Thursday, January 19, 2012

Kitchen Alchemy

While I don't have much of a sweet tooth, I have always been partial to baking. Cooking? Not so much.

Here's why: baking seems like some kind of cool alchemy or perhaps like a human-sized version of Creation.

I had this children's cookbook when I was a kid. It was a  Peanuts cookbook, a collaboration between June Dutton and Charles Schultz, complete with comic strips to accompany each recipe. There was a recipe for boysenberry cobbler with a cute name: Boysenberry Cobbler for Beethoven’s Birthday. I had just learned to play Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

That recipe tickled my imagination so much, I asked my mother if she would purchase the ingredients and help me along with the recipe. But first I made sure this was something I was going to like: "What's a boysenberry?" I asked.

My mom managed to find the boysenberries. We set to work.The recipe was just right for hands-on child cookery and called for the dough to be mixed by hand.

Somewhere buried in my mother's photo albums, in some dim and crowded storage area, is a photo of me, complete with pixie haircut and buckteeth, my hands in a bowl of dough, making that cobbler. Now in addition to having an exotic ingredient that actually sounded edible (boysenberries), the recipe specified that during the baking, the dough would rise above the filling and make a top crust. Therein lay the alchemy, or at least some culinary magic. Put the dough in the pan and the fruit on top but during the baking, they trade places!

I remember flipping the light switch on my mother's oven and sitting in front of the oven, my eyes glued to the show: a show that seemed better and more exciting to me than any sitcom going. I watched the cobbler bake and saw the moment that fruit and dough did their switcheroo. Oh MAN that was cool.

I was hooked.

Of course, the flavor of that cobbler, warm from the oven, was incomparable. Especially with vanilla ice cream. I watched the faces of my family members as they tasted my first attempt at baking.

I remember I had goosebumps to see their skepticism turn into surprised enjoyment. I had never felt so capable before. The response to my early dance recitals, school plays, and report cards paled in comparison to this new source of approval, not put on for my sake, being that I was just a kid, but genuine approval. They LIKED my cobbler, for real.

Through the years, I've repeated this sequence many times: researching a recipe with an intriguing name or ingredient; seeking out the special items needed to prepare the recipe; making the recipe; and watching the faces of family members and guests as they offer without volition, a primal reaction to something completely delicious, that I made myself with my own two hands. The process never fails to thrill me. Even when a recipe doesn't come out as I'd hoped, I take it in stride and begin the process all over again.


  1. Varda, we have a kinship of sorts, I felt while reading this, as I too, absolutely love to bake & MUCH more so than regular cooking.
    I love to try a new recipe & then I really enjoy baking something & it being good enough to become a member in my recipe file box that a friend got me for a bridal gift many years ago. I was ecstatic that it was empty & would have only what I would choose to put in it..only the best of the best I decided would make it.
    Now, my favorite baking for as long as I can remember, is taking something that already looks or reads as if it would be scrumptious & changing out several of the ingredients, making it mine somehow. I also prefer to bake as healthy as seems reasonable for the item to hopefully be as good as the original version would have been, or at least close enough & in particular hear Jim say, "Dawn (or babe) THIS is delicious!"
    So, we both cook for ourselves & for others. We both get a thrill when something turns out as we hoped, & will continue if not good enough too.
    I never tire of reading anything you write about & feel I can somehow relate to almost every subject in some way, despite the fact that I'm neither Jewish, nor have a single child (although wanted a few children at a time a few years back).
    I guess it boils down to you being yourself, always, & I feel that in everything I have read that you have written.
    Again, I write well done, & thank you for sharing a part of you, as that's what I think it is every time.

  2. Varda, I decided I had to write a bit more! The reason so many ppl enjoy your writing, I believe, is you write in a way that no matter how similar or different they are from you, they will be able to relate in some form or another...a rare gift, indeed, my friend!

    1. Thank you for these lovely words of praise, Dawn!