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Wednesday, August 10, 2011


This week I had one of those exciting moments when a swirl of tangentially related thoughts and impulses comes together in an instant, when desires you were only half aware of become clear, and finally, you're able to put them into words. It was a conversation with my good friend (and co-author of this blog) Dora that brought this miracle about.

Dora and I both read a lot, I mean a LOT a lot, and a good deal of that lot of reading consists of books written a long time ago. Not that there aren't good books being written today, but “a long time ago” consists of a much wider span of years than “today”, so it stands to reason that there are more good books from then than there are from now. One of the hazards of reading books written a long time ago, is that you get to noticing how differently people lived, how they fed themselves and their families, kept body and soul together. I didn't notice this so much in my younger days, but now that the responsibility of running a household, keeping children alive etc. falls to me, I notice it. And certain things haunt me. Swallows and Amazons, How Green Was My Valley, Little Britches, Little House on the Prairie, and too many others to name have subtly dropped their hints into my subconscious, building within me a desire to be that woman who can harness the mysterious forces of the art we so prosaically refer to as 'cooking', and with the most basic of building blocks, bring forth delicious and wonderful things to feed her family. At home. In her own kitchen. On a limited or non-existent budget. Without the help of experts, professional equipment, costly ingredients, nay even a recipe.
So as I stumbled around on the phone with Dora, “I want to memorize some basic recipes, so I can just whip things together no matter where I am...” I wasn't expressing myself very well, but maybe because she reads a lot of the same books as I do, Dora got it. And she gave me that key word, “There's something about ratios...” she said.
I googled “baking ratios” and found it! A whole book by Michael Ruhlman, called "Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking". I drove directly to the library and devoured it later that night in bed, feeling like I'd newly discovered the Rosetta Stone. Alton Brown, isn't exaggerating in this quote on the back cover:
"Cooking, like so many creative endeavors, is defined by relationships. For instance, knowing exactly how much flour to put into a loaf of bread isn't nearly as useful as understanding the relationship between the flour and the water, or fat, or salt. That relationship is defined by a 'ratio', and having a ratio in hand is like having a secret decoder ring that frees you from the tyranny of recipes.

Professional cooks and bakers guard ratios passionately, so it wouldn't surprise me a bit if Michael Ruhlman was forced into hiding like a modern day Prometheus, who in handing us mortals a power better suited to the gods, has changed the balance of kitchen power forever.

I for one, am grateful. I suspect you will be, too."
I am grateful for the ratios, and for the explanations of technique that are clearly written and easy to understand. Because technique matters, too. You may know that traditionally a pound cake was made from a pound of butter, a pound of sugar, and pound of eggs, a pound of flour etc., but did you know that you can take the exact same ingredients in the exact same amounts and make a light and airy sponge cake? If you start by creaming the sugar into the butter you get a moist, dense pound cake. If you begin by whipping the sugar with the eggs you get a sponge cake. Amazing.
I hopped out of bed at eleven o'clock that night, too excited to wait until the morning to start experimenting. I mixed up some cookie dough- 1 part sugar, 2 parts fat, 3 parts flour. That's all you need to make a cookie. Everything else is a variation on that theme. Due to the lateness of the hour, I flipped the fat and sugar amounts, but I just added some milk until the dough was the right consistency and they turned out great! I made up my own cookie recipe! The rest of the week was a blur of experimentation: crepes, pasta, biscuits, pie dough, angel food cake, tempura. This morning I worked out the ratio for our favorite German pancake recipe, it's 1-2-3. One part flour, two parts milk, three parts egg. Knowing the ratio, now I can adjust the amounts slightly upward to better fill the pan, I'm not stuck with just halving or doubling the recipe.
And it really is easier to cook this way. Armed with a ratio and a digital scale, you just sit your bowl on the scale and start throwing things in. It's amazing how much time you save when you're not constantly checking and re-checking the recipe and hunting for measuring cups. It's amazing how empowering it feels when you can confidently manipulate a set of basic rules, instead of painstakingly following the detailed directions of a recipe. After only a week or so with this book, I'm starting to find that woman I've been looking for, the one who can roll out a fresh batch of biscuits as easy as rolling out of bed, who can turn apples into a pie without breaking a sweat. I actually made a beautifully light and flaky pie crust this week, a skill the has previously eluded and frustrated me.
It's always been mysterious to me the variety of things that can be made with flour, water, and a little leavening. Michael Ruhlman puts it beautifully:
"Batters are almost incestuously linked to one another and show an exceptionally delicate balance between one another. The loosest of the batters is crepe, and we move up with increasing proportions of flour to popover, pancake and fritter, muffin, cake, and so on in potentially infinite variations until you hit the point of the fulcrum and tip over into dough, pate a choux, pasta, pie, cookie and bread (in that order on the batter-dough continuum)."....

"Which is why I love cooking. It's all one thing. Which is the ultimate comfort in a life fraught with uncertainty and questions. Which is why I don't fear dying. Which is what I'd put on my headstone if I thought being buried in the ground mattered: "It's all one thing." Which is why I love batters."
It's all one thing. That's why these ideas are so exciting to me, why this blog post has been so long. (Sorry) The literature that lives in my head and the necessity of being frugal these days and the responsibility of feeding my family and my innate desire to take things apart to see the basic building blocks so I can put them back together in a unique way- to craft, whether with yarn or material or wood or flour and water- it's all one thing.
I see this new idea leading me in a hundred different directions. I see experimentation with whole wheat and other grains in my baking, with alternative sweeteners and fats. I see experimentation with ethnic foods, all the other flour/ water/ leavening combinations people make the world around. Tortillas, pita, Injera bread, naan bread, lavosh. As a homeschooling mom, I see a lot of exciting and yummy math lessons ahead, including having my kids build a balance scale to weigh the ingredients, including cooking our way through that batter-dough continuum. And I'm only halfway through the book. The second half deals with stocks, meats, sauces, and custards. And then there's another book by Michael Ruhlman, The Elements of Cooking, sitting on my nightstand...

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