Michael Ruhlman had me at pie crust.
Like a hungry tiger, it senses your fear. The more you fear it, the quicker it takes you down and rends your dreams of delicious pie limb from limb, crunching the bones while you weep into your kitchen towel. At one particularly low moment in my pie making history, I may actually have shed a tear in the kitchen over a crust myself.
But Michael Ruhlman promised, in his book Ratio, to set me free of recipes. He explained it all very neatly one Saturday morning in 2009 on KCRW’s Good Food. French chefs for generations have carried in their pockets cheat sheets, he said. These cheat sheets hold the secrets of all of the finer creations of the French kitchen from béchamel to vinaigrette. These weren’t recipes, Ruhlman insisted. They were, instead, just proportions of ingredients. I bought a copy of Ratio that very day.
A brief pause to say that I did really well at chemistry in school, particularly stoichiometry. Which is of course why I went to art school to study photography so that I could later become a web programmer. But that’s another story. The point is that I was a hungry nerd in need of reliable pie crust. So , naturally, it wasn’t until last summer that I took the leap of faith.
I’ve been cooking and baking since before Reagan forgot about those pesky arms deals. There’s plenty I can whip up without a recipe, and there are other things for which one seems essential. Like pie crust. But recipes were getting me nowhere, and I was desperate for homemade peach streusel pie like Mom used to make. So it wasn’t until the peak of the summer last year that I let go of the recipe and embraced Ratio.
If you’ve not already done the math in your head, that’s correct, the book sat on my shelf for six years before I actually tried one of the non-recipes. To say that my life was forever altered that day, for both the better and portlier, is no lie. Within days, I was trying the other ratios out to see if they actually worked. (It does!) Not much longer after that that I made my own cheat sheets which eventually become the Grimoire.
Love this book though I do, it’s not for the inexperienced. If you’ve never made bread or a sponge cake before, this is not the book to get you started. Other authors do a better job at describing the techniques for beginners. For the experienced cook with a creative streak, though, this book is a godsend. You will be freed from recipes and discover a new sense of confidence to experiment.
Just be sure to order a pair of Sans-a-Belt pants with your copy of Ratio. All of the delicious exploration of non-recipes is murder on the waistline!
After my husband and pets, my battered 1997 edition of The Joy of Cooking is the next thing I would save in a fire. It is, in my opinion, the greatest American cookbook ever created.
Like many classic cookbooks, The Joy of Cooking has recipes for every type of food you could imagine and a dozen more beside. There are literally hundreds of comfort dishes in these pages that can be prepared with ingredients found at any supermarket. Honed over literally generations of editions dating all the way back to 1931, the format of the recipes is easy to follow for cooks of all skill levels.
The Joy’s pages describe the literal melting pot that is America. Classic regional cooking of the U.S. is treated with the same reverence as Escoffier’s mother sauces. Eastern European, Middle Eastern, South American, and Asian recipes are all well represented with both authentic flavors and techniques. The choices say as much about who we are as a country of immigrants as it does anything else, and I find that rather beautiful. And to keep the love-in going, there are also more than a few recipes for vegans, vegetarians, and those who go gluten-free. If only our national politics were so harmoniously integrated.
It’s easy to miss the bakery for the croissants here, though, and one most notice The Joy is more than recipes. The beginning each chapter explains, in detail, the ingredients and techniques that you will find within. Reading the introductions to the meat, vegetable, and grain chapters may very well change your life. The book opens with chapters on nutrition and menu planning that would keep anyone healthy for a lifetime and ends with detailed diagrams of how to set a formal table. I believe the word encyclopedic is appropriate the volume of knowledge packed into this one book.
If you haven’t your own copy of The Joy of Cooking, now would be the time to procure it. (There’s a used book shop near you with a $5 copy, I promise.) And if you do own a copy but have never really plumbed its depths, now is the moment.
Next week, Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio.
There’s a predictable course to all conversations that begin with, “would you share your recipe for <dessert thing> with me?”
I savor the precious few moments of smiles when I agree. They often are brief.
There’s the obligatory first stop at, “it’s all in grams? Metric?”
Then we arrive quickly at, “so how many cups in a gram?”
And finish with, “oh, a scale. That seems like an awful lot of work. Let me know if you convert it to cups.”
No doubt many of you, my dear readers, feel the same. But hear me out! A digital kitchen scale is the best thing that can happen to a baker.
Louis-Camille Maillard rolls in his grave when I write it, but it’s easy enough to pretend that there’s no science involved in everyday food preparation. Not so baking and dessert making. This reminder of high school chemistry class is what scares a lot of people off of the endeavor. But it shouldn’t, because embracing a little bit of nerdy precision will save you both time and angry tears.
Consider the following:
1) How I scoop my flour and how you scoop yours isn’t the same. A gram is always a gram, no matter who measures it.
2) What’s easier to add? 720 g. plus 1219 g. or 1 lb. 9.4 oz. plus 2 lb. 11 oz.? (If you answered 3 lbs. 20.4 oz., grams are for you!)
3) Because the math is easy, you can use ratios to quickly formulate the recipes of your dreams or scale them up and down to suit your needs.
4) Three bowls (at most) and the “tare” or “zero” button on your scale are all you will ever need. No fumbling with and then washing up a squad of spoons and cups.
The type of scale you use matters. Digital is a the way to go, and you want one that has a capacity of at least 4.5 kg. (10 lb.). The OXO 11lb Food Scale with Pullout Display is currently my favorite. The truly devoted will also want to pick up a smaller scale from a maker like AWS for when fractions of grams are required (like yeast in bread recipes).
I got my first question from a reader a couple of weeks ago. Amy F. from Internetland asks: “How do you prevent things from sticking to the side of your chef’s knife when you’re doing prep? I think I understand how to use a knife properly, but when I’m cutting, say, cucumbers or zucchini or potatoes or apples, they stick to the side of the knife, which makes it impossible to keep a nice cutting rhythm going without chopping off pieces of the slices I’ve already cut or, for round things, stopping to deal with rollaway slices.”
Well, Amy, I have an answer for you, and it also happens to be my very first video blog. I’m sure you’re at least twice as excited as I!
Like most home chefs working on a budget in a small space, I cannot help but roll my eyes when contestants on cooking shows melt down over leftovers of any kind. It’s a freakin’ “Chopped” round in my kitchen every night of the week. Home from work with an hour to walk the dog, make dinner, and set the table. And no PA to do the dishes when it’s all over.
(Do your best to keep the kitchen tidy as you go, kids. No one wants to confront the wreck of the Hesperus in the sink after dinner.)
I may plan my bakes days in advance, but the nightly meal rarely gets such forethought. Luckily, it’s dinner, not a solution to global warming. Stock your fridge, pantry, and condiment shelf with stuff you like, and it’s just a matter of grabbing what strikes your fancy and cooking it. Someday I’ll spend the time to outline what I think are essential pantry staples for any kitchen, but for now Michael Pollan’s axiom “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” sums it up well.
On account of the utter lack of planning, most dinners in my little kitchen at The Treehouse are what I call “limited edition.” Which is to say, having made them up of available ingredients, they’re unlikely to be repeated. They’re not blind stabs in the culinary dark, though. Rather, they draw on simple techniques that allow for infinite variation. This week’s inaugural roundup of the week’s Limited Edition Dinners includes two of foolproof techniques to turn veggies into dinner and my very favorite way to prepare squash and carrots.
Smokey Black Beans with Zucchini are a riff on succotash, which is just a veggie stew at heart. The key is to develop a good base of flavor by sweating and then lightly caramelizing the onions and aromatics when you start. Freshly cooked beans (“feh!” to canned) make it a bit special, tomatoes boost the umami factor, and the aroma of smoke brings everything together in the end. Diehard carnivores will swear they taste bacon, and who are you to tell them otherwise?
I paired the aforementioned veg stew with Soy Glazed Acorn Squash. If there’s a simpler, more delicious way to prepare squash, it involves a deal with the devil. When you get to feeling experimental, try this technique with carrots or parsnips. Throw in a heavy pinch of curry powder, and you’re down a whole new path. Or vary the sweetener and try maple syrup. And five spice. Oh, my. I need to try that right now…
Finally, pilaf! Being Greek, this is my default preparation for all stove-top grains (rice, barley, bulgur, farina). My Tomato Pilaf Salad with Sautéed Mushrooms, packed with red bell pepper, feta cheese, and olives is an easy intro into the wide, wild world of grain salads.
Now go eat something, you look thin!
My dad’s birthday is a couple of days away, and he truly is a man with everything except someone local to bake for him. Cakes ship terribly, so I conjured a trio of bakes for him, and one for myself. As you do.
Because they’re simultaneously some of his favorites and travel beautifully, I chose Greek Macarons, Brownies, and Molasses Spice Bombs. Not only will they arrive good as the day they were baked, but the Molasses Spice Bombs and Greek Macarons tend to improve with time. Everybody wins!
The yogurt cupcakes were just for me as something to use up the extra egg yolks the Greek Macarons throw off. It’s moments like this when you’ve an excess of ingredient to use that the ratios in my Kitchen Grimoire come in particularly handy. But that’s
another topic that you can explore at your leisure.
Whenever I have this many things to bake at once, I usually make a day of it. Because I’m fussy, everything gets prepped and weighed the night before. That way all I have to do is mix, scoop, and bake once I’ve had my tea the next morning. In smaller kitchens especially, this makes for a lot less clutter when you’re trying to maneuver.
While I’m on the topic of fussiness, I find it helpful to wash everything as soon as I’m done
with it when prepping bakes, especially on grander scales. Not only does it keep the mess from overwhelming me, but it doesn’t give the flour time to weld itself to my things. This is the ideal task for that person in your life who’s always asking if they can help you in the kitchen. It’s like quality time and free labor, all in one!
Back to the bakes.
My father’s wild for chocolate and orange, so I used one of my favorite variations on the my brownies that I call orange blossom. First I blitz the zest of two oranges with the recipe’s oil in the blender for a couple of minutes, and then I add a teaspoon of Nielsen-Massey orange blossom water along with the vanilla. They’re chocolate heaven in the celestial orange grove.
The two cookies got scooped in celebratory sizes (see also: small cakes) using my trusty #30 disher. Most people think of them as ice cream scoops, but they’re actually a staple of portion control in the food service industry. The #30 gives two tablespoons, which really is an enormous cookie. But who ever complained about a cookie being too big? Certainly no one to whom I’m related.