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It all started well before I can even remember, my mom letting me “help” her (read: playing in the flour), while she baked Mrs. Abel’s Christmas cookies. I was just a toddler, then, but as I grew older, learned how to read, measure, navigate the dangers of a hot stove and a sharp knife, I got to help my mom more and more in the kitchen.

Of course there were a few pre-requisite “home ec.” classes in middle school and high school that taught me a few tricks of the trade, but it was standing by my mom’s side that I collected a love for cooking, helping her prepare delectable meals, like made-from-scratch butternut squash ravioli, covered in a sauce of browned-butter, toasted walnuts, and julienned, sautéed zucchini and peppers.

(My mom mostly taught herself how to cook watching Julia Child on PBS, following cook book recipes, and trying her hand at replicating delicious dishes she tried while eating out.)

Meanwhile, I’ve since graduated college with a Bachelor’s in Art, worked in a plethora of coffeeshops/cafés, got married to Ben (my favorite of favorites on this earth), popped out two kids (Milo, born 2010 and Ingrid in 2015). I work full time in management for a medical clinic, but I still love to bake, cook, and experiment in my free time.

Many great bosses have taught me a wealth of great skills during my previous jobs, where I’ve picked up oodles more of glorious flavor inspirations (like the ginger-peach soda from Open Hearth of Chicago, which lead to my candied ginger-peach scones, or the love of cardamom I inherited from the ever so talented Ruth Raich, previously of Smokey Row Café & Jenny Lind Bakery in Red Wing, MN, now operating out of Smiling Pelican Bake Shop in Maiden Rock, WI).

I’ve also learned a lot just by doing. I’ve been cooking and baking for so long, that I’m not afraid to try something new. I’ve certainly had my flops, but we can learn from those, too!  It also helps to start with a good recipe. Prior to the addictive searchability of Pinterest and Food Gawker, I was pretty much obsessed with my America’s Test Kitchen cookbook. Not only are all their recipes practically foolproof, but they are a wealth of what I like to call “Going Pro” tips, like the difference between chopping and dicing, or how and when you can substitute milk and lemon juice for buttermilk.

In writing this blog, I’m anticipating that there’s at least one person reading who has no clue what they’re doing. I write for you. (Okay, I’m writing for anyone who’s willing to read my ramblings, but that’s just it. Part of the reason I ramble and over-explain cooking techniques that might be so-old-news to many experienced chefs is that I too want to share my love and joy of cooking. I don’t want anyone to ever be deterred simply because a dish looks really complex, or a technique sounds too complicated. I’m here to show you it’s not, it just takes practice.)

To any novice chef, here’s my core, hard-earned advice – and I’ll try to keep it simple:

  1. Always start with a recipe. If you’ve never made it before, now is not the time to go rogue.
  2. Read the recipe all the way through, well before you plan to make it. Make sure you have all the ingredients on hand, or write yourself a grocery list so you don’t forget anything. You don’t want to be halfway through your gingerbread cookies and realize you forgot to get molasses.
  3. Give yourself more time than the recipe claims (or you think) you need. Again, if this is the first time you’re caramelizing onions, you don’t want to try and multitask. “Slow and steady wins the race” works for food, too. There are a few things that are time sensitive; knowing your recipe will help prepare you for that moment.
  4. With cooking (i.e. stovetop/crockpot meals, assembling sandwiches, salads, etc.), there’s much more moving room than the recipe may imply. If you don’t like mushrooms, leave them out and pick a similar veggie that you prefer. If you know you like your food extra-super-melt-your-tongue-spicy (I don’t, but Ben does), increase the cayenne… you get the drift.
  5. Baking is more of a science. You can’t just swap out the baking soda for baking powder because you forgot to get some at the store. There is some flexibility, but it’s better to get to know a recipe, try it a few times, and at least have an idea of how the different ingredients interact before swapping one for another.

***Please note, I get no money from this. Any product, person, eatery, etc. mentioned is done so simply because I’ve tried it and I’ll stand by it. Should I ever reach the blogosphere-status where random companies are sending me their products for free to test and review (I wish), I will give full discloser with said review. Currently, I still have a day-job, and this is simply a much-enjoyed hobby. All recipes are my own and gladly shared, though credit would be nice if you’re going to pass it along. Sometimes I adapt recipes I’ve found elsewhere, and I will always give credit to the source.***

I love to cook and share my food with others, and I have no qualms about keeping my recipes secret. You may have heard of the book The Five Love Languages by Gary D. Chapman.  Well I think he forgot one: food!

As I’ve gotten older and wiser, I’ve realized the overly processed, prepackaged versions never taste as good as you want them to.   Plus, in this digital-information age of documentaries on Netflix and news-sources online (both reputable and otherwise), I’ve become much more leery of preservatives and chemicals and engineered “food” products. I refuse to use margarine or artificial sweeteners in anything, and I avoid MSG as much as possible. Which means you won’t find it in my recipes, and I wouldn’t even know where to begin for subbing in fakey-gross-chemical substitutes (so please, if you want to know how much Splenda to use instead of sugar: don’t ask, just google).

I believe that my body is a temple, which means I want to fill it (mostly) with things that are divinely-designed to help my body function at it’s best. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a Cherry Coke every now and then, or sometimes I indulge my sweet tooth more than I should, but everything in moderation, right?

All this to say, at the root of all my cooking and baking is this: I enjoy it, yes, but I enjoy sharing it just as much. Finding that irresistible combination of flavor and texture, savoring every morsel to the very core of my soul… (Ben sometimes wonders if I love food more than him. I don’t. But it is a close second.)

There’s something very spiritual about using your hands and wholesome ingredients from God’s green earth, molding and shaping and combining, creating something nourishing and filled with care and love…

Then to share that with someone I love (or someone who needs love), and knowing they’ve felt joy and pleasure because of something I made for them; that’s my love language: food.  My Food Language.

– Zöe


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