Yup, here we are: back again, talking about automaticity. Why, Jen?! Why must you beat this dead horse?! Well, it’s not dead, yet, friends. Every time I go out into the Hinternet I am reminded of the sheer number of folks that are tentative in the kitchen. If you are one of those folks, please, please don’t think that I think you are being silly. I know that you’re not. I know this because I am not silly (much), and I have been a Tentative Cook, too. Like the awkward teenage stage, it’s a stage we all go through. All of us. Some of us who have Amazing Cooking Parents and/or Grandparents are lucky enough to get this stage out of the way early. Others of us are not so lucky. Friends, until just a very few years ago, I fell into the latter group of Folks whose awkward stage lasted for a Very Long Time. I will now tell you about my culinary journey from Awkward to Not Quite So Awkward to Confident. Why? ‘Cause I want you guys to hear it and know that nobody that I know of, including me, has ever come out of the womb a Master Chef. Julia Child didn’t start cooking until she was in her 30s, and look at her career. Not to say that I’m playing in the same ballpark as JC, mind you, I’m just saying, is all…
I was born a Coal Miner’s Daughter. Um, no I wasn’t really. I was born, though. My earliest food memory is eating mashed potatoes on an airplane when I was 2-ish. I’m not sure what that says about me, but there you go. I was born in North Carolina, and my dad’s mom, Grammie, lived with us until her death when I was 5-ish. She was born and raised in England, and I had a bit of a British accent as a wee one. I also learned to drink copious quantities of tea with milk and sugar.
My mom was a competent cook. Some would describe her as a very good cook. She can follow a recipe like nobody’s business. My folks would throw large dinner parties when we were little, and mom would make all sorts of tasty 70s fare. I never really saw her create, though, just recreate. That’s not a bad thing, but my cooking model was of the I Need to Find a Recipe for That variety. I’m sure there were plenty of things that she cooked without a recipe, but she was not one to really cook with me. Cooking was a Mom Activity, not something that a kid should be involved in. She made tons of cookies and cakes throughout my Formative Years, but I’m pretty sure that I was only an observer, not an active participant in the cooking process. Just not her style, I guess.
One of mom’s big Show Stoppers was individual Beef Wellingtons with Marchand de Vin sauce. This was a roux-thickened wine sauce, although I didn’t know that at the time. We ate this meal fairly frequently when we had folks over who Needed Impressing. I did get to help decorate the Wellingtons–cutting out little dough leaves and gluing them on with egg wash. Not so much cooking as a craft project. Fun, though.
Mom taught herself how to bake bread. She bought a bread book and just did it. I think that was one of the greatest cooking lessons I ever learned from my mom: you can learn how to cook from a book. She still makes good bread, but she doesn’t deviate from the printed recipe. Ever. Again, not a bad thing. I just think she is kind of Comfortably Stuck in the Follow-the-Recipe mode.
As you can imagine, I didn’t do much cooking or baking as a kid. I did make 2 yellow cake layers for a church cake auction. I decorated them as PacMan and Ms Pacman. They sold for$10. For both. Sigh.
Fast forward to college: my freshman year, my friend James decided that we were going to make lasagna for a group of friends. I followed him blindly around the grocery store as he filled up the cart with the Necessary Items. I can remember thinking, “Are we really going to do this?!” rather incredulously. Well, it was quite the Project, but we did it. James was the chef; I just sort of helped. A little. The lasagna was good, but I still hadn’t made the connection that I could actually do that (cook) whenever I felt like it.
Fast forward: after graduation, I lived on noodles and ranch dressing. For years. Eventually, I graduated to noodles and parmesan cheese.
Somewhere in there, I moved in with a good friend’s ex-boyfriend. Yeah, I know–weird, right? Well, he was the best roommate I have ever had, and we lived together for three years until he met his beloved across the ocean in Eire and she moved over to the states. Anyway, Jeff was an automatic cook, the first one I’d ever met. He was amazing in the kitchen, and he helped to expand my palate beyond noodles and parmesan. He also was (is) Very Tall. We would sit up playing Trivial Pursuit with shots–every time we didn’t know an answer, we would have to drink. I always won, but I was always the one who was sick and sad and in the bathroom. So not fair. He beat me through sheer size. Cheater.
Anyway, after Jeff and his Beloved were happily settled in their new place and I was in my first place all by myself, I got a Special Invitation from the folks at The Good Cook to buy seven or ten cookbooks for One Dollar! I can never turn down a Special Invitation, so I carefully made my selections and sent in my card. This was back in way early 90s, I think. If it hadn’t been for Jeff and his Cooking Ways, I might have turned down the Invitation, so thanks, Jeff. You are the best.
Guess what? I started having dinner parties, too. I made bechamel sauce and bolognese sauce and poured them over stuffed shells. Check it out, though–I could no more have made bechamel sauce the week after the party than I could perform heart surgery. I would’ve had to find a recipe, because I didn’t know that bechamel is a roux-thickened cream sauce. I didn’t know what a roux was, even when I was making one. I made an appetizer for someone else’s party, and I needed a recipe that showed me how to grate cheese and alternate it with tortillas in a stack and bake until bubbly.
One Christmas, I decided to make a Bûche de Noël. On Christmas Eve. With meringue mushrooms and everything. What a Dolt. Anyway, the mushrooms turned out cute, but I broke the first 2 jelly rolls and threw them away. Then, I decided, “Screw this. We’re having a Yule Stump.” I found a chocolate cake recipe that was made with what I now know is the Two Stage Mixing Method. This was an Alien concept to me. The batter was kind of thin, and the cake peaked kind of like a muffin. Rather than sawing off the peaks, I threw the cakes away because I thought I had messed up. I found a different recipe made with the more familiar (but not internalized) Creaming Method. I finally finished making and decorating the blasted thing at about 4:00am Christmas morning. Merry Christmas to me.
Friday nights eventually became Baking Nights. Baking Night took the place of an actual Social Life. I would spend hours and hours faithfully recreating the most over the top dessert recipe I could find in the Best of Gourmet cookbooks. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was Following Directions and making Edible Items. I made some crazy chocolate raspberry cake with poured ganache and whipped ganache and it took me like nine hours to make it. I overwhipped the ganache and it broke, although I didn’t know it at the time. It was still tasty, and it served as friend Tom’s birthday cake, so there you go.
When my Beloved finally showed up, I baked pies and cakes and What Not for him. I think I’ve shown you some pictures of those creations. But, guess what? I still needed recipes, even to get ideas. Eventually, I learned what ganache is and could make it without a recipe, but by and large, I was still hesitant and unsure and would get hot and sweaty when I didn’t think I was following the directions Exactly.
Not until I went to Culinary School did I learn to let go of recipes a bit. I started to realize that desserts and cakes and such were just a combination of basic components put together in different ways. I realized that, if I could remember not only how to make pastry cream but also the proportion of dairy to egg to starch, I could make it in whatever quantity I wanted pretty much whenever I felt like it. I finally started feeling free enough to pour it over some chocolate and stir it up to make chocolate pastry cream. Fancy that.
During this time, I was also working in my first restaurant. Our chef, Brandon, taught me a lot–not that he was hovering and actually teaching me, but I watched him and began to understand his intuitive process. How he would get inspired by an ingredient and create a dish around it. Amazing chef, Brandon. I will say that he staged under Gordon Ramsey for awhile, and it rubbed off. His leadership style was, um, loud. Regardless, the man knew his way around a kitchen. He pushed me to make the horseradish sorbet. He didn’t realize he was pushing my culinary envelope; he had no idea that I was Terrified most of the time. He just figured that I knew what I was doing and handed me the horseradish broth and walked away. That was my sink or swim moment. And I swam. It wasn’t pretty. There was plenty of flailing about and gasping and choking and hanging onto Splinters of Wood for dear life, but eventually my strokes smoothed out.
You might not have a chef to hand you a sixth pan of horseradish broth, but you will have your sink or swim moment. You’ll see an Intriguing Ingredient and buy it on impulse. You’ll be Inspired, and you’ll realize that you know What to Do with it. If you’re not there yet, you will be. Focus on generalizing techniques and methods. Read between the lines of cookbooks and learn to cook, not just follow a recipe.
On your way out, please go read Will’s post on Cooking Inspiration. He is much more eloquent than I am; I think you’ll be inspired. (UPDATE: Sadly that link no longer works. Will, where did you go?)