How to Bake a Perfect Life by Barbara O'Neal - Fiction
In a novel as warm and embracing as a family kitchen, Barbara O'Neal explores the poignant, sometimes complex relationships between mothers and daughters--and the healing magic of homemade bread.
Professional baker Ramona Gallagher is a master of an art that has sustained her through the most turbulent times, including a baby at fifteen and an endless family feud. But now Ramona's bakery threatens to crumble around her. Literally. She's one water-heater disaster away from losing her grandmother's rambling Victorian and everything she's worked so hard to build.
When Ramona's soldier son-in-law is wounded in Afghanistan, her daughter, Sophia, races overseas to be at his side, leaving Ramona as the only suitable guardian for Sophia's thirteen-year-old stepdaughter, Katie. Heartbroken, Katie feels that she's being dumped again--this time on the doorstep of a woman out of practice with mothering.
Ramona relies upon a special set of tools--patience, persistence, and the reliability of a good recipe--when rebellious Katie arrives. And as she relives her own history of difficult choices, Ramona shares her love of baking with the troubled girl. Slowly, Katie begins to find self-acceptance and a place to call home. And when a man from her past returns to offer a second chance at love, Ramona discovers that even the best recipe tastes better when you add time, care, and a few secret ingredients of your own.
BONUS: This edition includes an excerpt from Barbara O'Neal's The All You Can Dream Buffet.
When the phone call that we have been dreading comes, my daughter and I are gathered around the center island of my bakery kitchen. Sofia is leafing through a magazine, the slippery pages floating down languidly, one after the next.
I am experimenting with a new sourdough starter in an attempt to reproduce a black bread I tasted at a bakery in Denver a couple of weeks ago. This is not my own, treasured starter, handed down from my grandmother Adelaide's line and known to be more than a hundred years old. That "mother dough," as it is called, has won my breads some fame, and I guard it jealously.
This new starter has been brewing for nearly ten days. I began with boiled potatoes mashed in their water then set aside in a warm spot. Once the starter began to brew and grow, I fed it daily with rye flour, a little whole wheat and malt sugar, and let it ferment.
On this languid May afternoon, I hold the jar up to examine it. The sponge is alive and sturdy, bubbling with cultures. A thick layer of dark brown hooch, the liquid alcohol generated by the dough, stands on top. When I pull loose wrap off the top of the bottle and stick my nose in, it is agreeably, deeply sour. I shake the starter, stick my pinkie finger in, taste it. "Mmm. Perfect."
Sofia doesn't get as worked up over bread as I do, though she is a passable baker. She smiles, and her hand moves over her belly in a slow, warm way. Welcoming. It's her left hand, the one with the wedding set--diamond engagement ring, gold band. The baby is due in less than eight weeks. Her husband is in Afghanistan.
We have not heard from him in four days.
I remember when her small body was curled up beneath my ribs, when I thought I was going to give her away, when the feeling of her moving inside of me was both a terror and a wonder. If only I could keep her that safe now.
The bakery is closed for the day. Late-afternoon sunshine slants in through the windows and boomerangs off the stainless steel so intensely that I have to keep moving around the big center island to keep it out of my eyes. The kneading machines are still as I stir together starter and molasses, water and oil and flour, until it's a thick mass I can turn out onto the table with a heavy splat. Plunging my hands into the dark sticky blob, I scatter the barest possible amounts of rye flour over it, kneading it in a bit at a time. The rhythm is steady, smooth. It has given me enviable muscles in my arms.
"What do you want for your birthday?" Sofia asks, flipping a page.
"It's ages away!"
"Only a couple of months."
"Well, I guess as long as there are no black balloons, I'm good." Last year, my enormous family--at least, those members who are still speaking to me--felt bound to present me with graveyard cakes and make jokes about crow's feet, which, thanks to my grandmother Adelaide's cheekbones, I do not have.
"A person has to suffer through only one fortieth birthday in a lifetime." Sofia turns another page. "How about this?" She holds up an ad for a lavish sapphire necklace. "Good for your eyes."
"Tiffany. Perfect." At the moment, I'm so broke that a bubble-gum ring would be expensive, though of course Sofia doesn't know that the bakery is in trouble. "You can buy it for me when you're rich and famous."
"When I am that superstar kindergarten teacher?"
I push the heel of my palm into the dough and it squeezes upward, cool and clammy. An earthy bouquet rises from it, and I'm anticipating how the caramelizing molasses will smell as it bakes.
A miller darts between us, flapping dusty wings in sudden terror. Sofia waves it away,...