Truth is, I’ve always liked to cook. Or bake, more specifically.

My Mom had a drawer in our kitchen I was rather fond of. It contained a well-worn copy of Betty Crocker’s iconic orange cookbook, the one we’d make the Christmas sugar cookies from with the game-changing addition of almond extract. She also had several spiral-bound church cookbooks I enjoyed flipping through. For reasons I’m still not quite sure of, I liked copying a few of the recipes onto index cards. I never did get around to making that cheese ball studded with pecans or the festive party punch, but the possibility was exciting all the same.

What I did make, however, were a whole bunch of cookies. It was the perfect Saturday afternoon activity. Dig out the handheld mixer, measuring cups, and a few ingredients from the cupboards, and before long, you had chocolate chip, oatmeal butterscotch or peanut butter criss-cross bliss.

Once I left home and headed to Minneapolis for college, I began craving the comfort food my Mom always made — pans of cheesy enchiladas, homemade spaghetti sauce, her porcupine meatballs with the mushroom soup and rice, scalloped potatoes with ham. So, when I rented my first apartment the summer after my freshman year, I enjoyed the challenge of replicating these dishes. Taking the city bus to go grocery shopping felt so incredibly grown up, and while my first attempts were clumsy and often under-seasoned, it was fun. I’d expanded my repertoire from exclusively sweet to savory.

Fast forward eight years, and I’m newly married and back in MSP after eight years in Nashville. I’ve launched my freelance writing business and just signed a contract to write two novels in eight months, something I wouldn’t necessarily recommend. But when your goal is being a published author? Well, you say yes because you never know when another opportunity may come along. Needless to say, I spent an inordinate amount of time at my desk between my day jobs and the novels.

My big break of the day was lunch and a quick flip through the channels. Daytime TV has always reminded me why being gainfully employed is a plus. There’s only so much Judge Judy, Matlock reruns and cheesy soap operas a person can handle, so I seldom found anything worth watching. Then one day I stumbled upon the Food Network. The idea of watching someone cook, even as someone who loves food and never forgets to eat lunch, seemed a little boring. But as Rachael Ray fulfilled her promise of making a delicious, nutritious meal in only 30 minutes, I was transfixed. She made some sort of Chinese takeout, and I immediately wanted to reach into the screen and snag a taste.

Upon subsequent viewings, I realized I knew very little about cooking and what made food actually taste good. I had no idea, for instance, that you put salt and pepper — always freshly ground — on almost everything. I learned the importance of cooking with a very hot pan. I discovered that subbing in chicken stock for water made rice infinitely more flavorful and that shrimp weren’t even remotely fussy for weeknight cooking. I was getting a culinary education without leaving my couch, and it made me much more courageous in using my recently acquired kitchen haul.

Later I added a couple more FN shows to my repertoire, namely Giada DeLaurentiis’s Everyday Italian and Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa. Until I watched Giada, my knowledge of Italian food was limited to pizza and the Olive Garden menu. Before long, I learned Italian food wasn’t limited to fettuccine alfredo, meatballs and garlic bread. It didn’t even have to be heavy. Fresh ingredients, whatever was in season, was key.

Meanwhile, Ina lived in this place I’d never heard of before: the Hamptons. Her parties always had the prettiest table settings and fresh-cut flowers, and the food looked divine. But as put-together as everything looked, Ina insisted it was easy. And for some reason I believed her.

I’d never encountered a Pavlova, let alone whipped egg whites for one, but sure, I could make that with the stewed berries. I feared touching a raw chicken breast, lest I contaminate my entire kitchen, but roasting a whole chicken with herbs and truffle butter? No problem. Homemade stuffing for Thanksgiving with sausage and sautéed apples? Sure, I’d been exclusively a Stove Top girl, but I’ve got this. With gentle guidance and the confident assurance that no cooking feat was impossible (as long as you used the good vanilla and olive oil), Ina became my chief instructor. And to this day, there isn’t one recipe of hers I’ve managed to mess up. She’s that good.

Yes, in lieu of attending Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Rachael, Giada and Ina were the ones who not only demystified cooking but gave me a new creative outlet that, as a bonus, makes people happy — with or without a holiday cheese ball and party punch, which I’ve still never made.