Take a lesson from Julia.
The grande dame of cooking, Julia Child, was known for taking her cooking very seriously. Not that she didn’t have fun with it, of course, but she didn’t approach it haphazardly or as though it were an afterthought. And for good reason.
Not being fully present while cooking – in other words, not taking your cooking seriously – can have disastrous results.
In the example that follows, the term “disastrous” may be a bit overly dramatic, as I simply wasted three cups of maple syrup, had to deal with a sticky rock-hard mess, and wasted a good chunk of time accomplishing said unpleasantries. But truly, it does suck to have invested time, money (ingredients), and energies into producing something that doesn’t turn out.
So, what does it mean to take cooking seriously and be present while cooking?
It means to have:
- a thorough understanding of what it is you intend to accomplish before you break out the pots and pans;
- a plan of attack – to know what you will do before you do it, to make sure you have the means of pulling off the recipe, and to not leave details as afterthoughts;
- a commitment to not allow outside distractions interfere with your cooking; AND
- an eye on the prize.
It doesn’t mean to not have fun, not improvise, or otherwise be uptight. It just means to not let predictability be ignored, and to be fully engaged in preparing food (of course, if someone rings the doorbell, you may have to deal with that and there may be consequences).
What happens when we don’t heed this advice?
Maple butter gone wrong…
In my case, I was on a mission to make maple butter. In case you’ve never tried it, maple butter is simply maple syrup that has been heated to 235°F, cooled to 100°F, and whipped until your arm is about ready to fall off. The end result is a spreadable maple syrup that has the consistency of something between a very dense whipped cream and a cooling chocolate ganache. It’s sublime.
Spoiler alert: I fucked it up.
If you’ve ever made candy, you know that reaching a precise temperature is critical to the outcome. One degree more or less than what you’re shooting for can make the difference between a rock-hard or gummy mess, and so it’s imperative to watch the candy thermometer like a hawk. What is most annoying about candy making is that it takes relatively little time to get the syrup to a temperature that’s just below the goal temperature, but forever to climb that last 10 degrees or so. But when it does, it does so nearly instantly!
The recipe I was using suggested not stirring at all, which is a very difficult thing for me to do. But, I obliged, at least until the thing nearly bubbled over. It also suggested keeping the pot on the flame for a full 60 seconds after the correct temperature was reached “just in case” the entire contents of the pot hadn’t yet reached the same temp. I dutifully followed this latter suggestion, which I never should have done. As you can see in the picture below (which looks non-uniform because I attempted to stir it – as directed – off-heat), I do not have something that resembles dense whipped cream; instead, I have a hot mess that refuses to budge!
Here’s the takeaway:
- Explore the validity of any doubts about a recipe’s instructions before attempting said recipe (it’s like a mise en place thing);
- If you will be temping anything, make sure that your thermometer is properly calibrated (here’s an outside link for how to do this);
- Know when it’s okay to deviate from a recipe and when it’s important to follow it precisely; AND
- Be present, and take your cooking seriously (enough).
Had I followed 1-4, I would be eating waffles smeared with delicious maple butter right now. Instead, I violated two of the bulleted points near the top of this post about what it means to take cooking seriously – I failed to keep my eye on the prize and to thoroughly understand what it was that I was doing – and I’m now listening to my tummy rumble and feeling shaky from having downed too many espresso shots on an empty stomach. Don’t let this happen to you.
For more tips on how to cook like you mean it (and enjoy the process), make sure that you download my (free) 6 Tips for Channelling Your Inner Domestic Goddess.
Have you had any kitchen catastrophes that were the result of not taking your cooking seriously, or any bloopers you’d like to share? I think we’d all love a good laugh (or insights to glean), so please comment away! Salut!