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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

With the holidays fast approaching, it's that time of the year when bakers strut their stuff, and you know who I'm talking about. The aunts and cousins and neighbors who show up and show off their coogles, cakes and pies with crusts that approach flaky perfection while the rest of us have to decide whether trying to impress the family is even worth the effort. I mean, isn't that what Sara Lee is for? Now my mom is a great cook, and lucky for me I inherited some of her skills. But the baking gene, that seemed to skip a generation. So over the next year I'm going to try to learn how to bake because I found inspiration from a baker who herself is a convert.

Ms. DORIE GREENSPAN (Author): I sometimes think of myself as the baking evangelist. I want everybody to bake.

NORRIS: That's Dorie Greenspan, and her new cookbook is Baking: From My Home to Yours. It's big and it's fat and it is beautiful. The pictures alone could be served up on a doily. But here's the thing. Her recipes are not intimidating. From toasted almond scones to devil's food whiteout cake, everything is explained with detail and humor. So your kitchen trepidation melts away like butter. That's because Dorie, though she's baked with Julia Child, still has sympathy for the novice.

Ms. GREENSPAN: Well, especially since I burnt down my parent's kitchen when I was 13. Yeah, that was my first experience in the kitchen. Friends and I decided that we would make some frozen French fries, and I put a pot of oil up to boil, and I covered it because I thought I learned in science class that water boils faster when it's covered, so I figured oil would too.

NORRIS: Oh, so you were going to cook some frozen French fries.

Ms. GREENSPAN: Yeah, I didn't know you were just supposed to pop them in the oven, right. And when I lifted the lid there was the most amazing fire. The flames were so gorgeous, but they took down the kitchen.

NORRIS: Took down, burned it entirely?

Ms. GREENSPAN: Well yeah. It was pretty. It had just been renovated.

NORRIS: Oh, my gosh.

Ms. GREENSPAN: And there was - my mother still has nightmares. When my first book was published, my brother said, you know, you didn't mention the kitchen fire. I said my first book, who would trust a cookbook author who burned down the kitchen? But this is my ninth book, so I figured it was time to fess up.

NORRIS: Now, Dorie, so many people bake in the holidays and they have a repertoire of recipes that they pull out year after year that their family loves, and you are going to help us I guess think about how we might take those traditional recipes and tart them up a little. Let's start with the biscuits, shall we? Want to dig in?

Ms. GREENSPAN: I'd love to dig in.

NORRIS: These are sweet potato biscuits and they're biscuits with a twist.

Ms. GREENSPAN: They're biscuits with a twist. The flavor, the color and some of the texture comes from sweet potatoes, and you can use a can of candied yams, and this would be fun Thanksgiving morning or even in the Thanksgiving dinner bread basket.

NORRIS: Actually biscuits are not easy to make.

Ms. GREENSPAN: You think so?

NORRIS: You know, if you've had a bad biscuit, you know that they're not easy to make always. You have to get the exact combination of your ingredients right, and if you're trying to bake ahead as you might be doing during the holidays, they're often difficult to store.

Ms. GREENSPAN: I can help you.

NORRIS: Well, that's why you're here.

Ms. GREENSPAN: I have a tip for you. You can make the dough, form the biscuit and freeze it unbaked. Also, you talked about the texture and the proportion of butter or lard to flour. I think that, you know, once you have a good recipe, what really matters is how you work the butter or the lard into the dry ingredients. I do it with my fingers, and with biscuits, benign neglect is actually the best way to go.

So you work the butter in and don't worry about getting it all worked in evenly. It's better to have pieces of butter, some like little pea size or some oatmeal flake size. So it's a question of technique, but in a way it's kind of switching your attitude. Biscuits are - they kind of thrive on a certain casualness. Just go easy on them.

NORRIS: And the butter should be at what temperature?

Ms. GREENSPAN: The butter should be cold.

NORRIS: Now let's, as we move along, we've been talking over this beautiful cake.

Ms. GREENSPAN: Well, this is the all-in-one holiday bundt cake. This is kind of One-stop baking for the holidays. It has pumpkin, cranberry, pecans, and I used the kind of traditional spices that you would use in pumpkin, so there's ginger and there's nutmeg and there's cinnamon. And I also put in apple.

NORRIS: And the pumpkin in this case whispers. It doesn't step on all the other flavors. You taste the apple.

Ms. GREENSPAN: What a great way of putting it.

NORRIS: It's a good one. It's delicious.

Ms. GREENSPAN: Oh, I'm glad you like it.

NORRIS: I want you to know if you're listening, don't worry, we'll have recipes on the Web site and we'll tell you how to get there at the end of the interview.

Ms. GREENSPAN: When I made this cake, I was really very excited because, you know, not everybody wants to make a pie for Thanksgiving. But you want to keep the tradition.

NORRIS: Well before we let you go, Dorie, we have another little treat. These are marshmallows.

Ms. GREENSPAN: Yes.

NORRIS: But they are pumpkin infused marshmallows.

Ms. GREENSPAN: I only made them for the first time maybe about five years ago. I had never made. I never really thought about them.

NORRIS: What inspired you to make marshmallows? I mean it's not something that is lacking at the grocery store.

Ms. GREENSPAN: Well, but when was the last time you saw pumpkin marshmallows?

NORRIS: Well I don't think I ever have seen pumpkin marshmallows.

Ms. GREENSPAN: I had, I had gotten a recipe from a pastry chef in Paris for a strawberry tart that had strawberry marshmallows on it. And those marshmallows were made with a strawberry puree through them. And I was like a little kid making marshmallows. It was so much fun to be able to do something that you would never think of making at home. Then I just got carried away. I thought -

NORRIS: You've got raspberry marshmallows, cappuccino marshmallows.

Ms. GREENSPAN: Oh, the cappuccinos are good.

NORRIS: Light chocolate marshmallows, and of course our pumpkin spice marshmallows.

Ms. GREENSPAN: You do need a candy thermometer for these, though, because you're going to be boiling a sugar syrup and for this you need an electric mixer. What you're doing is you've got this billowy, huge amount of meringue,e and you just need to beat, beat, beat, beat, beat. You then spread it out on a baking sheet that is lined with parchment. I do think you could use wax paper for it, and then you spread the meringue out and you let it dry overnight.

It would be fun to make with kids because, you know, egg whites are so interesting. You know you see them as these kind of goopy liquid and then as you whip them, they change color, they change form, they grow. So it really would be fun to do with kids. You just have to be careful because it does get hot because of the sugar syrup.

NORRIS: It sounds like a big science experiment.

Ms. GREENSPAN: Well, anything in baking. When you look at the raw ingredients, you know, out on your counter there's no way that you can imagine that this flour, the sugar, this butter is going to turn into the wonderful things we've tasted today. There's something really magical about it.

NORRIS: Well, there's something really magical about this conversation. It has been so wonderful to talk to you. Thanks for coming in.

Ms. GREENSPAN: Thank you so much.

NORRIS: We look forward to doing this again for the next holiday, more holiday baking.

Ms. GREENSPAN: How great. I would love to do this with you.

NORRIS: Thank you, Dorie.

Ms. GREENSPAN: Thank you.

NORRIS: Happy baking.

Ms. GREENSPAN: To you!

NORRIS: Okay, ready to break out the baking sheets and roll out the biscuit dough? Dorie Greenspan's recipes are at our Web site, NPR.org. And while you're there you'll find some top cookbook picks too.

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