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Jessie sheehan, photographed by alice gao

The Baker with a Sweet Tooth

Following her passion for old-fashioned desserts, local Sharon resident Jessie Sheehan just completed her second cookbook — a tribute to vintage baking.

Jessie Sheehan is a cookbook writer, recipe developer and food blogger. She has developed recipes for many cookbooks, besides her own, and has contributed recipes/and or written for epicurious, Food52, Fine Cooking, TASTE, and Main Street Magazine, among others. Her first book, Icebox Cakes, was published a few years ago.

Before she got her start in baking, Jessie was a lawyer, and before that, an actress. After leaving her career in law behind, she began working at Baked in Red Hook, Brooklyn as an assistant pastry chef and found that she loved it. Now she has two books under her belt, thousands of followers, and book signings across the country.

Her second book, The Vintage Baker was published in May of this year. It includes over 50 old-fashioned recipes for sweets and treats, from Jessie’s vintage recipe booklet collection, that have been twisted and tweaked for the 21st century baker. Each headnote includes some history about the dessert and its ingredients, and almost all are accompanied by a vintage image from the collection. For instance, her chocolate cream pie with meringue topping becomes a Mexican hot chocolate pie crowned with a peppery meringue, the ladyfingers of her Charlotte Russe (the precursor to the icebox cake) are flavored with thyme, and her banana cupcakes are filled with salty caramel.

Mexican hot chocolate bavarian pie; alice gao

“I might as well come clean and confess that I have just the tiniest (okay, a smidge bigger than tiny) bit of a white-trash palate when it comes to sweets (okay, all food). I love super-simple, homey desserts (my next book is unlikely to include a recipe for croquembouche), and if such desserts include pudding or whipped cream or graham crackers, I’m basically in heaven,” acknowledges Sheehan.

chocolate MarshMallow walnut fudge; alice gao

Each chapter in the book begins with a fabulous quote from the past, such as this 1974 quip, “Though no one remembers the genius who invented the pie, nobody ever forgets the woman who bakes the perfect one.” Another one from 1936 is “When a batch of candy is in the making, a festive air pervades the kitchen.” Also worth noting are the tips, spread out over the pages of the book under the umbrella of “Vintage Advice for the Modern Kitchen”, all of which still hold true today.

We love the modern takes on traditional desserts in The Vintage Baker. We also love the book design and photography which is perfectly aligned with the theme of the cookbook. So we reached out to Jessie Sheehan and delved deeper into her early years, her sweet tooth, and her trajectory into the world of baking:

Where are you originally from and how did you end up in Litchfield County?

I am originally from Brookline, MA, but have lived in NYC since college. Although my husband and I love the city, after our second son was born, we wanted to find a place outside of it, to spend weekends and summers. A friend had a home in Amenia, NY, and another in Sharon. After visiting them, we were impressed with how close Litchfield County is to the city, while at the same time so rural. We rented a home in Salisbury starting that fall, and by the summer we had bought a piece of property in Sharon.

sliver cake with pink frosting; alice gao

Have you always enjoyed baking?

No. I have a notorious a sweet tooth, and am filled with the fondest memories of all of the delicious (to me) store-bought treats that were on offer in my childhood home (Oreos, Devil Dogs, Pepperidge Farm turnovers). But no one in the house was baking from scratch, including me.

I did not start making sweets at home until my second son was born, 13 years ago. It was then that I began thinking about baking professionally. I was on a 3-year maternity leave (a joke: I had left my law firm when my first son was born, and had never gone back) and decided to go into a bakery in my neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn, and ask the head baker if I could intern or apprentice. Although, at first she seemed a bit surprised, I’m not sure how many moms in their mid-thirties walk in off the street and make such a request, they hired me. Once working in the bakery, I quickly realized that I was “home” professionally and was finally doing what made me the happiest.

Was there anyone in your childhood such as a relative or mentor who influenced your decision to go into baking?

I did not grow up surrounded by homemade sweets or homemade sweets-makers (Hostess and Nabisco did all the heavy lifting). But my paternal grandmother, who lived in Cleveland, was an excellent home baker. We visited her several times a year and I loved her mini and very crispy Tollhouse cookies, her flourless chocolate Swiss roll cake filled with Hershey’s Syrup and coffee flavored whipped cream, and her lemon velvet cake. A story about that cake can be found here.

Did you attend culinary school or did you learn your craft at BAKED in Brooklyn?

I learned everything about baking from Baked, in Brooklyn. When I started at the bakery, because I knew so little/nothing, I was given menial tasks like filling and sealing plastic bags with their homemade granola. But slowly, they developed confidence in me, and I started making easy things, like banana bread or cookie dough. Moreover, the two owners of the bakery, Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, started writing cookbooks while I was there, and asked me to test recipes at home, they wanted someone who was not a “professional” but who knew enough about baking to be able to explain why a recipe worked or didn’t, and what might be useful in changing it; and, eventually, to develop them for their books. Funny aside, I loved the testing, as I think it called on all of the nerdy skills I had honed while practicing law, the precision, the research, the importance of being thorough, etc.

cinnaMon raisin flake apart bread; alice gao

Do you specialize in sweets or do you also bake savory dishes?

I specialize in sweets, most definitely, but I love to bake some savory items, like the everything buttermilk biscuits and the cacio e pepe popovers in The Vintage Baker. I also love a Parker House roll and make those frequently for dinner parties and on Thanksgiving.

What are your personal favorite desserts?

I love cake. My favorite is probably the devils food sheet cake with sea foam frosting that I developed for The Vintage Baker. The cake is moist and deeply chocolate-y and tastes like the best cake from a boxed-cake-mix you ever did have (I have always been a huge fan of such cakes). The frosting tastes like marshmallow. It is a seven-minute frosting that is made with brown sugar rather than granulated. The combination of marshmallow and chocolate is a favorite of mine. I also love thick and chewy chocolate chip cookies and am always on a personal quest to develop the perfect one. Finally, nothing is more comforting and delicious to me than chocolate pudding – and I love the malted milk chocolate one that I developed for The Vintage Baker.

Do you enjoy the process of developing recipes from scratch? Or do you prefer working with classic recipes and giving them new twists?

I love both. And in some ways they are the same. Even when developing something “from scratch,” one is always working from something that already exists. I always remind myself that I am not reinventing the wheel here, and no one expects me to. Instead, I am putting my own spin on something to which someone else has put their spin, be it 50 years ago or five.

As a food writer, what kind of subjects do you get most excited about?

I like to write about the desserts that I love – stories about the perfect chocolate chip cookie, for instance. I also like to write about desserts that are important to me, like my grandmother’s lemon velvet sheet cake. Finally, I like to write about my family, and the trials and tribulations of feeding them – both sweets and savory. As luck would have it, I have boys who like sweets, but not enough for my taste. Often I ask them to try a dessert that I am working on, like the cranberry loaf I made earlier this week, and it is like pulling teeth to get either of them to try a slice.

What’s next on your to-do list? Are you planning another cookbook?

I would love to write another cookbook and I have some ideas that I am shopping around, so stay tuned!

The Vintage Baker is available in bookstores and online.

Catch Jessie’s blog at: jessiesheehanbakes.com

Check out Jessie’s Instagram photos and videos on
Instagram at @jessiesheehanbakes