A Baker’s Dozen With Author Milana Marsenich

A Baker’s Dozen With Author Milana Marsenich

People like me more now that I bake. It’s true. Baking has leavened my relationships at work, with my neighbors, and with my friends and family, including my mother who passed away several years ago. Baking calms my anger, soothes my grief, and makes me a happier, if slightly larger, person. It’s the extra ingredient in my newly found domestic self, rounding me out to a perfect baker’s dozen, willing to give just a little bit more.

The fall I learned to bake I made a cranberry, coconut lime pie for Thanksgiving. The day after Thanksgiving I made onion and cheese rolls. I still remember lifting the towel off of the bowl where the dough had been set to rise. My father, who had baked and given away hundreds of loaves of bread, napped in a nearby chair. As soon as he opened his eyes, I said, “Dad, it’s rising!” He lifted his sleeping eyebrows and looked at me kind of funny, “That’s what bread dough does,” he said. “It rises.”


I made sugar cookies, shortbread caramel kiss cookies and apple bread for Christmas. I delivered peanut butter chocolate chip cookies to a neighbor who adored my dog. I signed the card, “woof, woof”. For New Year’s I made a buttermilk pie and more shortbread cookies. People started showing up at my house unannounced. They called or emailed to see what I was baking.


A baker’s dozen is thirteen, a little extra, something generous and unexpected, like the “conversations” I started having with my mother. I looked through my collection of recipes and found several of hers: sweet potato salad, pasties, povetica. Povetica is a Serbian desert bread my mother made for Serbian Christmas each year. Inspired by her diligence, I pulled the recipe.


My mother’s handwriting swirled before me: “Put 1# (or 1 ½#) honey in bottom of kettle.” Well, what did you use, Mom, one or one and a half? “Add one cube butter (or margarine).” I don’t like margarine any more, Mom. “Place over warm burner. Grind 1# of walnuts.” Are you sure it’s not one and a half pounds of walnuts? “Add to honey. Add 1 can of Sego milk.” Sego milk? No one uses Sego milk around here, Mom. “Beat in two eggs. Add more milk if this gets too thick.” Too thick?  “Keep warm for easy spreading. Stir often as it will scorch easily.” She goes on to tell me to place the dough on a floured cloth and roll it out paper thin, spread the filling over it and use the floured cloth to help shape it into a roll.

“Good Luck,” she says at the end of the recipe.

Baker’s dozen is a term that comes from 13th century England where a correct count of baked goods was so important that a person could actually be flogged or hanged for short changing a customer. The baker would throw an extra roll or loaf of bread into the order and pass it over with general good will. In its truest essence it was a way for the common baker to protect himself from any type of lawsuit.

Me, I’m not particularly worried about getting hanged, but baking did save me from certain isolation at work one day. Here’s my version of the story. After doing what I thought was a good job of working as a team member, others accused me of being selfish, self-centered, and making deals “behind closed doors”. First, I got my feeling hurt, then I got mad, and then I wanted revenge.

As I planned my revenge I baked a couple of loaves of apple bread. After three failed tries with this recipe, these two loaves turned out perfectly. Plus, I still had some leftover shortbread cookies.


So, I thought, to heck with it, I’ll just bring this bread and the cookies to work. Some revenge. Slowly, even somewhat cautiously, my co-workers tested the cookies and bread, and the first hints of goodwill started to emerge. A co-worker thanked me, one complimented the cookies, another smiled broadly at me, everyone became a little more chatty. A good flogging was avoided and we were a team again.

Baking has taught me to go slow, to follow the recipe, to know how far and in what direction I can push the limits. For instance, I wouldn’t add oranges to a buttermilk pie, but I might add nutmeg. It’s taught me to respect the learning process. When I make a mistake, I look at what I did wrong and figure out the changes necessary to make the product come out better the next time. In baking it’s very clear that if I make the same mistake twice, I’ll get exactly the same failed results.

Recently a friend, who enjoyed the povetica, told me that feeding people is the ultimate hospitality. When we were kids in Butte and unexpected guests arrived at our home, my brothers and I would look at each other out of the corners of our eyes. “FHB,” we’d whisper. Family hold back. This assured that there would be plenty of food and that the guests would be properly fed.

There are other types of nourishment too. One day a neighbor shoveled the snow off of my deck. Another friend took my garbage out. One dropped off a basket with bath salts and a good book. Since we’re no longer in danger of being hanged or flogged for short changing another, I prefer to think that these kindnesses are the baker’s dozen of our time. It’s that little bit extra, that plenty of food, the cookies at work, the families holding back, the neighbors shoveling snow, the bath salts and good books. It’s my mother’s “good luck” at the end of a recipe. A baker’s dozen is a simple gesture of goodwill. And baking, whether we’re on the eating side or the baking side of it, as long as it’s a shared process, might help us all learn to like each other a little more.

Click here to learn how to make povetica, the same Slavic bread that appears in Milana Marsenich’s Copper Sky.

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COPPER SKY by Milana Marsenich