Monday, August 30, 2010

If you are sick of me talking/writing/obsessing about baking, you might wanna skip this one

"Essay" comes from a word meaning "try." I learned this last week. How I made it through my whole life without being aware of this fact is a real boggler...

This semester I'm taking a Creative Nonfiction class in the English Department at CU. If you know me, you know that writing may be the one thing I enjoy more than running or reading or eating or baking. If you know me really well, you may know that I haven't been doing a lot of writing lately. Not a good thing.

The class has been great so far. Our instructor gives us wacky, kind of off the wall assignments that get the juices and the ideas flowing really well. It's like being in a life drawing class with series of really interesting naked models (fat ones, old ones, etc.). Only those naked people are actually me and the things and events and ideas that interest me. (Ok, maybe that analogy was a bit stretched...)

Workshopping -- it's scary and uncomfortable and I bet all the MFA kids in my class are used to it and so to them it's no big thing -- makes me repeat to myself I'm such a phony toooool. But that doesn't matter, because although that mantra is still stuck in my head, when I got home from class I just wanted to work on my essay some more.

To try.

And that's exactly what I need right now.

My first try was a bit of a failure, but that's ok. Because I found a concept I want to pursue. On my own. For no reason other than I want to keep trying.

I am absolutely obsessed with "Baking Illustrated." Crazily, compulsively, fanatically, psychotically...obsessed.

The book is orange, like my favorite teapot. Like my favorite backpack. Like my favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

It has a whisk on the front, topped with a dainty blob of cream. My favorite T-shirt also has a lone whisk, but it took me over a year to realize why that image was burned into my brain.

I could read Baking Illustrated forever, cover to cover, over and over. I want to return to it nightly, revisiting favorite passages, pouring over their meaning, reciting them aloud like scripture. I share it with friends and strangers, like an evangelist.

My obsession stems not from the book's culinary insights -- which are deliciously effective, no doubt -- but from its methodology. Each section -- biscuits, cookies, pizza dough, quick breads -- starts with an elaborate description of a platonic ideal. The tasters, writers and editors have a perfect biscuit, a perfect cookie, a perfect piece of pizza dough in mind.

Is it based on bites stolen, here and there, from their memories? Some childhood nibble, smoothed over and embellished by time?

Have they ever ever tasted the perfect biscuit, or is it just an idea?

I don't know the answers to those questions -- I guess I should be a good little journalist and call up America's Test Kitchen and ask -- but I do know that they pursue that platonic ideal with meticulous empiricism. In the Test Kitchen, they try ever conceivable combination of ingredients, every ratio, every method of mixing, baking, cooling, eating...

And they end up with something that -- maybe? -- comes close to that impossible, origin-less ideal.

It's so judge-y. But it's judge-y because it's right.

What if we lived our whole lives like that? Is there some way a job interview should be? A vacation? A kiss? Even if we knew how it was supposed to be, how would we go about pursuing it through trial and error? We can't, obviously...but what if we did?

That is the basis for my essay, my first try. As I said before, I didn't get there. But I am going to try again. So, comments would be much appreciated. I know you are here because you'll like, whether my writing sucks or not.

New York Cheesecake
“An orchestration of different textures and an exercise in flavor restraint, New York cheesecake is a tall, bronze-skinned, and dense affair. At the core, it is cool, thick, smooth, satiny, and creamy; radiating outward, the texture goes gradually from velvety to suede-like, until finally becoming cake-like and fine pored at the edges. The flavor is simple and pure and minimalist, sweet and tangy, and rich to boot. New York cheesecake should not be citrusy, vanilla-scented, fluffy, mousse-like, leaden, gummy, chewy, or starchy. It should not be so dry as to make you gag, and it definitely should not bake up with a fault as large as the San Andreas (we’re talking New York, after all).” —from Baking Illustrated, by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, page 389
I can’t remember the exact reason for the confrontation, but I can remember the words it started with, “Miss Wirfs-Brock, can I speak with you for a moment?”
Miss Wirfs-Brock. The name had never been used, not like that, until two weeks earlier. At new teacher orientation on my first full day in South Korea, the interim principal informed me of the school dress code.
“That means this,” he tapped his eyebrow, “has to come out, Miss Wirfs-Brock.”
He was from Minnesota and his favorite phrases were “indefatigable” and “chain of command.”
“The students have no idea that I have this,” he said, rolling up his sleeve to reveal an aggressive tattoo – a Buddhist symbol the size of a quarter-pounder with cheese.
The principal was the only person left at school who still called me Miss Wirfs-Brock. The teachers unanimously decided “Ms.” was less anachronistic. My students truncated it to “Ms. W-B.” (Pronounced Mzz-dub-bee.)
I can’t remember exactly how I made it out of the empty, unlit computer lab, but I can remember the color of the double-doors the principal blocked with his physical presence: pale teal. Not quite like a robin’s egg, but like a cracked shell that’s been bleaching in the sun.
After it ended – however it did – I couldn’t hear “Miss Wirfs-Brock," my own name, without tensing my shoulders, arms and hands.
Thiruvananthapuram, major hub of India’s space industry, was called by the Anglicized name Trivandrum until it was officially changed back in 1991.
An orchestration of different emotions and an exercise in physical restraint, an argument is a spontaneous, unpredictable, and visceral affair. At the core, it is molten, hard, pressurized, and palpitating; radiating outward, the tenor goes gradually from boiling to simmering, and can become chilled and ice-like at the edges. The physical responses should be simple and pure, such as flushing, shaking, sweating, with muscle tension to boot. An argument should not be sweet, fragrant, affectionate, or pastoral. It definitely should not be so prolonged as to cause permanent damage (we’re talking emotions, after all).
“Every taster considered a mere dusting of crumbs on the bottom of the cheesecake insufficient. We wanted a crust with more presence.” —page 390
When I was growing up, my favorite place in the world was Hancock Field Station, a summer camp in the semi-arid high desert east of the Cascades. Closest town: Fossil, Oregon. ZIP code: 97830. How much presence does a 16-year-old have if, standing next to the fire pit on her first day as a camp counselor at her favorite place in the world, she faints under a juniper tree?
“...Two pounds (four bars) of cream cheese was not tall enough. We threw in another half pound—the springform pan reached maximum capacity, but the cheesecake stood tall and looked right.” —page 390
Until the age of twenty-one I knew, with absolute certainty, each time my feet took me one step further than I had ever run before: A 15K race overlooking the Columbia River Gorge. A half-marathon in Boston I showed up late for. A full marathon in Portland, Oregon, where I listened to the breathing of the runners around me – heavier and more labored than my own – and decided I needed to run faster.
Between 1784 and 1956, the British Royal Navy named no fewer than eight ships the HMS Indefatigable.
“Though the all-cream-cheese cheesecake tasted undeniably like cream cheese, the texture was gluey and pasty, akin to mortar….Sour cream, with a tartness of its own, supplemented the tangy quality of the cream cheese, but an overabundance made the cheesecake taste sour and acidic.” —page 390
One afternoon, as my fingers aimlessly wandered across the pages and spines of library books, I saw a spider in the stacks. She was in the biology section – appropriately, or not – and she scaled the crevice between two hardbacks, committing neither to one nor the other before disappearing. I didn’t think about her again until a trip to the Pawnee National Grasslands nearly two years later, a day I played with the severed rattle of a snake and tasted the best fish tacos.

“Honey, there's a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick,” Woody Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, says in Annie Hall.

This spider was the size of a space shuttle.

She was black, her back was mottled with yellow streaks like highway paving run amok. Her web spanned a hole in the ground large enough for human child or a fully-grown badger. A friend plucked a grasshopper from the prairie – so many jumped around us they sounded like rain – and tossed it into the spider’s web. She remained still for a second, maybe two, then skirted over, sank her fangs into the grasshopper, and spun it round and round and round, wrapping it with webbing. Then she left the neatly packaged meal and returned to the other side of the web to wait. At that moment I envied her.

I had a pre-school teacher who patrolled the playground chasing spiders off their webs. She’d coat the vacant homes with red spray paint and press them onto white sheets of paper, creating the perfect platonic ideal of a spider web – except that the spiders could no longer use them.

“…we do caution against taking the cheesecake beyond an internal temperature of 160 degrees. The few that we did were hideously and hopelessly cracked. Uptight though it may seem, an instant-read thermometer inserted into the cake is the most reliable means of judging the doneness of the cheesecake.” —page 391

Baking is a series of integrated physical and chemical reactions. So is running. You can focus on one element – the amount of baking soda, the smoothness of the batter, the electrolyte levels, the arm-swing – and perfect it in isolation. Even with all that experimentation, can you ever be sure what effect it has on the cake? Or the race?

Baking and running are notoriously more difficult at altitudes exceeding 5,000 feet. But the first step to high altitude baking is to try the recipe unaltered. It could still work. Perfectly.

“THE IMPORTANCE OF CHILLING CHEESECAKE: If the cheesecake is not thoroughly chilled, it will not hold its shape when sliced.” —page 394

When I baked my first New York cheesecake, I had no vanilla extract. I didn’t have a springform pan or an instant read thermometer. I accidentally used more than four times the amount of sour cream called for by the recipe. I marred the pure, minimalist flavor by pressing chunks of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups into the surface with the underside of a plate.

Normally I bake alone, but this first cheesecake I baked with friends. We couldn’t wait the recommended five hours before tasting it, and cut into it while it was still warm and unsettled. The surface was perfect, smooth and golden, with no unsightly cracks. The flavor was perfect, too, not bland, or sour, or overshadowed by the added candy. But the texture, density and mouth feel weren’t perfect until next day, after it had a chance to sit – unaided by my hands, chilling, out of sight.

BONUS FUN FACT: The picture is the real-deal cheesecake from the essay. Zing.

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