Dear bean water, you are my nemesis

By Stacey Ballis
Updated May 11, 2018
Credit: Photo by Nito100 via Getty Images

My paternal grandmother, Jonnie, was an extraordinary cook. She was a self-taught home cook of exceptional skill, and a daughter of a woman who had many fine qualities, cooking not among them. My great-grandmother cooked everything past well-done into cremated, including vegetables and salad. Jonnie took to the kitchen like an otter to water. She was fearless, going beyond the basics and into global cooking with the best of them. When I inherited her recipe files there were Chinese, Turkish, and Spanish dishes mixed in with the matzo balls and brisket. She helped edit a series of crowdsourced cookbooks for a local charity, fixing recipes to make them ready for publication. She ran a small catering business in the 1980s, turning her private passion into public commerce, and was sought-after around Chicago for her portable luncheons, realtors often advertising open houses specifically around her delectables. But she couldn’t make fudge.

According to my dad, his whole life was peppered with hot fudge sundae desserts, the inevitable result of yet another attempt to make the basic confection which just patently refused to set for her, no matter which recipe she tried. She lived to nearly 93, cooking till the end, but not once did she ever conquer fudge.

I can cook almost anything. That isn’t braggadocio, it’s a basic statement of fact. I learned at Jonnie’s knee, her kitchen shadow, she taught me the family favorites and we pored over cookbooks and magazines together looking for new culinary adventures. She introduced me to Julia Child, we watched the show together, and she gave me her copies of the original cookbooks when I got my first off-campus apartment in college. My love of cooking, I got from her. I keep a set of her silver teaspoons in a jar by the stove to use for tasting spoons as I cook, her presence guiding me with a sure hand towards deliciousness.

Because I honor her, I have never once even attempted to make fudge. I don’t know if I am more afraid that it won’t set for me either, or that it will. I can promise you, I have no intention of finding out. If I need fudge, there is a great chocolate shop not far from me that makes a stellar one.

But every cook has their nemesis, something they are just not good at. I have friends whose breads are leaden lumps. I know people who can braise a piece of meat for days and never have it tenderize. I’ve got one pal who resorts to instant mashed potatoes, her homemade attempts turning to buttery wallpaper paste every time. Almost any cook worth their salt can tell you in a heartbeat the one thing they cannot do well.

For me, it is coffee. I don’t mean that my espresso has a wan crema or that my cappuccinos refuse to get a decorative foamy swirl. I mean that I literally cannot make a drinkable cup of the stuff. You would think that this would be impossible, my soufflés tower, my sourdough bread rivals the artisanal bakeries, I can roast you a perfect chicken. But coffee eludes me.

I have tried equipment galore, from the basic French press to a $400 Krups coffee station and everything in between to no avail. The Italian two-piece stovetop model for me yields sludgy glop that no amount of cream could lighten. The basic drip model make sad brown water with no flavor. I have been taught by no fewer than a dozen people over the years, their personal “foolproof” methodology, and yet, all they do is prove me a fool.

My poor husband, who makes a terrific cuppa, has completely given up on me, and forbidden me from even attempting it ever again. When we have houseguests and he is not on premises, I have to direct them to one of the local coffeehouses for their morning eye-opener or afternoon pick-me-up, or they have to man the press themselves.

I wish I could blame it on not being a coffee drinker, but while I drink far less than I did in my youth, when it was something of a compulsion, I do like coffee, even if it isn’t a daily requirement anymore.

It doesn’t bother me that I have a black thumb and cannot grow a living plant. It doesn’t bother me that I am terrible at math and at measuring things, and if you are good, someday I will happily regale you with the tale of purchasing a kitchen table that was five feet too long for the space it was to occupy. But the coffee thing bugs me. Not enough to take a course, or delve into deep study or exploration, or apprentice myself to a local barista, just enough to irk.

Jonnie always said that I shouldn’t let it get me down, after all, coffee isn’t exactly that interesting, and I make a helluva cocktail and a really good pot of tea, and what more could anyone ask?