When (This) Man Cooks

Posted: January 19, 2013 in Cooking

The ingredients for Anadama bread are ready to be turned out and kneaded.

The ingredients for Anadama bread are ready to be turned out and kneaded.

I was going to go with “When Men Cook” as the title, but it occurred to me that I might seem presumptuous to women, and to those men who do not cook the way I do, so I’ll just limit this to my own interests. :)

Cooking.  I was in my late 20s, surviving on MacDonald’s and other fast food garbage when I decided to learn how to cook. I bought some pans and utensils, a Betty Crocker Cookbook (or I should say The Betty Crocker Cookbook because it is the staple cookbook for so many suburban cooks.) I just noticed at that link there is a new edition. Wahoo!

That book has all the basics you need when you are culinarily challenged. (Culinarily is now a word.)  Cooking is easy unless you have to mix something, then it becomes science. You can burn any meat in a pan, throw some potato fries onto a baking pan, open a can of vegetables and prepare a healthier meal than is offered at most fast-food restaurants. Survival is guaranteed. But if you start adding spice to that meat, or cheese to those fries, or combine vegetables to make a stew — if you are this cook — you start making charts, or looking for them.

The Betty Crocker Cookbook has a chart of the common herbs and spices and their common purpose. Great! That was easy. Next is the combination of flour, butter and water – and that is where I got stuck.

Hot bread from the oven speaks to me. It says, "BUTTER!"

Hot bread from the oven speaks to me. It says, “BUTTER!”

The King Arthur Cookbook came to my rescue.  it isn’t enough to know how to bake bread — not for this cook anyway. You have to know the history of each bread, where it came from, and why it is made the way it is made. The King Arthur book has that info.

With meat, fries, veggies, spices, herbs and stews conquered, and with some experience making fresh bread, you rank high among the order of male suburban cooks. You can do better though.

Cooking as Science

When (this) man cooks, he takes photos of his work. Not because I am bragging. No! Recording your data is part of the scientific process. Cooking goes beyond art when you try to understand pastry. It becomes a science.

Making pastry is particularly difficult because I dislike following recipes. Recipes are for people who cannot figure it out on their own. That thinking, (as I have learned on many occasions) is the recipe for disaster.

A Chart! What I need, and have not yet found, is a chart of the relationship between flour, butter and water. You probably know that these ingredients can make a cake or a scone, a biscuit or bread. There is a relationship between the elemental ingredients of the bread family that eludes me. I imagine the only way to work with these ingredients (without relying on recipes) is to gain a keen understanding of how they work together to produce breads.  So far, I have not acquired that understanding.

This knish pastry, filled with mashed potatoes with cheese and sauteed onions, was crisp and light.

This knish pastry, filled with mashed potatoes with cheese and sauteed onions, was crisp and light.

Add this! You see – take butter and water, add a little flour and you have a biscuit. Add a little more and you have a scone. Add a little more and you have — I’m not sure. Add yeast, you have bread – add oil, and you have better bread. Add cornmeal, you get more nutritious bread. Add salt… add milk, add this and that. Then the insanity sets in. You realize you have no idea what you are doing.

When this cook gets confused, he makes charts. A chart can identify where you got lost in the learning process. It maps out all known knowledge, and marks the uncharted territory.

Pastry lies in the uncharted area.

The Baker! I am known as the “baker” in my home. This is odd because my wife cooks 360 days a year. I cook a few times and earn an honored reputation for it. Doesn’t seem fair. Still, I’m not afraid of the mess of flour, and I remain intrigued by the science of cooking. I am convinced that with a bit more practice, I will be a master suburban cook. (I’d have to learn ice sculpting to become a chef).

There were a few disasters as I gained fame. The four-layer cake was renamed “The Leaning Cake of Pisa”. I considered using my first batch of biscuits to repair a paved garden path.  If you use dill as a spice, it tends to get stronger after the food is refrigerated.  No one likes chili as hot as I like it.   The fifteen-bean soup I made a few years ago might better have been used to patch plaster.

If it is through failure that success is gained, I have much to look forward to! The concoctions I make have an experimental quality which leaves me wondering each time what exactly will emerge from the oven.  Most often, and of late, the results have been rewarding and delicious.

Anadama Bread (corn meal & molasses) made from the King Arthur Cookbook recipe.

Anadama Bread (corn meal & molasses) made from the King Arthur Cookbook recipe.

My Best Tools. Recently I acquired a few tools and machines. (Women call them utensils and appliances.) My favorite is the Master Ninja Blender. I have a strong dislike for food processors (and bread machines for that matter) because of their lack of portability in the kitchen (and storage requirements).  The Ninja, however, has its place on the counter, and is perfect for making smoothies for those times when you need a carb boost from procrastinating a visit to the gym.

I have an anti-Teflon attitude. I prefer cast iron and wooden spoons. I’ll use metal to strain, scoop or ladle, but if it is to be stirred or mixed, it’s either hands or wood. It’s a “guy” thing. It has something to do with the primordial longing to cook over an open fire far from the noise of civilization.  The best tools then are the ones that pre-date the Roman Empire.

The Reward. After the oven door shuts, the magic of heat begins. I marvel that you can slop a few things together, roll them into a ball, flatten it out, curl it, sculpt it, throw it into a pan, and after you apply heat to it, you get something that resembles food. In fact, it is food!  Let it cool, wrap it in foil, and give it to a friend and you will find there is no greater gift.   Bourbon balls are particularly popular during the holiday season! [vid]

Kentucky Bourbon Balls

Kentucky Bourbon Balls

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