Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A noble tradition of culinary optimism

Now this, I told myself as I put the loaf pans in the oven, is a true Mom move.

By which I meant not “mom” in the generic sense, as in “mom jeans,” but Mom as in my mom.

My sisters and I have long fallen subject to my mother’s eternal optimism when it comes to culinary preparations. Whether it’s because for years she taught cooking classes, worked as a caterer and wrote two cookbooks or simply because this is what all daughters and mothers do, we all call her when we are in a cooking-related jam. “Is it okay to freeze chowder?” we ask. “I need to bake two dishes at once; will the one that’s supposed to bake at 375 be okay at 325 if I just leave it in longer?” “This recipe calls for heavy cream but I’d really rather use 2% milk; will that work?”

Inevitably, her answer falls along a short spectrum: if she really doesn’t think the alteration will make any difference at all, she says, “It will be fine! I’ve done that myself many times!” At absolute worst, like if you told her that you planned to make a beef stew but had forgotten to defrost the frozen meat and would it be okay to just go ahead and start browning it in its rock-hard condition, she would say, “Well, it might change the texture a little, but who cares about texture? It will still taste good.” As my sisters and I joke, she never, never says “You’ve ruined it! That won’t work at all!”

And there are times when this sunny attitude toward cooking has probably saved a lot of sanity. Once when we were children, my sister stepped into a car through the open tailgate window and placed her foot directly into a cake my mother was about to transport to an event. “No problem!” my mother reassured her. “I’ll whip some cream and chop some fruit; we’ll fill in the footprint and call it a trifle!” (A layer of plastic wrap had separated my sister’s shoe from the food; it wasn’t an issue of sanitation, fortunately.)

So I was thinking of Mom on Sunday. The evening before, our propane tank had run dry after I had put into the preheated oven a batch of banana bread my 9-year-old had proudly made all on her own. Just minutes after the baking began, the oven started cooling off. I called the propane company, who promised me that someone would fill the tank bright and early the next morning.

I took the pans out of the chilly oven and contemplated them. I knew that if I asked ten different friends what to do, they would say there was simply no way to salvage the batter. Baking needs to be precise, they would say; and besides, it’s not even batter anymore, it’s partially baked bread. How can the mysteries of physics that turn wet dough into moist, crumbly cake possibly be expected to do their part under such irregular circumstances?

Yet with Holly watching, I couldn’t bear to start scraping batter into the trash. Yes, I told myself, ten friends as well as countless baking experts would surely tell me to throw it away. But my own mother wouldn’t. She’d say, “Refrigerate it ‘til tomorrow and try to bake it then! The texture might be a little different, but it’ll be fine!”

So in the end, that’s what I did. At nine o’clock on Sunday morning, the propane technician refilled our tank; by 9:15 the oven was preheated and the loaves went back in. A half-hour later, we had two pans of banana bread cooling on the counter. Holly was the first to sample it, and she pronounced it just as delicious as always. I could detect little difference in the finished product myself. Sure, maybe the texture was a little different, but the same intense banana flavor and sweet moist crumb prevailed.

I thought about how lucky I am to have a mother who offers this kind of advice. It’s not only that she’s good at cooking; it’s that she has such an admirable attitude. Nothing is ever ruined beyond salvation. Nothing is ever lousy or wasted. If you’ve used good ingredients and put some effort into it, almost anything is likely to turn out just fine.

It’s a good way to look at life as well as food preparation. So you made a mistake? So things didn’t go quite as planned? So you ran out of a key ingredient or the oven broke?

No big deal. Sure, the texture might not be just what you were picturing, in life as in cooking. But if you put in sincere effort and used quality ingredients, you’ll probably end up with something that tastes just fine.

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