I can unreservedly say that I’m comfortable in the kitchen. Chopping, slicing, grating, sautéing, frying, boiling…no problem. But ask me to measure and bake and I become an insecure wreck. I have often wondered about my peculiar kitchen disability. I thought maybe its cultural baggage since I didn’t see the cooks in my family measure or bake. Maybe. There is something mysterious about combining ingredients and placing it in this hot metal box to have it transform into something delicious. On its own! Without my vigilant attention, my stirring, my tasting, my adjusting, my anticipating. It seems like cheating. Can I claim to have cooked something if I haven’t stood over the stove and invested my time, energy and emotion? Baking feels like letting go. Recently, I’ve been trying to get over my suspicion of the oven. I’ve been baking pies and most recently… chocolate cake. I’ve made mistakes. When I used a 9” pan instead of the prescribed size, the cake was thin. When I opened the oven door before the cake was ready, it fell into a sad crater as if deeply insulted. When I used a smaller pan, the cake batter in its attempt to escape grabbed onto the pan and would not let go. It has been a struggle. But I’m learning to let go. I’m learning to trust that the measured ingredients will indeed transform itself into something delicious, maybe a chocolate cake, maybe not. Doesn’t matter. I’m learning to trust, the ingredients, the oven and myself.
I recently finished reading Provence 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard and the Reinvention of American Taste by Luke Barr. There is much to admire and learn from these dinner conversations. The following quote about the dismissive charge that Julia Child was “the minister of measure” relates to my fear of the oven and measurement. Barr writes,
“But if Child preserved a teacher’s sense of basic instruction, she jettisoned schoolmarmish pursed lips and disapproval. She embraced pleasure and fun. And unlike Beck, or Olney, or the tradition-minded French, she was open to change and experimentation. She was unorthodox, unafraid. And she wanted her readers to feel the same way.”
Barr’s sympathetic reading of Julia’s insistence on proper measure makes me rethink my own aversion to measurement as control, prescriptive, directive and unimaginative. Indeed, it can be all those things. But, as a baking novice, I have new appreciation for detailed instruction able to dissolve my fear. Recipes can feel like a challenge. If I follow this prescription then my dish should be perfect. If the dish is not perfect, then it is my failure. But, recipes can only dictate success if I let it, if I set my expectation to imitated perfection. Here philosopher Carlyn Korsmeyer’s essay Ethical Gourmandism helps in explaining that taste has lot to do with our expectations and presumptions. Like not telling my kids what they’re eating before they taste it. Ignorance may allow open interpretation but does not cultivate taste or culinary ability. Similarly, recipes may set our expectations but they do not determine the success of the taste experience. A recipe gives us an educated and measured starting point from which to posit our own deviations and mistakes as we discover our own abilities, taste and identity.
There is room for imagination and experimentation between blaming a bad recipe and blaming a bad baker. My Jim has selflessly volunteered to eat all my chocolate cake experimentations. I cannot fail. I’m learning to trust the cake baking in the oven. I’m learning to let go.
I used Mom’s Chocolate Cake Recipe from Food and Wine. It was simple and liked the whole and repeated measurements.