Bloomington baker Woody Wolston is the unseen 'second pair of hands' behind Rose Levy Beranbaum's cookbook empire.
A single e-mail steered Woody Wolston's life in a radically different direction.
It was December 2003, and Wolston, a residential property manager and passionate cake baker, was recipe-hopping his way through his battered copy of "The Cake Bible," Rose Levy Beranbaum's hyper-detailed testament to all things cake-ish. Then he was sharing the delicious output with his grateful buddies.
He dashed off a question to the author's website. "My first line was, 'You won't believe this, but your biggest fans are broom ball players and t'ai chi followers,' and then I went on to ask her a few questions about cakes," said Wolston. "She replied back, 'What's broom ball and t'ai chi?'"
Despite their physical distance -- he's in Bloomington, she's in New York City -- the two quickly became fast friends. And then colleagues. Within a year, Beranbaum was forwarding recipes, in search of feedback. After passing the critical test -- spending three nonstop days working together in her baking laboratory, otherwise known as the converted living room of her Greenwich Village apartment -- Wolston was working as Beranbaum's assistant.
The duo quickly immersed themselves in the production of her 2009 title, "Rose's Heavenly Cakes" (Wiley, $39.95), which includes Wolston's impressive Woody's Lemon Luxury Layer Cake (find the recipe at right). In the book's acknowledgments, Beranbaum refers to Wolston as her "guardian angel."
Now they're knee-deep in a new title, burning up their iPhones an average of two hours a day. In a recent conversation -- over cake, naturally -- Wolston discussed their unusual working relationship, baking dos-and-don'ts and the joys of gratitude.
Q How does your working relationship work?
A Rose is incredible. She works 24/7, and she's extremely picky. I give her something that she didn't have. When she makes a recipe, she'll write notes and date them. But I came up with my recipe planner, for each cake, a formal spreadsheet. And I numbered each trial. You know, "On test No. 23, we found we needed to adjust the baking powder," that kind of thing. I gave her a standardization that she didn't have. I'm her second pair of hands across many miles.
Q You're currently working on a new book, right?
A It won't be out for a while, 2015 at the earliest. We're working on Rose's time frame, which is about five years for a book. I can't give you the title. Usually she focuses on a single subject -- cakes, pies, breads -- but this one is going to be across the board, the full spectrum, with cakes, pies, pastries, breads, cookies and a few candies.
Q What is it about Rose's approach that appeals to you?
A She's extremely explicit in her recipes, and that's very unusual. You really can't screw up her recipes. She really wants you to achieve success. She gives you the whole science behind it, she's very into food chemistry. We get comments all the time like, "The recipes are very complicated, they're very long." Well, they're long because we're with you every step of the way. If it's a variable, we include it.
Q I love hearing you say "we." Is that deliberate?
A Well, we just have this synergy that really works. It's a yin-yang type deal. We're very comfortable with one another. We have this unspoken dialogue between us. She's the surgeon, and I'm the nurse right next to her. We have a lot of fun. It's no secret that she's so meticulous. One of the biggest thrills I've had is when Rose and I did a demonstration in San Francisco. I came to the book signing, and she said, "You can sign, too." She gave me a pen and said, "Here, you keep this pen, I don't want you to use mine. You're a boy, you press too hard and you'll wreck it [laughs]."
Q What are some common baking mistakes that people encounter?
A I'm guilty of this: You need to read the recipe all the way through. I sometimes shoot ahead because I think, "I know how to do this," but that's a mistake.
Q What lessons have you learned about ovens over the years?
A That all the ovens I've ever used have been wrong. You need to buy an oven thermometer. That way you'll know that when you need to bake at 350, you're baking at 350. I've used very basic ovens: Kenmores, Whirlpools. Most of them have been electric, and we advocate electric ovens for baking, because the heat is more even. Convection is the best.
Q Any recommendations for equipment?
A We use Wilton for springform pans, Nordic Ware for Bundt pans, and Chicago Metallic. We use KitchenAid Artisan six-quart mixers. Rose and I use the same equipment. Everything. Because when we crunch numbers, the numbers have to be the same. We call my kitchen "Rose's kitchen out west."
Q You must find yourself on the receiving end of a great deal of gratitude when you show up with a cake. What's that like?
A I see happiness. I see joy. It makes me happy to know that my baking makes people happy. It's so gratifying to hear that. If there's one thing that Rose has done for me, it's that she's helped me touch people's lives. I touch people on the blog www.realbakingwithrose.com every day, from Des Moines to New Zealand. I'm sure there are thousands of people out there who have made the Woody cake and took it to a birthday party where someone said, "Wow." Wow. I've touched that person.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757