The fearless baker

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Angelia Cook spoons pumpkin pie mix into a mixing bowl as she prepares Pumpkin Cranberry Bread in her home kitchen north of Durango.

By Karen Brucoli Anesi
Special to The Herald

Banker by day. Baker by weekend.

When asked for baking advice, Angelia Cook, a 37-year-old branch manager at Vectra Bank Durango branch manager, tosses in a heaping handful of hospitality and common sense.

“Baking is a lot like being around a dog,” Cook said. “A dog can sense if you’re afraid. There’s nothing to be afraid of! Enjoy it (baking) for what it is.”

Cook attributes her cake-baking success to having no fear in the kitchen.

“The best part is you get to see a creation from beginning to end. When you’ve created something for a friend, you’re sharing your gift and your talent,” Cook said.

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Cook grabbed an old family recipe to fashion 80 holiday pumpkin rolls, assembling two at a time until her freezer was chock-full.

“It’s a lot of work,” she said. “Pumpkin rolls are appreciated as hostess or party gifts. This year, many went to (extended) family.”

Listening to the enthusiastic baker rattle off descriptions of her 35 specialty cake pans stored in a garage, “where most men would store tools” or how she learned to fashion icing roses when she was “about 8 or 9,” you could be fooled into thinking cake baking is completely effortless.

“Baking is kind of Zen-like,” Cook said. “It centers me. When I bake, I like to pour myself a glass of wine and set aside what might be on my mind. I quit focusing on the stresses of life and just enjoy what I’m doing.”

The self-described perfectionist takes on baking challenges that would stop most of us in our tracks, including creating cream-cheese-frosted wedding cakes to be displayed outdoors in mid-summer heat.

“I’ve done wedding cakes for my friends. These have to be perfect, of course. I am a perfectionist. If someone isn’t going to be satisfied, it’s usually me,” she said.

Despite being urged by friends to open her own bakery, Cook says no. She’s happy with her career in banking.

“Baking is an art and a blessing, but you still have to practice,” Cook said, comparing culinary achievement to the commitment and effort necessary to excel at any sport.

Cook bakes four or five times a month, usually on weekends when she’s free to pause and relax. She likes to bake quick breads to be eaten at breakfast or enjoyed as packable treats. Her future goal is to tackle yeast breads and perfect pies.

“I like to bake when I have time. I may follow a recipe, but I do not measure or follow the recipe exactly,” she said. “My husband, Brad, is the jovial taste-tester. He tells me when it’s a ‘pass.’”

Cook said she finds most gluten-free baked goods to be dry, but when it was time to try her hand at creating a gluten-free dessert for a family member, she paid $6 for three cups of gluten-free flour and started experimenting.

She adapted the family’s cherished pumpkin roll recipe and crafted a moist, gluten-free version that actually fooled her husband, whom she claims is no slouch in the kitchen.

“He makes a great raspberry chocolate brownie. Plus, he’s great kitchen support. We enjoy cooking together.”

Cook said that despite being a perfectionist by nature, her cups of flour “are always heaping,” and she doesn’t intentionally adjust recipes for high altitude.

“But I do tweak measurements in a natural way, adjusting for high altitude by not leveling off the flour,” she said.

Cook pointed to a recipe for cranberry pumpkin bread, noting that initially she made it according to the directions. The second time she added “a thousand extra spices – cloves and nutmeg plus extra pumpkin,” to get the flavor and moist texture that she wanted.

“If you add a tablespoon or two of Miracle Whip, that also adds moisture,” she said.

Dark cocoa added to a chocolate cake mix, plus a pinch of cinnamon or fresh raspberries amps up the flavor. And adding an extra egg or two doesn’t hurt, either, she said.

“If there’s something in the kitchen to be used up, I’ll use it,” said the resourceful third-generation baker, who credits her two grandmothers for her kitchen confidence.

“I like the process and I like to experiment,” she said. “I think people get so intimidated by baking. There’s not a woman in three generations of my family who doesn’t bake well.”

Cook said that if she were to offer one bit of advice for novice cake bakers it would be “don’t open the oven too soon.”

“Let all cakes bake for their allotted time. If you open the oven door too soon, your cake will fall... There’s nothing you can do when you have a cake fall but to fill it with lots of frosting,” she said, laughing.

“Just start baking… Practice, practice, practice. Your family will love you for it.”

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