Monday, March 15, 2010


My apologies, faithful readers, for missing last week. I wasn’t up to the task, the challenge, the desafío. I wasn’t up to the blog.

My reason has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with the kitchen. Strange, yes? Well, maybe not so much. I’m a pretty decent cook, and people have, at various times, given me the very impractical suggestions that I should be a caterer or a chef or open a bakery. [When my life and career were in a particularly noxious stall, my dad once suggested that he would buy a Krispy Kremes franchise in Utah (it would have been the first, back then) and I could run it. I never was able to say an outright “no,” because I felt I would be crushing his dreams, but…how shall I say it?... there was no way in bloody hell I was going to be running anybody’s Krispy Kreme store. I stonewalled and the idea went away (not that he ever pursued it) and for a while, I believe, he silently blamed me for not helping him bring his dream to fruition. Later he found out that in order to buy a franchise, according to official Krispy Kreme rules, you must *already* own and operate a food joint (negative) and demonstrate a net worth of two million dollars (double negative).] These suggestions are impractical for several reasons:

1) While I love baking and cooking, I love writing more.

2) Baking and cooking are an ANTIDOTE to writing. You have an immediate finished product, and people want it!

3) when you make a hobby into a wanna-be career, it’s really easy to leach the joy out of it. And

4) It is HARD WORK, y’all. Have you ever stood in a kitchen for several hours to make one big meal? Are you exhausted by the end of it? Imagine doing that all day, all night, all the next day too…all week…every day…this has got to be a hard-core passion, something where you don’t even notice your aching feet or the passing hours or the sweat running down your chin. Though maybe you should notice that last one, lest it drip in the food.

So. Last weekend I started a little cooking project, which I did continue this past weekend. I got a cookbook, the French Culinary Institute’s new gigantic manual to the pastry arts. !!! Holy cow. It’s immense, it’s got full-color pictures, it’s got how-to sections on everything from the definitions of autolyze and proofing and the difference between pâte sucrée and pâte brisée (and I now know them!) to kitchen first aid. Must say, I’m grateful for two years of college French.

So I wanted to test out my book. It seems to have everything from super-easy to super-hard (and when I say super-hard, I mean, this is going to take seven or eight hours and a lot of precision) recipes.

Now, first things first. The recipes are measured in ounces and grams. I looked at this and said, “Huh? Now what?” Well, now we get a digital kitchen scale. ($40). And it calls for ingredients like almond flour ($5 for 4 ounces) and pastry cream powder ($6 for about ¾ cup) and uses equipment like brioche cups and cake molds. Yikes. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound.

So last week’s first experiment was ginger snap cookies. I have a Williams Sonoma set of 11 glass bowls, the smallest being only a couple of tablespoons. I got it for Christmas about 10 years ago, and miraculously, all 11 bowls survive. And suddenly they’ve discovered their purpose! Each recipe begins, “Prepare your mise en place,” which means, “measure your ingredients because you can’t just scoop the flour out of the canister in the measuring cup.” So you get a one-cup-size bowl, weigh it, tare it, and pour the sugar (say 250 grams?) into it. Then the two-tablespoon bowl for the one egg yolk. Then the second-largest bowl for the three-plus (again, measured in grams) cups of flour. (It was a big recipe.) Etc. I also discovered that these recipes are incredibly precise (“Bake for 7 minutes” rather than “Bake 7-10 minutes” like the rest of my recipes say) and my oven is not. I preheated to 350. Who knows if it was actually 350? The thing is avocado-colored, meaning, old. I do know the 7 minutes didn’t cook my gingersnaps.

After the baking time was figured out, we sampled. These gingersnaps were divine. Soft, chewy, spicy…mmm. I miss them, now that they’re gone.

And then I attempted macarons. I’ve had macarons in Paris, and they’re amazing…a crisp meringue sandwich and thick frosting-like center. I tried to do chocolate. It didn’t work.

First I underbeat the egg whites. I know better. I know that when it says to beat them to stiff peaks, you have to beat them almost to a solid mass. But I didn’t; I figured, when I pulled out the beater the peak held its shape and that was good enough. Then I folded in the almond flour and the cocoa and put it into a piping bag, and realized right there it wasn’t going to work. I piped it into little circles and baked it anyway. Sigh. They wouldn’t come off the parchment paper. I pulled and scooped with my spatula, and they just tore or crumpled into tiny, sticky masses. I pulled the parchment paper off the cookie sheets and tossed the whole thing into the garbage.

But memories of Paris macarons haunted me. I really wanted to make some of my own. They didn’t sound that hard, and the pictures in the book looked exactly like the ones I love! All day I thought about this. I had another container of almond flour. I had more sugar and cocoa…I could do it.

This time I beat those whites, man, I beat them past peaks and basically into Styrofoam. And then I gently folded in the cocoa and flour…and watched it go poof, deflate. It was the exact same consistency as it had been before. Dammit! I kept going. This time I baked them longer than the 7 minute prescribed by the cookbook (just guessing that the temperature was nowhere near 350, or actually 177 C, as the cookbook said). And this time they came off the parchment paper, as long as I let them rest a minute or two out of the oven. So I had these little meringue cookies….that looked NOTHING like the macarons of Paris. Where real ones are smooth and dark, mine were pale and cracked. Double dammit. And the filling didn’t taste anything like the Parisian filling…and there were pictures of every conceivable flavor of macaron and NO OTHER RECIPES besides the chocolate and a vanilla one with a jam center. Triple, quadruple dammit!

So the macarons were a disappointment. (some of my friends liked them, but I still huffed for the rest of the day.) But the gingersnaps…oh my. I would happily eat some more of those right now. For dinner, a snack and breakfast tomorrow.

More on this experiment as it continues to unfold.


Anonymous said...

You are too cute! I love reading about you.

Kathryn Maughan said...

My next logical comment would be, "Then buy my book!" (Even though the book isn't about me.) But you already did. :) So I guess I just have to say, "Make sure you by the next one." Though first I have to finish it...