Running her tea room and bakery in Sarzana in north-west Italy, Melissa Forti has achieved the ultimate dream for many self-taught bakers and applied her passion and creativity to a successful business built on a pure love of the craft.
In 2016 she published The Italian Baker, a collection of recipes that respect the traditions of Italy, while taking the nation’s baking into the future with her own, distinct take on the many of the classics. In her ‘A Baker’s Life’ interview, Melissa discusses her journey from baking books to baking school, her love of nature and her unending quest to unpick the recipe for the best lemon cake she’s ever tasted.
What was the earliest bake that you remember?
I started baking cupcakes for fun and very few places in Europe were baking cupcakes. In Italy they didn’t know what they were. The first batch I have ever baked was ugly, and tasted horrible! My partner at the time, tasted them and I could see on his face he was not impressed at all, but didn’t want to hurt me and so he kindly asked me to bake them again. Because I had fun baking them, I decided to try again and the second try was definitely more rewarding, but still far from perfect. After years of studying and attending baking masterclasses, I have acheived what I wanted in my baked goods. So, I feel accomplished and happy. Although cupcakes are not as “hip” as they used to be, we still bake them in my tea room, because customers demand to have them on the menu.
How did you learn to bake?
My journery through the baking world hasn’t been the traditional type. Baking came into my life as a surprise. I never thought it could become my life and profession. I started learning by reading tons of baking books, as well as Pastry Academy books. My collection is huge. I am indeed a book junkie. I am particularly addicted to searching antique cook books. When learning by myself felt as it was not enough for me anymore, I attended many masterclasses in England. I wanted to gain the technical skills in order to be able to express my creativity knowing what I was doing.
Baking for me means never taking anything for granted. Which is a great lesson also in life, I guess.
What do you feel you still have to learn?
Like many jobs, baking is the kind where the learning curve never ends. People sometimes think it is all about eggs, flour and sugar, but they couldn’t be more wrong! I feel I will never reach the end of my learning adventure when it comes down to baking cakes and this is what exites me the most! I get bored of things when I feel there are no new things to learn, but in this job it is absoultely not the case! Everyday is a challenge. Everyday, something needs to be adjusted, changed, or perfected. Even the recipes I feel most comfortable making, they can turn out horribly wrong if I don’t pay attention. So, Baking for me means never taking anything for granted. Which is a great lesson also in life, I guess.
What or who is the biggest inspiration on your baking life?
Nature is my biggest inspiration. I try to be in touch with it as much as I can, by using only the best ingredients and avoiding processed ones. I let nature guide me and do most of the job. I am afraid I don’t have just one person that has inspired me. There are fellow bakers I admire a lot, but I tend not to search for inspiration in others. My biggest sources are history, traditions and stories passed from generations to generations and friends who tell me things like: “Ah, My mother used to add an extra egg to any of her recipes to increase the texture and her cakes were amazing!” I also, search for trends of course, but I prefer to stick to traditions as I feel that tradition never goes out of fashion and it feels really reassuring.
If you could only bake one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Lemon cakes in all their forms and shapes. I am a simple gal and I love simple things. Lemon zest or fresh juice is present in most of my fruit-based baking goods. Without a little lemon and/or a high quality vanilla, a cake is not a cake. My memories of a lemon cake go back to when I was a child. My mother used to work a lot and I used to wait for her to pick me up at her friend’s house where I would go after school. Her friend, used to bake for me a very quick and simple Italian Lemon Ciambellone, something very close to a pound Cake. She used to grate so much zest and squeeze so much fresh juice, the whole kitchen smelled like a lemon tree field in Sicily! The result was a super fluffy, scented and tall cake! To this day, I am in a quest to reproduce the exact same flavour and texture. I still haven’t managed it, but I will not stop until I get it right.
If you could only eat one thing made by another baker for the rest of your life, what would it be?
The city is Rome, the place is called “Pasticceria Regoli” and it is the oldest Pastry shop in Rome at 102 years old. I could eat their “Ricotta Fagottini” like there is no tomorrow.
What’s the best baking advice you’ve ever received?
I have never received any specific baking advice, the the advice I still cherish most and apply everyday to
my job and to my life in general has been given to me by my mother who once said to me: “Melissa, do
what you love and love what you do.” I made of this my mantra, especially when it come down to my
What has been your biggest baking failure and what counts as your greatest success?
My biggest baking failure? Hmmm…. many! But I wouldn’t count them as failures, but more as experiments gone bad and I think they are part of the creative process. I remember once, it took me six months to work on the ingredients ratio of what then became one of my most known and appriciated cakes ever, my take on an Italian classic, the tiramusù cake. I once read a sentence which can easily define the way I look at things: “embrace the mess”. And so I do.
Where’s the perfect place to bake?
Home. Full stop. In my case, my kitchen is my home, but for home bakers, I am sure the kitchen in their homes has the same value to them. It’s where one feels more comfortable. It is where the magic happens and it is the place where things are made with love and for our loved ones. No better place on earth, I guess.
What is the one piece of equipment that you couldn’t bake without?
My ugly yellow spatula. I take it with me every time a travel for work. Pastry chefs look at me with a strange face. I bought it in a supermarket and I am perfectly aware of the fact it doesn’t look professional, but I do not care. It works perfectly, it helps me gather the batter quickly without spilling it and it is very light to handle. It’s ugly, I love it, it works wonderfully. If I lose it I will be destroyed. It is my “Linus Blanket”.
What book has been the biggest influence on you or that you most recommend to others?
Science in the kitchen, and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi first published in 1891. It is the most significant Italian cook book of the modern era. A must for all real foodies and for those who want to know the real Italian tradition. As for a baking book which has given me a lot I can suggest The Baking Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. It is a real baking companion. Not every recipe is equipped with photographs, but the recipes cover a wide range of techincal skills. They are explained in a thorough and detailed manner and it is a good source of precious informations. It is an old book, but definitely one to have in your collection.
Sweet or savoury?
Both, equally. Food is pleasure and I like to indulge.
Coffee or tea?
Coffee in the morning… NO QUESTION! Otherwise it is impossible for me to start the day. But, then tea (and cake, of course) after work is my relaxation therapy. Tea is a ritual, while coffee is an urge for me.
Melissa Forti, The Italian Baker is out now published by Quadrille.