My bakery is called “Sticky.”
You’ll find this establishment in a transitional neighborhood of a large American City. The location takes advantage of ample foot traffic and a dense, modestly diverse cluster of nearby housing. A well-regarded university is no more than four (but no fewer than two– F*$#ing Hipsters) miles away. Inside, framed photographs of distressed Italianate architecture dot the exposed-brick walls, and an area behind the display counter painted a bright, earthy blue.
There is plenty of seating- members of the creative class take advantage of the free wi-fi to do Very Important Things on their laptop computers. Grumpy old men from the neighborhood hunch over the large table in the corner and play chess all afternoon, bathed in the lazy sunlight streaming through the ancient bay windows. The dining area smells vaguely of coffee, wheat, and lemon.
And, inside the display cases, the baked goods will stop you cold. Brownies the size of wallets, pitch-black from the too-expensive French cocoa I stubbornly insist upon, much to the chagrin of my accountant. Cupcake frosting colored by a madman and applied by a bomb-diffuser-brain-surgeon-architect who freebases Adderall. Ciabatta that’s still slightly sandy from the floured towel used it to hoist it into the steamy oven. Muffins that look like muffins, replete with tops and perfect blueberry distribution. Chocolate chip cookies that are ever-slightly pale. Cinnamon sticky buns that singe your nose hairs before coating your soul in gently frosted goo.
And exactly one cake.
So you’d think after four decades I might at least have the basics figured out. What pocket to keep my keys in, where the umbrella should go, having a consistent wake-up time or remembering not to touch my face after I slice hot peppers - stuff like that. For such a creature of routine as I am, it feels simultaneously hilarious and crippling that I can never ease my way into one. Instead, most of the time, I go through life feeling like my shirt is on inside out and backwards.
Oxford shirt, and, yes. I’ve done that.
Even in the kitchen, that one space in my world where the rules seem clear and I feel safe within a radius of my instincts – I go through weeks when I find myself feeling clumsy and error-prone. Not that I expect perfection from myself, but, again, I’m at the point where a stir-fry or a roast chicken or a loaf of bread shouldn’t present many technical difficulties.
It’s more like a feeling that certain things I prepare frequently really should taste a LOT better than I’m willing to candidly admit. And maybe it was time for a couple of tweaks. . And sometimes, luckily, I can even get things right.
Please allow this post to serve as an explanation of why I don’t harbor fantasies of working in a professional kitchen.
I could, with herculean effort, overcome the obvious: you know, better shape, willing to work nights and weekends for barely a living wage, more deference to authority, and, you know, the whole “punctual” thing. I could learn to endure the cuts and the bruises and the burn marks. I could even get used to the Hammer Pants.
This much should be obvious if you have been around a while: It’s all about the sloppy and the haphazard. In fact, It is often a small miracle that dinner even happens.
but… I don’t know how to hard-boil an egg.
Don’t get me wrong, I know how to cook eggs. I can poach one to the precise point that an oozing yolk can tango with a salad’s acidic vinaigrette. I can flip a sunny with little more than telekinesis. I can scramble in a double-boiler, separate fearlessly, and souffle without mercy. I can even whisk up a creme anglaise that makes ME want to eat more fruit. So overall aptitude isn’t the problem.
And, yes, I know how you’re SUPPOSED to hard-boil eggs. Boil water, egg, peel it after a while, right? You can tart it up any way you want, but you are still, basically, just boiling an egg. And I don’t know how to do it.
But this is where it gets kind of pathetic: I can SOUS VIDE an egg, but cannot satisfactorily boil one. I can put eggs in boiling water, and I either add salt or not add salt or either poke a hole or not poke a hole, and I can take them out of the boiling water and count how long it takes to dry (they say a hard boiled egg will dry in less than ten seconds) or do the “spin test,” but I just can never seem to get a decent egg out of the process.
On so many levels, this is just wrong.
Caramel. The braising liquid was caramel. Fatty pork braised in CARMEL.
Nearly all of my get-togethers seem to stem out of an unconscious but important rule. If I am going to braise fatty pork in caramel, certain things need to be in place. My shirt needs to be tucked in And, you know, bed made, clothes off the floor, toilet paper IN the holder and not just sitting on top of it.
In other words, company. I feel like if I don’t have friends over, I’ll go Lord of The Flies and basically eat the entire pot with my hands on the kitchen floor with my face painted. Remember: I’m still trying to be a once-a-week vegetarian and things have been stressful and I haven’t made pork in a while and haven’t really slow cooked anything for even longer. I NEED least this thin veneer of civilization as a hedge against Dark Urges.
Please commit the following to memory: One cup of boiling water spiked with two tablespoons of sugar and a drizzle of vegetable oil. One cup of sifted all-purpose flour spiked with a pinch of salt. Pour the flour into the water, stirring vigorously for a moment until combined. Place the entire hot, gummy mass in a plastic bag and cut a half-inch hole in one of the corners. Squeeze the bag to extrude portions of dough roughly the size of an adult human finger. Fry these pieces of dough until browned on all sides, and then dip in a mixture containing two parts sugar and one part high-quality ground cinnamon. Serve with… (we’ll get to that)
Now that we have the formalities out of the way… Continue reading
So much of my life seems to represent a struggle against the inevitable.
If the narrative of the last ten years has been my yearning for a stable orbit, the arc of my last two has involved trying to not be engulfed by my life’s own gravity.
It’s past time that I confessed to a slight cookbook problem.
Promiscuous is not too strong a word. I’m entirely too cavalier about absorbing them to into my world. How I instantly fall in love with them – maintaining them ever so briefly in their place of honor atop my living room end table. How I try, in, vain, to live vicariously through their dishes and how I sometimes try to rudely step into their unattainable inner world, where chutney maintains its luscious color and every plate is impeccably garnished. How I eventually set them aside when something new comes along. I was even at the point where I made an agreement with myself not to buy any more for a while.
But there are few that stick around. The best ones are trusted friends I can count on for candid, straightforward counsel. One or two are a source of excitement and drama. Some I simply click with. There are Beautiful People who might someday invite me to their parties. And several were just in the right place at the right time.
And some just plain inspire me.
First of all, relax. This is how rumors get started. I haven’t gone crazy or thrown away the chicken bones in my freezer or bought a yurt or anything like that. Remember: pork products…cold dead fingers.
But from now on, I’m only going to eat meat on Sunday. No more chicken salads for lunch, no more pork shoulder in my weeknight stir-frying, no more bacon because I got yelled at at work, no more “chorizo break” during my housework binges. There is just Sunday… when I can anticipate and savor and meticulously plan and flawlessly execute what I am desperately craving. And I am DAMN sure going to enjoy it.
The dreamy and verdant possibilities of early summer have already melted into the haze and sluggishness of late June. Instead of charting out a novel, or planning a stargazing trip, my mental energy is focused on simply avoiding a sunburned noggin and counting the days until my neighborhood grocery store reopens. I’m already at the point where I’ll settle for a few cookouts and a bit of mild, age-appropriate mischief. At least I already know the most important thing: what I’m going to be drinking.