Monday, October 26, 2009

Winging it

I gotta say that freestyling bread has got to be maybe the most impressive thing I have ever seen done in a kitchen—a kind of yeast-and-gluten based jazz, an improvisational art form that I plainly do not have the stones to try. It is an interpretive dance, dusted with flour.

Mary has been doing this of late, and Madeline does it also. Now, I baked my first loaf of bread in, what—third grade or something like that? And since then, I have baked all sorts of breads over the decades, and lots of other goodies as well. I consider myself a reasonably accomplished amateur baker. But, as I learned from my mother, I bake always using a recipe, followed with great deliberateness and devotion. How do these two do it?

It's almost scary for me to watch the bold and fearless way these women bake: intuitive, insightful, free-form, based on solid experience and whatever ingredients are at hand. Everything goes into the big stainless steel bowl in its turn (nothing seems to get measured) where it's mixed, then kneaded, then risen: a single vessel for the whole process. Four round loaves emerge from this crucible to nestle together on a big baking sheet, making a giant clover-leaved loaf, each leaf with two flat sides and a broad dome.

The motivation to bake is often some ingredient that needs to get used up; dairy-based, typically, so the breads are usually rich with cottage cheese or the equivalent. Some mix of herbs usually enlivens the flavor, often finely minced onion as well, a perfect compliment for a 1/4 rye-1/4 whole wheat loaf, like the ones we just enjoyed.

I watch it happen, and stand back and keep out of the way. It's a music I can't play...though I certainly enjoy listening, and am a willing audience.

On the other hand, I am pretty good at free-style cooking.

Sunday morning I announced we were having quiche for dinner, and Mary concurred. When the time came, at the end of a long day of many hard tasks large and small, we went at it.

Mary made the crust, in this instance using the old-reliable recipe—pie crusts are treacherous and notoriously vindictive creations who won't hesitate to turn on you if you show the slightest weakness or fear or relinquish an iota of control for a moment. She prevailed, predictably.

I began making the filling by cutting up a hunk of smoked pork (like bacon but without the cure) and sauteing it; then adding finely minced onion, some finely chopped kale stems and, shortly after those, the kale leaves; then some sliced white mushrooms and salt and pepper. While that was all slowly cooking together, I beat a handful of eggs, some freshly-skimmed cream, and some cottage cheese until it was frothy. As soon as Mary had the two crusts ready, I divided up the kale mixture between the crusts and poured the egg filling over them.

The quiches were done in about a half an hour, along with a pumpkin-like winter squash I threw together. The squash was just cleaned out and baked with some cider, butter, brown sugar and spices. The two quiches and the squash together would make about three full meals for the two of us, with mostly local ingredients and without recipe (...excepting the crust...) with about thirty minutes prep time all told.

The trick is having a wonderful assortment of outstanding ingredients on hand, and a willingness to use them how you see fit. No recipe for the filling, just the miracle of all those foolproof pieces to put together like a puzzle. I suppose I could try and apply that approach to baking, but...

Nah. I'm not even going to pretend like that's going to happen. I will leave it to the two virtuosos. I know when to leave well enough alone.

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