Physical skills, intellectual instruction, and the complexities of egg-beating

A few years ago I left off my research into historical gastronomy when it became clear that I was onto an idea bigger than the project could contain — a set of interlocking ideas, really, about craft and the body. I’ve decided to simply shake the old project, a sort of biography of gingerbread that is also an encapsulated history of American baking, and let the bigger ideas fall out to be dealt with later. I’d like to have the gingerbread off my plate, pun intended. But I also want to get back to those big ideas, because I think they’re important, and I’m going to use this space to write my way back into them.

Let me start with a practice that is basic to modern baking, but which home cooks almost never bother with: beating eggs. Continue reading “Physical skills, intellectual instruction, and the complexities of egg-beating”

The manly art of baking

As a guy who bakes a lot, I get sort of tired of seeing baking portrayed as some cutesy thing that mommy bloggers do while their toddlers crawl around the kitchen, licking flour off the flour. Nothing against mommy bloggers, understand. Or toddlers. But sometimes I wish there were a more, you know, manly depiction of baking.

Enter the sixteenth-century Swiss artist Jost Ammam, who produced this woodcut for The Book of Trades, a collection of illustrated poems: Continue reading “The manly art of baking”

Why are recipes so hard to use?

Yesterday I baked (with help from my daughter) the citrus-almond cake from Mark Bittman and Sam Sifton’s Feast in a Day, which ran in the New York Times Sunday Magazine the week before Christmas. We had a third of a very large gift box of oranges and grapefruit that needs not to be wasted, and, well, enough with the cookies, you know? It intrigued me; it’s made with ground almonds, olive oil, and a whole puréed orange and lemon. And it was wonderful. In fact this might be my ideal cake: It’s got a complex, fruity flavor (I prefer fruit and nut desserts to cakes generally anyway), the sweetness is balanced by the slight bitterness of the orange peel, and it’s dense and moist without being at all heavy.

But I found the recipe itself, at least in the print magazine, annoying. It was printed in tiny type and crammed off to the side of the page to make room for photos of, I don’t know, olives or something. (I know what an olive looks like. I’m not impressed.) I had trouble figuring it out initially, and it was picky without explaining anything. I had the distinct impression that while the point of the article was that you could cook a feast in eight hours, nobody thought you actually would try to cook any of this.

The more I thought about it, though, the problems with this recipe are the problems with practically every published recipe these days. They’re too wordy and dense to be skimmed or consulted quickly by an experienced cook, but they don’t give a real beginner enough help to be successful. They’re didactic without teaching. The problem isn’t Bittman and Sifton (Bittman, when he has the space, does an excellent job explaining why you’re doing what you’re doing and what you really need to pay attention to); this is the standard way recipes are written. Continue reading “Why are recipes so hard to use?”

Christmas cookies the kids can roll and the adults will eat

The winter solstice party was cancelled on account of winter weather, and the world failed to end after all, so we spent Friday evening at home decorating sugar cookies. My nine year-old art director had just received a new box of extremely fancy cookie decorations from her grandmother, and so each batch, two cookie sheets’ worth, took nearly an hour.

“You know, in my day, we only had the red sugar and the green sugar.”

(Pause for dramatic effect.)

“If we wanted white, we had to use salt!”

Daaaad.Continue reading “Christmas cookies the kids can roll and the adults will eat”

Sugar cookies with historical flavor

I actually don’t dislike sugar cookies, despite tweaking them yesterday. They’re fun and they’re traditional, which is good enough in December. But they’re limited in two ways — one structural, one avoidable. The first is that if you add enough butter to make them rich and really tasty, they’re an awful pain to roll — you certainly can’t let your kids do it. And even if you can roll them, too much butter will make them spread in the oven so that your angels look a little pudgy and Santa downright blobbish. You can have fabulous butter flavor and texture, or you can have pretty things your kids can roll. Most recipes compromise.

The second problem is that we flavor them only and exclusively with vanilla. Now, I like vanilla — don’t bite my head off — but it’s so overused in American baking that we don’t even notice it unless, say, we steep a real bean in milk to make custard and scrape in the flecks to draw attention. I didn’t mind or even notice the ubiquity of vanilla until I started baking cakes and cookies from the time before vanilla extract was widely available, and then I realized, for example, that it doesn’t actually bring anything to peanut butter cookies; nutmeg is better.

Now, sugar cookies have always had wonderful cousins that avoid one or both of these problems. Continue reading “Sugar cookies with historical flavor”

A brief history of the sugar cookie

Traditions have a way of growing sadly stale over the years, don’t they? The spirit that once animated them slowly dies, leaving only the dry outer husk of empty actions. Ah, but sometimes we can revive them by looking to the past, by finding the old spirit and sloughing off the dead forms. Sometimes we find that the original form of a tradition not only meant more at the time, but can mean more to us today. Sometimes the past is like a little hope chest, a little… er… hopeful thing. Or other.

This is not one of those times.

No, friends, today we’re going to talk about sugar cookies. They’re sweet, they’re bland, they don’t (if we’re honest with ourselves) really taste all that good, but we make them look pretty by the standards of a six-year-old and call it Christmas. And we can’t have Christmas without them, certainly not if we have children. Christmas is, after all, that special time of year we set aside for consuming various foods that time would otherwise have forgot, like gingerbread and fruitcake, foods that used to be wonderful, exciting, inventive but now range from dull to dreadful. We lack the interest to make them well, but we can’t bear to let them go. Surely sugar cookies, too, were better in Ye Olden Tymes?

They were not. In fact, they’re better now than they ever were before. Here’s why. Continue reading “A brief history of the sugar cookie”

Cornbread and the color line

A friend asked for my recipe for cornbread, and a blog craves content, and so I thought I would post it here. But the recipe requires a bit of explanation. You see, over the years my standard cornbread, which I bake every week or two, has evolved from a lightly sweetened cakey thing with half white flour to an all-corn, unsweetened cornbread. That means that I’ve had to change the cornmeal I use, from a medium-ground all-purpose yellow meal to a fine ground white meal. I’m not sure whether white is better than yellow, but fine-ground definitely is. I consider it an absolute necessity for all-cornmeal cornbread, in fact; coarse-ground meal never fully cooks, and without some flour to smooth it out, the bread is crumbly and gritty.

But that simple, pragmatic choice of ingredient appears to be fraught with Deeper Meaning. White cornmeal isn’t just cornmeal that happens to be white. Continue reading “Cornbread and the color line”

Craft and ornament in baking

One of the arguments I’m making in my book has to do with the movement in American baking from simple and unadorned to fancy and visually enticing, and how that shift went hand in hand with the decline of craft and home cooking. I find it useful sometimes to try to graph and diagram things, even (especially?) when they’re not obviously quantitative, but when you’re writing cultural history, where “data” is largely fictional, you can easily oversimplify what you’re trying to visualize. What follows is a useful way to think about craft and ornament in baking, but take it with a grain of salt. Continue reading “Craft and ornament in baking”

Jumbals

In researching historical baking I’ve ignored some old standards — very old standards, I mean, not like oatmeal cookies — and now that I have a lull in the research I’m picking them off. This month it’s jumbles, or jumbals, if you prefer the old spelling, which were formerly like nothing that goes by that name today. Continue reading “Jumbals”

Enter the Belsnickel

The story of the Krampus has been making the rounds lately. For those who haven’t heard, he’s an old-world Germanic mythical creature who terrorizes naughty children at Christmas. Apparently pepper-spray-wielding shoppers at Target aren’t scary enough for Americans these days, because various cities are holding a Krampuslauf, or Krampus parade, this month. One of those cities is Philadelphia, and that’s a tragic heresy — not because it’s unchristian, but because Philadelphia is surrounded by the Pennsylvania German heartland, and the Pennsylvania German tradition has its own Christmas bogeyman, the Belsnickel. Before we go running back to Europe for bizarre new traditions, let’s take a closer look at one of our own. Continue reading “Enter the Belsnickel”