This past weekend, I had four days off, so as I’m wont to do, I baked. A lot. I made puff pastry into a pithivier (a french pie made of two disks of puff pastry with frangipane in the middle, yes it is delicious), and I dipped my toe in the bread, making pretzels (super fun) and a loaf of white country bread.
With the podcast, and my general love of baking, I’ve been baking and cooking more lately. In the past month, I’ve made things I never imagined I’d make by hand- bretzels, bread, eggs benedict, so much else, and while it’s been really fun, with every more advanced food project I tackle, with my current kitchen and country situation, I inevitably run up against some sort of obstacle. With making hollandaise, it was a current lack of any lemons. Making any dish with meat means coming to terms with an extreme shortage of diverse cuts or good quality, especially when it comes to sausages. With baking, its an endless list- I lack proper supplies, some of which are too expensive to find, some of which just aren’t available here. My oven is small, which means I can’t bake too many things at once, and more annoyingly, it’s electric, which means it’s near impossible to get an even bake on things, and certain dishes almost inevitably are underbaked in the middle because the outsides are nearly burnt.
My unevenly baked pithivier- slightly burnt edges and an underbaked center is a staple of anything baked in my oven.
The fact is I’m both poor and living outside the land of plenty, so there are very real obstacles I face whenever I make things. And while this is annoying, and it make my visits home a whirlwind of blissful ease in the kitchen, something else I’ve come to appreciate it is the ingenuity it forces on me. Given the very real restraints I have in both my pantry and my kitchen, I make some baller-ass stuff. And it almost always involves figuring out some sort of hack to get my kitchen or my dish to work for me.
A great example of this was when I macgyvered a proofing drawer for my bread baking this weekend. Both pretzels and bread require leaving your dough covered for an hour or so in a warm place for the yeast to work its magic (called proofing). Fancy ovens have proofing drawers, and barring this, most kitchens (at least in the states) are climate controlled and warm, so you can leave it on the counter and it’ll work out. But for me, right now? Its a chilly 15C in my house, with no heat whatsoever. What’s a novice breadmaker to do? I ended up putting it on top of my shitty electric oven, and turning on the oven to the lowest setting so it’d gently heat up
That sort of problem solving can wind up quite satisfying, and makes me feel at least as competent as the chefs on Top Chef when they inevitably need to cook in the middle of a desert or some such. These problems are also mostly quite easily solved- I’m gradually acquiring better equipment, and I’ve definitely started to learn about the particular quirks of my oven and how to counter the consequences. But the other annoyances- not being able to find certain produce or ingredients, that has had an effect of doing something really quite different and beautiful- it’s forced me to be creative.
Without english muffins or canadian bacon or indeed the availablity of any sort of good meat, when it came time to make eggs benedict, I had to actually put on a thinking cap. I came up with making a vegetarian benny with ginger sweet potato latkes and asparagus under the egg and hollandaise. It was fucking awesome. When I was craving a hot toddy in early February, and couldn’t afford to buy honey, and no lemons were to be found, I put together a cocktail that was fucking delicious and a great twist on the traditional hot toddy- grapefruit instead of lemon, maple syrup instead of honey and ginger for some extra spice.
The ginger-maple grapefruit hot toddy. Super tasty, have since been informed that I put way too much water in it, but the tastiness stands.
Obviously sometimes the restraints lead to things that don’t turn out well. I once spent two hours making a genoise sponge (making sponge without a stand mixer is hell, don’t do it) only to have it ruined in the oven because electric ovens burn the shit out of the tops of genoise almost immediately because of their high egg content, but leave the inside raw. When my boyfriend and I couldn’t find sweet vermouth, we got white vermouth and still made Manhattans with it, and it was yuck. But for the most part, those restraints have really helped to grow my creativity.
It’s a beautiful thing to be able to rely on your knowledge of ingredients, your palette, your taste buds to make new things. When I think back to when I first started to cook, finding recipes online and being so meticulous about sticking to every measurement of every ingredient, worried that I’d screw it up. Now, several years on, I’ve built up enough instinct to be able to explore and play in the kitchen, not just strictly follow what a recipe says. I think up of dishes on my own. I taste and adjust the stuff I make and bake. And the constraints in my kitchen have definitely facilitated that. So here’s to poorly stocked supermarkets and my shitty tiny kitchen. You’ve taught me a lot. Cheers.