For Tara Jensen, the baker, artist, and teacher behind Smoke Signals Bakery in Asheville, North Carolina, the goal has never been wild commercial success or mainstream availability. As Julia Kramer wrote in 2016, Jensen “structures her life around the rhythms of a wood-burning oven, not the demands of a high-volume production facility.” We will never find Jensen’s bread in a California supermarket—and that’s part of its appeal.
It’s no surprise, then, that her new cookbook, A Baker’s Year: Twelve Months of Baking and Living the Simple Life at the Smoke Signals Bakery, is not a straightforward, nuts-and-bolts baking textbook. Part journal, part self-help book, part sketchpad, and, yes, part cookbook, it’s a personal, poetic peek into her life over twelve months, a stand-out publication in an age when, as she argues in her introductory letter, we favor touch screens over face-to-face contact and the appearance of bread to the bread itself. “Be concerned with more than just looks to achieve a bread that doesn’t leave the heart bitter and the stomach empty,” she instructs. “Bread should look, first and foremost, like it came from somewhere.”
And your bread will look like it came from you. Jensen does not—she cannot!—offer instruction that would allow us to replicate the perfectly rustic sourdoughs and festooned pies that have earned her so many Instagram followers. She calls for freshly-milled, regionally-specific grains, for a cornmeal called “Bloody Butcher,” for bee pollen, sorghum syrup, edible flowers, and many other ingredients you may not find at your local store. Unless you can recreate Jensen’s exact environment, your pies, cakes, and breads will not be mistaken for hers. And that’s okay.
Jensen talks about baking like many people talk about yoga: your practice, your breath, your intention. She asks us to be patient and resilient and independent. We will learn to take baking into our own hands; we will fail, adjust, and note-keep. She does not outline a guide to pie-decorating because she is confident that we can be artists, too. “With enough practice, your own voice will emerge.”
The headnotes are short, and many are more evocative than informational. “Sweet and tangy and a little out of the box. Just like my new crush, ” she says of her peaches and rhubarb pie. “Aromatic and toothy like a bouquet of honey and flowers,” she says of her spelt waffles. It might be easiest to decide what you’d like to bake first based on how you’re feeling at the moment.
Even if you’re not a baker at heart, you can still learn something. Jensen tells us how to nurture a sourdough starter, sure, but also how to take a deep breath (start by finding a comfortable space) and host a Sunday night pizza party. You might even get inspiration for tonight’s dinner: coriander-sage pancakes brushed with a honey-balsamic glaze and served with pickled onions, capers, and cheese, or pizza with roasted spinach and roasted turnips. Her “yard sauce”—the pet name for a pizza dressing made from olive oil blitzed with an entire head of garlic, lemon, and herbs—sounds like something you’d be wise to make every week to toss into pastas and salads.
It’s an eclectic mix, but one that reflects Jensen’s desire for her cookbook to be more than that. “She wants her book to contain stuff about, like, the moon. About astrology and poetry,” wrote Kramer back in 2016. “And people said, Okay, that’s great, but do you have any recipes?”
This book is Jensen’s victory. A Baker’s Year closes with an outline of the lunar cycle from new moon to waning crescent, followed by instructions for setting a new moon intention, and and a handful of recipes for lofty, single layer “moon cakes”: Full moon is what we know to be yellow cake; new moon, a deep chocolate; waning moon, a sunny turmeric-orange; and waxing moon, a hearty spice cake with apple, walnuts, and ginger.
“Bake the full moon cake two or three times before moving on to the other cakes. You may forgo the timer and the notepad once you learn the rhythm, but perhaps you will enjoy it, bringing the ritual of goal-setting and journal writing with you into your baking.” And when the intention is a great cake, the practice isn’t so bad.