“Cooking is creating a big fucking problem and learning how to solve it”
“Learning to cook like a great chef is within the realm of possibility. However, it is something that is rarely taught; it must be caught.”
Karen Page & Andrew Dornenburg
“Great chefs rarely bother to consult cookbooks”
Forewarning; this piece is a muse, albeit one that does contain a recipe. Bear with me, I promise you it'll be worth it. It's really about Craig Thornton's quote above; one of the most succinct and honest evaluations of what cooking is all about. I put the other two up because they have bearing on what I'm going to talk about as well; I'll tell you why shortly. Onward.
So, I made shortbread last night. I dig shortbread. I'm part Scots. I've easily made shortbread a thousand times in my life. I screwed this one up. I was building my own recipe, which is something I often do, but this one, I blew. It was chocolate almond shortbread. I did a couple things extra in creating it, and changed a process step as well. It didn't come out very well. Shortbread is so simple, trained weasels could make it; hence one of my favorite quotes – 'Great cooking is almost always simple, but not always easy'. If you're wondering about the quote source, it's me. I said that a few years back.
I've always been an intuitive chef. I cook from heart and hip. That said, any good and curious cook is going to want to read what others know. I started, long ago, with Irma Rombauer, Julia Child, and James Beard. Over the decades, I've read hundreds of books about food and cooking, and gleaned great ideas and inspiration from many, but the list of what I consider truly go-to cooking books hasn't expanded all that much. Since my deepest cooking roots are French, I added Auguste Escofier, Larousse Gastronomique, and Saulnier & Brunette. Harold McGee, Claudia Roden, Marcella Hazan, Diana Kennedy, and Michael Ruhlman have also joined that initial group of three. These are the sources that I return to, time and again, when I'm stuck for ideas.
Charles Simic, while a wonderful poet, isn't a great chef to my knowledge, so my guess is that he was snowed by the ego of someone else when he said great chefs don't consult cookbooks. When it comes to our basic repertoires as a chef, we generally can do it in our sleep; we need no consultation for that, or for most variations on familiar themes. That said, we're all human, and pressure, fatigue, boredom, or a myriad other things can cause any chef to blow the easiest of recipes, just like I did.
What Page and Dornenburg refer to is nothing more than passion, in essence. On top of that, you need chops and practice. From knife skills to standard practices, classic combinations to the ability to turn out food at a high level of quality and at speed, all takes a lot of work. What I do now professionally isn't haute cuisine by any sense of the word. Yet I tell youngsters who are obviously interested in food and possibly in a career, that there is much they can learn in our little cafe. Repetition, focus, mis en place, attention to details, producing consistent quality under significant time pressure – All these things will stand you well in any professional kitchen, and all of them can sink you if you don't have them down pat. Fast casual isn't fine dining, but a busy lunch, one that runs around $3,000 to $4,000 over 2 hours time, turning out plates that retail for roughly $12 each is a lot of work. Get used to that, and the pressure won't seem such a daunting thing, regardless of what genre you work in down the line.
Those constraints really aren't any different for a home chef. Whether you're turning out food for your family or for guests, there's certainly pressure to perform; no cook wants to make bad food, and no cook wants to see or hear other people disappointed in what they've made. For an inexperienced chef trying new or complicated things, that pressure can achieve critical mass. My Sis is a spectacular cook; she's written cookbooks, and she's always a wizard in the kitchen – She blew exactly one meal I'm aware of, back in the '60s, and fact is, she still gets razzed about it from time to time…
A few of you know that I make and play guitars. I build instruments the same way I cook, grounded in basics and science, but definitely from the artistic side. As a musician, I've played professionally for several years. There are definite parables in cooking and musicianship, in a couple of critical regards;
Many people think they can cook as well as a Pro, and many people think they could play on stage; in most cases, they're wrong – If it was easy, everybody would do it. It's not. It takes passion, dedication, practice and persistence; that's what makes it so rewarding when we succeed, and such a joy to pursue.
Many beginners in either pursuit quit before they have a chance to be good; in either case, it's often reaching too far too fast that causes that. You're not going to be able to cut a perfect dice the first time you pick up a knife, and you're not going to be able to play the lead riff from Reeling in the Years after your first guitar lesson.
Those things said, I think it's important to keep in mind that not everyone has to be great, nor wants to be. Good is often good enough. Sound in the basics that really interest you may be all you have time and energy for, and that's just fine. I tell new guitarmakers the same thing I tell new cheesemakers; anybody can make good cheese, (guitars), with a little knowledge and effort – To consistently make really great cheese or guitars takes a significantly greater investment. Wherever you lie on that spectrum is an OK place to be.
Certainly at some point, chefs discover or invent. Ferrari Adrià is widely hailed as the Founder of molecular gastronomy, but Harold McGee wrote his book long before Adrià was big on the scene. Granted, McGee isn't a chef, and Adrià was clearly the first Chef to turn it into an art form and create one of the most successful restaurants in the world. Thomas Keller didn't invent haute cuisine, he's just way better at it than all the rest of us.
Before I started this blog, writing about food and cooking for magazines, and talking about it on live radio, I was a great cook, but I didn't write down my recipes. If you'd asked me back then how I did something, I'd look blankly at you for a moment and then answer, “I dunno, I just did it.” When I was 15, I became a ski instructor. I remember Danny, one of the guys who taught me to teach, saying, “Man, you really tore up those bumps, I mean you ski really well!” I mumbled a thanks, and then he said, “How'd you do it? 'Cause if you can't explain that, you can't teach.” Bingo, the light bulb came on…
I've had to learn how to make recipes that are accurate, repeatable, clearly explained, and that make great food – If I couldn't do that, we wouldn't be here now.
So back to Craig Thornton's blisteringly honest synopsis, and what happened with the shortbread – What did I do to understand and fix my mistake? It turned out that my ratio calculations weren't correct, and I didn't handle the butter correctly, so I tossed the bad batch and made another that came out just right.
When I was composing the recipe, I didn't subtract some flour in lieu of the added almonds, so my wet to dry ratio was off. I also didn't handle the butter correctly. Shortbread wants relatively warm butter creamed into the sugar with a spatula. Doing that allows the sugar crystals to form tiny air bubbles in the butter, and those allow the shortbread to rise when it's baked; skip this step, and you get the denser finished product I made first. It was good, but not good enough to post here and pass on to y'all. I needed that ethereal, melt in your mouth shortbread. I adjusted my ratio, and altered my method to get what I wanted.
For the record, the word 'Short', has very specific connotations in baking. Short bread/cake/etc, implies a specifically high ratio of fat to flour. These doughs and batters are always non-yeast raised, and characteristically produce a rich and crumbly finished product. Thorough and properly executed incorporation is critical to achieving great results.
The moral of this ramble is that you can become a good, or even great chef if you want to, but don't ever doubt that even great chefs make mistakes, some times on simple things. They also certainly do study their errors in an effort to understand their mistakes and avoid them in the future. Anybody who says otherwise is pulling your leg. Here's that recipe – It's a subtle, complex shortbread that's not too sweet.
Chocolate Almond Shortbread
1 Cup Whole Wheat Pastry Flour
1/2 Cup raw Almonds
1/2 Cup sweet cream Butter
5 Tablespoons Bakers Sugar
2 Tablespoons Dark Cocoa Powder
1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt
Have butter at or near room temperature.
Preheat oven to 350° F.
In a skillet over medium, toast almonds until lightly browned.
Remove from heat and place in a food processor; process until reduced to a rough meal consistency.
In a mixing bowl, combine butter and sugar; cream with the side of a spatula until evenly mixed.
In a second bowl, combine flour, cocoa, salt, and almonds and blend throughly.
Add sugar/butter Belen to dry and mix by hand until thoroughly incorporated.
Press dough into a 9″ x 9″ baking pan, (or thereabouts – you want the dough about 3/4″ high). Prick the dough evenly across the entire surface, all the way through its thickness; this allows excess steam to escape and promotes flat, even baking.
Bake at 350° F for 12-15 minutes, until shortbread looks dry and has pulled away from the pan edges slightly.
Remove and cut into 3″ squares. Allow to cool before serving – Really hot shortbread is delightful, but it's also molten, so beware!