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Posts Tagged ‘learning how to cook’

Last week’s post got me thinking about my time in the kitchen.

My father encouraged his kids to learn to cook, by deed—he always cooked Sunday breakfast, manned the grill on cookouts, and was the go-to guy for fried chicken—as well as by word. The fact that my stepmother was, shall we say, not inspired in the ways of food preparation, was additional encouragement for us to learn how to feed ourselves. The lessons didn’t really “take” with my younger brothers, but with my sister and me, they definitely took root.

My first forays into the kitchen were, naturally enough, in supportive roles. Chopping, measuring, mincing, tending. This was useful as it taught me good knife skills, the benefit of mise en place, how to follow a recipe (and when to improvise), and how to accommodate different cooking times for disparate ingredients.

My first solo flight in the kitchen wasn’t a meal, though; it was a dessert, and the result inducted me into the realm of family legend. I was maybe twelve years old, home alone (for some reason) with hours to occupy myself, and being twelve, I wanted something to eat, something sweet, so I decided to make my favorite cake: Angel Food.

Checking the recipe, I made sure we had what I needed. With three growing boys in the house, a dozen eggs was only about half the supply in our pantry, and sugar, flour, and vanilla were also staples close at hand. I’d seen cakes baked before, so I knew the basics. Mix everything together, pour the batter into a form, bake, and a beautifully risen cake comes out. (Old hands will already see the flawed assumption here.)

Working diligently, I separated the dozen eggs, added some cream of tartar, dumped in the sugar, pulled out the French whisk, and started whipping. “Whip until soft peaks form” was the phrase in the recipe. Not having dealt with egg whites before, this was a bit of a puzzle, but I figured it’d become clear in time. I whipped and whipped. I switched hands when cramps set in. I kept whipping. A sense that I was missing something began to bloom in my sous-chef-heart, a vague feeling of being out of my depth. I switched back to my right hand, added a dash of fervor to my motions, and just as my shoulder started to seize up, I saw the mixture begin to change. It began to get foamy. Aha! My courage was renewed and I kept on whipping as the bubbles multiplied, gathered, grew smaller. But “soft peaks?” What did that really mean? Then, I saw what was happening. The foam began to achieve a structure, and the little bubbles would leave a tiny “peak” when I pulled the whisk up. I whipped more, but not too much, as the recipe also warned against achieving “stiff peaks.”

It didn’t look like any cake batter I’d ever seen—yellow, translucent, with a layer of foam across the surface—but (I reasoned) Angel Food cake didn’t look or feel like any other cake, so I was probably okay. When I poured the result into the cake form, it didn’t fill much of it. But (I again reasoned) all cakes rise in the oven, so this one would, too, rising up to fill the form. So, into the preheated oven it went.

My family arrived home just about the time it was ready to come out of the oven. The house smelled like heaven, and everyone was surprised and eager to try my first culinary attempt.

I pulled the form out of the oven and . . . looked down into its depths. The cake hadn’t risen. Not one millimeter. It was no taller than it was when it went in. If anything, it was shorter. Taken out of the form, it was a horror, a ring of translucent yellowish rubber reminiscent of jaundiced aspic. I stared at it. My kid brothers thought it the funniest thing of the year but, being boys, they cut a few “slices” and we tasted it. It was delicious; all the divine sweetness of Angel Food cake, now in a convenient compressed form. It was Angel Food jerky.

It went down in the annals as “Angel Food Flop.”

I learned a lot about cooking that day, one of which is: I’m not a great baker. Baking (to me) is too much like chemistry, where everything needs to be perfect before applying heat. That turned out not to be my style. My style is “cook a bit, taste a bit, correct” helped along by a healthy adaptability when faced with missing ingredients. I rarely cook anything the same way twice; each time I’ll try a tweak or decide that I want a slightly different mix of herbs this time.

Luckily (or not, depending on whether I’m counting calories), I married a woman who is a great baker, and one who can do with baking what I do with entrees: improvise. She gets the craft, knows it intuitively. She knows the arcane characteristics of baking powder, cream of tartar, sugars, egg whites. She measures by sight, rarely uses a recipe, and makes the best damned banana bread I’ve ever had.

I’m grateful for my dad’s encouragement. It taught me the importance of independence and adaptability, and kept me fed during my impoverished young adulthood. It also taught me the generous love language of spending hours in the kitchen and serving up a savory stew to beloved friends and family.

And I will always remember with love those Sunday mornings, a pitcher of orange juice on the table, KSFO on the radio, Dad crooning along with Mel Torme as he made pancakes, eggs, sausage, whatever his kids wanted for breakfast, while Mom slept in a bit longer.

It was his love language, too.

k

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DinnerI thought this was only a problem with men of my generation and older, but (surprisingly) I’ve heard complaints from enough young folks that I’m now convinced a fair fraction of hipster males also exhibit this…deficit.

Gentlemen, you MUST learn how to cook.

Why? Consider the following.

(more…)

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