To Recipes and Beyond!
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Category: Opinion > Columns
This past summer, I interned at one of the top restaurants in the Bay Area and made pastries. Eight hours a day, four days a week, I was hustling out melon granitas and raspberry-pistachio crostatas.
As the weeks went by, I noticed that the pastry chef (my boss) rarely followed the recipes for any item. Salt was tossed in at a whim, sorbets were concocted based on leftover fruits and when I asked her for how long to bake the cornmeal cookies, she had no idea. "Just until they're done" was her answer.
Now, what the heck does "just done" mean? At first, I was annoyed that she had given me all these recipes that seemed useless. But then I realized that perhaps there was a deeper value to all the pages of ingredients and instructions. Maybe, just maybe, these recipes were her secret way of telling me to branch out of my comfort zone and produce something new.
Recipes are like rules: They are not always meant to be followed. I am sure that when you cook at home, most of you rarely follow a recipe exactly as it is. It is time-intensive to read everything word for word, and it can be money-intensive as well-do you know how much truffle oil costs?
To put recipes into a college context, think of them like textbooks. Initially, they are required reading. If you have not taken the class (or cooked the dish) before, you want to follow things pretty closely in order to understand the basics. The first time I made caramel, for example, I read and reread the recipe until I could recite it by memory. It helps to do this so you are not running back and forth from stove top to book while your chicken slowly burns and the fire alarm rings in the background.
After a few tries, a recipe becomes more like a syllabus: a general outline of what will be covered in today's lecture/entree/dessert. It is open to interpretation. Plus, things can get switched around, so you may find yourself adding honey instead of sugar or crushed Cheerios instead of breadcrumbs (this actually does work).
Either way, the recipe becomes a baseline for you to experiment and create an original dish that showcases unique flavors based on your preferences. Moreover, you learn how to make the most of your time-who is going to stoop over a stove caramelizing onions for half an hour, anyway?
As you gain experience, you become more prepared so that next time you know that covering brownies before placing them in the oven will cause them to explode. I would put a disclaimer not to try this at home, but I figured that by now the temptation is probably already too great.
Many people do not realize that going against a recipe does not mean merely substituting ingredients or shortening bake times. It can also mean attempting a different cooking method altogether. The results can be amazing or disastrous.
Cakespy.com recently ran a "study" of sorts where it decided to create chocolate chip cookies four different ways: fried, toasted, microwaved and boiled. After trying out all methods, they deemed the traditional baking to be the best; the fried versions screamed of salmonella, the toasted ones burned, the microwaved cookies fused to the plate and the boiled ones were a soggy mess.
Experiments like these are easy to recreate at home and much safer than exploding brownies in your oven. Plus, they enhance your own culinary knowledge so you can become comfortable with new aspects of cooking that you might not have previously considered. It is a win-win situation. And if you get to eat mass amounts of cookies in the process, so be it.
I do have some words of wisdom-and caution-for you home chefs before you start throwing the cookbook out the window. First, do NOT attempt anything drastically new for a dinner party. While you may have proclaimed yourself to be a culinary genius, your peers and parents might beg to differ, and you don't want to be responsible for the aftereffects of microwaved blue Jell-O.
Also, when it comes to baking, accuracy is key. Unlike other forms of cooking, baking is a very exact process. All the ingredients have a purpose in stimulating a chemical process that results in light and fluffy goods.
You can definitely play around with the seasonings and add-ins (butterscotch chips, shredded coconut, etc.) while baking, but as for the core constituents of baking soda/powder, butter, flour and eggs, it is best to stick to the recipe until you have a good grasp on the characteristics of each item.
There is a fine line between consistency and creativity whenever you cook. Be aware of which side you wish to tread on as you read through a recipe. Both sides require considerable kitchen time, but they also equally improve your skills. Remember, the recipe is a syllabus, not a textbook. And luckily, you aren't going to be tested on any of the reading.
Find out what microwaved Jell-O looks like with Shikha at email@example.com.
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