Of Curiosity and Cooking

This past Lent, I had the “lofty” aspiration to give up listening to, or looking up, the News. I did very well for a few weeks, and then . . . the Pope resigned, and then a new pope was going to be elected, and there was so much interesting speculation about who, and then a new pope was elected, and by that time the habit of just checking very quickly to keep up on what was going on, was firmly reinstated in my morning routine.

As Holy Week approached, I sheepishly admitted to my husband that I had not been very stalwart in my Lenten sacrifice AT ALL. And the worst part was that I didn’t even really care about the News—at least not to any great extent. Yes, there was an occasional insightful or entertaining article. But overall, it was my insatiable curiosity that kept me hooked, and putting off my duties in the meantime.

Reflecting on my failed attempt to give up the News, I realized that we all have things we have to do every day; tasks of our vocation which we are called to do cheerfully and competently. Putting them off or doing them half-heartedly is not okay. This sounds simple, but it’s not exactly, because we haven’t mastered how to do all of those tasks, and even if we have, we don’t always have a strategy for getting them done in a timely manner, or in the best order. But the fact is that they can be done with a cheerful heart and we can excel at them, even if we aren’t there yet. In my own circumstance, I was allowing the false sense of having “learned” something, which I gained from reading the News, to replace the real sense of accomplishment I desired from doing my daily tasks and gradually getting better at doing them.

We all most likely have many goals that pertain to our daily duties that we want to accomplish to make our homes truly beautiful and peaceful places; our families holy, happy, and well-educated. I have a list of goals to this end which I’ve had since college: to become a proficient cook, to learn to speak a foreign language, to become proficient at sewing shirts and dresses (not just skirts), to learn to sew by hand, to keep up with my ever-growing reading list. All of these are worthy goals which could make me a better, more disciplined, and virtuous person, but more importantly, will help me be a better wife and mother and “heart of my home.” And yet when I look at my list of goals, very little of it has changed since it was first written. I really should seize the moment, stop lamenting, and start chipping away at my long-neglected goal-list, but where to start? My husband suggested a few times that I start reading one of the cookbooks we received for our wedding. So I have started there.

Now this cookbook he recommended is not a typical cookbook. It is called The Science of Good Cooking: Master 50 Simple Concepts to Enjoy a Lifetime of Success in the Kitchen and is written by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine. It is a gem of a cookbook. I hadn’t heard of it until I received it as a wedding gift, but I now consider it one of the best I possess. This book starts with scientific principles of cooking and then provides recipes that use those principles. So one can actually read the cookbook to discover why each recipe works. It is fascinating reading, and as each concept is understood, it provides great motivation to try the recipes and watch them work. As the reader tries the recipe and sees the concept work, the concept becomes more ingrained in his mind, and he can apply it to other, similar recipes which he may have used for a long time, the result being that his overall approach to cooking is more efficient and his understanding of the science behind it, improved, making it altogether more satisfying.

A case in point, “Concept 39: Rest Dough to Trim Kneading Time.” This simple concept recommends letting dough rest for about 20 minutes after it has been formed into a shaggy ball. Letting it rest allows proteins in the flour to break down, which in turn allows the dough to come together more quickly during kneading. I remembered this concept the next time I made pizza dough, and voilà, the dough formed a beautiful glossy ball much more quickly than in times past. The authors go into greater detail than I have about why this period of rest (or autolyse) works, and give enough explanation to satisfy the most curious scientist.

I am only halfway through this book, and have many concepts to master, but I am enjoying my progress. As I read I can’t help but think what a wonderful curriculum this book would make for parents who want to teach their children how to cook well, but perhaps do not have the experience to do so. Its organization lends it well to such a use, and I imagine most children who are old enough to help in the kitchen would, after reading a few pages, become curious to try one of the recipes.

As I read I am also struck by the way the methodology of this cookbook can be applied to other areas. I have a feeling that homemakers used to have a methodology for how to tackle other tasks as readily as they had a science of good cooking! And a science behind every other seemingly menial chore, which can be regained if we apply the same methodology found in this book. That is, a patient investigation to understand the principles behind a certain task, and the subsequent application of those principles to consistently perform that task as well as possible.

Many of The Science of Good Cooking’s concepts, from “Creaming Butter Helps Cake Rise” to “Slicing Changes Garlic and Onion Flavor” have probably been long understood (either implicitly or explicitly) by the home cook whose recipes have been handed down to her from her mother and her mother and her mother before her. But since, as a culture, we have lost this precious tradition of handing down family recipes, we have also lost an innate understanding of cooking concepts, or principles. The Science of Good Cooking comes in a timely manner to fill that void. And delving into it satisfies the insatiable desire for knowledge much better than the News ever could!

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