Friday, November 30, 2012
Cookbooks ought to be counted among the world’s most lofty fiction. Many things are more trustworthy: a slushy pond in April to safely support twelve toddlers; a bottle of cold capsules with a broken safety seal. I trust piranha more. Cookbooks can be trusted as far as they can be thrown, which, from my back porch, with wind and adrenaline, is nearly 400 yards.
Some of my acquaintances (two accountants and a friend in law enforcement) have great success with cookbooks. They cannot fathom that I remain unscathed each time I cook without one. (My friends are soothed by things like margin lines and tax codes. And trillion-piece puzzles of grass.)
“Your problem with cookbooks,” says my mother (a bookkeeper) “is that you don’t know how to follow directions.”
She shared this insight while watching me force dry, clotted dough through a cookie press until the cylinder burst.
“What do you mean, ‘follow’ directions, Mother? I didn’t realize you wanted me to be a ‘follower’. Perhaps you should have named me ‘Trailer’, or ‘Snail-Slime’ … or—“
“Why don’t you toss that dough out back and help me separate the fescue from the crab. This puzzle is very relaxing.”
I’m sure I was adopted.
It isn’t that I don’t know how to follow directions. I choose to cook without them. Reading about cooking seems so abstract. I prefer just to cook … breathlessly, sloppily, dangerously. And when I am finished, the food is succulent and my family cleans up the mess.
Occasionally, I resort to reading recipes. But only in emergencies like a sudden religious holiday. Holidays require cookbook food, because that is what “guests” come to eat. Guests are, technically, metamorphs, like chameleons and mosquito larvae. They lie dormant during most of the year, excited by Campbell’s soup and Milk Duds. They think popcorn is a vegetable.
But on holidays they mature into professional food critics who expect their meal to be prepared under laboratory conditions using scientific method, and beakers. Guests are gratified by cooks who emerge from their kitchens exhausted and disoriented. “Where am I? What was I doing in there?” then serve Crème de Bif Gras Noir.
Even if we are invited out for a holiday, I will still need a cookbook because I have asked a terrible question: “What can I bring?” I am always surprised that no one asks for dangerous, breathless food.
I have learned to stop asking, “What can I bring?” The truth is that I want to bring nothing. I want to drive to a house that smells like Pledge to eat dangerously and drink breathlessly and watch my hostess suffer.
Last Christmas, for our family’s annual Yankee Swap, I asked my sister-in-law what I could bring, and she emailed me a recipe for “Slipped Custard Pie.”
The name alone dripped with portend of doom.
At first, the directions seemed innocuous enough. I found no violent cooking-verbs like whip, beat, dice, scrape, spank, flatten or scorch. No dramatic foreshadowing such as “early in the day, pre-heat pressure cooker.”
In fact, when I turned to the last page to see how the recipe ended, I discovered a soft caramel glaze ensconced in a run-on sentence: ‘Heat sugar to soft ball stage until strands twirl in water but do not lose their shape unless removed with wooden spoon to which it clings but won’t stick.’
I am a licensed English teacher. So I edited the ending. “Sprinkle with cinnamon,” I wrote in red ink, then returned to the beginning.
An unexpected conflict was introduced early on: ‘Stir custard constantly over very low heat for 600 strokes until arm drops into filling.’ Who was the author? Josef Mengele?
But it wasn’t until I got to the ‘mystery twist’ that I became suspicious.
It said simply, ‘Butter a second 9-inch pie plate.’
I wondered about the first pie plate only after the recipe told me to pour custard into one of them.
Before I could settle the issue of which plate the filling went in, the recipe sprinted ahead, ‘Sprinke filling with nutmeg,’ so I shook the recipe violently, “WAIT What about the PIE plate!?”
But the recipe only snickered.
‘Bake 35 minutes,’ it grinned, ‘until knife inserted one inch from edge comes out clean.’
“Why ONE inch? Which goddamn plate? AND WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY NUTMEG?”
‘When custard is cool—‘
“When IS that?! Five minutes? NINE DAYS!?”
‘loosen from pie plate with spatula.’
That’s when my spatula joined the fun. ‘Loosen!?’ it said, really amused, then it just gored and slashed.
Finally, the recipe drew itself up to its full 15 inches and delivered the Big Finish:
‘After shaking to dislodge custard from Plate Number Two, hold far edge of pan over far edge of crust and tilt custard gently toward Plate Number One.’
I threw myself on the floor while the recipe spun on the countertop, fanning its pages and speaking in tongues.
‘As custard slips toward second crust,’ the recipe giggled, drooling, ‘pull plate back quickly--‘
“NO!!” I screamed.
‘—until custard rests in crust!’
“My custard’s resting on my shoe--”
‘Let filling settle,’
“On my SHOE?”
‘then garnish with whipping cream.’
Whipped cream is the only thing that saves a Slipped Custard Pie. But it does not save one’s sanity. The only thing that does that is a chewable vitamin necklace tied to loved ones’ throats to sustain throughout the remainder of the religious holiday.
Actually, trillion piece puzzles of grass can help. I find them relaxing – quite delicious – especially served on tax codes. Oops – could you hold on while I get the phone?
My margin line is ringing.