For Kim Ode, becoming known as the baking guru of the Star Tribune was the result of a midlife crisis. Of course, as a South Dakota farm girl, she had grown up baking.
“My dad farmed a thousand acres with his two brothers,” Ode said. “So there were always men to bake for — a cake or pie for the noon meal and something sweet for the mid-afternoon lunch. And the cookie jar was always full.”
But life went on. And Ode found herself busy — with a career as a newspaper feature writer, plus two young children — and fell out of the habit of regular baking.
Then, about 17 years ago, she was paging through a catalog for the North House Folk School in Grand Marais and saw a listing for a class on building a brick bread oven.
“It was like a thunderbolt,” Ode said. “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do. I need something tangible and physical, and this is it.’”
Ode, a longtime Edina resident, signed up and spent a weekend class building an oven with her North House classmates. She then purchased the instructor’s book explaining how to build her own — and proceeded to do just that, all by herself.
“I mixed the cement, cut the rebar — did the whole damn thing,” she said. “I was determined to do it without help, which drove my husband — a furniture builder (John Danicic) — crazy.”
Once she had her 3,000-pound oven, of course, she realized, “It was time to get serious about bread baking.”
“I just wanted to know how home bakers baked. And it was fun to be around other people who were deeply into bread,” she said of the now-defunct club. “They got all hepped up about it.”
Because a wood-fired oven takes four to five hours to heat up, there was no point in baking just a few loaves. So Ode started mixing up dough for dozens of loaves, storing the extras in her basement freezer or giving them away to friends, coworkers and charitable organizations.
Then came Ode’s first book, Baking With the St. Paul Bread Club: Recipes, Tips and Stories (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2006), featuring 70 of the group’s favorite recipes for everything from baguettes to potica (a Slovenian bread with a sweet nutty filling).
Lee Dean, editor of Taste, wanted to encourage readers to bake more, but realized many younger readers hadn’t grown up at the oven with their parents and therefore lacked “the little techniques you get by doing it,” as Ode put it.
“It’s my contention that baking is just a series of steps,” said Ode, adding that the main mission behind Baking Central is to lay out a step-by-step process anyone can follow.
Dean said readers love Ode’s recipes, which is saying something in a food-obsessed world dominated by extravagant reality baking shows, food blogs and over-the-top Instagram feeds.
“Minnesota is full of bakers looking for a new project in the kitchen, and she offers them a challenge each month.” Dean said. “Kim adds the authority of an experienced baker with the clear, concise instructions of a wise teacher who helps the reader through the steps of a new recipe. There’s no one who can better explain a concept or task in the kitchen. She adds a great depth of knowledge to the pages of Taste.”
Then came strudel
In the first few years of Baking Central, which began in 2010, Ode tackled relatively simple standbys such as baking powder biscuits, sponge cake and cupcakes. But more recently she’s segued into challenging delicacies such as Danish pastries, macarons and apple strudel (no store-bought phyllo dough allowed).
Indeed strudel’s stretchy dough is Ode’s latest baking passion.
In one Baking Central column, she anointed it “the coolest dough ever” and claimed that making apple strudel was “almost easier than making apple pie. She called the dough “a tender marvel of kitchen chemistry, an extraordinarily extendible sheet … you can read a love letter through.”
Ode’s own love affair with strudel is much like the woman herself — creative passion tempered by rationality. Her go-to recipe didn’t come about until she’d done plenty of research, trying out various instructions and ingredients (yes, she uses an egg).
Between Ode’s bread-baking and strudel phases came her rhubarb era, which yielded a second cookbook, Rhubarb Renaissance (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012).
It includes 50 recipes using the controversial vegetable (love it or hate it) ranging from savory to sweet and appetizers to entrees.
“Rhubarb custard pie may be one of nature’s more perfect foods,” Ode contends. “But rhubarb also has a savory side. Shrimp and rhubarb are a culinary marriage made in heaven.”
Ode’s ode to rhubarb — which also includes the plant’s historical medicinal uses and preservation tips— is part of her growing interest in cooking and baking techniques that reflect the cultures of the Upper Midwest.
It’s a philosophy she shares with North House Folk School, where she’s now a teacher.
“We’re lucky because this region is steeped in baking,” she said, given the Scandinavian, German and Eastern European heritage of many Minnesotans.
Retirement! Ode’s last day at the Star Tribune will be May 1. (Don’t worry, she’ll keep her Baking Central column going as a freelancer.)
Ode’s once-young kids are, of course, grown now, including her son, Austin, who does polar services in Antarctica and Greenland, and her daughter, Mimi, an event planner in Minneapolis.
So Ode plans to add to her teaching load, which already includes four annual classes at the Grand Marais folk school — Small Breads; Rhubarb; European Pastries; and Noodles to Strudels.
Dean said Ode is a natural teacher.
“Kim makes it all look easy,” Dean said. “But her work reflects an attention to detail — and a knowledge of what a fellow baker needs to know.”
Ode said she’ll also keep trying out recipes, old and new, in her simple wood-countered kitchen, where a forest green Kitchen Aid stand mixer (“my favorite tool”) is never put away.
And she’ll keep encouraging other bakers, neophytes and veterans alike to tackle baked delights that before seemed impossible.
After all, Ode argues, “Confidence is the most important ingredient in baking.”
Kim’s Baking Tips
- LEAVE YOUR KITCHEN AID STAND MIXER ON THE COUNTER. “If you put it away, you’ll never use it.”
- BUY A BENCH KNIFE. It’s Ode’s second favorite tool (pictured below), which she uses to chop, scrape and clean off the counter.
- PARCHMENT PAPER RULES. “Nothing ever sticks if you use it; it ensures success.”
- TRY ALL-PURPOSE FLOUR from North Dakota Mill. “It’s a reliable flour, cheaper than King Arthur, and they prominently date when it was packed.”
- DON’T BE TIMID. “When you knead, stir and beat dough, put your back into it and work up a sweat. Whip means whip! That’s why baking is therapeutic.”
LOOK FOR KIM ODE’S COOKING COURSES AT NORTHHOUSE.ORG.
Lynette Lamb majored in home economics journalism and worked at Cuisine magazine, but you would never know it by her oven’s output.