Cooking is Biology. You need to really know each plant, animal, herb and spice you use to make an exceptional meal without a recipe. And what is happy sharing space with what. For example, did you know most pork loves fruit? Yes I understand that everyone knows about ham and pineapple, hush already. But what about pork chops cooked in apple cider, or with a side dish of cooked sweet dark cherries, or a peach slaw? I’m telling you, pork simply loves fruit sitting beside it.
I like to credit the Italian side of me for my comfort with food biology. Oh, I’m not up to the skills of my little Italian grandmother, who didn’t speak any English and whose kitchen always smelled like a miracle and who produced so much amazing food whenever we visited that the first Italian word I ever learned was “basta,” enough. But I think I have enough of her genetic material to feel alright being spontaneous in the kitchen, and the results are always edible and sometimes incredible.
Baking, on the other hand, is chemistry. Spontaneity is not rewarded here. Instead, it’s all about total accuracy, trusting the process, and patience. Did you sift the flour three times or just once? Is your butter room temperature or did you get impatient and melt it? Once the wet ingredients hit the dry when you’re making biscuits, leave them the heck alone as much as possible, since every bit of heat or handling moves them further away from pillows or clouds and closer to hockey pucks. And why does that happen? Well, that’s the gluten taking over and tightening your dough – yes, a chemical reaction.
My love of baking is part of my mother’s German and French heritage. She started my sister and I on cookies when we couldn’t reach the kitchen counter easily, and she talked as she baked, explaining everything. Once we moved past the grab the raw dough stage (well, OK, we never moved completely past it) we loved the process. The right mixing bowls, the measuring cups and spoons, just the right amount of flour, baking powder or baking soda, but be a bit generous with the vanilla – let it splash over the spoon and into the bowl – because it’s such an amazing element that a little is never quite enough.
Baking for me is an alchemical experience – turning dross into gold. No one really wants to eat flour, and I’m telling you right now that no matter how incredible it smells, vanilla is simply not tasty straight up. But I get out my crucible (oh alright, mixing bowl) measure and mix, apply the right amount of heat and time, and voila, cookies, cake, crisp, crumble, kitchen crack produced for the pure pleasure of eating and sharing.
When I start to find life overwhelming and I need to breathe, I may take a walk or play piano – or bake. No ambiguities there. You mix A, B, and C dry ingredients, add in D, E, and F wet. Mix – remember to mix each egg in individually because it works better that way. (Yes, baking is that fussy but oh, so worth the trouble.) And if you have the patience and do it all exactly right, at the end of the day you have the result you dreamed of that morning – exactly right. Exactly.
Trust me on this; it’s Alchemy.