The Kitchen in the Morning
Early day unfolds to the gentle pleasures of baking
Early riser Alana Chernila savors mornings in her kitchen and is open to whatever needs baking—even mushy bananas or spotty pears.
Photos by Jennifer May
My family has learned that if they stay in bed on the weekends and pretend to sleep, they have a much better chance of getting baked goods for breakfast.
The windows in my kitchen face west, so the room never sees the sun rise. Instead, the light slides in gently, almost scooping under the counters with a clear blue that seems left over from the moon itself, which often shares the sky with the rising sun. I preheat the oven without knowing what’s for breakfast; 350°F or 375°F is usually a safe bet, and with the press of the button, I’m already baking.
Whatever needs baking is what gets baked. Mushy bananas mean banana-chocolate muffins. Sad and spotty pears, usually sent in lunch boxes and rejected, are revitalized, chopped into something to fold with hazelnuts into batter. The last cup of frozen blueberries that was left out and then refrozen—time for blueberry-almond muffins. This is how I most love to be in the kitchen. This is not crazy dinnertime or helping the kids make a cake. It’s just me, coffee, and the blue scoop of morning light.
It was these early-morning baking sessions that made me love the kitchen in the first place. My first baking job fell to me because someone at the coffee shop where I worked had to make the muffins, and I was willing to try. I was unhappy and young and stuck in my hometown, Great Barrington. But every morning, I’d roll out of bed and pull on clothes to the earliest part of NPR.
I’d walk across Castle Street from my apartment to the restaurant kitchen in the old train station we borrowed for morning baking, unlock the door, turn on the lights, and preheat the gas oven. There was often some remnant of last night’s service, a streak on the stainless counter, a water glass left with its final sip. That quiet kitchen, growing lighter as the muffins puffed and grew from batter to breakfast, their aroma filling the kitchen—it was as if my mind took on those very qualities, quiet just for that time. I would never have called myself a baker, but I was. I couldn’t roll a piecrust or recall a perfect chocolate-chip cookie recipe from memory, but the hum of the preheating oven calmed me, and I’ve since learned that it’s emotion that pulls you closer to being a baker or a cook.
People always seem to want to identify with one or the other, as if we are all born with the genetic predisposition to fall into one particular camp. But I think in the end it comes down to what form of heat makes your skin tingle as you roll up your sleeves in the kitchen. A pot of boiling water? A grill or open fire? A wood-fired bread oven? For me, it’s the early-morning oven, humming and rattling to build heat for whatever will go inside.
I like to think that the kitchen and I are in it together, and like any long-term relationship, I work on accepting my partner through all states of being. More often than not, its state is chaos, and that’s okay, too. But those morning baking sessions are when the kitchen and I go back to where we began.
The above excerpt is from Alana Chernila’s new book, "The Homemade Kitchen."
Click the link for Alana Chernila's Large Muffin Recipe