Last night I thanked the world for people like him–Jay-Z–great lyricist, musicians, artists, leaders, people who are raw, candid, and on a mission to make their own mold and platform to build empires on top of. He says “don’t go with the flow, be the flow” and that sentence alone alleviated so much of the anxiety I’ve been holding. It reminded me that the only limitations put on me, are the ones I put on myself, and that all my limiting thoughts and exasperating self-doubt are just getting in the way of my unavoidable movement forward. But most importantly, it stressed the importance of a lesson I’ve been repeatedly brought to face with this year by different experiences and people: that I can’t be swayed from my own truth worrying about what other people think of and want from me. If people first ask themselves what they need and want before they ask what they “should” need, and want, and be doing, then they’re on their own right track–which is the only track to be on. That’s what I believe. No one can see your path, so to be deterred from your journey or to lose faith in it by worrying and getting lost in the white noise, criticism and doubt that’s floating around out there, is a waste of time and helpful to NO ONE. We are here to inspire and be inspired. And we have to let ourselves be as great as we’re meant to be. All of us. I can’t live a muted life because I’ve convinced myself it’s more noble, when the truth is it just feels less scary.
I say all that because these past few months were rough on me, but somehow I moved through it, albeit dragging my feet and kicking up thick clouds of dust wherever I could. There were moments I thought I’d lost my passion and vision, characteristics I cling to to self-identify, but really I was just burnt out, overwhelmed, and desperate for the world and jobs and people to stop asking things of me. But turning away and trying to press pause on my life and responsibilities just gave me more and more anxiety, which, again, I wanted to push under the rug, ignore, and work around. Meditating fell out of my routine, and so did exercising and self care/ even my bathtime! (I’m shocked I let that last one slip from me) These were all forms of self-sabotage at a time when I was getting more exposure, when my mind didn’t believe I deserved to be spreading my wings so big and wide out there in the world. So began my acts of self-sabotage; ignoring as many things as I could, including my own needs, to focus on my main responsibility: My first cookbook.
My First Cookbook:
Maybe I should’ve started the story there, with the contract. Because it was that moment that exposed so much internal doubt and stress. Stress about telling a different story I hadn’t heard or told before, and saying BIG, scary important things, putting so much of my personal self into a project and then facing the reality of sharing that end project with so many people to be accepted or rejected at their own will. I had nothing to compare this project to, and so the fear in me that wants to keep me small asked me to slink back into the crowd and do the things I could count on to be safely successful–unrisky. But by the time the real panic sank in, that option was gone. I was already committed. The moment I legally bound myself to really doing it, to talk politics, my past, my present, my personal things, scared the shit out of me. And the bold cover title I chose didn’t help dry off the reservoir of sweat collecting on my brow and beneath my armpits.
Writing the book was a rollercoaster of remembering suppressed childhood memories, writing and rewriting those stories, brainstorming and testing countless recipes, asking myself “should this be vegan?” and “who the heck is my target audience?” and then trying to define myself (when that definition is always in flux) and why in the hell I was writing a baking book in the first place when I’d never had formal training in the subject, in less than 200 pages.
But all that struggle taught me some amazing things in the end, and it was such an important expereince for me to stumble through. 1. Nothing is perfect, EVER. 2. Things are always evolving and that’s ok, AND 3. We can’t be afraid to be loud, and bold, and bright when it’s time to be. Because that’s our contribution to the world. Sometimes I’m afraid to be seen because I wasn’t raised to be, but that doesn’t mean I have to stay muted. We have to trust that the ideas we receive–I got the idea for “Black Girl Baking” in the Spring of last year–are meant for us to bring to life, and that’s all we need to believe in and be propelled by. Our job is to bring them to physical form, and then release them. Move on, hope they flourish on their own, but not be attached to other people’s response to them, because much of it has nothing to do with us. I finally exhaled this weekend knowing that I fell in love with the project for itself, and not what other people might need it to be. And that was real liberation.
The book? The book is about my time growing up. There’s a lot of symbolism and emotion in the book, and it’s about art, food, the senses, intuition, and memories. Baking books don’t usually carve in much space for feelings. Many are focused on precise measurements, the science, and the ending product. But a large part of me has always been called to the process of baking. That’s my favorite part; it’s never entirely for the product but it’s always for the experience of transforming a space into a home by recreating textures and smells that comfort me. Anyways, the book is a piece I put all of myself into in a concentrated period of time. For that reason alone, it’s value is huge. Thank you Page Street Publishing for coming to me and offering me the opportunity of a lifetime, to release chunks of my past, find hidden blocks in my thoughts, and turn it all into something I’m proud of and strengthened by.
A little taste of the book:
Honey Wheat Cinnamon Raisin Bread
Yields: 2, 8” loaves
My daddy loved toasting slices of cinnamon raisin bread and slathering them with jam and butter to eat alongside his dinner. He almost always had honey wheat on hand too for work days when he’d pack savory sandwiches, always needing a tinge of sweetness to round out the salt from the sliced turkey. I’ve combined the two breads here. I appreciate the floral sweetness the honey adds, and I love seeing the raisins bloat from the bourbon and hot milk and later char when baked. But really, my fascination with this recipe comes during the final stage, when the warmed cinnamon, sweet raisins, and yeast caramelize under the broiler, perfuming the kitchen. The combination of those smells remind me of him and being back home.
Warning: I go heavy on the ground cinnamon here.
3 tbsp ground flaxseeds
1/2 cup hot water
1 1/4 cups grain or nut milk
3/4 cup raisins
1 tbsp bourbon (optional)
1/2 cup honey
1 packet (7 grams) active dry yeast
2 cups white whole wheat flour
2 3/4 cups unbleached AP flour or whole wheat pastry flour, plus more for dusting
1 tsp salt
4 tbsp softened unsalted dairy-free butter or virgin coconut oil
Cinnamon Sugar Filling
3/4 cup sugar
4 tbsp softened unsalted dairy-free butter or virgin coconut oil
2 tbsp grain or nut milk
3 tbsp ground cinnamon
In a small bowl, stir the ground flaxseeds with the hot water. Let it sit for at least 15 minutes to thicken.
Add the milk to a saucepan, and heat on the stove over medium heat until it reaches around 125 degrees F, don’t let it boil. Remove from the heat, and pour ½ the milk into a small bowl. To the milk still in the saucepan, add the raisins, and bourbon, and set aside to plump. To the bowl with warm milk, add half the honey and let it sink to the bottom. Without mixing, sprinkle the yeast over the top and wait for the yeast to bloom and a cap of froth to form on the top, about 5-10 minutes.
Add the bloomed yeast to a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment, along with the rest of the honey. Mix until combined then add the thickened flax seeds, plumped raisins with milk, the salt, and the flours. Knead on low speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl and hook as you go. Just as a ball begins to form, add the softened butter and continue to knead until smooth. Turn the speed up to medium and knead for 4-6 minutes. The dough should be sticky, and pull away from the sides of the bowl but stick to the bottom of the bowl. Place the dough in a large, clean oiled bowl, flipping it over to coat. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth, and keep in a warm, dark place to rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour and 40 minutes.
Make the filling by mixing the sugar, milk, softened butter, and cinnamon together in a bowl.
Have two 8″ loaf pans oiled and lined with a strip of parchment nearby.
Pry the risen dough from the bottom of the bowl. Punch the dough down and dump it out onto a lightly floured surface. Lightly dust your hands and rolling pin to make working with the dough easier. Gently stretch the dough out to about a rectangle and then poke the dough lightly all round the surface with your fingertips, to help more of the air escape. Using the rolling pin, roll the dough out or stretch it to roughly 10 X 24 inches. Spread the cinnamon sugar paste evenly on the dough.
Tightly roll the dough into a log from the longer end, slice the log in half, and transfer the rolls to the loaf tins, compressing the ends slightly, like accordions, to fit. Cover again with a piece of plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and place in a warm place to double in size again, about another 1 1/2 hours. The bread should peak out just slightly above the edges of the pan, or at least come up very close, but not mushroom over the top of the pans. Let it continue to rise if it hasn’t bloomed enough. If it mushrooms over the top, just press it down gently to release some of the air, cover it, and let it rise again properly.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F, and position an oven rack on the lower half of the oven.
Bake the loaves in the oven for 50 minutes to 1 hour or until cooked through. If you don’t want to slice them to check, you should be able to tell by knocking on the bottoms of the bread with your knuckle. If you hear a hollow knock, that’s a good sign. Transfer the loaves to a wire wrack to cool for 20 minutes. Slice and Serve.
Tips: Wrap the loaves in paper bags to cool overnight. Slice ¾ inch pieces in the morning, and place under the broiler to char on one side, leaving the underbelly pillow-soft. The textural contrast is wonderful and it’s perfect to eat just as is. If freezing, slice the loaf beforehand.
Flaxegg: I love the flax egg in this recipe. It gives the bread a really great richness, that’s even more impressive than a regular egg. I find it’s even more significant when I make a large batch of the flaxegg a day in advance and keep it in the fridge before using.
Check out the interview I did with Snapfluence’s Social Humans. They caught me toward the middle stage of putting the cookbook together. When I did the interview I thought I was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, little did I know how much more had to be done.
COOKBOOK COVER EVOLUTION:
One of the first shots I submitted.
Not the winner, thank goodness.
I remember opposing the idea of putting my face on the cover. My style of food photography has always celebrated the hands and how they interact with my food. It’s not about what I look like–yet the publishers pushed me out of that narrow vision, and I remember being really proud of coming up with this first shot. For me it was a jump, but definitely not far enough…
Then came the next round. I shot less reluctantly this time, I had fun shooting, and I think it started to show a bit.
Please don’t hesitate to share similar experiences of working through limiting self doubt in the comments. It’s so good to hear people’s stories, how you’ve found yourself transformed and back on top because of it.