Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Up and running...

No matter how much creativity goes into it, cooking is an art. Or perhaps I should say a craft. It abides by absolute rules, physics, chemistry, etc. and that means that unless you understand the science you cannot reach the art. We're not talking about painting here. Cooking's more like engineering. I happen to think that there is great beauty in great engineering.
ALTON BROWN, interview, Sep. 12, 2002

Oh my gosh. How many ways can I love Alton Brown and his approach to food? He is the perfect combination of science nerd and food gourmet with a little (or a lot) nuttiness sprinkled in. He nearly always has reliable recipes and I feel that is mainly due to the fact that he understands why food does what it does and how recipes work from a science and chemistry standpoint. Sure, sometimes his examples are a little, should I say, juvenile, and he can be a little over the top but he gets his point across.

I don’t think it comes as a huge surprise that I feel engineering and cooking/baking go hand in hand. As in any engineering project, a systematic approach is paramount. The same is true with cooking and especially with baking. A recipe is your golden ticket to success more times than not. I buy magazines, cookbooks and love blogs and websites that detail the recipes as well as any problems or changes made during the process. I generally find I lean towards reproducing recipes with positive feedback versus the ones floating around in cyberspace simply because I have a better chance of success with the recipes if it has already worked for someone else.

Also, as in engineering, there are times you can improvise, and times where you must stick with the process. I find that the main difference between cooking and baking. When I cook dinner, I tend to season things as I like (namely with spicy foods and herbs) and typically haphazardly throw things in the pot when I think it’ll work. With baking, however, you’re messing around with chemistry. While you can typically improvise with add-ins without compromising the final product, nearly all the base ingredients and their amounts are in that recipe for a very specific purpose. Even in something as ‘simple’ as bread, with only three basic ingredients (water, yeast, and flour), the ratio of these ingredients to each other can drastically change you final product. How batters are prepared before baking makes a difference (muffin method, creaming method, combination method, etc).

And finally, as in engineering, even the best laid out plans (or recipes) fail, despite your best efforts.

I have had several unmitigated disasters in my kitchen. Some require overnight pot soaking to make a dent in the cemented remnants of an incinerated dish. Some require removing the batteries from all 4 upstairs smoke alarms in the house because even though the smoke is billowing out of the kitchen, the house isn’t burning down. I think the failures motivate me as much as the successes. And I’ve managed to flambĂ© when I had no intention of doing so. That was an exciting evening. My eyebrows disagreed.

When I fail, I want to know why - At least, aside from the obvious “in over my head” excuse. I feel like knowing ‘why’ is taking one more step towards my own success the next time around (and when I fail, there is always a next time. I refuse to give up). If I do a little research, I feel like success will not have been as much by chance as by taking the time to educate myself as to what should be happening with my food and discovering why I failed the first time. Also, by knowing what to expect, I can ideally replicate a successful recipe over and over again, and not just rely on blind luck.

And because I’m not too proud at admit my failures...

Having never made candy before, I had this insatiable desire to make fudge. I mean, seriously, how hard could it be? You add some ingredients to a pot, cook until it reaches a certain temperature and then you stir the bejeezus out of it until it’s ready to put in a pan and cool. The very first recipe I attempted had less-than-clear directions (first mistake, especially with candy). There I was, with a 245-degree chocolatey-sugary concoction that I was stirring until my arm was ready to fall off, then dumping it into a buttered pan to wait for it to cool. I hovered over that so-called fudge, feeling the pan every couple of minutes waiting for it to cool so that I could try my first creamy, silky, melt-in-your-mouth bite. Finally, it was time. I cut off a little piece with my knife and smugly held up a piece of my masterpiece, thinking to myself “and they said this was hard.” I put what I was expecting to be a scrumptious piece of fudge in my mouth and was rewarded with feeling like I had just licked the shores of a chocolate beach. Instead of the creamy delectable bite I was expecting, I got a gritty, sandy chocolate mess. Needless to say, my sore arm and I were unhappy. Not to mention each batch of fudge can take several hours from start to finish because of the cooking and cooling times required. It's frustrating to have to wait so long and not be happy with the end result.

Instead of being discouraged with my failure, however, I resolved to try again. This time, I researched more recipes, looking for details and clues as to what happened. I found out that I started stirring way too soon, and consequently I initiated the sugar recrystallization process too early, which created the textural nightmare in my mouth. Needless to say, my second batch of fudge was supremely better than my first.

Now, I’m not saying I’m going to be writing about all the science behind everything, I don’t pretend to know it all. Not to mention, I wouldn’t want to put Alton Brown out of a job. He just seems too nice. But that won’t stop me from throwing an interesting tidbit or two every once in a while. For me, cooking is a lot of experimentation and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. You can expect that I will be posting things I make, and my experiences in the kitchen, disaster or not, in the hopes that you will be inspired to find a new favorite or, even better, avoid the mistakes I make.


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