Monday, August 29, 2005

Why I Don't Cook Part 2: My Experience

"She did not so much cook as assassinate food." ~ Storm Jameson
In part one I told you about my cooking heritage. I even admit to being able to serve a meal without much to clean up or put away afterwards. This ability really helped a single mom working eight to ten hours a day; it allowed me to spend as much evening time with my little girl as I could. Having this ability, however, does not automatically mean I can cook.

Sure I buy cookbooks; in fact, when I moved to Virginia and packed the cookbooks, there were five boxes of them. But I rarely, if ever used them. A couple still had the shrink wrap from the book store on them. And yes I can put together a basic meal of meat, vegetable and fruit; I am particularly good at heating up canned green beans and Spaghetti-O's and making frozen peas and occasionally real mashed potatoes. I do a fair teriyaki chicken strips and baked catfish rolled in Corn Flake crumbs that are as crunchy as if fried.

Some of my cooking problems stem from the fact that I had a child who only ate certain things. She didn't eat mashed potatoes. Have you ever heard of a toddler that didn't eat mashed potatoes? She hated them and had a really unique way of showing her displeasure with them. Once out at a fancy restaurant, my mom tried to feed her mashed potatoes and I warned her not to. "Nonsense, ALL kids like mashed potatoes!" as she put the spoon of potatoes in her mouth. Yes, less than a minute later, my mom had Nyssa's mashed potatoes and everything else she had eaten all over her skirt. She ALWAYS threw up when forced to eat mashed potatoes. Yet, this child ate cold boiled shrimp as fast as I could peel them. While she wouldn't put steak in her mouth for twelve years, she would eat a tossed salad with her peanut butter sandwich. So you see part of my cooking difficulty is Nyssa's fault.

The majority of the problem, however, has something to do with me. It started in junior high school. The girls had to take home economics. Does anyone remember this? Girls had to take sewing and cooking, really, no joke! I could follow the recipe and was in the accelerated class for math and foreign language and science so the teacher figured I could be in charge of our cooking group. Two of us were paired with a girl from the special education class. She was very sweet and when the food turned out there was no limit to the excitement and joy she demonstrated. I wanted the recipes to turn out just so she could feel the accomplishment. We tried to let her do as much of the mixing and some of the measuring (with help) as we could.

One day we had to make a cake. We got the ingredients together and mixed them and put it in the oven. We watched, anticipating the nice layers to go with our chocolate icing. But nothing happened. The oven was hot, but the cake just sat there, the mixture boiled and bubbled but didn't raise and never got firm. What happened? I went back over the recipe, double checked everything and suddenly realized I had forgotten to measure out and put in the flour. I will never forget the sad look on her face when we told her it wasn't going to cook right. This was the beginning of my ongoing fight with scratch cakes.

When I got married, I had a Betty Crocker cookbook and a little recipe box with family favorites like the meat loaf from my children's cookbook that Mom always used (Paul didn't like meatloaf.), Trash Cans that were a type of sloppy joe (He didn't like that either.), my mom's lasagna (You guessed it, not a fan.), and Chuck Wagon Baked Beans (Bingo! Batting zero here.) I knew how to make a "Dr. Pepper Steak" with the tough but cheap cut of beef lightly fried and then put in the crock-pot with cream of mushroom soup and a can of Dr. Pepper. He ate this. I thought he liked it but found out years later that he didn't, we just couldn't afford anything else.

Paul did like apple pie. So I bought some apples and put them in the pie shells with sugar, butter and a little flour and baked them. I didn't know you needed a certain kind of apple to do that. When Paul cut into the pie, so nice and golden brown on the outside, the apples were dry and it looked as if it had just dried up, the sugar wasn't even mixed and there was no juice at all. That was 30 years ago. I've never made another apple pie.

Fast forward to post-divorce era after 1988. Nyssa likes macaroni and cheese, the kind from a box mix. OK, Mommy will make you some. Maybe it was because I was trying to do three things at one time but I burned three batches of macaroni in one night. She had to settle for canned ravioli.

I decided to try desserts again. We had lunches at the lab and I wanted to take something to contribute. Mom gave me a recipe for Chocolate Eclair desert; a layer of graham crackers, layer of French vanilla pudding, layer of graham crackers, another layer of pudding and then topped off with a melted chocolate top. I had the hardest time getting that runny warm melted chocolate to spread out over that pudding without getting mixed in. That step alone took me an hour. I called Mom to tell her about the difficulty and she quietly said, "Didn't you put a top layer of graham crackers on before the chocolate?" Of course; make it harder than necessary, that's me.

Dr. Parker loved carrot cake. I decided to make one from scratch for his birthday. This time I consulted my mom ahead of time and used her recipe that turned out every time. I grated carrots, measured the spices and flour and drained the crushed pineapple. I was going to make a sheet cake rather than a layer cake. (Still remembering junior high) I greased and floured my pan and while looking at it, I thought "This pan is too big for this recipe; I know I'll just double it!" That's right just double the recipe. I know I measured correctly, grated appropriately and I put the flour in. I called my mom at least six times during the process; I kept telling her that it didn't look right somehow and she kept telling me it would turn out fine. I did not, however, tell her that I doubled the recipe. It baked while I made the cream cheese icing. It just didn't look right. When I took it out of the oven, gee, this cake is heavy! I mean really heavy! But carrot cakes are a little denser than most she told me. OK, go ahead and do the icing. It doesn't look too bad but just not totally right. Dr. Parker cut into the cake and ate a piece. Bless his heart, he was so generous, he told me how good it was. He shared with others. I took a small piece. It was horrible! It wasn't just a little or normally dense; it was REALLY dense! How dense? We weighed the cake on the scientific scales at the lab. It weighted 7 pounds. I made a carrot cake that weighed 7 pounds! You could have used it for a boat anchor; it would definitely not float. I quietly threw it out. Stike two on scratch cakes.

My brother was visiting when Dr. Martin's birthday rolled around. I was determined to do a cake again. In one of the magazines I found an easy cake that used a boxed mix angel food cake. I could make the box mix cakes fine. All I had to do was cut the baked cake in half and spoon canned cherry pie filling on the bottom half and put the top back on. Then put a whipped icing on just the top. Garnish with mint leaves and voila! Right! (MUCH SARCASM) Everything was going fine. The baked cake looked fine. It looked fine when I cut it in half. It looked fine when I spooned on the cherry filling. It even looked ok when I put the top on. Then, suddenly, right before my eyes; one side of the bottom half of the cake started to fall or scrunch down and this made the whole thing uneven; then the top half started to slowly slide off the cherry filling and the filling followed it down that slippery slope. It was like looking at a car crash in slow motion with the top of the cake and most of the cherry filling slipping and oozing off the base and onto the floor.

I couldn't believe what had just happened. It was after 11 PM. The cake was ruined; it was lying in the middle of my kitchen floor and I had just stood there and watched it happen. Well, now what do I do? I dig out my last angel food cake mix and make another one. Do I try to put the filling on again? It is now 1 AM; I have to go to work. This was strike three for my cake adventure. No way. I have one box of fluffy white frosting mix left.

My brother got up the next morning to find the remnants of the cherry and cake mess in the trash can. On the counter was a plain angel food cake, a box of frosting mix and a note. It read: "Please just make the icing and slap it on this cake and bring it to the lab." My disaster was obvious. When he showed up, the cake was meticulously frosted and he had garnished it with slivered almonds in a beautiful pattern on top.

That's it! No more scratch cakes! No more variations to box mix cakes! I will never make a red velvet cake because I will never add anything to another cake mix, ever!

So, there you have it, I do not cook well. I cook enough to get by and not starve. I don't do scratch cakes or pies at all. And don't expect anything I attempt from a cookbook to look even remotely like the picture. To be honest, I wouldn't even recommend my box mix macaroni and cheese.