by Lisa Kivirist
“Would you like a slice of cake?”
For most of us, the offer of a baked good treat brings a smile and typically an enthusiastic, “yes please.” Or how about a slice of still warm-from-the-oven sourdough bread? Or a fresh zucchini raisin muffin? For me, my eyes can spot a bakery from a football field away while traveling and I’ll always gladly detour.
However, increasingly for women today, baked goods rise up into something more. Yes, our cookies taste yummy; however, women are leading the way for that goody to also be a catalyst for action and change. From a statement of support for local grains and ingredients to a path to entrepreneurship and bringing people together to fight racism and activate for social change, women bakers—both professional and homespun—are collaboratively whisking together ways to think beyond just a tasty treat.
As we’ve seen during our current COVID-19 pandemic, women in sustainable agriculture and already championing fresh, seasonal food continue to creatively reset and reinvent for a hopefully more land stewardship-focused new normal. From pivoting to new ways to engage community to initiating open, respectful dialogue with neighbors, together we can cooperatively join together, all fueled even better if there’s blueberry pie involved.
Baking can therefore be your on-ramp to activism. Read on for ideas from the field (and recipes) for ways to think beyond your mixing bowl and channel those cookies together into something bigger.
1. Honor Your Story
“For me, a cake is much more than just a dessert. It’s a way to tell a story,” shares Monica O’Connell, owner of Curtis and Cake, a small-batch, independent bakery in southern Wisconsin inspired by the tastes of the American South and the women who created them. “I see myself and my cakes as part of a longer tradition, that I’m part of a history of Black women’s wisdom in the kitchen.”
O’Connell draws inspiration from women bakers before her, including Edna Lewis, a trailblazer whose approach to country cooking has had a deep and abiding influence on Southern cuisine. Her three cookbooks championed farm to table long before it became a marketing phrase, and now brings these recipes to new generations like O’Connell. [For more about Lewis, check out this episode of The Splendid Table.]
2. Use Local Grains
Be a pioneer in the new hot spot of ingredients: regional grains. With all the existing interest in local produce and meats, grains are the natural next evolution to start to truly bring our baking to the authentic home front.
The Artisan Grain Collaborative works to connect grain farmers and bakers, both on a commercial and home level. Check out the variety of resources they offer, including their Regional Grains Resource List, an evolving network and database to connect with local grain farmers, including a growing number of women grain farmers like Noreen Thomas of Doubting Thomas Farm in Moorhead, Minnesota, Andy Hazzard from Hazzard Free Farm in Pecatonica, Illinois, and Halee Wepking of Meadowlark Organics in Ridgeway, Wisconsin.
“Grains in the Midwest are high in phenols and antioxidants thanks to some of the richest soil in the world,” shares farmer Noreen Thomas. “Unfortunately, grains imported from other countries are often sprayed with chemicals banned in the United States.” Thomas advises those new to regional grains to start slow. “Start by mixing in a local grain into your existing recipe and keep experimenting. Try something like replacing a third of the flour with a regional whole wheat to start.”
I’ll personally confirm Thomas’ words of advice to start slow and small and leave time for experimenting. Artisan grains will take on the flavors of the season and geography along with different milling techniques, so the same varietal can perform differently over the course of a year. For bakers like myself that historically have only used a basic all-purpose flour, I find spelt, a whole grain that is lighter in texture, a great one to first try out by taking any regular recipe with white flour and using half spelt. The Zucchini Raisin Muffin recipe below works well with half spelt flour.
Zucchini Raisin Muffin (recipe below)
Photo: John D. Ivanko Photography
3. Defy Expectations. Think Seasonal
“I want to see how far I can push my clients and customers’ expectations on what a cake should be and help lead folks’ palettes to something more seasonal,” adds O’Connell. “I don’t feel sugar needs to be the most important part of a cake. Just as a farm-to-table restaurant chef waxes poetically about the flavor of a fresh carrot and creates the dish around that, I ask why can’t we do the same with cake and create around the seasonal ingredients of the moment and shake up flavor expectations.”
O’Connell uses her kitchen as a palette of experimentation—like an artist, she blends flavors and textures into a cake that surprises and delights. And as with any artist, experimentation is the name of the game. For example, she paired wild seasonal plums (which she made into a plum butter) with a dark chocolate cake, a seasonal pairing of tart with richness.
4. Bake up Activism
The creativity of bakers fermented in a new and inspiring direction with the viral growth of Bakers Against Racism, started by a coalition of Washington DC area bakers with the idea to hold a virtual bake sale on June 20 to raise money for Black Lives Matter. This visionary yet simple idea, fueled by social media connections via #bakersagainstracism, quickly grew the original goal of 80 participants to over 2,000 professional and home bakers raising over $1.5 million dollars and counting with more planned in the future. [Photo: John D. Ivanko]
5. Launch Your Home Bakery Business
By opening your own bakery business, your contributions to your community’s economy and entrepreneurial movement can bake up multiple benefits for both you and your community. Thanks to expanding cottage food laws across the country, in just about every state now you can start a bakery business selling items made in your home kitchen direct to the public. Each state has different laws and specifics so be sure to check out yours (typically managed by your state’s Department of Agriculture); Forrager has a state -by-state listing resource; just click on your state.
And sometimes, as we encountered here in Wisconsin, we need to activate as bakers when we hit barriers in doing what we want to do. After years of trying to get a law passed in my home state of Wisconsin that allowed the sale of home baked goods and hitting nonresponsive political barriers, myself and two other women farmer friends, Kriss Marion and Dela Ends, successfully sued the state—with support from the Institute for Justice—to make home baked goods sales legal, opening up entrepreneurial doors for hundreds of bakers in our state, primarily women.
Baking activism can whip up into something even bigger: Stepping up into elected leadership. “My experience with first working to get the Cookie Bill pass and then the subsequent law suit made me realize that we need more rural women’s voices at the decision-making table and that I wanted to be part of this solution,” adds Marion of Circle M Farm, shown above. A plaintiff in the successful lawsuit, she currently serves on her County Board. “Cookie and baking spurred my decision to run for office and are now definitely a theme in my current bid running for Assembly in my district.”
Start your baking business with the recipe at the link below, along with a database of recipes at Farmstead Bakery: Recipes and Resources that both use local produce and grains and are all laboratory-tested to ensure they meet the non-hazardous definition for selling out of your home kitchen.
My book, Homemade for Sale, co-authored with my husband, John Ivanko, will take you through the details of starting up your home bakery enterprise.
Zucchini Raisin Muffins
Yield: 12 Muffins
Photos: John D. Ivanko Photography
3 cups shredded zucchini, water removed (see below)
1 2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoons ground cloves
¾ cup raisins
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and clove.
Combine zucchini, sugar, vanilla, eggs and oil.
Add dried to wet. Mix until almost incorporated. Add raisins.
Using a ½ cup scoop, portion into a paper lined muffin tin.
Bake at 350 degrees for 17-20 minutes until a toothpick inserted at the center comes out clean.
Let rest in pan for ten minutes and then remove from pan to cool.
Note: To remove water from zucchini, place shredded zucchini in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Let sit for about 30 minutes and squeeze water out by hand or by rolling and ringing in a lint free dishtowel. Doing small amount at a time, will yield a better result
Cream Cheese Frosting
Yield: 5 cups, 8 or 9-inch cake or 24-30 cupcakes
8 ounces (one package) cream cheese, room temp
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temp
4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Cream together cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy, 4 minutes.
Add powdered sugar on low for one minute.
Increase speed to high and cream for 5 minutes, until light and fluffy.
Add vanilla on low speed.
-To flavor swap out vanilla extract for others.
-Add lemon or orange vest.