Friday, May 3, 2013

Cooking Days...

…should definitely happen more often around here!

I love a good challenge – the thrill of the unknown, the fun of gaining new experiences, and the satisfaction of building confidence.  And there is something absolutely fixating about elaborate recipes.  I love the fancy, beautiful creations - and my newest challenge has been using Tart Pans and Silpat mats.
Caramel goodness in the making
I finally let myself purchase a rectangle tart pan, a round tart pan, and a Silpat mat because I found them at a fantastic price, so what else was there to do but bake three pastries at once?  So I did.

Actually, I usually cram a lot of cooking into a short amount of time.  On workdays, I get home around 7:00pm, which is a bit late to do some serious chef-ery.  To remedy this lack, I’ve started dedicating entire Saturdays to cooking and baking. 

My first ever Cooking Day was inspired by researching elaborate French dinners, and I began very ambitiously for an inexperienced cook.  I cooked two chickens (one roasted, one boiled to make stock with mirepoix – pronounced “meer pwah”), mashed potatoes, steamed green beans garnished with almonds, orange carrot pineapple jell-o, rolls, Dad’s Jumbo Chocolate Chip Cookies, and salted caramel coconut thumbprint cookies.  That sufficiently wore me out, but the family had a great time sharing dinner that night. 

The second Cooking Day included the return of the mouthwatering salted caramel coconut thumbprint cookies (seriously fantastic!  Thank you, Martha!), but most recipes were inspired by my new favorite cooking website,  In this blog, there are a lot of strong flavors and also some strong language – but the rock-your-world flavors are what will keep you reading!  I made “Romaine Salad with Bacon, 5-Minute Eggs, and Creamy Garlic Anchovy Dressing” (no lie – I wimped out and did not include anchovies – but it was still extraordinarily zippy and delicious!). I also made Potato, Tomato, Caramelized Onion, & Bacon Tart, Puff Pastry Brie with apricot jam and walnuts, and Hannah Keeley’s Science of Soup recipe, which pretty much explains that Mirepoix (there it is again!) and a flexible grouping of meats, vegetables, liquids, and spices is the base for almost every soup.  Sara called it the Once in a Lifetime Soup, which I rather liked! The family was out of town, so I set up a candlelight picnic of sorts, and invited a few friends over for a fancy food tasting with a little wine. 

Do you begin to see the enchantment of investing time like this to create extravagant little dinner parties? 

This past Saturday became Cooking Day number three.

As you may have guessed, these have become a serious and strategic pursuit – which may be why it only happens once every 3-4 months.  I usually gear up with a list of new recipes, shop for ingredients in the morning, and then crank up the music or start a movie marathon – and last weekend, I was joined by the wonderful and amazing Daniella Silkwood, who has been my friend for almost two decades.

Seven hours and two loaded dishwashers later, the house smelled amazing but my feet were reminding me why I should always wear padded slippers when having to stand on a tile floor all day long.  However, it was totally worth it.
Tomato and Cheese Tart

Daniella and I made:
  1. Tomato and Cheese Tart, with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, smoked gruyere, fresh basil & oregano, and homemade shortcrust dough;
  2. Plum Galette with nutmeg, cinnamon, brown sugar, lemon zest, vanilla, and homemade sweet pastry dough;
  3. Salted Caramel Ganache Tart with Walnuts – which had homemade everything, including milk chocolate glaze, caramel, sweet whip cream, ganache, and sweet pastry dough.

Plum Galette
Oh, delight!

The general consensus was that the Plum Galette is the all-around winner.  My brother described it as tasting like apple pie, until the plum gets you – zing!  Thank you Martha, again!

These days are so special to me!  I love everything about cooking.  It’s the smells, the tastes, the anticipation, and the way everything comes together. However, you may have begun wondering why there is suddenly a post about cooking on a blog that is focused on writing and art.  But let me ask you: have you ever tried to cook French food?  Or tarts?  Or anything that got you excited? 

I believe the process of cooking is just like art.  It involves heart, mind, and skill.  It takes listening to the Masters. It takes great vision and precision, with a little bit of intuition thrown in the mix.  It’s about the tactical interaction with delightful materials, smells, and color, which produces something that is (hopefully!) beautiful and attractive to the senses. 

I’ve been reading a book, Supper of the Lamb (which I first heard of at Hutchmoot!), by Robert Farrar Capon, who does a fascinating job of presenting cooking as not only an art, but as a spiritual discipline, if it is approached correctly. He introduces himself by saying the following:

First, I am an amateur. If that strikes you as disappointing, consider how much in error you are, and how the error is entirely of your own devising. At its root lies an objection to cookbooks written by non-professionals (an objection, by the way, which I consider perfectly valid, and congratulate you upon). It does not, however, apply here. Amateur and nonprofessional are not synonyms. The world may or may not need another cookbook, but it needs all the lovers – amateurs – it can get. It is a gorgeous old place, full of clownish graces and beautiful drolleries, and it has enough textures, tastes, and smells to keep us intrigued for more time than we have. Unfortunately, however, our response to its loveliness is not always delight: It is, far more often than it should be, boredom. And that is not only odd, it is tragic; for boredom is not neutral – it is the fertilizing principle of unloveliness.

I, too, am definitely an amateur; but I, too, am also a lover.  And it is love mixed with a thankful and wakeful heart that can turn even menial tasks into worship.

It is a truth I’ve had to acknowledge that once I’ve decided a project doesn’t matter, the excellence and beauty of my output almost immediately plummets.  How often do I let boredom drain my enthusiasm and rob me of the pursuit of beauty?

Like art, cooking cannot be rushed, and beauty does not come easily.  I’ve come to think that success (when cooking) is a product of experience, but also of an intrigued imagination and fearless enthusiasm.  These are things that almost never happen when we are rushed, or stressed.  They seem born of time, of investment, and of stoking the fires of creativity by choosing to gaze upon loveliness.  Maybe your imagination and enthusiasm don’t take you toward cooking, but maybe they lead to dancing.  To physics.  To film making.  To music.  To mechanical engineering.  Where is it that you feel drawn to go the extra mile, not because you were told to, but because you have become captivated?  What makes you feel alive?  What makes worship well up within your heart, because you are so thankful?

I enjoy Him while I create.  While I cook.  While I savor the flavor of successful outcomes. And this is what I pray: may you each be blessed with alive hearts, sensitivity to beauty, and an enthusiasm that guards you against lackluster living produced by boredom.

And seriously, I pray you are also blessed with elaborate food, every once in a while.  It’s quite a treat! 

Salted Caramel Ganache Tart with Walnuts