helen-louise (baratron) wrote,

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averting the no bread disaster.

Crossed an interesting mental line on Sunday night.

When I was a teenager, I could barely cook at all. I endured three years of cookery lessons at school, plus more casual lessons at Guides - but never seemed to figure out techniques. I was very slow and uncertain of what I was doing, and would compulsively check recipes to make sure I was doing the right thing. Lacking in practical experience, I didn't know what food was supposed to look like at various stages of cooking, or how to fix it when it went wrong.

By the time I was at university I could feed myself, but this mostly involved heating up a ready meal. For years, the closest I got to cooking was turning dried pasta into edible pasta and microwaving a tin of pre-bought sauce to go over the top. Then I started developing 101 food allergies & intolerances. When you're already vegetarian and suddenly can't have anything containing dairy, that means almost all ready meals are out of the question, and it's learn to cook or starve!

However, what was different between when I'd tried to cook as a teenager was that I now had my own kitchen to mess up. It seemed a lot less stressful knowing there wasn't anyone to bitch at me about the state of the kitchen if I made a mistake. Also, a lot of fine motor skill develops once you've finished growing - in the early 20s. artremis told me this when she was helping me sew together a t-shirt we'd customised. From being a person who couldn't thread a needle, let alone sew more than a handful of stitches before I dropped the needle, I managed to do most of it myself in an hour. Yes, it's a mess, but it's no more a mess than when I was forced to do needlework lessons at school and would take three whole days to do the same amount.

I have a theory that the only way to learn to cook is to make a lot of mistakes. Being able to prepare a whole meal with several different courses involves a hell of a lot of multitasking, and an awful lot of process memory. You need to have the database assembled to know what to do if your sauce is too thick or too thin. And then you need to have the confidence to not panic when it happens. A lot of people give up and say "I can't cook" when they've only attempted a small number of meals. You need time to assemble the database so you know that when your sauce goes blobby like it is now, you need to add just a SPLASH of milk - any more, and it'll start to curdle, any less and it won't improve. Or if your cake mix is too sticky, you need to increase the amount of flour rather than trying to decrease the amount of sugar in that particular recipe, otherwise the texture will go weird and it'll taste just fine, but sag in the middle. It's practice, and practice, and trying things, and experimenting, and experience.

I'll always be a slow cook because I can't multitask too well, but now I feel like I'm reasonable at it. I can cope with my own & other people's food restrictions, and know instinctively how to mix the spices in certain kinds of cuisines. I can veganise a lot of recipes that you'd have thought couldn't be made vegan, by using apparently-random ingredients to subtitute for things that I've built up in my database. (There's a sponge cake recipe I like that involves VINEGAR!! And yes, it only works properly if you put the vinegar in, and you can't substitute it for lemon juice). I still can't cook authentic Chinese food or make curry at all, but I'm sure I can learn given time.

So on Sunday I was hungry and in need of bread, but we didn't have any bread because I spent the day in Brighton, and lack of trains on Sundays combined with stupid Sunday trading laws meant I wasn't able to pick up fresh bread rolls from Waitrose for breakfast like I usually do. (I'm a fresh bread fetishist - I prefer my bread still warm from the oven, enjoy it while it's crispy on the outside and gorgeously soft on the inside, cannot stand bread that's 12 hours old, and have to be actively ill before I want to eat ordinary "longlife" white sliced.)

We didn't have any bread; but we do have a breadmaker, that I've not used enough owing to the fact I haven't been able to find a recipe that makes bread as nice as the rolls I get from Waitrose. (I have a sneaky suspicion that as well as being obsessed with fresh bread, I actually don't like loaves very much, only rolls and baguettes.) So I pulled out my old cinnamon pretzel recipe that I haven't used in 18 months. Throwing the ingredients into the breadmaker and setting it for "dough" means I get to shape the bread myself and bake it in the oven, and usually gives fairly good results.

Anyway. The strong flour had a layer of mould on the top of it. Both packets of plain flour were mouldy all the way through - the opened and the unopened packet. (I'm mildly concerned about what this means about the level of damp in the wall that cupboard is attached to, but that's a worry for the future, I think.) Richard scraped the top of the strong flour into the bin, and we figured what was left was probably ok. (I read a newspaper article recently which discussed the ways in which food goes bad and whether it's harmful for us to eat it or not, and apparently most of what grows on bread is penicillin, so unless you have an allergy it won't do you harm at all.) The yeast was also pretty old, but it's in small sealed 7g packets, so theoretically fine. I threw together the old strong flour with self-raising flour instead of plain, and old yeast, and demerara sugar that's much bigger crystals than I usually use in baking, and hoped for the best.

Well, what came out was better than the last time I made cinnamon pretzels, back when I was still making them regularly. I remembered (somehow! after all that time!) that 140ml of water always gave dough that was way too sticky, and cut that to 100ml - the dough I got was dry, but workable. I couldn't be arsed to shape it into pretzels, rolling out the long rope, letting the dough "rest", and continuing several times - but I made plaited twists. Instinctively, I used a little cold water to seal the dough where I'd joined pieces together. I ignored the recipe's instructions to dip the whole pretzel into baking soda solution, remembering that always makes the dough "explode", then glue itself to the baking sheet - figuring also that the self-raising flour would do whatever the baking soda does anyway. And in mixing up the cinnamon sugar "butter" for the topping, it seemed entirely intuitive that I could dilute the melted vegan margarine with some boiling water to make it go further without increasing the amount of fat.

I didn't think about what I was doing other than "does this seem right?". And I ended up with cinnamon dough twists to die for. Rich, gooey and sticky - cinnamony yet still sweet (cinnamon can give a very bitter flavour when too much is mixed into dough without sufficient sugar). And perfectly buttery enough despite using a tablespoonful of margarine for the whole lot.

I think this means I can officially now cook.
Tags: food porn, life history, thoughts

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