Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Kitchen: the Home of My Heart

You know, you’re either a book person, or you’re not. Just like you’re either a kitchen person, or you’re not. Me, I’m both. Give me a stack of books and a recliner and snap! there goes Saturday afternoon. If it’s a stack of cookbooks, then Sunday afternoon, too, will be whiled away in the kitchen.

So it is with “Kitchen” by Banana Yoshimoto, a novella originally published in Japan 20 years ago, with an English translation reaching the U.S. in 1994. The narrator, Mikage, begins, “The place I like best in this world is the kitchen. No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it’s a kitchen, if it’s a place where they make food, it’s fine with me.” I’m right with you, Mikage.

The kitchen has always called to me. I was a girly girl in the midst of boys. When I grew tired of playing with Barbies, or reading the Boxcar Children, I would wander into the kitchen and ask Mom for something to do. In the beginning, this meant setting the table -- plates, silverware and paper napkins and preparing the drinks (milk for the kids, sweet tea for the grown-ups). And before long, I found books in the kitchen, cookbooks. A copy of Southern Living's The Holiday Cookbook, part of a mail-order series ca. 1972, was a favorite, partly due to the extravagant cover picture of a buxom apple dumpling covered with cream amidst a pile of dew-kissed Red Rome apples, a quartet of lit taper candles in the background. I'm not too sure I wanted to eat the dumpling, but I certainly wanted to make it.

The preface to this volume actually begins "Holidays are a most important time to the people of the Southland." and continues "From thousands of southern kitchens come the appetite-teasing aromas of rich fruit cakes...exquisite dishes of meat and fowl..light-as-a-feather breads...and all the foods so important to holiday festivities."

The "light-as-a-feather breads" include croissants, submitted by Mrs. Carol Scott of Hickory Flats, Mississippi, and featured in the Entertaining for Easter chapter, just below the Deviled Egg Bake. In 17 brief sentences, all squished together in type so tiny it might as well be agate, Mrs. Scott demystifies croissants with instructions like "repeat rolling and folding twice and cut crosswise into fourths." (In contrast, the Gourmet Cookbook recipe takes up two pages and features line drawings for spatial-relations-challenged folks, such as myself, to figure out the folding and turning and shaping. )

To this day, I'm not sure why Mom let me make the croissants in the book. I am certain that at that time that I'd never even had a proper croissant, although I was a fan of its white-trash cousin, the Pillsbury crescent roll in the pop-open tube. (You may have heard of the sixth taste, umami. I would add a seventh, packaging, which explains the appeal of processed foods that snap, crackle and pop before they're even eaten.)

Using Mrs. Scott's terse instructions, I set about one cold Saturday to make croissants, first combining the softened butter and flour, rolling it out between waxed paper sheets and chilling the mixture in the refrigerator. I then made the yeast dough, set it to rise and then layered the two, followed by turning, rolling, chilling, cutting, shaping, rising and baking. We Warrens marveled at the results. Not the prettiest rolls, mind you, four dozen rolls of all sizes, some resembling twisted gherkins and others chubby gerbils, but the way the laminated dough puffed and turned golden brown in the oven was magic. The rolls were buttery and yeasty, and to this aging mind, one of my proudest accomplishments in the kitchen. But in the 30 years since, I've never baked them again, perhaps because the clean-up was staggering, flour and butter everywhere, all the counters crusted with dough, every baking sheet dirty.

So, here I am, a week after Christmas, with a day in the kitchen before me and nothing better to do than to recreate the taste of my first croissants. I’ve still yet to eat a French croissant from a boulangerie on the Rue St. Whatever. (Maybe that can be my New Year’s resolution -- to somehow make it to Paris and taste an authentic croissant.)

Re-reading the recipe is interesting. Of course, the ingredients are measured, not weighed, and the measure for flour is left out of the ingredient list. I think, sure, I could spend my afternoon and three sticks of butter on this recipe, or I could take advantage of a quiet house and watch the “Burn Notice” marathon on USA and maybe get a little Wii snowball fighting in. And then I have a change of plans.

Cooking and baking are necessities, making food for yourself and folks you love is a skill that will serve you well, I tell my girls. Wise grandparents will tell their children to choose their battles with their own young ones. The kitchen is my territory and I choose my battles there, carefully considering whether I really want to spend an afternoon scraping hardened dough bits off the countertops, and sweeping the fine flour dust from the floors. Or if a simple rustic loaf will suffice.

Forgive me, Mrs. Mary Scott, whoever and wherever you are, I won’t be making croissants anytime soon. I pulled out my Christmas present to myself, My Bread, by Jim Lahey, he of the Sullivan Street Bakery No Knead Bread. Within three minutes, I mixed up the bread and set it out for its first rise. The following morning, I baked a rustic, toothsome loaf, and my house is once again perfumed with the smell of Just Baked Bread. As for tasting authentic croissants again , I may make them someday with my daughters, but in my heart, I‘m holding out for Paris.

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