My mother, God rest her soul, was not a great cook. It wasn’t her fault. My grandmother, a good-sized German woman, wasn’t a great cook either. You gotta either live through the Depression and/or be a die-hard German to eat braunschweiger on a regular basis. (It’s so gross. Stop it. Just — BLERRRGH.)
Thus, it is less than surprising that I reached the age of 44 without learning how to cook. I can USE the oven, the stovetop, the microwave (and, back in the 80s, a toaster oven), but actually having an understanding about the art and science of cookery has always been beyond me. The first thing my mother taught me to make was scrambled eggs. God bless scrambled eggs. Any meathead can make those. You break the eggs and shove them about in the pan until done. If you feel fancy, you can sprinkle in some shredded cheese or cut vegetables. Then she taught me to make brownies from a box. For decades, I brought triple-chocolate brownies to family functions, because they were the one thing I didn’t fuck up.
One of the main reasons I married my husband was so I wouldn’t starve to death. He has a decent palate, as well as a good sense of what flavors work together. I once saw him pull out a dozen spice jars, indiscriminately sprinkle them over a piece of salmon as long as his arm, and throw it in the oven without timing it. It came out perfect. I was like, Shit, if I could do that, I’d open a restaurant.
The need for culinary prowess could no longer be ignored once I moved to Virginia to take a job, leaving my chef husband temporarily behind. Sure, my roommate usually cooks a mess of something on weekends, and we eat on it all week, but not for all three meals. You don’t want to be eating Mexican chicken for breakfast (at least, not if you have to get up at 5 a.m., with an hour-long commute on the train ahead of you). Wifey — or, my roommate, so named because we were Work Wives back in the Midwest for years, before I trotted to the East Coast to follow her around for the rest of my life, because it’s becoming apparent that it’s not a bad plan — is very good at proteins. Conversely, I am a pretty damn good baker. I like baking because it’s more of a science than an art (unless you are making some Cake Boss-style cakes). You measure things exactly, you bake them at this temperature exactly, for exactly this long, and you know when the toothpick comes out clean, it’s done. None of this “broil until evenly browned” nonsense. (I still don’t know how to use a broiler. I’m pretty sure I’d set the apartment on fire.)
I was horrified when I got here. She didn’t even have baking powder in her kitchen. Or bread pans. OR A HAND MIXER. I set about correcting this situation, especially exuberant when I got my Kitchen Aid hand mixer. We will not talk about the time I nearly broke it by inserting a small hand whisk (which looks EXACTLY like the flimsy little beaters) into it by mistake. I bought a zester (and have used it once in the last year).
I found a recipe for pan-sauteed chicken, and was all excited, because, having mastered fish, chicken was the next big protein to knock down in the quest for healthy eating. (I’m still not good with beef. I mean, I can brown it in a pan, like any idiot, but I can’t make a roast or steaks. Hell, I can barely fry hamburgers, unless I use Wifey’s George Foreman grill. That thing is excellent!!) The chicken recipe called for the chicken to be “pounded 1/2″ thin.” “Dang,” I thought, “what is the name of that thing that you pound the chicken with?” Somehow all I could come up with was “chicken pounder,” which I was fairly sure wasn’t right. Anyhow, I bought one (I believe “mallet” is its proper name). The first time I made it, I was quite impressed with the heft and unbridled power of the chicken pounder, which made Wifey request from the living room that I “kindly cut out that maniacal cackling; you’re starting to make me worry and you’re scaring the cat,” as the chicken pounder lived vividly up to its name. (It’s not my fault. My mom did the same thing. Y’all remember that Pampered Chef gizmo where you’d pour fruit into a cup with a lid and plunger, and you smacked the plunger repeatedly and blades on the bottom chopped up the fruit? My mom had one of those, and when she was done using it, her palm was as red as a lobster, but she loved whacking that fruit. I myself am content with a nice sharp Rachel Ray knife.)
When Wifey realized I was a good baker, sometimes she found stuff on Pinterest and turned her phone to me while we were watching tv, and said, “This needs to happen.” Whereupon I would note the recipe and promise it for the future. I made wildly successful strawberry cookies dipped in chocolate. (Did you KNOW you could make a strawberry cookie?? ME EITHER!!)
I made my mom’s Hershey’s cocoa chocolate cake.
But the most successful of all, by far, was the Food Network banana bread recipe.
I swear this recipe is a key to my ongoing weight-loss success. It’s filling, satisfies your sweet tooth (especially if you add milk chocolate chips to it, like I do — in the batter PLUS on top), and it’s only 150 calories and 160 mg of sodium per slice. It tastes like friggin CAKE. Sometimes I eat it for lunch! Since quarantine, then work-at-home, I have made it so often that I can knock it out without looking at the ingredients, and it comes out perfect every time. I have never made anything so consistently delicious in my life. I swelled with pride. I now have a “signature dish” … and not one that comes from a Betty Crocker box. I actually mash my own bananas for this (once again, the “chicken pounder” came in unbelievably handy, since I don’t have one of those potato masher things).
Wifey agreed that it was good, but with the onset of fall, she requested pumpkin bread. I found a low-sodium recipe and set about trying it.
It made two loaves, which was great, since we could freeze one for later. She pronounced it even better than the banana bread. “What??!!” I exclaimed, oddly insulted at her preference for uber-cliched fall pumpkin over my slightly-crispy-outside-yet-perfectly-fluffy-inside, Food Network-perfect chocolate chip banana bread. “Are you serious??”
“I’m a pumpkin whore,” she admitted. Well. That explained it. I’m probably the only white girl in America who isn’t enamored of pumpkin spice lattes, or pumpkin pie … or pumpkin bread, for that matter. Whatever. If it doesn’t have chocolate in it, why would you eat it. Really.
So … which camp are YOU in? Banana bread or pumpkin bread? Or, even weirder, zucchini bread? (I won’t even go there. Just no. Not even with chocolate chips.)