A few weeks ago, I mentioned a comment from Nigel Slater about the British being a nation of recipe book cooks, as opposed to passionate cooks.
Now of course, there’s nothing wrong with recipes (and recipe books!), but the latest episode of macaron madness in this household illustrated just why recipes are not the be all and end all of cooking.
I think that I’m a little on the geeky side when it comes to cooking – some might say that that would be an apt description of other parts of my life too – but I have the sort of a mind that is fascinated to discover some really rather ‘scientific’ things about food.
For instance, I’m currently reading A Taste of My Life by Raymond Blanc, a book that deftly mixes autobiography with food science, food philosophy and recipes.
Last night, I was amazed to read Blanc’s comments on making a classic French onion soup. He regards white onions as the best for the job, having done extensive tests. Not only are they sweeter sweeter, but white onions also contain less sulpher than other onions, and it’s the sulpher that makes you cry.
That’s seriously good information to have – for more than one reason.
And after reading something else in the same book, I was very near to trying an experiment today: taking two pans with the same amount of water in and gently heating them both. One would contain a torn bay leaf, the other an un-torn one.
Blanc’s idea is that it answers the question of whether or not to tear/cut the leaf: taste after five minutes and you’ll apparently see a difference. Taste again after another five minutes and the difference will have become more pronounced. The water containing the torn one in will taste increasingly bitter and unpleasant.
Even if I never actually get around to doing the experiment myself, it gives an understanding of why you don't tear the leaf.
Likewise with onions: Blanc suggests taking the time to smell and taste different onions; to look at the way they’re structured when you cut them differently.
In other words, to learn about what you cook and not just how to execute what a recipe tells you.
In years long gone by, I did a lot of acting. On one occasion, a particularly poor director wanted me to move across the stage at a certain point, simply for the look of it. I could never remember the move. A fellow actor (who had had professional theatre experience) suggested a motive for the move – something as simple as my having spotted an envelope on the mantelpiece and crossing the 'room' to see what it was. Once this bit of business gave the move some reason, some logic, I never forgot it again.
Now I’m beginning to see something similar happening in the kitchen. I want to know how and why something happens so that I can understand not just why things work, but when they don’t, why they don’t.
Following a particular macaron recipe this morning, I started preparing the “ganache” for the filling. I heated pineapple juice and a little lime juice (both carefully measured), then let it stand, infusing with some black pepper.
After that had cooled, the recipe has you beat together caster sugar and the egg yolks that you have left from the macaron mix itself, then add cornflour and cooking “over a low heat” for the listed time of five to seven minutes. Then it was decanted into a jug to cool. When that had cooled, it was popped into the fridge.
Some time later, it was clear that it wasn’t setting or even thickening. A slight ‘eureka’ moment occurred as I realised that I wasn’t supposed to be making a ganache – I was supposed to be making something like a crème patisserie.
Look at the ingredients: egg yolks and cornflour and liquid – this is a custard. And a custard, dammit, needs to be cooked over more than “a low heat” to bring it to a thickening point.
Once that realisation had occurred, then it also became clear what that irritatingly unquantified and unquantifiable “low heat” really means.
The use of the word ‘ganache’ in the recipe is utterly misleading and unhelpful. Indeed, according to Larousse Gastonomique – which is as good a bible as I can think of to refer to – a ganache is " a flavoured cream made with chocolate and fresh cream, sometimes with butter added". In other words, exactly what I understood it to be.
It was only because I’ve cooked a few custards that it finally dawned. And the use of “a low heat” is itself deceptive, since it’s really quite unscientific. I’d cooked it “over a low heat” for the specified time – but it wasn’t enough.
As it also happens, remembering Blanc’s constant call, I had tasted it – but then my distrust of my own instincts and knowledge had seen me continue to take the recipe at its word. Only once I'd realised what was (or wasn't) happening, did it explain to me why it was a tad grainy: the sugar had not melted properly.
Language is important – and technical language is very important.
The mixture went back into a clean pan and back on a hob.
Then, unfortunately, I forgot what I know – and left it while other tasks absorbed me. By the time this dawned, there was a burnt crust forming on the bottom – not much, but enough to wreck the filling altogether.
So it was back to square one – and just as I’d come so much closer to really getting the macaron cases so much closer to what I’ve bought in the shops. Argh!
Now in all fairness, in the case of this particular book, it might be a problem with the translation – French to an English for all English-language market (thus 'superfine sugar' for caster sugar, and 'confectioner's sugar' for icing sugar).
Or is it just me not reading recipes properly, with any depth of understanding – and simply bemoaning everything being written as though I really require a volume entitled Cooking for Dummies?
Still, once I understood what was required, something could be done.
Fruit juice heated and infused with pepper (crushed this time too, since it gives off more aroma and scent that way). More egg yolks and sugar beaten together, before cornflour and the juice are added. Then the lot was decanted into a pan and heated: slowly, to be sure, but enough to melt the sugar properly and to thicken it.
It’s now sitting in the fridge, slowly chilling and getting thicker and thicker. It might actually reach a point where it’s possible to sandwich it between the shell halves that are a considerable improvement on last time (they're incredibly fragile, but light as air and with the proper 'crust').
But whether or not it’s me or the book or a combination thereof, perhaps what Slater was meaning was that when we’re concentrating on a specific recipe, we forget to think for ourselves and expect the recipe to do all the work.
And yes – when you do that, there’s also little space for ‘passion’ in your kitchen.
Boy. I have some catching up to do. Blanc has no formal training – but he clearly learnt so much from his mother, who had learnt so much from her mother before her. And to read of Maman Blanc is to feel such admiration – and yes, envy.
Levels of understanding that I can but aspire to. What I'm doing now – what I'm thinking now – is part of that attempt to catch up.
Blanc's descriptions of the culinary desert that he came face to face with when he came to the UK at 22 to be a waiter are staggering. On many fronts, we have got better.
But in a perhaps perverse way, it is also heartening to know that that is my context: that my ignorance and the position I start from is far from unique.