Why were Grandma's baked goods so delicious? We spoke to chefs and everyday people about what they learned about baking from their grandmothers.

Vidya Rao
November 09, 2020
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Jocelyn Delk Adams, cookbook author and founder of Grandbabycakes.com, with her grandmother.
| Credit: Photo by Chuck Olu-Alabi; Design by Tyler Stendhal

Our series, "Just Like Grandma Used to Make," explores why we're craving Grandma's cooking now more than ever—and why we should all embrace our comfort-food cravings.

Many people have fond memories of their grandmothers in the kitchen, whipping up something sweet that would make her whole house smell like heaven. And that something sweet always went directly into her grandchildren's mouths. Why were Grandma's baked goods so delicious? We spoke to chefs and everyday people about what they learned about baking from their grandmothers, and over and over again we heard the same things: it's less about time-saving hacks and more about patience, seasonality, simplicity—and definitely not counting calories.

Don't take shortcuts

"[My grandmother] took the time, she took no shortcuts, and she was just patient," said Gason Nelson, a New Orleans-based private chef who says his grandmother made "the best apple pie ever," in addition to a rotation of Creole classics. "She took the time to knead the dough, to chill the butter. Now, you can just go buy pre-made pie crust and it's just not the same. So I learned from my grandma to be true to the dish that you're making. If you've got to knead the dough with your hands, then knead it. If it's supposed to sit in the refrigerator for 30 minutes and rest so the butter can tighten up, do that. Don't take no shortcuts. 'Cause all the small things that might seem tedious are things that make a big difference."

Add a pinch of salt

Cookbook author and baker extraordinaire Jocelyn Delk Adams credits her grandmother for her baking skills. Her brand, Grandbaby Cakes, pays homage to her Mississippi-raised grandmother, Maggie Mae Small, affectionately known as Big Mama. "Miss Maggie Mae's cakes were sorta famous there. People would come by and pick up cakes all the time or ask her to bake for a special occasion or holiday," said Adams, who was around 7 years old when she started helping her grandmother in the kitchen. Her tip? In addition to having patience in the kitchen, Adams learned about the importance of adding salt to sweet dishes. "My Big Mama always believed in adding salt to everything she baked," she said. "A lot of new bakers don't realize the importance of adding salt to baked goods to really balance the sweetness and make their desserts sing even more."

The magic of ice water

Rachael Narins remembers her New York City born and bred grandmother Marcelle Narins as "the world's best baker"—it's even imprinted on her gravestone. "She always dipped her hands in ice water before she baked," said Narins, the Los Angeles-based founder of Chicks with Knives supper club. "She thought it helped keep her nail polish from chipping. But it actually has a scientific purpose, because it helps stop butter from melting when you handle pie crust. It cracked me up but later I realized how smart it was."

Don't fret about fat

Healthy eating is all about balance, but when it comes to baking, the one thing everyone agreed on is that grandmas put all the fat in their desserts with no second thoughts about calorie count. What they did do, though, was use real ingredients. New York-based food justice advocate and chef Yadira Garcia recalled her grandmother making her famous Dominican tres leches cake. "It's a really moist, spongy yellow cake that's wet, which sounds weird but is the most delicious thing. It's got all the indulgent things you would think of: condensed milk, coconut cream, whole milk, butter, sugar, eggs. But when she was making these things, she was grabbing eggs from her farm. She was getting fresh milk. She wasn't thinking about how many calories Dominican cake has in it. She was making these things for joy and for pleasure and for memories."

Keep it simple and seasonal

Cathy Shenoy, a New York-based school social worker, echoed that sentiment. Her grandmother, Angie Czajkowski, helped run the family farm in western Massachusetts. "She believed a meal wasn't complete without dessert," said Shenoy, who reminisced about her grandmother's fresh fruit cobblers and crumbles. "It was always a tray bake. I remember these cobblers because she had all this fresh fruit from the farm. They grew strawberries, blueberries, rhubarb and raspberries, too." The lesson that sticks with her is to bake with simple but seasonal ingredients. "It was like really just flour, sugar, butter, a little baking soda, and we're done." And she lives by the following rule: "If you're going to eat a fruit or vegetable, it has to be in season. That was the law of the land, and so to this day, I refuse to buy strawberries in the middle of winter."

Better with bacon

Bacon fat, it turns out, can even make desserts better. "My mom loved her grandma's apple fritters," said EatingWell food features editor Carolyn Malcoun. "She finally got her to teach her how to make them and my mom measured everything as she went. She got home, made the fritters and was like, 'Ugh, these taste nothing like my grandma's.' She then had an aha moment: There was a can of bacon fat on her stove and she realized her grandma fried her fritters in the fat and bam! Perfect fritters next time."

The secret to moist cake

Acclaimed Institute of Culinary Education chef Seamus Mullen had two classically trained chefs as grandmothers. "I'm not much of a baker, but the few things I do bake are old family recipes," Mullen said. "My paternal grandmother would make lemon pound cake, which is also one of my favorite desserts to this day. Right before slicing and serving it, she'd make a lemon simple syrup, and she would pour that over the cake so it would make it super moist and infused with lemon flavor."

Get your hands dirty

We've got so many kitchen gadgets now, but grandmas' main tools were their hands. "My mum (who is now a grandmother), taught me how to make real Scottish shortbread and apple crumble at an early age," said EatingWell digital content director Penelope Wall. "She always used her fingers to rub the butter into the dry mix, so that's how I've always done it for shortbread, crumble, biscuits and scones. I actually didn't even know pastry cutters existed until my 30s! She also taught me not to overmix my scones and barely mix the cream into the butter crumble before baking so they don't get tough and are super tender."