Friday, June 26, 2009

My breakfast is better because I use a scale.

There is nothing I dread more in a recipe than the words "3/4 c. brown sugar, packed".


I almost never baked growing up. I was notorious for being the one who screwed up the toll house cookie recipe. Oh, I could cook. There was no question how I felt about food. My nearest and dearest saw my chosen profession long before I quite my job and went into food service. But baking? Was I sure?

A scale changed my life. My world opened. I have not looked back.

You need a scale to bake. Especially if you bake regularly. Why? Well, I'm not going to rehash arguments made elsewhere. To sum up, scaling is easier. Scaling entices you to play with things. Scaling lets you see how it goes together, not just what. No, rather than go through all that, I'm going to make my own version of grapenuts-like cereal. Now, if I followed the recipe I found, I would have to dirty up a whole bunch of measuring utensils. Instead, I pulled out one bowl, preheated my oven to 350 and then dumped in my bowl:

470 g whole wheat flour
58 g barley flour
65 g buckwheat flour
220 g brown sugar
7 g salt
5 g baking soda
5 g cinnamon
10 g vanilla extract
475 g buttermilk

I love a tare button.

Ok, I would have dumped it in my one bowl if I wasn't dealing with recipe conversion and innovation. Since the recipe I had was not created for a kitchen with a scale, I was forced to convert. Forced to dirty many cups and various sized spoons, pack brown sugar. How hard are you supposed to pack it anyway? Why does my cup of flour weigh something different from that other person's cup of flour? Why has no one ever made a half tablespoon scoop a regular addition to those little spoon rings? I muttered darkly through this process, knowing I won't have to do it again.

And I had to deviate from the text. In the real trademarked cereal, the ingredients (a seriously short list) note both wheat and barley. All the internet recipes I found just had wheat. Wheat is nice, but barley adds sweetness and flavor and why not add it? I had the buckwheat, so, why not add it as well? Those weird numbers are actually a half a cup each, the way I measured them. So inconsistent! But I know that since I scaled them, next time it will work out the same as this time.

I mixed it all together and spread it on a silpat, but I'm sure parchment paper and a little pan spray would work fine. I baked it on a sheet pan for about 20 minutes. I let it cool, then raked it into pieces with a fork and my hands because who needs a food processor anyway. Then it got the granola treatment- I divided the crumbs from one pan into two pans, to give them space to brown and get crunchy. Baked for an hour at 300, with lots of stirring (which I continued to do with the fork to help further break up the clumps), they smelled like cinnamon rolls and looked like, well, breakfast cereal. They cooled into the dense crunchy clumps that I adore with my yogurt only better.

And next time? I'll only need to wash one bowl.

Monday, June 15, 2009

rhubarb ginger ale and intuition

People seem to be talking a lot about intuitive cooking lately. You have books like Ratio which hope to inspire more of it. You have the great chefs who talk about a cook's intuition and its role in creativity. Then you have just regular people who are working on their own skills and realize that at some point you have to put the book away and just cook.

The Amateur Gourmet did a post on making your own ginger ale where he put the book away. To sum up, he had a recipe for the world's greatest ginger ale, in my humble opinion, and he just sort of put it together with what he had. It turned out great. This is the kind of subtle inspiration I love. You have a formula, a basic idea, a technique, a structure and then you just play around it.

I had some rhubarb. I thought, that would be good with ginger ale. And then I thought that I like honey with rhubarb better than sugar. So why not replace it? Well, honey can be a little strong, so why not cut the honey with agave? Sugar free rhubarb ginger ale?

Well, why not?

Now, I work in a professional kitchen, so I've learned one thing about these kinds of experiments that you don't always learn at home: You need to be able to replicate something good. Take Notes. So these are my notes:

175 g chopped rhubarb - 1 good stalk
100 g chopped ginger
150 g agave
50 g honey
350 g water

simmer to syrup, taste and adjust, 15 minutes +, rhubarb mushy. Strain. Chill. Mix with club soda/spark h20.

What you don't see with these notes are the cross outs, the scribbles. I started with 50 grams of ginger and after first taste, dumped in 50 more. I could have gone higher. There is a note about adding a squeeze of lemon, which would probably be nice. The word "strawberry?" appears and I'm sure that would really be nice. I may do that one next. I may do strawberry on its own. Someone else may have added more honey but I don't like that much sweet. I didn't even note the syrup consistency because I eyeballed it. It wasn't important, compared to the flavor. I could make this again with the notes I have, but I could do a lot more as well.

It is bare bones, not really a recipe, but I think that may be the best thing about it. It encourages adaptation. What is the most important part of cooking intuitively? Why is it so attractive? Because there is a chance that you will come up with something really good or really awful. Recipes can fail, yes, but that sort of failure is personal, you are more likely to blame yourself - what did I do wrong? The recipe must be right (although eventually you learn that isn't true.).

If you have no recipe and you fail, it raises more questions. Why did this not work? What can I change? Will it work if I do this instead? And if you succeed, those same questions are there. Why did this work? Will it work if I do this instead? What can I change? Freedom to fail and learn so you can fall and rise up again. Freedom to just cook, to just play. That is why you develop your intuition.

the hands remember

It was one of those remarks that sticks with you. I was considering leaving my job with Monsieur Le Chef, and I wanted to consult with him first about the position I had been offered. (He was starting up a new venture himself and although he had given me the chance to tag along, there just wasn't enough work. That is how it goes sometimes.) He said yes I should take it, they would be lucky to have me but, and he meant this in the best possible way, "You need to watch your judgement, baby." And then proceeded to list examples. Sometimes, I hate examples.

What I am learning as my career progresses is that judgement is not in the head, it is in the hands. This is a tough lesson for me. I spend a lot of time hashing things out in my brain. I think and rethink. I create scenarios. I have an inexhaustible need to learn the hows, whys and wherefores. You ask me how something is made and I don't know, it is going to really bother me until I go and look up the answer.

And that is the problem.

Cooking is not about "looking up the answer". Sure that can help, but it comes down to those wiggly parts at the end of your arms, and your nose, and your ears, and all those other things not made from grey matter. I'm still learning to trust my senses. I'm not quite good at it yet. There was an incident at work, not long ago, when I looked at some bread dough and said, a la Miss Clavel, "Something is not right!" But my brain whispered sweet excuses in my ear. I went with my brain and paid for it the next day.

But I am improving. All of my recipes from Monsieur Le Chef are simply ingredient lists. No technique, maybe an occasional note. I have to trust that ethereal judgement will shape it. I made the chocolate mousse cake for the first time in over a year this weekend, and as I laid out my mise, I had no idea how it went together. I intended to just do part of the recipe, to be safe, to give myself time to think and remember. I was half way through the recipe when I realized that without any thought I had gone past my stopping point and set up everything to finish the whole shebang. And I knew what needed to happen next.

It came out lovely. The hands remember.