Formative Experiences

I love cooking. Sadly, I’m not a terribly good cook (I make a few things really well, and many things ok, and some things very badly), although I’m a pretty good baker. But what I lack in skills I make up with enthusiasm. I love the experience of being in the kitchen, I like tasting things and trying to replicate them at home, I like embarking on new cooking projects, whether it’s learning to make choux pastry or trying for the 13,546,982nd time to make an Indian curry that doesn’t taste like ass. Experimentation in the kitchen is one of my greatest delights.

I know a lot of people who don’t feel this way. I’d say I know a fair number of people who don’t like to cook and can’t cook. And I know a lot of people who are what I think of as “recipebound.” They are fixated on recipes, and feel like they must have them and cannot deviate from them. They are afraid to experiment with something if there isn’t a recipe to guide them, and they are convinced that following a recipe exactly will yield consistent results. That they can remedy poor kitchen skills if they just try hard enough.

Whereas I flee from recipes, as a general rule, adding some of this and some of that in vague amounts. The few things that I make really well? People are always asking me for recipes, and I sort of shrug and say “you know, you just kinda…make it. What’s in it? You know, stuff.”  I may occasionally look at a recipe for some ideas, but as a general rule, I find them completely useless. This wasn’t always the case, of course: when I first started to really explore cooking and baking, I used a lot of recipes, but I find them highly restrictive and rather irritating now.

I think that liking or not liking cooking has a lot to do with the environment you’re raised in. And I’m incredibly fortunate in that respect: my father is an excellent cook, and he cooked constantly. We ate at home most of the time, and we ate wholesome, home-cooked meals made from scratch. Eating out was a rare treat. If I behaved at the dentist, for example, I might be treated to a hamburger and fries at Goody’s afterwards. My father encouraged me to get involved in the cooking process, from choosing meals to helping prepare them, and so I grew up with a love for food and cooking.

My father isn’t such a great baker. (I’ve noticed that it seems to be one or the other: either you are good at baking or you are good at cooking. Or, the third option, you are good at neither.) He definitely encouraged me to experiment with baking when I was a kid, and endured a wide variety of highly experimental cookie recipes which were often…well, disastrous would be a polite way of putting it. And he endured umpteen pies as I tried for the perfect crust, loaves of bread which were more like bricks until I learned to handle yeast, and countless wasted ingredients resulting from botched recipe disasters. We didn’t have a lot of money to spend, but he was willing to throw away $30 worth of butter as long as I was enjoying myself.

And this brings me to my formative memory: the first day that we made a cake from scratch, rather than from out of the box. I’m not sure how old I was, but I was relatively young, probably seven or eight.

Rather paradoxically, despite making everything else from scratch, we always made cakes out of the box. I think this might have had to do with my father’s lack of confidence in his baking skills, and his desire to make sure that we were reasonably successful when baking cakes. It’s also possible that I was accustomed to box cakes and demanded them. At any rate, we made a lot of cakes and cupcakes in a wide variety of flavors from box mixes, and we always used frosting out of the can.

One day, I found myself poking through the Joy of Cooking, which I had recently learned contained recipes! That you could cook! I was usually mesmerized by the chapters with overviews on butchering and choosing vegetables, but one day I found the chapter on cakes, and I learned that cake was not, in fact, something which came in a Duncan Hines box. This was kind of revolutionary; I don’t really know why I hadn’t made the connection before, but there it was in black and white. Recipes. For cakes.

I hauled the book upstairs to show my father, delighted at my discovery. You could make all kinds of different cakes, I pointed out, showing him sponge cakes and angel cakes and tortes and marble cakes. And, you know, it didn’t look that hard. It seemed actually a lot like box cake, really. Throw stuff in bowl, mash around, pour in pan, bake. I mean, sure, there were a few more ingredients, but it couldn’t be that challenging, right?

My father duly humoured me, letting me pick out a recipe and write out the ingredients we needed. I also insisted that we make our frosting too, and he recommended buttercream (probably remembering that it’s easy). We went to Harvest and picked up the ingredients, and I gleefully informed everyone we passed that we were MAKING A CAKE and it was going to be FROM SCRATCH and they were suitably impressed.

When we got home, my father pretty much let me take charge of the baking, occasionally offering recommendations and suggestions from the kitchen table. And, you know? It turned out ok. It was a little fallen in the middle, but it was good, and the flavour was on a whole different level from boxed cakes. It was much less sweet, and texturally more complex, and intriguing.

It was like a magical door had suddenly opened in front of me. I realized that cake, which I thought came in a box (I wasn’t aware of the contents of the supermarket aisles we totally ignored which contained things like tomato sauce in cans and cheese in packages, which I would have found laughable if I’d known about them), could also be made at home, and that it was fun and not particularly hard to do. And, furthermore, I realized that you could experiment, that you could look up this thing called a “recipe” and use it as a guideline; follow the recipe pretty closely the first time to get a feel for it, and then branch out.

This was what led me to start experimenting with my own cookie recipes, and to start trying to replicate meals I had elsewhere at home by finding out what they were called and then finding a recipe, and then adapting the recipe to find the taste I was looking for. It led me to a lifelong obsession with pursuing the perfect way to make something, whether it’s rice or chocolate chip cookies, and it led me to a love of food, and the diversity that food has to offer. Sure, I was interested in cooking and food as an abstract notion before, but the day I made my first cake from scratch was like the day I learned what a library was. All of a sudden, doors started opening in all directions and bells started ringing in my head and I realized that here was a fantastic world full of possibilities.

5 Replies to “Formative Experiences”

  1. I made a pie from scratch once that wasn’t terrible. My only attempt at making a cake from scratch absolutely was, though. I was unclear on the difference between powdered and granulated sugar when making frosting.

    I’m a good cook though, when I have spoons for it. And a rotten lab chemist — the skill set is more akin to baking than cooking.

  2. I am totally recipe-bound. When I have one, I’m adequate, though nothing special. Otherwise, I’m utterly at sea.

    My stepmother on the other hand, is a brilliant cook and a reasonably good baker. For some things she uses recipes, but only as a starting point. She modifies them pretty extensively, and for many dishes she doesn’t use them at all.

    I miss her food. It’s one of the things that occasionally makes me a little homesick.

  3. I love cooking, too. And baking. Made my first brownies at six (as soon as I could read the recipe) and my first bread at eight. I read recipes as if they were porn. Sometimes they are. I taste things in restaurants and try to replicate them at home. You have no idea how many eggs I wasted when I was 11 trying to devise my own recipe for the ultimate cupcake (we lived in overseas and eggs were dear).

  4. First bread at eight! You are a baking savant! I didn’t get the hang of bread until I was in my teens.

  5. I still really miss Goody’s….sigh

    I am convinced that all the cookie baking I did as a kid is why I was really good at math. By the time I was eight I was doubling and halving recipes and substituting ingredients according to this or that formula. So by the time we got to fractions when I was ten, it was all old hat.

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