Sunday, January 6, 2008

Cooking, baking, and a time without the internet

These past few winter weeks in Portland have been the same one after another: gray and rainy. It hasn't stopped, and won't stop for the foreseeable future. A break in the monotony came on Christmas Day, when it snowed. Aww! Where's Bing Crosby when you need him? But it was barely cold enough for snow, so it didn't stick.

For the past few days I've been thinking that I might want to try my hand at baking. I think I might be suited to its methodical nature. Also, I got a KitchenAid mixer for Christmas. I've never been a baker -- the closest I have come is making cookies from Pillsbury pre-made cookie batter with my grandma. We'd bake them in the toaster oven and, man, those things were like heaven to me.

But even more than baking cookies, I want to make my own bread. I've been wanting to for a long time, and I think I have narrowed down the two main reasons. For one, I adore bread. Any kind of bread, I will eat it. I don't even need butter or jam or anything on it -- if it's good bread, I like it on its own. If I'm hungry and cranky, but I know I won't be eating properly for a while, a slice or two of bread will immediately calm me down. But also, I am very attracted to the process of making bread. I'm fascinated by the idea that people all over the world have been making it, in pretty much the same fashion, for thousands of years. I like the thought of being part of that tradition, of creating food that has been around for a long time and has sustained entire populations. It may be the reason why I also love it when Dave and I make a dish called antico peposo. You braise beef in red wine and crushed peppercorns for about four hours. In the end, the beef comes out almost black, and winey and peppery. It has the feel of something that people may have made long ago, in order to use up less-than-desireable cuts of meat and dress them up a bit. And indeed, the recipe has been traced back to at least the 5th century. As a history buff (especially of antiquity and the dark to middle ages), the idea of eating foods that have sustained people back into times that seem so far away as to almost be inconceivable really calls out to me.

Anyway! I woke up on a rainy Saturday morning, and decided that on that fateful day, I would break in that mixer. I would make chocolate chip cookies, my favorite, and bread. I looked through my cookbooks and found two recipes: Thick and Chewy Chocolate Chip cookies from The New Best Recipe, which is a cookbook published by the magazine Cook's Illustrated, and Ka'Achei Sumsum, which are bagel-like buttery breads that, according to The Breads of France: And How to Bake Them in Your Own Kitchen by Bernard Clayton, Jr., are popular with Syrian Jews during Sabbath. Syrian Jews? Sabbath? That sounds old. Sign me up!

A word about The Breads of France: I linked to the 2002 edition, but I have the 1978 edition. It was a hand-me-down from my mother-in-law, an experienced baker. Having read over 30 year old-plus cookbooks before, I was concerned that it might be hard to translate the recipes into something I could make today as a beginner. Not so. His instructions are clear and step-by-step; having no clue what the finished dough should feel like, his descriptions alone guided me pretty much perfectly. What did make me laugh were the repeated references to hard-to-find ingredients or tools, and the inclusion of addresses to write to the manufacturers for a list of retailers. No internets! In fact, many of those items are now easily found today. See what I say about olden times? They're fascinating.

Things like these are what I love about old cookbooks: you can see how times have changed, not just in how easily some ingredients can now be found, but in the level of knowledge about world cuisines that is present then versus today. For example, Clayton mentions that to many Americans, the catalogue of French breads is comprised of mainly a baguette. And in an old Trader Vic's Mexican cookbook, Vic himself writes:

I ate Mexican food [in Mexico] until it almost gave me an ulcer. In Mexico it was pretty greasy. The finest Mexican food I have enjoyed came from what is known as Texas-Mex. Now, I know I'm, going to make a lot of Americans sore as hell -- you have to understand that I am an American, not a Mexican, and I eat what pleases me most. So, my wife and I went to work flying all over Mexico, eating their stuff, and then making adjustments on it so it would be palatable to Americans.

Mexican food is "stuff"! Har! He goes on to give Mexico credit for one thing: its arts and crafts. He and his wife became avid buyers, and he calls them "absolutely the most". Oh, Vic! That's better than "groovy", isn't it? Are they also the bee's knees?

I haven't tried any recipe in this book. Personally, I stick to his tropics-inspired cocktails -- his recipe for piña colada from his Bartender's Guide produces, bar-none, the best one I have ever had. But the book has brought me countless moments of joy as I read through it, and found such gems. The thing about Trader Vic and his numerous world-cuisine cookbooks is that, even though the recipes were beaten into American-palate-of-the-70's submission, they did bring all kinds of crazy ethnic cuisines to American home cooks' food conciousness. You have to start somewhere, and I guess it was all about baby steps at first.

So, in honor of this momentous occasion, where I would be making bread, the staff of life, and cookies, what might as well be the staff of life for sugar addicts like myself, I decided to document this first attempt at baking for posterity. Soon I will post pictures of those attempts.

(By the way, if the antico peposo sounds interesting to you, which it should, since it's easy to make and delicious, check out this book by Lidia Bastianich. The woman is an Italian cuisine master, and she has a great show on PBS. Also, stop watching the Food Network and start watching the PBS cooking shows, if they are available where you are. New Scandinavian Cooking, Fast Food My Way with Jacques Pépin, Lidia's Italy, Daisy Cooks with Daisy Martinez...wonderful shows. But I do give you permission to watch Good Eats with Alton Brown on the Food Network and, if you are in the mood for a laugh, Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee, the woman responsible for this monstruosity.)

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