I don’t think you’ve truly gotten accustomed to cooking until you’ve had a disaster or two. Or perhaps that’s just what I tell myself for reassurance. As a person who has trouble walking on a daily basis without coming face-to-face with the pavement, it’s a miracle that I have even survived cooking in a kitchen, yet alone culinary school or working on a line in a restaurant. Clumsiness does not partner well with sharp knives and hot oil. However, it’s these calamitous rites of passage that define a person’s palate for cooking and the rigors it entails. At the end of the day, we have to come up with something to put out on the plate. It is in this regard that I advise anyone to have a backup; cereal is always a surefire thing.
Growing up, my mother had one line for me that I could count on, particularly when I was about to start cooking in her kitchen: “Katie, please keep it simple.” As a child, I didn’t understand why this line came with such angst in her voice. Didn’t she want to encourage my explorations as a young chef in the kitchen? Wasn’t she excited for my enthusiasm and ingenuity to try to replicate an ancient Roman meal for my Latin class which entailed taking over her kitchen for three days and hand-squeezing thirty-six blood oranges to make granita? Of course we may be down a Pyrex dish or two by the end of the month (when it was accidentally placed on a hot burner) but think of all the learning that was taking place.
My fondest recollection of these episodes of culinary ineptitude was learning the true principles of yeast.
It was a typical Saturday night for a twelve-year-old—Mom and Dad were going out to dinner so I had enlisted (persuaded) my younger sister, Annie, to help me cook our dinner. I picked out pizza. Not Stouffers or Boboli or even Ellio’s pizza—no, this was made-from-scratch pizza dough with roasted red pepper sauce from the latest Gourmet magazine. Thank goodness it didn’t call for homemade mozzarella cheese or my sister and I would have never eaten that night.
I believe there are two sides to every coin, and in life there are two personalities in a kitchen—a cook or a baker.
As a cook, you like to experiment, test new things, and generally use recipes as a fodder for ideas not to be followed religiously, if at all. As a baker, cooking is an exact science to be approached with precision and order. I am in the former category of a cook and thereby was on the path for a very long evening of tackling making pizza from scratch.
Our first task was to roast the bell peppers. In attempting to scorch the skin of the pepper, we managed to set off the fire alarm once or twice, thus delaying the process just a bit. We then set about the time-consuming effort of making the dough and letting it rise. As it was rising, we peeled the peppers and put them in the blender. With the blender lid not quite secure, the bell pepper sauce erupted from the container and splashed up onto the ceiling. A “minor” inconvenience. With our patience waning and our bellies grumbling, I decided to forgo the extra rising time and put the dough into the oven. Onto the pan it went—I turned the oven on and went back to cleaning.
If one knows a little about baking, then one is aware that yeast is alive and needs warm environments to grow. This is why we let it rise in a warm place in a kitchen—or in a professional bakery in a proofing oven, which is essentially what I was doing. The entire notion of preheating the oven was lost on me. A 400-degree oven would be too hot for the yeast, killing it and baking the bread. An oven preheating to 400 degrees is essentially a proofing oven, allowing the yeast to grow and our pizza dough to expand like the blob, eventually spilling over the pan and burning on the bottom of the oven. My sister and I watched through the dimly lit oven window in horror as the dough kept growing and never baking. It was at this time that Annie finally turned to me and in a tepid voice trying not to offend our efforts asked, “Would you be upset if I had a bowl of Cheerios instead?”
To say that I’ve learned my lesson to keep things simple would be presumptuous. I would like to tout that I’ve grown wiser in my years and haven’t exploded a microwave with an electrical coffee mug, covering my godmother’s porcelain-white Los Angeles kitchen with dark soot, for example. Or that I haven’t forgotten about roasting chestnuts until violent eruptions of pellets sounded, leaving war-torn chestnut guts all over my friend’s ceiling when I removed the pan from the oven. I have even learned that it is possible to burn pasta—just leave it on the stove boiling long enough until the water evaporates. This left me wondering in a state of delirium if indeed smoked pasta could ever be a new trend.
Yes, there is a myriad of lessons I have learned from my kitchen catastrophes, which makes me all that more appreciative of the tasty successes when they do occur. Funny how the successes are harder to recall as vividly…and never as difficult to clean up afterwards.