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There’s baking. And then there’s comfort baking.
The former sort of baking comprises all manner of hurried kitchen antics such as obligatory birthday cakes and bake-sale cupcakes that incur the use of curse words. It also encompasses fussy, ego-satisfying, impress-the-guests, beyond-perfection science projects that often exist for the sake of bragging rights.
And then there’s the latter sort of baking. Which is the stuff we love. The batter-splattered brownies recipe the kids clamor for when it’s been a good day or a challenging day or, heck, a Tuesday. The handwritten banana bread recipe that’s been handed down through generations of your family. The blueberry muffins that cause you to pause when you’re going full tilt and take you by the hand and redirect you back to moment in front of you. This sort of baking, the kind you often find in the Midwest, is what we refer to around here as comfort baking. And we figure we could all use some more comfort lately.
Here to talk with us about the many splendors of comfort baking is Shauna Seaver, a mom, a baker, a blogger, and the author of Midwest Made, a cookbook dedicated to the regional stuff you only find in certain homey states.
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David Leite: Renee, you grew up in the hinterlands of the Midwest, right? Indiana or was it Idaho, or one of those “I” states, right?
Renee Schettler: Iowa. I was born on a farm in Iowa, David.
David: Iowa, that’s it.
David: There you go.
Renee: Pigs, alfalfa, a crick running through the back 40, dirt bikes…
David: A crick? Did you say a crick?
Renee: Dirt bikes, four-wheelers. Something a city boy, such as yourself, probably can’t even fathom.
Snotty NYC Barista: Excuse me. That is not how you make a mocha latte.
David: Oh, well look, missy, I was not born a city boy. I grew up walking country lanes and a grass stalk in my…
David: … I did, a grass stalk in my teeth and playing quite literally, I mean this, with the one cow our neighbor, Mr. Miranda, had.
Renee: You played with the cow. Mr. Miranda.
David: I did. I had a very lonely childhood, but it was indeed the East Coast, it wasn’t the Midwest. And tell me, in your country idle out there in Iowa, what were some of your best baking memories?
Renee: Oh gosh, so many. Mostly pie. Right? My grandma was known as the Pie Lady. Everybody in Breda and Mount Carmel, Iowa, referred to Celia Huegerich as the Pie Lady. Peach pie was her specialty. No one has that recipe except she did write it down for me in a notebook before she passed away. Um, my mom’s apple pie…
Renee: That was pretty amazing. I was once in love with an Australian and he almost stayed because of that pie.
David: Are you serious? You’ve never told me that story.
Renee: There’s a lot I haven’t told you. Also, rhubarb pie. So many pies. I think Iowa, the Midwest, is really pie country. Cinnamon rolls in the fall. All that hearty stick-to-your ribs, get you through…
Renee: …your day-in-the-fields-type of stuff. What about you?
David: Well, my mom didn’t bake, neither did my grandmother. So whenever my mom did bake, it was always something Pillsbury. It really was. And my favorite, though, were the apple turnovers. I would stand on a chair in front of the oven and I would watch them heave and heave as they puffed up–
Renee: I remember that.
David: –more and more and turning brown. And then I just loved taking the icing and doing the zigzagging on top. You know?
Renee: I do know and how they would collapse a little bit as they cooled. But you had to wait a little bit longer or you’d burn your fingers.
David: Absolutely. Oh, I just absolutely loved them.
Renee: Isn’t it mind-boggling how food memories, especially baking memories, can be so comforting?
David: Yeah, it’s true.
Renee: That’s why we dedicated an entire episode to the simple comforts of baking.
David: Praise be.
David: Hi, I’m David Leite, creator of the website Leite’s Culinaria.
Renee: And I’m Renee Schettler, its editor-in-chief.
David: And this is Talking with my Mouth Full. Today we’re talking about comfort baking–I mean, as if there’s any other kind, right?–with Shauna Sever, who, like Renee, has Midwest roots. Besides living in Chicago she’s the author of a wonderful cookbook, Midwest Made.
Renee: Thanks for being here with us today, Shauna.
Shauna Sever: Oh, thank you. I’m so happy to be here.
David: So Shauna, let’s take a page out of “Sound of Music” and let’s start at the very beginning. When did your passion for baking begin?
Shauna: My passion for baking, I think, it’s always been with me. I’ve always loved it, but I think it really came into play as far as a career goes in about 2007. I was actually working in LA doing entertainment news and TV hosting was kind of my career goal at the time, but because I had always loved food and I had always loved writing, I got in on that first sort of wave of food blogging in, you know, well, I guess it was maybe the end of the first wave, would you say, David? You’d be the expert on timelines.
Renee: Don’t call him an expert on anything. It’ll go to his head!
David: Well, I started in 1999, so I don’t know when any wave of anything started, but I think that was kind of the big wave.
Shauna: Certainly finding a lot of writing and sites that were really inspiring. And so I started writing about the baking I had been doing from my little apartment in Santa Monica, which is where I lived. And that sort of led to a number of opportunities. And then there was a pivot when I had my daughter in 2008. We had moved to San Francisco, I had a baby. And then having a blog gave me a creative outlet, something to do, even though I had this little baby at home. And then, you know, really working on my voice and my recipes and that sort of style led to meeting a book editor and so on and so on. So that’s kind of the short story, I guess.
Renee: It’s a good story. Now in the intro to your book, Midwest Made, you referred to the middle part of the country as the fly-over states. And you kind of muse that no one ever really gives a second thought to that kind of baking. And yet you had an entirely different sort of epiphany of your own about that sort of cooking and baking. Can you tell us about that?
Shauna: Yeah. You know, I think growing up I didn’t really think about it so much as being “fly-over country.” It was what it was, you know? And I think even people who live in the Midwest, in terms of the food, are sort of guilty of taking for granted what we eat here as being sort of normal and available everywhere. But when I lived on the West coast for almost 13 years, I, you know, I didn’t see a lot of the same things. All of the different immigrant influences that are really deeply embedded in the Midwest. You don’t find those same things in bakeries in California. And so that was kind of where I first started thinking about it.
Shauna: But then when we moved back to Chicago, which was fall 2015–we moved really suddenly, my husband got a new job–and we were here within a matter of weeks. It wasn’t something that I saw sort of coming on the horizon, that I could plan for. It was just, we were all of a sudden here and I decided that food, and particularly baking, was going to be the way that we sort of celebrated our own homecoming, and visiting all the old-school bakeries around here and rediscovering family recipes. And what started as a way to sort of connect myself and my kids, because I had two little kids that I never thought would grow up in the Midwest, and I thought, “You know, I want them to know about these recipes and have them be a regular part of their life and to realize that they’re special from the get go. And not take those things for granted.” Like I do, like so many other people do.
Renee: I love that.
David: Well, flipping through your book, I absolutely drooled. My baking tastes run very deeply American. So what was so special and so unexpected about a book that is so quintessentially American is that so many of the recipes are of immigrant origin. Now, can you talk about the European influences on Midwest baking?
Shauna: Yeah. You know, you kind of hit it right there. I think what we think of as being all-American baking really does have those, like I said, those deeply embedded influences that we’ve just sort of glossed over because they’re always right there. And what was really fun about writing this book and what really gave me a lot of fuel is I realized quickly I was not just sharing a book of family recipes or, you know, just trying to remake the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook or something like that. But that this was a book that really could have a lot of character and a lot of heart. And that all comes from the roots of these recipes. And the most fun thing was trying to think of something, like you said, so quintessentially American. Like a perfect example is the brownie, right? And I’m thinking about the brownie and then it takes just a couple of little bits of research to realize that that was invented at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago. The World’s Fair. Like everything, the World’s Fair.
Photo: Paul Strabbing
Shauna: And the owner of the hotel, his wife needed a dessert to put in the little lunch boxes for the society ladies coming to the fair and they wanted something hand-held. At the time everyone was eating still Victorian era-inspired cakes that you needed a fork. And this was a case where they essentially took a sacher torte, that really dense German chocolate cake, and turned it into kind of a handheld bar. And, you know, that’s just one example, but I found that again and again. Banana bread and Rice Krispie treats and bundt cakes and all these things all have roots right here in the Midwestern States. So it made it really easy to beef up those recipes because the best stories tend to come from this region, which is great.
David: And historically, a lot of them have roots in Germany or Austria or other places, which that was so fascinating to me being Portuguese and seeing all of that being in the Midwest, this big European influence.
Shauna: Yeah. And then when you think about Minnesota, they have the Scandinavian influence there. And so it’s not just always one, the sort of parts of Europe that we all think of as being great baking, you know, France and Germany, like you mentioned. It does kind of get spread out. But a big part of that has to do with the fact that a lot of people who came to the United States at that time came to farm. And there’s a lot of open farmland here. And so you had people that were incredibly skilled at farming that decided to settle here. And so that we just kind of got lucky, you know, that that was what a lot of people made their new life here in the Midwest doing. It was just a big land of opportunity and it happened to be great baking cultures as well. All kind of ended up here.
Renee: Absolutely. And they handed the recipes down through the generations then.
Shauna: Yes. And you know, I think that’s something else that’s really important to mention about midwestern people is that even though, I mean the Midwest, of course, is as modern and interesting as anywhere. The tradition, it means a lot. Handing things down through families and keeping those sort of things alive I think is very much a part of the Midwestern spirit. Maybe it’s not so much in other parts of the country. That’s something that we really, really value here.
Renee: I think you’re right. I grew up in the Midwest as well and I remember those community-church cookbooks, right? Those spiral bound and–
Renee: –it didn’t matter whose recipe it was, it still felt familiar.
Shauna: And you’re absolutely right because a big part of eating in the Midwest–I mean who does the potluck better? No one, you know what I mean?–and so we’re used to seeing…That’s kind of what inspired the cover of the book, too, is really making it feel like it was a moment where there were things on the table that lots of different people contributed. And that’s part of what you do. If you’re going to go somewhere, even now, if you’re going to go to a party. I mean, “What are you going to bring?” “What can I bring?” I mean that’s just part of living here. And so when you talk about looking at church community cookbooks and seeing recipes that feel familiar, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your mother or grandmother made them, but you’ve seen them, whether it’s in the church basement or on somebody else’s buffet at someone else’s home. It’s like you see the same things over and over again. So the familiarity of things is really very special.
Renee: And do you think that’s what makes those recipes so comforting then even if they weren’t handed down in your own family?
Shauna: Yes, I do. And I think that’s why I make baking such a huge part of my food career, and then, you know, particularly for this book there really was not a book that dealt specifically with Midwestern baking. Although there are some great Midwestern general food books out there. I really felt like baking was this place to tell a lot of these kind of stories and create a mood and really a feeling that comes around those types of recipes.
David: Well, part of that mood and part of that feeling I think comes in the introduction to the book. I love what you call your “Five Baking Tenets of the Midwest.” I thought that was fabulous. Can you take us through those tenants? I think people really could benefit from it.
Shauna: Okay. Yeah, for sure. So the ‘Five Tenets,” as I say, are bake big, bake easy, bake with purpose, bake from the past, and bake in the present. And so this is not a book of small-batch recipes. That’s not what we do here. The nine by 13 stuff—
David: Praise the Lord.
Shauna: —It’s going to be a 9-by-13 or… Especially right now, everything should be a nine by 13. And yeah, that’s part of it. You want to bake a bigger batch of things because someone else may drop by or things are meant to be shared here. And I think that’s part of what makes the concept of the pie such a beautiful thing is that a pie is meant to be shared. That to me is the quintessential Midwestern food.
Shauna: “Baking easy” is, you know, no one wants to do anything too fussy. A lot of this book is built on pantry staples, with maybe a few extra fun ingredients thrown in. “Baking with purpose” is something that I think we all can relate to. And that’s what I think makes baking special and why I love it, is there’s always a reason to bake. I always say “we have to cook, but we get to bake.” Baking is always going to be something we get to do that’s beyond the everyday, even if it’s just a simple pan of brownies.
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Piles of Wednesday Night Brownies*, on the Wednesday before the very last day of school, for wonderful, whole-hearted, devoted teachers who really deserve a lot more than brownies and gift cards. Especially because my sweet girl graduates elementary school tomorrow. ? She’s grown so much from a little transplanted California-born second grader to the bright, funny, smart, almost-middle-schooler (OMG) she is now. She’ll always be a San Francisco girl at her core—and never lets us forget it—but these last few years have shown her more midwestern kindness than her heart can hold. Looking forward to a sweet, restful summer. Kicking it off with chocolate is never a bad idea. ???☀️ . *Actually called Wednesday Night Brownies, a recipe from my new book “Midwest Made”, which is, ahem, officially available for online pre-order. ?
Shauna: And so the “purpose” is it could be a craving, it could be a birthday or a holiday, but there’s always going to be purpose. And then the “baking from the past” and the “baking in the present” I think is just this really great dichotomy about the Midwest because it’s a region where, like we said, we really value these traditional recipes and recipes that are passed down. But at the same time, the Midwest is a place of incredible innovation. Some of our most iconic American food products and food companies are still based in this region. And I think there’s really, that’s in the food. I think it’s really this feeling of doing what you can with what you have and not being afraid to reinvent things is also a huge part of the Midwestern experience.
David: I’m going to tell you a little secret, Shauna. When I read that, I copied it, cut it out, and I have it taped in my kitchen.
Shauna: No way.
David: Those five, I do, those tenets are just beautiful. Especially for me, the cooking from the past and cooking in the present, and cooking with purpose. I mean all of them are great, but those really struck me and I thought, you know what, that’s really lovely. And sometimes we’re just a little mindless when we do some of this stuff. And I thought that was so lovely to be so mindful about baking.
Shauna: Thank you so much. I did, even though I appreciate the compliment, I mean to be completely honest, when I took on this book and I knew how complex it could become, it was really important to find my own, kind of, well, I don’t want to say 10 commandments because there’s only five tenets. But to find my, what’s going to be my North star? Because you know when you get halfway through writing a book, why did I say I was going to do this?
David: What am I doing?
Shauna: This is the worst idea ever. And going into it, so stupid. But then knowing that I was going to do something so deeply personal also and that I was going to need these just really simple list of things, and it comes to when you’re picking recipes to go into a big recipe collection, how do you know if it fits or not?
Shauna: Especially with social media and you see so many great ideas out there and then you come up with something really innovative and it’s like, “Oh, does it really fit? Well let’s go back to the tenetts and see if it checks all those boxes.” If not—
Renee: I love that.
Shauna: —we save it for something else.
Renee: So keep it simple.
Shauna: Exactly. I think they tell people what the book is about, but it also informed me in making the book.
Renee: Well speaking of keeping it present, with everyone hunkering down these days and having a lot of time on their hands, I know people are baking more. They’re baking bread, that’s for certain.
David: Like crazy.
Renee: We’ve seen that, right?
Shauna: Yes they are. I’m included. I’m doing it too.
Renee: What dessert recipes, though, have you received the most requests for?
Shauna: Oh, that’s a good question. Well, that’s been a really wonderful experience. This book has been really well received from the beginning, which has been wonderful. But now I think even people who bought it when it came out in the fall or they got it as a holiday gift are finally digging into it. So it’s been really great. Banana bread, of course. Everybody’s making banana bread because yeah, it’s simple. It is the quintessential comfort recipe. It uses what we have because we always buy a bunch of bananas to be virtuous and then we never finish.
Renee: Too many. Too many.
David: Yes, exactly.
Shauna: And you could put them in your freezer, too, and then always have banana.
Renee: I was about to say, and when you have banana bread left over, you can make banana bread French toast.
Shauna: Oh Renee, that sounds incredible.
David: Which is incredible.
Shauna: That sounds so good. I haven’t done that yet, but I should. We go through ours pretty quickly. But yeah, definitely the banana bread, the chocolate chip cookie brittle, which is a recipe of mine that’s been floating around for a while, but that is in the book. People love the doughnut loaf. That was kind of one of those funny recipes that ended up in the book that’s kind of novel. And what else?
Photo: Leigh Beisch
David: On the site we have your incredible Twinkie cake. Are people making that? Are they talking about that? I think that’s great.
Shauna: I will see a Twinkie bundt cake pop up every now and again. That was in my second book, Pure Vanilla, which you know in this cookbook world, if a book is seven years old now it’s like it’s ancient. But yeah, occasionally I’ll see a Twinkie bundt cake pop up. That’s a fun one.
David: Yeah. Yeah. I’m so glad. I love that. I think it’s a great cake. I loved it. I’ve made it a couple of times. I think it’s a wonderful dessert.
Shauna: Oh well thank you so much. That’s a fun one. And actually the cake, if I can remember correctly, it was kind of a riff on my Great Aunt Phyllis’s crusty butter pound cake, which is in Midwest Made. I’ve been seeing a lot of pound cakes too. Yeah.
Renee: Yes. Everyone’s been clamoring for pound cakes.
Shauna: Well now everyone’s clamoring for flour. But I think that’s another thing I’ve seen a lot of is the next-level crispy treats that are in the book, which are just sort of an amped-up Rice Krispie treat with a lot of great little things thrown in to make them extra special. And you don’t need flour for that recipe and you don’t really even need to bake it. And that’s something that–
Shauna: —It’s evocative of childhood and it’s such, texturally, like the perfect food and people have been making an awful lot of those. Yeah.
Renee: The thing that lingers most in my memory from your book, Shauna, is the touching dedication, which you wrote to your husband and two children. Home is wherever I’m with you.
Renee: And I couldn’t help but wonder, do you actually mean a home is wherever I’m baking with you? Do you actually bake with your family?
Shauna: That’s funny.
Renee: Or do they just have things served on a platter?
Shauna: Yeah, yeah. No, I have this conversation a lot because I love my kids, but I also love my time in the kitchen. And I’m strategic about what we make together. I mean we make the banana bread together a lot and there are a few recipes that we’ll make together, but I think as far as the dedication goes, that really just refers to the fact that we’ve moved around a little bit as a family and just as long as you’re with your people, it feels like home. But if there’s some good stuff to eat, that helps too.
Renee: It certainly does.
David: Shauna, it was so great to talk to you. We really appreciate you stopping by.
Renee: Thank you.
Shauna: Oh, thank you so much, you guys. I love the show. Thanks.
David: Shauna’s career began in broadcast journalism and included stints as an entertainment news host and reporter, although she now covers pie instead of Hollywood. Her fourth cookbook, Midwest Made, was published last fall and she’s contributed stories and recipes to the Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, O Magazine and more. She’s also the voice behind an award-winning baking blog “Piece of Cake.” You can find Shauna at shaunasever.com. And Renee, before we go tell our listeners what’s on the specials board for next week.
Renee: Oh, we have so much. First of all, we’re sharing with you one of our most popular recipes. It’s for pretzel rolls. Homemade, chewy, salty, crunchy-on-the-outside, burnished to a perfect brown. They’re amazing. We also have some riffs on pasta and grilled cheese sandwiches that I guarantee you’ve never experienced before and are completely pantry friendly. We have tricks and tips on how to bake the best brownies ever. We have a collection of recipes that are certain to satisfy your cravings for something salty and crunchy, right, when you get in one of those stress eating modes…
Renee: We teach you how to make your own bagels.
David: Very important. One should always know how to bake a bagel.
Renee: Critical. No cream cheese for me, please. And a barbecued oven ribs recipe that folks are raving about. No standing-at-the smoker-all-weekend long required.
David: Oh God, that sounds delicious Renee. I’m glad I hired you all those years ago. You know what you’re doing.
Renee: Thanks. Your waistline shows it, too.
David: Touché. Oh my. This podcast is produced by Overit Studios and our producer is the still-waters-run-deep, Adam Claremont. You can reach Adam and Overit Studios at overitstudios.com. And remember to subscribe to Talking with my Mouth Full on your favorite platform and listen to us wherever you go.
David: This podcast is produced by Overit Studios, and our producer is the indefatigable Adam Clairmont. You can reach Adam and Overit Studios at overitstudios.com. And remember to subscribe to Talking With My Mouth Full, and listen to us wherever you go.