Besides reading and writing, one of the things I do regularly that I most enjoy is cooking, particularly baking. I started reading Smitten Kitchen way back before it was a cooking blog, got hooked, and for that reason it became the first cooking blog I ever read, and the only one I read on a regular basis (I am, as I’ve said, a sucker for writing style). Once I graduated and found myself with a functioning kitchen and actual grocery budget at my disposal, as opposed to college days when a $10 trip to New York was out of my financial league, I started trying out some of the mouthwatering things I’d been reading about for myself. What I learned was that cooking and baking was a new, rewarding way for me to branch out creatively.
What I like about baking, first, is the physicality of it. I love that it’s often texture and smell that determines how a recipe is going for me, instead of the visual cues I’m used to in the rest of my life. I didn’t have an electric mixer until a few weeks ago, so I’ve gotten used to mixing dough by hand, and prefer it that way. I like having such a close connection and so much tangible control over what I’m making.
The other thing I love about cooking and baking is its predictability. A good recipe is, almost by definition, reliable. You should be able to follow the instructions carefully and end up with cookies that look like the picture (and, presumably, taste as good as well). It’s also predictable in terms of the amount of time it takes to complete. In the ever-shifting world of writing, I’ve done anywhere from 0-5000 words in a day (thanks, NaNoWriMo). A story might take three rewrites or 12, or more, and no matter how closely I study Raymond Chandler or Ray Bradbury or anyone else, chances are I will never write like them. It’s comforting to do something knowing how the results will come out (barring any mistakes, like the time I accidentally doubled the amount of baking soda in a scones recipe–and even then, it’s easy to isolate what went wrong). When I’m frustrated with how the writing’s going, I like to take an evening and bake something, just to have the satisfaction of a completed creative project.
Once I get back to writing, though, there are some definite skills I can bring back with me. The first is a renewed connection to senses I sometimes ignore. Without cooking, I can easily forget how visceral smells are, and working with different foods is a refresher on textures and how to describe them.
Sometimes it’s interesting to me to write about cooking, as well. I did an essay in Experimental Forms on cooking sugar for caramel. The goal of the essay was to make it happen in real time for the reader–that by the time they finished the essay, they would have been reading for as long as it would have taken to actually make the caramel. What that meant was that I had to fill a lot of pages, without letting my description of the process get too far along. It really pushed me to write in the moment, as it were, and take note of every change and every sense that was affected. The result was a writing experience that felt very rich and meditative, and a reading experience that (I’m told) also expresses that sense of wonder in the moment of making something out of raw materials. I’ve posted “Sugar for Caramel” to “Stories & Things,” incidentally, in case you’re curious.
Also, I’m probably not going to make this a habit, as there are a bodzillion food blogs out there (please ignore the fact that there are also a bodzillion writing blogs :-P), but it seems mean to write about cooking and not give you any ideas. Here, then, is the latest thing I made:
Brown Butter Pecan Shortbread Cookies
Makes about 20-24 cookies
3/4 c pecans, chopped
10 tbsp butter
1/2 c powdered sugar (you could also try brown sugar)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 1/2 c flour
3 tbs turbinado sugar
Heat butter in a small saucepan on medium-high. Cook it for about 8-10 minutes–it will turn golden, then straw-colored, and finally a rich brown. Make sure to stir it every minute or so to minimize burning; you will probably have some amount of darker brown, burnt solids, but that is okay.
Once butter is browned, let cool in the fridge for 45-60 minutes.
Mix butter, powdered sugar, vanilla, and salt until smooth. Add flour in three additions, mixing it in well before adding more. Stir in pecans.
Spread a sheet of plastic wrap on your work surface. Put the dough on the plastic wrap, cover it with another sheet, and gently squeeze into a log about 1 1/2 inches thick.
Refrigerate log for 45 minutes. (Incidentally, it will keep, wrapped well, for several days in the fridge, and up to a month frozen). Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350.
Roll log in turbinado sugar so that outside is coated. Slice log into 1/4–1/5-inch cookies and bake for 25 minutes.