Meet Carmen Keels, Music Teacher and Home Baker Extraordinaire in West Harlem
Name: Carmen Keels
Location: Hamilton Heights, New York City (West Harlem)
How many people regularly eat together in your home? Four (husband and two kids, 9 and 5)
Avoidances: None. (Unless you count a picky 5-year-old.)
A day in the life for Carmen Keels (a music teacher in West Harlem, a mom of two, and a passionate baker) is usually filled with music, singing and dancing children, and lots of homemade bread. During the day she teaches general music to kindergarten and first graders; directs a third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade chorus; and is the vocal coach for the middle and high school auditioned choirs. She also teaches private voice lessons for students. When she’s not juggling sheet music and ukuleles, she’s elbows deep in a bowl of dough in her uptown kitchen where she takes refuge and bakes to her heart’s content.
We chatted with Carmen to talk about her very particular son’s relationship with buttered noodles, the 12-hour baking binge that nearly broke her, and why every great dinner should end with a dance party. Here’s the way she eats.
I realize this is a strange question to ask first, but I was struck by your email signature when we first started talking. “Blues is to jazz what yeast is to bread. Without it, it’s flat.” —Carmen McRae. This encapsulates you, no?
I remember when I I found the quote, I was like “OMG this is amazing, I love it so much.” Carmen McRae was a jazz singer; we have the same first name. I’m a classically trained singer but I wasn’t passionate enough about it to go into opera. I am really crazy about musical theater, though. That’s what I went to college for and why I moved to NYC — to be on Broadway. (And I was, back in 2005.)
Fast forward and now I’m a music teacher and a mom of two who loves to bake. Baking became the creative outlet I needed because I wasn’t performing anymore. (I’ll sing ukulele songs with my first graders but that’s not quite the same as being on stage.) The baking thing sort of happened by accident. This heavy-duty kind of “I’m baking all of our bread and I’m going to make chocolate cake on a Tuesday” is different than me baking cookies with my mom as a kid. A couple of years ago I hit a particularly difficult spot in my work life, and coming home and throwing some flour into a bowl really helped. When I first started, I made a lot of over-proofed, terrible breads. But the only way you get to Broadway or Carnegie Hall is by practice — so that’s what I did.
Now I consider myself to be a really good baker. I will bake fresh pita for dinner because it’s better than the store stuff. Even if I’m crunched for time. I use it as a stress reliever from the day. Sometimes I’ll make a cake or cookies after the kids go to bed because it’s what I want to eat at that moment. I also cook with my kids in the kitchen so that they grow up knowing how to cook for themselves. It’s a life skill.
Thank goodness for your baking outlet! What’s the most ambitious baking project you’ve undertaken recently?
Well, I don’t know if this counts, but on a whim last spring I applied to be on the Great American Baking Show. It took hours, pictures, videos, all kinds of stuff. I didn’t think anything would come of it, but then they called me a week later. The first part was just for photos of things that I’d made. (And I am most certainly not a food photographer.) At the time, it was the busiest part of the work year, with all of these concerts and other things happening. The casting person called while I was on the way to a choir concert. They wanted to know if I could include examples of things I’d baked with laminated dough or gingerbread. This was a Tuesday evening.
I woke up Wednesday morning and made a butter pat for croissants and then made gingerbread dough so it could chill. I went to rehearsal with my kindergarteners and looked through templates for gingerbread houses. (This was in May, mind you.) I was not going to go hunting for candy canes to try and make some sort of wintery scene so I hunted in my kitchen for whatever I already had like mini saltines, coconut flakes, dried strawberries, my kids’ snacks, Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I went back and forth between making croissants and a giant gingerbread fairy house for the rest of the evening. I also made snowflake cookies with the extra dough because WHY NOT? and sent photos at 11:45 p.m. that night.
WOW what happened?
The next day, I was so tired and out of it that I accidentally took my dog’s incontinence medicine by mistake. I had my class’s end-of-the-year performance and had to call Poison Control — all before having to conduct a performance for 85 kindergarteners and their parents. They laughed at me and told me I was going to be fine. It reminded me of when I used to audition for shows. You get a call back and then you get another call back. I got to the very end of the GABS audition process and didn’t get it — but, you know, casting is complicated. That’s the biggest baking adventure I’ve had so far.
- Biggest challenge in eating? Currently a huge challenge is that our son is going through a rather picky phase. He will only eat tacos, apples, carrots, and cheeseburgers, with an occasional chicken finger thrown into the mix. So we eat a lot of varieties of tacos, because as long as it has meat and cheese and comes in a shell he’ll eat it. Our daughter will try most things even if she is unsure. But it took a while to get her there.
- How much do you cook at home every week? We cook about 75 to 80% of the week.
- 5 things on your grocery list every week? Butter, lettuce, apples, flour, eggs.
- Where do you shop, primarily? Fairway and the local Key Food. My husband Michael usually does the shopping. Since we live in the city and don’t have a car, walking home with the groceries is part of his exercise routine. He will finish his run and end up at Fairway. Then he carries all the groceries in a backpack and canvas bags, 12 blocks and up two hills. If he’s got flour, milk, butter, beer, and fancy bubbly water, it’s like weight training!
- Last grocery item you splurged on? I think it was the time I spent 25 dollars on butter at a market in the Financial District. Because I decided to have a butter tasting with friends.
- Top 3 default dinners? Tacos; roasted chicken shawarma with homemade pita; and sausage, apple, and potato tray bake with salad.
- Favorite drink? Kilogram Breakfast Blend Tea.
- Best underrated snack? Mochi Bites from Trader Joe’s.
- Default kid snack? Carrots, apples, cheese, and crackers.
- Cookbook you actually cook out of? Baking illustrated, The Joy of Cooking, and so many NYT Cooking recipes.
- Most-loved kitchen tool? My 1-cup measuring spoon. It was my grandma’s.
- Who does the dishes? My husband. I’m terrible at cleaning up. I try to be as efficient as possible and not use every single pan, pot, or dish when I’m making dinner. But for the most part, I cook and Michael cleans up. He just does it. That’s always been sort of our thing.
What do you eat most days?
We have a pretty fancy cafeteria at school and they feed us well. I don’t have to pay to eat at the cafeteria and the lower school I work at even provides breakfast. I’ll usually have toast and butter at home, and then get to school and have cereal or yogurt and fruit — something to get me through to lunch. It’s one thing off my plate.
That’s a bonus! And the rest of your family?
If I cook enough to have leftovers, my husband will take them because he has to pay for lunch. Occasionally I’ll pack lunch for my daughter, and most days I pack lunch for my son because he’s a bit more particular. They don’t go to the school that I teach at. They go to public school so I pack their lunch and snacks. It’s best that I don’t think about mine.
What’s your son most picky about?
He’s always been super particular, and I grew up that way too so I know it will pass. He will eat a taco if it’s beef or chicken or ground turkey or rotisserie chicken. I can make chicken thighs in the slow cooker with green chiles and shred them and he’ll eat them because they’re tacos.
He’ll also eat plain buttered noodles right now. He used to eat the tomato sauce but not anymore, so we’re dealing with that. He gets worried it’s going to upset me. We don’t have fights, but I tell him “You need to eat. That’s important to be healthy. So let’s figure out what you want to eat.” Never have I ever said “You have to clean your plate.” If he says he’s full and done, I say “Okay, now take your plate and put it away.” That’s fine. I’m looking forward to not having to guess what he will eat on a given day. It will be nice to make just one thing, whatever it is. I can’t wait to not have to remember to separate some noodles out so he can have his plain and buttered. ONE DAY.
Preach! What does dinnertime look like for the whole family?
Since tacos are one of the things we don’t have to argue with our 5-year-old son about, we make them a lot. They are in no way authentic to anything. I make mine with ground beef, cumin, chili powder, coriander, and garlic. So we have tacos, and we listen to Pandora. Last night it was Lizzo. My husband I are like, Okay, yes, her lyrics are explicit. But we talked to our kids and were like “She’s saying words you are not allowed to use at school or at home.” Lizzo is too good to listen to the watered-down versions of her songs on Kidz Bop, though.
Agreed. What’s your favorite Pandora station to cook to otherwise?
When the kids are occupied, I put on Van Morrison Pandora. You get Eric Clapton’s bands, Carole King, sometimes The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, or Chris Stapleton. It’s very random and I love it. I also listen to Chopin, Beethoven, or Hamilton. We always shout at our Alexa to play things. There’s always going to be some point in the dinner where Noah stands on his chair and dances. There’s always a mid-dinner dance party. It’s my favorite way to wind down from the day.
Thanks for sharing, Carmen. Follow her on Instagram.
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