Cook by the Book
By: Tanya Ward Goodman
I am a good cook, but I am not a good measurer. I am not very detail oriented. I sometimes read a recipe like a novel, and realize halfway through that (spoiler alert) the roast needs to marinate for two days or the pie should be refrigerated overnight instead of served to guests who will arrive in half an hour.
On the bright side, because I am not really married to the recipe, I find it possible to veer off the page with ease. I am handy with substitutions, sometimes starting a recipe with only one or two things in the ingredients list. I see recipes as loose guidelines. It could be a thing to do with fish, but it will probably work with chicken or rice or tofu. It could be a salad. I like to think about flavor more than form. It usually works out and I am almost always able to find something in my house to make for dinner.
Recently, I started to bake bread. A friend gave me a gob of starter and told me how to feed it flour and use bits of it to bake new loaves. He gave me a recipe and a series of YouTube links that illustrated how to fold the bread and proof the bread. He wondered if I had something called a “bench knife.”
“Sure,” I said, because I thought I probably had something that would work as a bench knife.
Once I got home, I hauled out the kitchen scale and began to carefully weigh my flour and water while my husband looked on with what can only be called a suspicious eye.
“Doesn’t it seem like maybe I should be the one to bake bread?” he asked.
He is, of course, more by the numbers than I am. He measures twice and cuts once. He always reads the entire instruction manual.
“I’m growing,” I said. “Don’t stand in the way of my personal growth.”
So I measured and stirred and folded my dough. I let it rise and, finally, baked it up into a nice round loaf. And it was good. Not great, but good enough.
On my next loaf, I couldn’t help myself. I fiddled with the flour ratio. I added a little more wheat and a little less white. I may or may not have folded as often as I should have. I might not have formed the boule as carefully. But, once baked and slathered with butter, it was good enough.
So I kept it up and every time, I went a little further off the recipe, was a little looser with my measurements. And although the bread kept getting eaten, it wasn’t getting any better. If anything, it was getting a little worse.
Sometimes I write the way I cook. I let scenes stand even when they aren’t saying what I really want them to say. I give space to experimental riffs and tangents. Sometimes I toss out plot and give into character. I forgive a loose structure or a fragmented narrative. I figure that a handful of good sentences are enough to make it sort of work. Slap a little butter on it and it’s okay to eat.
But I don’t think that it’s the way to do it. I’m realizing that I can do many things reasonably well, but to really, really excel at something, I’m going to have to pay more attention. I need to be more mindful. I might need to follow a recipe carefully from beginning to end.
This morning, I started another loaf. My daughter helped me scoop the flour onto the scale and carefully pour out the water. She’s a lot like me. She builds from scratch and makes up new rules to any game she doesn’t understand. I want her to continue to do this, but I want her to know the rules. I told her why we measure the flour. I related the little I have learned about why the dough rises and what it needs to become bread. I told her we have to take care if we want a good loaf.
The dough is rising overnight and tomorrow we’ll see how this one turns out.