Classical musicians are known for regularly cooking up concerts.
But six dedicated members of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra Baking Club — believed to be the only one of its kind in the country — have also been trading in their bows for egg beaters since February 2019, whipping up mouthwatering treats and tortes that would make Marie Antoinette proud.
"What baking and playing in an orchestra have in common is that we’re constantly learning," says cellist Arlene Dahl, the club’s ringleader, who has performed with the WSO for 42 years. "You mix the ingredients, you practise, and at the end of the day, you share what you have made with others.
"You’ve either created a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth, or a chocolate cake that your husband can then eat for the rest of the week!" she adds with a laugh.
The unique group loosely began with musicians bringing in plates of goodies for colleagues to enjoy during rehearsal breaks, or when tucked away in the orchestra pit during pre-pandemic opera and ballet performances. It continued to rise after concertmaster Gwen Hoebig and fellow violinist Julie Savard shared their love for baking, swapping tips and tricks while carpooling together to the Centennial Concert Hall.
Baking is in Hoebig’s blood; her father, who was her first violin teacher, worked as a professional pastry chef for Vancouver’s historic Hotel Georgia, famous for its baking during the 1960s. The violinist asked her friend, local pianist and baker extraordinaire Charisse Wurch, to host cake-decorating lessons for the growing group that now also included WSO violinists Sonia Lazar and Elation Pauls, and principal bassoonist Kathryn Brooks (currently on a maternity leave).
"Musicians tend to be very particular, and baking is another creative outlet," says Hoebig, now in her 33rd season with the orchestra, who often treats her private violin students to home-baked cookies after lessons and masterclasses. "Anything that allows us to fulfil that side of our personalities is something that we naturally gravitate towards."
Many local music fans have already sampled the club’s wares, with the group providing cheesecakes and tortes for WSO fundraisers including October’s Bubbles and Beethoven (prepared under WOW! Hospitality’s rigorous pandemic regulations) and last month’s Valentine’s Day concert, Love in the Time of COVID, for which their desserts — including Savard’s Lemon Poppyseed Cupcakes — were part of the catering package delivered to listeners’ homes prior to (digital) curtain time.
The musicians regularly get together — via Zoom chat due to physical distancing measures — for "baking dates" in their respective kitchens, where they’ll display recent culinary results, talk cake-decorating gear from piping tips to spinning turntables, or share recipes, including cherished family heirlooms, for the others to try. Many also compare notes after watching popular TV shows such as The Great Canadian Baking Show, or after further sharpening their skills with YouTube videos.
Music often plays second fiddle to deeper, more personal conversations between this sisterhood of bakers with their close-knit bonds.
"We all share this love of baking, but we also have other things going on in our lives," Dahl says. "There’s so much that is interesting about every human being that sits onstage at the concert hall, and this is a great way to find out a little more about each other."
If one member is feeling low or having an inevitable bad day, the group quickly rallies to schedule a Zoom baking session, where they’ll commiserate and offer invaluable support, or serve as an unconditional sounding board.
While no men are currently part of the club — nor is it capped at six — Dahl says they would be welcomed with open arms, noting that several of the WSO’s male musicians have carved out a name for themselves with their culinary prowess, including Russian-born maestro Daniel Raiskin, whose own gourmet cooking demonstration videos, created and streamed from his Amsterdam home last spring during the first wave lockdown, were seen by viewers around the globe.
Lazar, an avid baker since high school, has advice for any aspiring Martha Stewarts still sitting on the fence.
"Be really patient with yourself, and don’t think you can’t bake because you failed the first couple of times, or even the first five times," she says. "It’s completely normal and is part of the learning process. Also start with simpler recipes and you will get there."
The versatile Moscow-born artist, who spent time living on an Israeli kibbutz while growing up and is a crackerjack klezmer fiddler, has thought about why musicians are particularly attuned to baking, and what she calls creating "mini-pieces of art."
"As classical musicians, we’re very good at following directions and are highly detail oriented," she says. "We’re also perfectionists, so that leads to really good baking results, as well."
Baking also offers another, more timely reason to whip out the whisk and get cracking on recipes, according to Pauls, who is the artistic director and co-founder of Winnipeg’s Rosamunde Summer Music Academy and Festival, normally held each August.
"Baking is one source of comfort that you can enjoy, and especially during a global pandemic," she says. "When you can’t go anywhere, you turn to what’s close at hand, and that’s your kitchen. It’s no surprise there was a huge shortage of flour in the stores this year, because everyone’s looking for a bit of solace right now."
Perhaps Savard says it best, adding final icing to the cake with her short, very sweet message:
"If you’re having a stressful week but you know there’s something special waiting for you at the end of the day, it makes everything better. It brings people together, and gives them joy," she says. "A cupcake is instant happiness."
Here are a few recipes to try, courtesy of the WSO Baking Club:
LEMON POPPYSEED CUPCAKES (JULIE SAVARD)
310 ml (1 1/4 cups) unbleached flour
6 ml (1 1/4 tsp) baking powder
2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) baking soda
2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) salt
15 ml (1 tbsp) poppyseeds
2 large eggs, room temp
180 ml (3/4 cup) sugar
7.5 ml (1 1/2 tsp) pure vanilla extract
125 ml (1/2 cup) canola oil (or vegetable)
125 ml (1/2 cup) milk + 15 ml (1 tbsp) lemon juice
Zest of a lemon
1 ml (1/4 tsp) pure lemon extract (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 F and line a cupcake/muffin pan with cupcake liners.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and the poppyseeds. Set flour mix aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat 2 eggs with the whisk attachment on medium speed (15-20 seconds). Add sugar and continue to beat on medium speed (30 seconds). Add vanilla, oil, lemon zest and lemon extract and beat on medium speed (1 minute)
Reduce mixer speed to medium/low and slowly add about half of the flour mixture, mixing until incorporated. Add half of the milk and lemon juice and mix until incorporated. Repeat with remaining flour and milk and lemon juice. Beat until just combined and smooth, scraping down the sides of the mixing bowl as needed. The batter will be thin.
Pour batter into a lined muffin pan. I use a level ice cream scoop for even measuring. Fill liners to about 2/3 full (do not over-fill).
Bake for 16-18 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. Let them cool in the pan for a couple minutes, then remove.
STRAWBERRY JAM FROSTING (JULIE SAVARD)
125 ml (1/2 cup) softened unsalted butter
10 ml (2 tsp) vanilla
1 l (4 cups) powdered sugar
60 ml (1/4 cup) strawberry jam
5 ml (1 tsp) or more milk to reach consistency (use cream for a creamier taste!)
Whip the softened butter with vanilla. Then slowly add in 500 ml (2 cups) of the powdered sugar. Add the strawberry jam and whip. Add the rest of the sugar and mix well. If it’s too thick, add a little milk or cream until you reach your desired consistency.
CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES (ARLENE DAHL)
180 ml (3/4 cup) all-purpose flour
125 ml (1/2 cup) unsweetened natural (not Dutch process) cocoa powder
4 ml (3/4 tsp) baking powder
2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) baking soda
1 ml (1/4 tsp) salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
80 ml (1/3 cup) caster sugar
80 ml (1/3 cup) packed light brown sugar
80 ml (1/3 cup) vegetable or canola oil
10 ml (2 tsp) pure vanilla extract
125 ml (1/2 cup) buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Mix the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a large bowl.
In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, caster and brown sugars, oil, and vanilla together. Pour half of the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, then half the buttermilk. Combine. Repeat with the remaining wet ingredients and buttermilk. Stir but do not over mix. The batter will be very thin.
Spoon the batter into muffin tin with cupcake liners and bake for 18-21 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out cleanly. Remove cupcakes from pan after 5 minutes, then place on rack to finish cooling. Top with your favourite icing.
SOFT PUMPKIN COOKIES (SONIA LAZAR)
Yields: 3 dozen
625 ml (2 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
5 ml (1 tsp) baking soda
5 ml (1 tsp) baking powder
5 ml (1 tsp) cinnamon
2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) nutmeg
2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) salt
375 ml (1 1/2 cups) granulated sugar
125 ml (1/2 cup) butter, softened
250 ml (1 cup) pure pumpkin
5 ml (1 tsp) vanilla extract
250 ml (1 cup) powdered sugar
Take butter out of the fridge an hour before you plan to bake.
Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt.
In a large bowl, beat granulated sugar and butter with mixer on medium high speed, then blend in pumpkin, egg, and vanilla until incorporated.
Gradually mix in flour and dry ingredients. Refrigerate dough for 3-4 hours.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Scoop dough into 2.5-cm (1-inch) balls. Roll in powdered sugar, place dough balls on baking sheet (12 per sheet) and bake for 11-13 minutes.
Remove from baking sheet to a cooling rack. When completely cool, store cookies in an airtight container.