Improvisational Tuscan-Provençal-Catalan Cookery (and other good stuff to eat)
When Dexter is at the stove, neither failure nor success surprises him. Watch him bake: he freestyles like a snowboarder. Yes,
he uses measuring cups and spoons, but for him they are simply handy
conveyances for transferring baking powder and sugar from their
canisters to the mixing bowl. When he levels off a cup of flour with
the back of a knife, he is thinking about aesthetics, not ratios. He
and I add milk or water until what’s in the bowl looks like dough, or
like batter. If we go too far with the liquid, he’ll add back some
flour. I understand that seasoned professionals can bake this way. What
I find hard to fathom is that it works for kindergartners too.
Baking is chemistry. So goes the cliché, and in its thrall I have gone to
great lengths to ensure the kind of precision that leads to perfection.
Watch me bake: I measure like a jeweler. At the height of my craziness
I have sifted flour onto the countertop, then gently spooned it into
several cups. Later, getting all devil-may-care, I spooned flour
carefully out of the canister, after fluffing it up a bit to simulate
the sifting effect. The sad final step in this degeneration would have
been eating raw flour right out of the bag, but I was saved from that
skid-row indignity by my purchase of a cheap digital scale. Weighing is
no less crazy than sifting, but it is a whole lot easier.
I now wonder if any of this is truly necessary. Is baking chemistry?
Certainly, chemical reactions take place inside muffin cups, but the
process may not be as exact as I had always imagined. Last weekend a
friend and I worked on a high-tech pizza-dough
recipe, with precisely controlled gluten ratios, yeast strains and
proofing times. I weighed the ingredients, of course. Meanwhile Dexter
threw together a little salt, flour, starter culture, yeast and water.
His crust wasn’t as delicious as the high-tech one, but it was
significantly better than what about 95 percent of the world routinely
accepts as pizza.
Dexter has yet to invent a recipe worth writing down, but at his side I have begun to see that thoroughly screwing up
in the kitchen is a lot harder than I previously thought. In that
spirit, I recently served 40 people a pot of burned beans."
God, I love kids - so much better than adults.