Thursday 9 May 2013

Cooking is scary

It is. It's pooh scary. It's partly why I do it. Every single occasion is risky. From the mundane burning of toast to the exotic chemistry of split emulsions and gluten reactions to the nobody-knows of the unrisen macaron.

Almost anything can go wrong. Old, reliable, established recipes can suddenly result in something shockingly dull or dry. Often, the reason is arrived at with a slap of the forehead and an unused ingredient lurking behind a pot. But sometimes... God knows. I have made salmon paté many times. Never goes wrong. I tried the recipe with smoked mackerel (spelt with two 'e's. Who knew?). The result was inedible. It split to buggery and back, acquiring the texture of wet sand. Nothing would retrieve it. NOTHING. Still don't know why. If you have a idea, please do let me know.

Sugar and eggs are often culprits. The egg is particularly devious; containing two discreet units of yolky fat and albumen protein. You can whisk miracles with these, everything from Italian Meringue to mayonnaise, fried-over-easy to perfectly poached. But beware once heat and/or further fat is applied. Custards will move from runny to scrambled in a spoon beat. Mayos will run apart like squabbling siblings. Fine sieves and fast blenders are your friends here.

Worse is sucrose. Sugar's nature changes every few degrees over 110°C. 112°C gives you fudge, 120°C marshmallows and gummy bears, 148°C results in hard toffee and peanut brittle. 175°C and you have a dark, dangerous caramel. 190°C and you have men with yellow hats and hoses. But of course, sugar doesn't change uniformly in temperature, however thick your pan is. If you've made caramel you'll have seen a pale straw suddenly darken and taste of bitter hell.

Temperature is always a concern. Recipes say to 'put it in the oven'. But where? Middle, top, bottom? Pizzas benefit from bottom only heat don't they? I can put two trays of identical profiteroles in my oven, one only two inches below the other, and the bottom rack will take a good 20% longer. This even happens with the fan oven. I will never understand Yorkshire puddings. If the outside ones were burnt that would make sense but occasionally I'll have two seemingly random, much darker than all the others, while one will not rise at all. Of course, is your oven actually at 220? Oven thermometers are the solution there. My oven varies by 15°C top to bottom. I once GRILLED ten lamb shanks for ten minutes because I clicked the mode once too much. Luckily they were wrapped in foil and something charred, alerting me.

Tip: trust your nose: if it smells wrong, it is. If it smells cooked, despite what the recipe calls for, then check. Cooked food smells cooked.

Then there's the range of ingredients that increases daily and the literally limitless combinations thereafter. The world gets smaller. Ten years ago I'd never heard of ras-el-hanout,dragon fruit, Moghrabieh, sumac, or rose harissa. I'll let you Google them.

More locally, the rise of foraging and generally a greater interest in domestic produce has brought samphire, fennel pollen, lesser celandine, ground ivy, liquorice root and sea buckthorn. Do you pan fry them (always on Masterchef!), grill them, blanch them or bake them? For each technique there are parameters to observe. What's too soft or too crunchy? Would you know if your buckfast was ripe? Is ground ivy meant to be stringy?*

Forget the exotic. I'm embarrassed at the range of foods I've never cooked. Albatross, aardvark, panda. OK, but really... lobster, never even looked at one. I've eaten it (invariably I prefer crab - really don't get the lobster hoo-ha) but I've never killed one. But more mundane: grouse, sardines, cauliflower FFS! Shocking.

But nothing is more scary than staring at a pan that contains something eagerly awaited by eight people, all sitting in your dining room, all of whom have paid for the pleasure and only you know that you've made a right arse of it. And you have no more left. And even if you did, it would take four hours to make a new one.

Now this hasn't happened to me... not yet. But it's bound to. Mistakes always happen. I've cooked maybe a dozen dishes, EVER, that I thought could not be improved. Luckily most mistake are small. People won't miss the lack of tarragon garnish or that extra apple crisp but they will miss the main course... because I dropped it, or forgot to put it in the oven, or left it in too long (TIMERS - ALWAYS USE A TIMER. Even if, no especially if, it's only for a couple of minutes). I dread the phrase 'so who likes omelet?' But I know it will come.

One of the real problems with slow cooked meat - if you've been paying attention here you'll know this is my choice - is you don't know if it's tasty, if it's tender, if it's frickin' edible, until the last minute. You can't test fry a piece of pork belly or beef shin or brisket. It could be the best thing you've ever put in your mouth... or the furthest you've ever thrown a piece of cow in frustration.

So far the worst has been me making six apple cakes for seven people. Luckily, graciously, two guests pretended to be full anyway and happy with half each. A sticky toffee sauce split on me once. A fast re-whisk with some extra creams solved that. Forearms like Popeye, me. I've dropped a soufflé but the ramekin didn't break. No one commented that one was a little flatter than the others. I did own up though. I think honesty is better. And when I do suffer a catastrophe I pledge to tell you.


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