Zoe Nathan, owner and baker at Huckleberry Bakery in Santa Monica, Calif,. pulled a tray of something speckled and golden out of the oven, her eyes wide, her face crinkled into an expression something like what a mother might look like watching her five-year-old in the school ballet: Nerves. Joy. Hope. She breathed in, and I imagined her smelling for browned butter, jammy berries, burnt sugar — the scent of a well-done scone. Nathan didn't know I was standing in line at Huckleberry that day, sometime in early 2011, and we didn't know each other, but as watched her while waiting in line for my usual order — a doughnut, a pint of bread pudding, a maple-bacon biscuit, and a passion fruit posset — I saw the blood rush to her lips as she hissed "Yesss," and plunged forward into a bite of a still-steaming pastry. And I thought: Boy I hope this woman writes a cookbook.
"People asked me to write a cookbook for many years and it never felt right until I made my own family, until I went through the process of turning a house into a home..."
By now it's no secret: She did. Zoe Nathan, who with her husband Josh Loeb, now owns and operates several establishments in Los Angeles, published her first cookbook, Huckleberry: Stories, Secrets, and Recipes From Our Kitchen, earlier this Fall. It's a book from a home baker-turned-professional baker who rediscovered the joys of baking in her home kitchen after she started a family. "People asked me to write a cookbook for many years and it never felt right until I made my own family, until I went through the process of turning a house into a home... We bake a lot at home and we have one of those houses where we don't invite people over — people just come over. I always try to have food around. Anything. My son loves muffins. My son makes muffins every morning for the garbage man."
The Story of Huckleberry, the Bakery
Nathan met Loeb when he decided to open a restaurant in the neighborhood he grew up in: the Rustic Canyon enclave of Santa Monica. He was looking for a pastry chef and someone told him about Nathan's baked goods. In Huckleberry, Loeb writes of their whirlwind romance in his forward to the book, "The early stages of our relationship moved at lightning speed. Within two months we were living together, four months later we were engaged, and early the next year we were married... I put on a happy extra thirty pounds..." That April, the idea for Huckleberry was born, and the bakery opened on Wilshire Boulevard just two years later.
"The difference between a baker and a chef is a baker makes things you eat every day. "
Baker: A Definition
At a talk at UCLA's annual Science of Food symposium in 2013, Nathan dismissed the notion that she was a pastry chef, and picked apart the difference in definitions:
"Look, in France you go to school to be a baker or you go to school to be a chef. I love to make pastries. I had jobs where I had to make pastries and I liked it, but I guess the thing that comes more naturally to me, the thing I'm comfortable with — well, nothing comes naturally to me, I just kind of work on it — is baking. I like the simplicity of it. The difference between a baker and a chef is a baker makes things you eat every day. Maybe the first meal of your day. It's crucial. When I was making dessert at Rustic [Canyon], I found myself not wanting to be at the end of the meal. I wanted to make something people ate all the time.
I love what we do at Huckleberry and how people come in and experience absolute abundance, and that's how we start people's day. That they put something in their body that somebody loved to make. I love that. I want to put something nice out into the world. I don't think there's anything I do that's more important than that. You can make people feel loved and heard and spoken to. There's so much you can do with food. There are so few places now where the maker is present. Shoe store? Book store? Clothing store? The maker isn't there. I feel like restaurants and bakeries are the last places on earth where the person that made it is there."
On Entertaining, and the Making of a Cookbook
With the holidays coming, Nathan has a message for all of you hostesses reading GOOP and Martha Stewart Living, "I think there's a lot of pressure around gatherings and I think it's the pits. I think there was a big movement of how to be a perfect host where everyone puts their name on a wine glass... I remember how fun it used to be when we used to get together with our friends and you just ordered pizza and you drank cheap, easy wine." Gatherings don't have to be as relaxed as all that, but maybe don't kill yourself just to fill a credenza full of sweets and savories. Consider making just one thing: "Make a pie, and have your kids chill in the corner, and it'll be fine. If you can just make something where people sit around and enjoy it, I love those moments so much. And there's way fewer dishes."
"I wanted people to understand that we get burnt just as much as anyone else in the kitchen and we work [just as] hard..."So that's how the concept for the cookbook was born. Zoe Nathan doesn't cut perfect circles of parchment to line her cake pans. She doesn't meticulously crimp the edge of every pie shell, and she sure as hell doesn't throw out the slightly misshapen biscuit that slid over to the edge of the pan. "I didn't want another bakery book with girls in cute aprons who look really attractive. I wanted people to understand that we get burnt just as much as anyone else in the kitchen and we work hard and we get paid just as little. I wanted it to be real. I think there's this fairy dust image of bakeries and women and being the hostess — and it's not me and it's kind of shitty and I wanted to make a book that was the real deal. 'Hey! Make this stuff! You're going to learn about your oven. And you're going to learn about yourself. Make it messy. Make it fun.' I wanted to bring that idea into people's homes. People are always pointing at photographs of things in magazines or cookbooks and saying 'My cake doesn't look like that!' And I wasn't going to add another book to that pile."
A Huckleberry Thanksgiving
So with Thanksgiving now days away, it's time to crack open this book with its unapologetically perfect-imperfect cover and yellow polka-dotted fore-edges. There isn't a recipe for pumpkin pie, but there is a recipe for Kabocha Squash & Sausage Brown Betty because that's what Nathan makes for Thanksgiving: "It can be an entire meal... but then again, so are many of the things that make it to the Thanksgiving table." For a truly seasonal dessert that features neither pumpkin nor pecan, consider the Quince & Goat Cheese Crostata, "For when we get good quince around [this time of year]."
And keep some biscuits around for snacking while you roast that turkey: "Whether we're cooking at our house or at my family's house, so much of the fun is about cooking together all day, not the meal itself. I generally do all of the cooking with my dad, while my mom will make apple pie. We eat so much while we're cooking that I'm surprised we have room left over for dinner. One of the biggest culprits are the Comfort Food Biscuits. I'll make them the day before and put them in the freezer (unbaked) to hold shape. We'll bake some off during the day while we're cooking and eat them with butter and honey."
Now on the last leg of her nation-wide book tour, Nathan is shyly surprised at how many people seem to love Huckleberry. "It's so funny, I never thought people would buy it, but I guess people are buying it! And that's so cool."