Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On Cooking, and Other Kitchen Disasters

I'm not a great cook, but I consider myself to be competent. I can add a pinch of this, and a splash of that, and generally manage to turn out something reasonable without turning the kitchen upside down. I attribute much of this competency to my mother's decision to go back to university while us kids were still at school. Since she was no longer a full-time carer (and what teenager wants a full-time carer, I ask you!?), she laid down the new house rules. Each of us would have at least one night cooking a week. Myself, my brother, and my father were all to take a turn. The other four days were still mum's - after all, we still needed to consume something edible during the week.

There were a few doozies. One of my initial recipes involved cabbage. Lots and lots of cabbage. In fact, I think, more cabbage than the recipe's author had ever dreamed any sane person would want to eat in one sitting. I'm still not sure how I managed to get the proportions so wrong. Perhaps I just found a particularly large cabbage, and was determined to stick to the recipe like glue - even as I watched all my other ingredients disappearing under the massive mound of brassica. It's not as though I even particularly liked the stuff.

Or there was my dad's attempt at an exotic recipe which involved salting a cucumber. As I recall, he salted it, then spent the rest of the evening running it under the cold tap in an attempt to water down the saltiness to an edible level. I can remember sitting in my room doing my homework (or - more likely - reading a novel), with dad popping in and out offering updated ETAs for dinner, and a light drink or biscuit to nibble in the meantime. Dinner was served at 11:30pm. I think dad had finally conceded defeat, and just served up the noticeably salty cucumber.

Interesting dishes aside, we learned the basics of coordinating the various dinner components. Even if you're going for something as simple (hah!) as a steak with some vegetables on the side, you need to know how long it takes to cook your slab of meat, and how long it takes to steam the green beans, and then make it all happen so that everything arrives on the plate hot. That took me some time to learn, I can tell you. And I still can't cook steak.

Dad was never put off by failures, and has always liked to be adventurous in his cooking. He'll spy a recipe with a unique ingredient - verjuice! aha! - and off he'll rush to purchase the other 37 mundane ingredients to concoct a dish that, to be fair, is nowadays usually pretty darn tasty.

I have ended up following mum's style. I hate throwing out food - and so I'll pickle through the fridge and the cupboards to find what needs eating up: "Hmmm - this spinach is a bit wilty. Better make something with it. Do I have enough eggs for a quiche? No? Soup it is.. " This might sound less exciting - but I have a few decent cookbooks which have resulted in some successful experiments - and I've ended up preparing vegetables in a variety of ways that I otherwise wouldn't have, simply because I'm too lazy/obstinate to go shopping for more ingredients.

So All This Aside, why oh why do I still flop? Haven't 20 years in the kitchen taught me anything?! I recently spent a day cooking and baking, and I'm not thrilled with the results.

I'm going to start with my flopped tart crust. I just wanted to make a savoury pie-crust - I had a recipe, so I wasn't going out on a limb, but the recipe called for some portion of a "stick" of butter. Now, this is a US thing, where I assume that 'sticks' of butter are some kind of standardised measure. And sure, we have blocks of butter here too - but it's very apparent that our 'block' and the US 'stick' are not to be equated. The pastry I was making matched the recipe description when all the dry ingredients were chopped in together ('coarse meal', check), and it continued to behave much as the recipe predicted during the 'roll into a ball, freeze, remove and roll out' phases as well. Where it all went pear-shaped was when it hit the oven for blind baking.

Apparently I'd gone overboard with the butter. Muchos overboard. Flashback to The Great Cabbage Incident. Instead of a nice smooth golden-brown tart shell, the pastry had sort of slumped into the bottom of the pie-tin, and was bubbling in a vast lake of butter. Of course, being me, I couldn't toss the whole mess out and start again - for one thing, I was running low on flour. So I grabbed a fork, and started pulling the half baked mess back up the sides of the tin, while trying to tip out some of the excess fat. The results were less than spectacular. I did eventually manage, by dint of turning the oven temperature right down, and continuing to drag the reluctant crust up the sides of the tin every 5 minutes or so, to make the crust into a rough shape that would probably hold a quiche filling. And look, in the end it was edible enough - but I think my cholesterol levels are going to need checking after I'm done eating this puppy!

Okay, I hear you say - that's pastry, pastry's hard (you did say that, didn't you?). But what about banana bread? I tried that, too. And again - not an inedible disaster, but just not very nice. I followed the recipe - yes I did! But the result tasted a little too much like bicarb of soda, and the dough had compressed somehow during the baking process, so that I wound up with
this line of dense banana-flavoured sclorge* at the bottom of the loaf. Was the recipe at fault? Had I managed to add or subtract some vital bread-puffing ingredient? Or is there some baker's secret where you need to turn your loaf as it's cooling, so that the sclorge is evenly distributed throughout?

I don't know. All I DO know is that on the same day as the tart and the banana bread, I was also boiling two christmas puddings for the first time. That's 8 hours of boiling. And I have a few days yet before they're ready for eating.

I'll keep you posted.

* sclorge - cake/bread dough which is not raw or, indeed noticeably undercooked, but which is dense enough, and slightly sticky enough to imply either or both. Not to be confused with scloop**

** scloop - again, I'm taking liberties with the English language: a dough which is definitely under-cooked, and on-the-way-to-raw. This is deliberate in some cakes, such as my favourite 'collapsed mud cake', which is essentially warm chocolate scloop surrounded by chocolate cake (and as far as I can tell, the only purpose of cooking it enough to get the 'cake' texture at all, is simply to stop the whole thing dribbling off the plate and onto the kitchen bench when you remove it from the cake tin. *drool*)

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