Why and Why Not


In college, I shared a house with a friend who loved to cook but had no patience for it.  She would read for hours, but couldn’t wait for a pot of water to boil before putting the pasta into it.  Baking was a nightmare for her because she couldn’t imagine performing every single step, in order.

I am terrible at following instructions, but for different reasons.  I like creaming butter, I will wait for the dough to double in size.  I have even learned patience enough to let cool completely.  I don’t feel impatient while cooking.  My inability follows from the idea that I could probably do it better.  Hubris.  Or that certain things, like setting timers, are unnecessary.  Hubris.

My recipe edits, and my hubris, often manifest as ingredient substitution.  Maybe I’ll add more spices, or a particular (superior) cheese.  At times I am far to lazy to go to the store for an ingredient I don’t have, and will alter a dish in remarkable ways to accommodate what is available.  There is also hubris in addition.  This recipe will be better with ginger.  Another needs wild mushrooms and sage.

The order of things is sometimes important and sometimes not.  Sifting flour comes from a time when flour had more impurities in it, like pebbles.  Sifting together, however, avoids a mouth-full  of salt, or baking soda.*  Boiling water will not work the same way as almost boiling water.

My friend in college wanted to keep the ingredients but throw out the instructions, piling everything together into one pan, or mixing it all at the same time.  I, on the other hand, keep far more instructions than ingredients.  Cooking was odd in that house.

Butter can do a lot of things.  I think butter is fascinating.  People I know tend to ignore butter-specific instructions because it’s hard to imagine that butter is not butter.  Whether fresh out of the refrigerator or left on the counter for a few hours, butter must still be butter, right?  The truth about butter is much more complicated.

Melted butter will make your chocolate chip cookies flatten in the oven.  Anything but rock-hard butter cut into flour will make your pie crust greasy.  Creamed butter will help your cupcakes not to fall.  Making croissants from scratch is more about spending time waiting for butter to cool than about rolling it out and folding it up.  Butter instructions should always be followed.

Maybe I just ask “why” too much.  I’m trying to understand why I can’t seem to follow instructions.  Yesterday, I made a difficult recipe, an apple-stuffed challah bread.**  I was meticulous (for me).  I even set timers.  But even here, with a recipe that I believed needed to be followed due to its complexity, I couldn’t leave it alone.  When I noticed I was out of canola oil, I melted butter.  I started off measuring flour, but lost track of my quarter cups somewhere and just eyeballed it.  I added cinnamon and cardamom.  I used two types of honey.  I can’t leave well enough alone.

“Why” is also “why not.”

There is a reason to whip egg whites to soft peaks and then fold them into the rest of the batter.  It changes everything.  Waffles have never tasted so good.  Baking soda and baking powder serve completely different purposes.  And butter.  We’ve talked about butter.  But if I can’t come up with a good reason, I will substitute half of the ingredients in a recipe.

For a few years, my mother and I would host Christmas parties and invite everyone we knew.  People would come from LA and from Portland, Oregon.  Her work colleagues and friends from graduate school and ex husband; my friends from pre-school play groups and high school and college.  The open floor-plan kitchen-living room of that small town house would be packed for hours, people standing in front of the door with glasses of wine, greeting the next guests, strangers to them.  And every year, we would make a croquembouche.

My mother and I acted like the croquembouche was the reason everyone was there. We would drink wine and make introductions while planning the perfect time for assembly.

Yet my mother is like me.  Or I am pushy and she lets me get away with it.  We never followed the recipe perfectly, and when, one year, we went through two whole batches of choux pastry and threw the resulting puffs away, we forgot to write it down, and were doomed to the same fate the following year.***

The first year, the sugar wouldn’t caramelize.  Winters in northern California are wet, an impossible climate for candied sugar.  The next year, we baked the choux a day ahead, leaving the kitchen less moist.  Once, we created a champagne custard for the filling, without a recipe.  I am at a loss as to how to recreate it.  One year, flustered and a little tipsy, and because I didn’t know why not, I added a little water to my hot syrup and was fascinated to watch it all turn back into granulated sugar.  Once, the sugar was perfect and I pulled it off the end of the spoon in long, golden strands to make a cloud of crunchy candy around the pile of pastries.

Every year, I leave some of the pastries in the oven too long because I refuse to set a timer.  Every year I worry about the candy.  Every year I wonder how I can improve.

There is hubris at the heart of this, and also an incredible amount of self-doubt.  Holding both in hand, I am able to say, “I can do this better” at every stage.  When it is a recipe I have not yet tried and when it is a dish I have created and loved, I am not yet satisfied.

* I once learned from a television chef that whisking dry ingredients together is just as good as sifting.  I never sift.
** The recipe for the apple-stuffed challah is by Tori Avey, and I highly recommend it.  I also recommend using 1/2 cup tupelo honey, and 1/4 cup buckwheat honey.  Buckwheat honey looks like molasses and tastes almost as dark.  The butter substitution worked out fine.
*** I did eventually write it down.  The best recipe I’ve found for the choux pastry comes from Martha Stuart.  Her full recipe, however, uses pastry cream for the filling, and I prefer custard, because I’m decadent that way.  And because I can’t leave well enough alone.

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