B Magazine: Outside the Office: Cooking with Dr. Toni Alexander (9/03/24)

Dr Toni Alexander is pictured making the Finnish pastry Korvapuusti, a cardamom paste rolled out and made into cinnamon rolls. She presses the dough with her thumb to give them “ears” and garnishes them with pearl sugar.

As professor and chair of the Department of Geography, History and Anthropology at Southeast Missouri State University, Dr. Toni Alexander says much of her daily work doesn’t end in something tangible. The few “tangible” results of his work – graduate students, published articles and other academic projects – require a lot of time and patience.

Alexander loves cooking because she is able to create something tangible in a relatively short period of time. Baking is simple, therapeutic. And the best part is that it requires no paperwork.

“I put these ingredients together and at the end of the day I hope I have something tasty and something I can share with other people that doesn’t involve filling out a form,” Alexander said.

Alexander says she technically began her baking journey while growing up in Northern California. Her grandmother worked in restaurants and taught Alexander how to make pies from scratch, but Alexander says she didn’t fully immerse herself in the world of baking until she took a break from college to live in Finland for a year as a participant in the International Christian Youth Exchange.

In Finland, Alexander’s host family prepared bread and Finnish treats at least once a week. She attributes this rich baking culture to Finland’s high coffee consumption. According to Culture Trip’s 2021 article “Why Finland Drinks More Coffee Than Any Other Country”, Finns consume more coffee per capita than any other country in the world, with the average person drinking eight to nine cups of coffee. per day.

“The British have afternoon tea, the Finns drink coffee,” Alexander said. “Even on birthdays, people will buy you coffee. Tradition dictates that you are supposed to offer seven different things to go with the coffee. It could be a bun, a cake and sandwiches… it’s just that ingrained (in the culture.)”

Every afternoon, Alexander said she would come home from school and her host mother would sit down with her for coffee. There was always a small slice of bread or a treat to go with the coffee, like Korvapuusti, which is a cardamom paste rolled out and made into cinnamon rolls. She now often prepares this treat for family and friends. To create the traditional shape of this pastry, Alexandre presses his thumb into the center of the cinnamon buns; she jokes that this technique gives them “ears.”

Alexander uses a Korvapuusti recipe she found in a Finnish cookbook at Costco shortly after returning from Finland as a young adult. Throughout her undergraduate studies, Alexander used the skills she learned cooking with her host family in Finland and regularly prepared bread and treats by hand; As a graduation gift, Alexander’s parents gave him a Kitchen Aid mixer. Although Alexander loves how the mixer can streamline her baking process, she still prefers to knead new recipes by hand so she can feel the texture of the dough.

“The longest thing that took me was to have confidence…and not keep adding flour because you end up making bricks,” Alexander said.

Alexander left her previous position as a tenured professor at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, to become president of SEMO in June 2014. Shortly after moving, she enrolled in the sourdough bread course by Rev. Bob Towner at the Cape Career and Technology Center. where she created her own sourdough starter and honed her baking skills. Ten years later, the sourdough she made in class is still in her refrigerator.

She says she only has to “feed” this sourdough about once a month; “Feeding” is when you take the mixture out of the refrigerator, allow it to warm to room temperature before adding flour and water. This helps keep the fermented culture of flour and water alive and stimulates its metabolic processes, thereby retaining the distinct flavor of the sourdough.

“I know people who say, ‘Hey! I got your (sourdough) starter, I got it from so-and-so.’ This is apparently the taste of the Cape,” Alexander said. “I grew up with San Francisco sourdough and it has a very distinct flavor, but you’ll never get it outside of San Francisco because it’s made from wild yeast there. It will always be a little different because the bread will taste the same as where you are.

Alexander taught her husband how to make sourdough bread and together they baked countless loaves of it to sell at the Christ Episcopal Church stand at the Cape Girardeau Waterfront Market. Proceeds from the bread were donated to their church’s Hunger Ministries, a ministry that provides food to the community through the Red Door Food Pantry and free monthly meals. Christ Episcopal Church still has hunger ministries, but after the pandemic, Alexander says the church stopped making bread to sell at the farmers market.

Alexander always bakes something every week, whether it’s bread for his family or treats for his teachers, church members and friends. She loves to experiment and is always open to requests. She made vegan cinnamon rolls, Pan de Muertos, Bunuelos, soft white rolls, king cake, shortbread, sourdough, white and whole wheat sandwich bread, Dutch crunchy bread , among many other breads and treats. Alexander enjoys trying recipes from all over the world, but she mainly sticks to European recipes because those are the ones she knows best.

She says the most difficult recipes are usually the simplest with the fewest ingredients. For example, she says making French baguettes or Italian ciabatta can be a difficult task for her. Sometimes the baguettes come out of the oven perfect, crispy and beautiful, like you see in a photo; other times, the chopsticks come out flat and misshapen. Usually they still taste good – that’s what matters most.

Alexander loves how baking can bring people together, just like language connects us. She says that she still speaks a little Finnish from her time abroad, but that she is not fluent: Finnish is an extremely difficult language for English speakers to master because it is not one of the Germanic languages. There are also no articles in Finnish, no words for “the” or “a”.

She then returned to Finland to teach at an English camp. During a conversation while she was there, Alexander spoke in Finnish to a group and wanted to say “I met him”, but instead she said “I killed him”; the Finnish words for “meet” and “kill” sound very similar, but it’s important to pronounce each syllable correctly in Finnish – it’s a “very phonetic language,” Alexander says. The group laughed at their mistake together.

Alexander says people shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes when learning a language, because it’s inevitable. Mistakes are just proof that we are growing. And the same goes for bread making, another language that Alexander continued to practice.

“It’s random, sometimes he (bread) likes me, sometimes I ‘met’ him and sometimes I ‘killed’ him,” Alexander said. “But as I tell my students (when learning languages), you have to be comfortable with discomfort.”

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