A Blind Baker’s Perspective * Samantha Meddaugh * Interview Plus Holiday Recipe!

As a former professional baker, Samantha Meddaugh decided to have a talk with herself about why she chose baking as a career. She had a self-to-self interview about her experiences and challenges being blind and a baker, as well as misconceptions about being disabled. She spoke to herself in her home kitchen, which  features stainless steel appliances, white-with-grey-squiggles granite countertops, and all-white cupboards, with a wooden butcher’s block table in the middle.

Interviewer Samantha Meddaugh: How did you get into baking, and what do you find intriguing about it?

Baker Samantha Meddaugh: I started around 11, maybe 12 years old, and at the time, it was all for fun. The older I became the more interested I was, but I still had no plans to make it a career. I loved to make a mess and not get in trouble for it! But seriously, who does not love the idea of taking a bunch of ingredients, mixing them together, throwing the finalized mixture into a pan and baking it into an unfathomable, delicious creation?

ISM: Let’s fast-forward to when you lost your vision. Did you ever think that you could bake again?

BSM: Not. At. All! I went from complete vision to no vision whatsoever in a matter of 8 months due to a medical condition that unexpectedly showed up in my life at 17. No family member on either side had Type 1 diabetes, and I had never even heard of it. After 12 years of thinking I was invincible and not taking enough care of myself, at the age of 29, my vision finally succumbed to the dangers of high blood sugars that, unbeknownst to me, was damaging my eyes beyond repair.

Big tray of perfect chocolate-chip cookies.

Baking was the last thing on my mind. My focus was on the overwhelming thought of “How am I going to live as a blind person?” I couldn’t wrap my head around it or figure out how I could live without constant assistance.

ISM: You lost your vision in 2004 and from then until 2010, you lived like a recluse—fearful to even step outside the house. What happened that changed your mind to make you decide to attend the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton?

BSM: I got tired of staying in bed and trying to sleep away my devastating loss. My parents and youngest brother were helping me quite a bit, and I could tell they were exhausted. Two memories came to mind. The first was when I was in middle school. In seventh grade, the locker next to mine was occupied by a blind boy. He traveled the halls by himself with his white cane.

The second memory comes from around the time I was losing my sight when I worked at a deaf and blind school. There was a young blind man on the wrestling team. He would walk by himself from the gym to his dorm. Both of those memories made me realize that if they could do it, I certainly could learn how to live as a blind person. I wasn’t sure how to even begin.

ISM: So, you attended CCB from 2010-2011 where you had classes in Braille, assistive technology, orientation and mobility, and home management. At what point in home management did you realize that baking was feasible?

BSM: It was probably my second recipe I made, which was sugar cookies. The muscle memory all came back to me, from measuring the ingredients to using a hand mixer to rolling out the dough and cutting it with cookie cutters. The hardest part was figuring out when the cookies were done in the oven. I had some initial hesitation about putting the cookie sheets in a hot oven, but the muscle memory came back and I visualized the layout of the oven. That sparked a fire in my belly. From that day, I knew I could do it. But it wouldn’t be easy, and I still had a lot to learn regarding different techniques to use.

ISM: From 2012-2013, you were an intern with the Division of Vocational Rehab at the Evans Center in Denver, which is also a blind training center. What did you do there and how did that help you?

BSM: I assisted the Daily Living Skills instructors. They were sighted, and as a blind person, I offered my thoughts about kitchen and food safety, techniques for cutting and measuring a variety of foods, listening for specific sounds when cooking on the stovetop, identifying smells and textures of foods at certain points in the cooking or mixing stages, and cleaning techniques among other daily living skills. Being an intern helped me grow in my confidence as a blind person, not only in the kitchen, but also in my life. Before I lost my sight, I was a high school and adult sports coach. After I lost it, I was told I would never be able to coach again. Coaching is very similar to teaching, and by teaching daily living skills, not only to the students but showing the teachers different techniques, I was filling the void of not being able to coach anymore.

ISM: After your internship, you got your first job as a baker in a restaurant. How did that come about?

BSM: As an intern, I would bring in a baked creation I had experimented making at home to get some feedback from the staff every Wednesday. I always got rave reviews. Toward the end of my internship, Tracy, the supervisor of the program, talked to me about working at a restaurant in Arvada that employed people with disabilities. When Tracy was a DVR counselor, she worked with the owner of the restaurant multiple times in employing some of her clients. Tracy thought it would be a good fit for me, so she set up an interview with the owner. My interview was in December 2013. I was hired on the spot as an intern, and because a prep kitchen was in the process of being built across the street from the restaurant, it was decided that I would start when the prep kitchen opened. Four months later, in April 2014, it opened. Three months after that, I was hired.

ISM: You worked at the restaurant for over two years. What was that like and what did you take away from working there?

BSM: I only had experience baking at home, so stepping into a commercial kitchen and needing to bake everything to perfection for paying customers was just a smidge daunting and challenging. Before I started work, I asked the owner for the recipes so I could test them out at home and be familiar with them once I started in the prep kitchen. The owner, the baker and staff were awesome with helping me get adjusted and being comfortable with my surroundings. Adapting to any new environment can be quite awkward and overwhelming. I was being challenged in ways I didn’t even consider, and as a result, my confidence as a baker and a blind person grew, along with discovering what I was truly capable of and then some.

ISM: In 2016, you left the restaurant due to health issues. In 2017, you started working at a bakery in Westminster. What are some similarities and differences between the two places where you’ve worked?

BSM: At the restaurant, the selection is the same every day with very little variations, and the clientele is mostly made up of returning customers. At the bakery, the selection is more diverse and so are the customers. Restaurant customers seem to like the same foods, whereas in a bakery, customers seem to want variety. All customers want their food to look, smell and taste amazing.

ISM: Because you’re not able to see what you are baking, you probably needed to use some adaptive equipment, right? If so, what did you use?

BSM: The only adaptive equipment I used in both jobs was a talking scale to weigh ingredients. But I also used other techniques to be successful.

For texture, I used my fingers to feel. Is the consistency smooth, gritty, sticky, thick, liquidy ? In commercial kitchens, latex gloves are required but I was given leniency by the Health Department. I was constantly washing my hands to ensure cleanliness. Different stages of making a dessert have different textures. Because I cannot see the texture to know if all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, I have to feel the texture of each step to determine if I’m following a recipe correctly. Because of this, I received leniency from the Health Department.

Industrial bakery with doughballs on a conveyer belt being watched over by two women workers in white jumpsuits and hairnets.

When mixing ingredients and then baking, I also use my nose to tell me if I’m doing everything correctly. Another technique is tasting the ingredients. Sugar and salt have very similar textures, and to be sure I’m adding one cup of sugar and not salt to the bowl, I need to taste it. The last technique is using my ears – listening for the water to boil or the butter to sizzle when it’s melted or for the popping noise when I’ve let something cook on the stovetop too long. I don’t need all five senses to be successful. In actuality, a blind person really only needs one sense to be successful in the kitchen and that is touch.

***Pumpkin Cream Cheese Pie by Samantha Meddaugh***

Pumpkin pie is a staple in my family’s Christmas festivities. I am a big fan of cream cheese, and what better way to put a delicious twist on the traditional pumpkin pie than by adding a layer of cream cheese! I took a non-traditional pumpkin pie recipe and added a cream cheese filling I use for pumpkin bread. Add a dollop or two of cool whip or homemade whipped cream, and you’ve got an amazing pie! Cheers to having your pumpkin pie be the talk of your Christmas gathering!

Yields 8 servings
Preparation time: 45 minutes
Bake time: 50-60 minutes

Ingredients:
1  9-inch refrigerated, prepared pie crust
Cream Cheese Filling:
8 oz. package cream cheese, room temperature
¼ cup white sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
Pumpkin Pie Filling:
15 oz. can pumpkin puree
3 egg yolks
1 large egg
14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
8 oz. container Cool Whip, thawed

Directions:
Allow prepared pie crust to sit on counter at room temperature for easy unrolling. Leave crust in wrapper.

Meanwhile, make the cream cheese filling by putting all its ingredients in a medium bowl and thoroughly combining with an electric hand mixer until soft and smooth.

Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Mix one more time with the mixer. Scrape down the sides again, then set aside.

Unwrap the pie crust and gently unroll. Fit crust inside a 9-inch pie pan. Fold crust edges over the pan edge to make sure the crust does not collapse inward while pouring in both fillings.

Using the same rubber spatula, evenly spread the cream cheese mixture into the bottom of the crust. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together by hand the pumpkin puree, egg yolks and egg until smooth. Using another rubber spatula, scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Note: To separate the egg yolks from the whites, use your hands or a slotted spoon.

Add the condensed milk, cinnamon, ginger, salt and nutmeg into the bowl and whisk by hand until well combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and whisk 10 more seconds.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Put the pie pan on a cookie sheet before pouring in the pumpkin filling. This will help contain any spills when placing in the oven.

Pour the pumpkin filling on top of the cream cheese filling. Use a rubber spatula to spread evenly. It will be a full pie.

Flute the pie crust edges to your liking.

Place in the preheated oven. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and bake for another 35-40 minutes.

At the 50-minute mark, check the pie for doneness by sticking a butter knife in the center of the pie. If it comes out clean, remove the pie. If there is filling on the knife, continue to bake, checking every 2 minutes with the knife until it comes out clean. The filling will rise nicely.

Once pie is done, place on a wire cooling rack and cool completely. The filling will fall slightly as it settles. Once completely cooled, place uncovered pie in the refrigerator to chill until ready to serve. You may also eat pie at room temperature if you like the cream cheese creamier.

Cut into 8 even slices and top with a dollop of cool whip, if desired.

Store any leftovers in refrigerator uncovered.

Pumpkin pie decorated with holiday leaves on a black marble counter. For Samantha Meddaugh interview at Aromatica Poetica.

***

ISM: What is your favorite thing about baking?

BSM: The limitless variety each recipe can have. I can take a basic chocolate chip cookie recipe and spin it 50 different ways. The majority of recipes are versatile in the sense that different ingredients can be added to change the smell and taste. I love to experiment and take two, sometimes three separate recipes and come up with my own creation. It definitely is trial and error but the final result is so worth the effort and time. I’ve been fortunate multiple times to nail it on my first attempt. Either way, the feeling of accomplishment is beyond explanation.

ISM: Talk about your learning process in both jobs.

BSM: In baking, there is a lot of trial and error. Colorado’s air is very dry, so when there is some humidity, the end result can be different: Cookies tend to be flatter and more spread out. Air pressure and altitude can also play important factors. Ovens vary, and knowing the oven you’re using is key to not overbaking. A home oven is going to bake much differently than a convection oven in a commercial kitchen. At the prep kitchen where I worked, using the convection oven was somewhat of a tough transition; everything needed to be rotated halfway through the baking time for even baking and color. So at the beginning, I would burn the inside of my forearms a lot because I was unfamiliar with the oven. It just became part of the territory. When it came to recipes, I had to learn the bakery’s recipes and adapt to their methods. There were baked goods and desserts that weren’t sellable because they were overbaked or didn’t turn out right. That can be disappointing because of all the time, effort and money poured into them, and then they get eaten by staff and not customers. I had to learn how not to be so hard on myself when that happened; mistakes do happen to everyone.

ISM: You haven’t baked professionally since 2018 due to neuropathy in your hands. How has that affected you and what are your plans now?

BSM: With the neuropathy from the diabetes, I am no longer able to bake professionally, but I still bake at home once in a while  as more of a hobby now. Using my hands frequently can be painful, and my fingers cramp up and ache for days. I take fish oil supplements that help subdue the pain and achiness, but I still need to limit using my hands. Most recently, my focus has turned to recipe development. My goal is to sell my recipes and develop new, creative recipes for bakeries or restaurants. I would still very much like to stay in the food industry but be more behind the scenes. I really enjoyed teaching and would like to be able to teach and train blind and visually impaired people all the aspects of baking. I would also like to be an event coordinator for a bakery or restaurant. I don’t have a degree or professional experience in it, but I have plenty of personal experience.

ISM: What do you want people to know about being blind and being a baker?

BSM: Just because a person has a disability doesn’t mean they are less qualified to do a job. Just because I’m blind, my qualifications and experiences don’t change. I was very fortunate to be hired by a restaurant and a bakery based on my qualifications and experiences. My blindness wasn’t even an issue. There are lots of adaptive equipment and technology that enable a blind or visually impaired person to be just as competitive as a sighted person. If employers could only be open minded to that. Blind and visually impaired people are not the liabilities employers so often view us to be. We are assets because we know how hard it is to be hired, so when we are hired, we often work harder and are more reliable and loyal to the business longer than sighted people. That goes for any type of disabled person. There are agencies, state and otherwise, that help and support employers that hire a disabled person.

Industrial donut-making machine dusting donuts with sugar with trays and trays of donuts behind.

ISM: What, if any, discrimination have you encountered?

BSM: Any person with a disability is discriminated against on a daily basis, whether it is from family, friends, co-workers or strangers. There was one incident I will never forget. Before being hired by the bakery, I applied to and had interviews with several businesses. I had a promising interview with a well-known donut shop. The owner had a slight disability himself, and he was excited to have a disabled employee work for him. He was concerned about how I could work some of the machinery, and I assured him that DVR could help me get familiar with the work area, train other staff on the do’s and don’ts of working with a blind person and marking the machinery. He told me to call the following week to set up a second interview with himself and the shift manager. I was excited about the challenge of making donuts.

When I called the following week, he was out of town at their annual corporate conference. It took two weeks to finally get ahold of him, whereupon he told me that corporate thought I would be a liability to the company and advised him not to hire me. I could not believe my ears that he actually used the word “liability.” Using that word is grounds for a lawsuit. I did ponder the thought of a lawsuit but I dismissed it because who would the courts believe – a well-known donut shop or a blind person desperately looking for a job? It would be their word against mine.

ISM: That must have been devastating for you.

BSM: Most definitely. When I look back on that incident, I am more disappointed in myself for not having the courage and confidence to advocate for myself and challenge the company’s decision that I was a liability. Hard lesson learned. I advocate for myself much more now. It’s my life, and I deserve an opportunity as much as anyone else to have happiness and fulfillment in a career I’m passionate about. Everybody deserves that.

—About the Author—

Samantha Meddaugh is blind and was a baker for over three and a half years. Despite not being able to continue her passion for baking as a professional, she is reinventing herself by taking on a different role through written words instead of delicious edible creations. She became blind in 2004. This is her first publication.