Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Facing The Kitchen Demons

I have had my share of kitchen disasters. I’ve cut my fingers and burnt pans so badly I threw them out. I’ve overcooked and undercooked food. I’ve left out key ingredients, made bread that doesn’t rise, polenta with lumps, and puddings that puddle. I once gave my secret banana bread recipe to a friend and mistakenly wrote 3/4 cup of baking soda instead of 3/4 teaspoon (I choose to think that the resulting volcano of batter was actually her disaster, not mine). A week ago I had a glass dish explode in the oven. That was a first for me.

My mom is my biggest culinary inspiration. She was among the first women to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America, and the first woman to grace the kitchen at New York’s La Grenouille. But even she had her days. At La Grenouille, where I’m sure she wasn’t feeling any pressure to perform, she was in charge of soufflés. At some point in her tenure, her soufflés stopped working. She still served them, but they weren’t what they were supposed to be. For about a week, she had a black soufflé cloud over her head. And just like that, it cleared up. She never figured out the problem, but at least the owner didn’t have to come make the soufflés for her (as he supposedly did once for a previous chef).

I find my mom’s tenacity comforting, especially when faced with my own challenges. The bane of my existence in cooking school was pie crust, or pâte brisée in French (which means “short pastry”). Good crust should be simultaneously flaky and tender, and achieving that balance frightens many a cook. Culinary school students learn to make a crust by hand using only flour, salt, butter, and ice water. Sounds simple enough, but mine never quite turned out. Some were so tough I couldn’t cut them, and some fell apart. I panicked, I practiced, I obsessed. Going into my final exam, I had myself all frothed up that I was going to pull a pâte brisée to bake. But I didn’t. And then I graduated.

I really want to make my crusts just like centuries of pastry makers have done, but I have finally found the key for me is using my stand mixer. That, and including an ingredient like sour cream or egg yolks that has enough fat to coat the gluten in the flour and ensure tenderness.

My favorite pâte brisée recipe these days come from Flour, a stellar baking cookbook. This recipe works every time, and it’s so versatile I put sweet and savory fillings in it. Often it's the basis for a quiche, a great vehicle for a pantry meal. This week's quiche had frozen spinach plus some leftover goat cheese and pesto. Fast and yummy.

So I finally feel that I have conquered the crust, but I am sure other culinary catastrophes await me. I say, bring them on.

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