The Cake Crusader
I cried. I cried a lot, when I was learning to bake."
It was a difficult statement to believe, coming from Greg Patent, a cookbook author whose seminal Baking in America, which was published two years ago, contains the definitive recipes for Lady Baltimore cake, Boston cream pie and more than 250 of the cakes, pies, tarts, cookies and breads that make up our nation's baking heritage.
For a man of such achievements, Patent was dressed in remarkably casual attire: flip-flops, black cargo shorts, Pulp Fiction T-shirt. As he spoke, his hands were deep in a stainless steel bowl, working cream cheese, flour, salt and sugar together with his fingertips for an apple pie crust. He was standing at the marble section of the kitchen counter in his simple two-story frame house in Missoula, Montana, which has an unspoiled view across the grasslands to the Rattlesnake Mountains. "It's difficult to describe what I'm doing here—I'm pinching, I'm fluffing and I'm grabbing the cream cheese as I go," he said, pausing to display a palm full of white crumbs that appeared as light as dry snow.
Patent's verbal instructions have the same straightforward, avuncular style as his cookbook writing, with a sensual precision that tells what it's really like to bake—explaining, say, the difference between beaten egg-white peaks that "softly curl" and ones that merely "droop." Patent learned the importance of nuanced cooking instructions early. Growing up in San Francisco in the 1950s, the child of working parents who rarely cooked, he made his first, disastrous, batch of baking powder biscuits, from Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book, when he was 11. The recipe had advised to "knead lightly." But how lightly was "lightly"? When the biscuits turned out tough, thin and nothing like the picture in the book, Patent cried. And then he consulted the landlady, who explained that he had overworked the dough. His next batch of biscuits—"high, light, perfect"—encouraged him to cook his way through Betty Crocker, to try more ambitious recipes and to invent his own, such as the apricot bars that earned him second place in the Junior Division of the 1958 Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest.
RELATED: Is Betty Crocker a Real Person?
Patent is an exceptionally meticulous baker—he owns three scales and often pulls out a tape measure when rolling out pie dough and cutting cakes like his chocolate cream squares—in part because he trained as a scientist. He received his doctorate in zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, which is where he met his wife, Dorothy (the author of Weasels, Otters, Skunks, and Their Family and over 130 other children's titles), who was also a student at the time. "He was my teaching assistant in endocrinology—that's the study of hormones," she said. "I didn't stand a chance." They married in 1964, had two boys, David and Jason, and moved to Missoula when Greg took a job as a zoology professor at the University of Montana. He began writing a weekly food column for the local paper, and in 1979, while still teaching, he started hosting his own TV show, Big Sky Cooking, out of his kitchen.
When Cuisinart introduced a new model of its food processor in the 1980s, Patent sent a tape of his show to Carl Sontheimer, the machine's inventor, hoping to exchange his old model. Sontheimer agreed—and he asked Patent to produce a series of shows for department store kiosks. Patent obliged, and shortly after, Cuisinart offered him a full-time position demonstrating the appliance in department stores and in a series of promotional films, a job he held for six years. The position came at a perfect time. "I'd become bored; I felt I could be giving a lecture that was five years out of date, and nobody would challenge me."
Although Patent has never returned to academia, his cookbooks show his penchant for rigorous scholarship. For Baking in America, he scoured libraries and antiquarian bookstores from coast to coast, paging through ephemera, like an 1878 promotional pamphlet for graniteware, which had the oldest recipe for Boston cream pie that he could find. He studied 19th-century recipes like the chocolate cake from Eliza Leslie's 1847 The Lady's Receipt Book, reinterpreting them for the 21st century, with our more potent baking powders and larger eggs. (He baked eight versions of Leslie's cake before settling on the perfect one.)
In his forthcoming book, The Heirloom Baker, which is scheduled to be published in 2006, Patent will turn his attention to immigrant traditions in America. Spurred in part by his own ethnic heritage—his father was born in Russia, his mother in Iraq—he is spending more time in home kitchens than in libraries. Patent is traveling around the country, recording the oral histories of—as well as cooking with—a Sicilian family in Albany, New York; an Indian family in Phoenix; and a Norwegian baker in Brooklyn.
For all of Patent's exactitude and his insistence on using organic produce grown within a few hundred miles of his home, he's no snob. For Patent, there's no shame in using the same navy beans for pie weights 30 years running. His kitchen drawers have specially designed tool compartments filled with fancy French rolling pins, but his favorite is a green-and-red-striped wooden pin that his son bought for him 15 years ago at an art fair: "The weight is perfect," he says of the five-pound, 19-inch pin. "It's very responsive." Another treasured tool is a manual nut grinder he purchased for $10 in 1976 from Williams-Sonoma, which he pulls out for recipes like his rum-mocha walnut cake.
Patent is renowned for the innovative ideas he brings to desserts such as his butterscotch mousse pie, which uses a fallen soufflé as a crust, and his pear kuchen, for which he poaches the fruit in maple syrup and makes the glaze out of the reduced cooking liquid. His baking style borrows heavily from the can-do spirit of early cookbooks, like Amelia Simmons's 1796 American Cookery, which espoused simplicity and experimentation—a key Patent value. For example, he breaks with convention by using cream cheese in his apple pie crust. "I use cream cheese because I don't want a really flaky pastry," he explained. "I want a denser one, something that won't get soggy under all those apples."
When the pie emerged bubbling from the oven, Patent let it cool, insisting on waiting to cut into it until the filling had thickened further. The crust was sublime, dense yet tender, with the faintest flavor of cheese, the lattice top glazed with crackly sugar. The filling had a caramel-apple richness, lightened by the perfume of mace and a jolt of lemon. To Patent's eye, a spot or two on the crust was a tad over-browned, but instead of being dejected by the imperfection, he seemed pleased by it. "Even if I bake this pie 3,000 times," he said, "I still get a huge kick out of it, because it will come out different every time."
Matt Lee and Ted Lee, contributing editors at Travel + Leisure, write a monthly column for the New York Times Magazine.