The Best Way to Keep Your Quarantine Sanity: Master One Recipe
So much of cooking these days has become about quick and easy. The success of time-saving appliances like the Instant Pot are directly connected to how little time we have to get meals on the table. And anything that assists with that, from meal kit deliveries to our produce sections giving as much real estate to pre-prepped items as whole ones, has been the direction we are all going when it comes to food.
But, if there is one lesson from these complicated days—when suddenly for many, time is the one thing in abundance—it’s that cooking from scratch, working with recipes that take hours, even days, is activity worth pursuing. Sourdough starters are proliferating at such a staggering pace that bread flour is out of stock everywhere. Social media is full of the kind of baking projects usually left to the professionals, from homemade croissants and cinnamon rolls to cakes of all styles. My husband, a terrific cook but not a passionate baker, not only made cookies for the first time in his life, he decorated them with four colors of royal icing to be a nearly photo-realistic version of his beloved dog of blessed memory, a pup we are missing these days.
For people juggling working from home with homeschooling kids and needing to put three meals a day on the table, there is no shame in the fast and easy game. But I would argue, that as part of your culinary practice, you find a way to dig deep. That you look for a dish you love that might be a little more complicated, and see if you can’t use this crazy, upside-down time to master it.
The time I tried to perfect making canelés
There is a peculiar and certain joy in nailing a dish that means something to you. For me, it was canelés, those deceptively simple-looking little pastries from Bordeaux with a shiny, nearly-burnt caramelized exterior giving way to a creamy vanilla and rum scented interior. They had been my Proustian passion since I tasted one on a trip to Paris when I was 9. A kind pâtissier handed me one as a gift to congratulate me for successfully, if haltingly, ordering bread in French. Having been, up until then, a kid who always picked chocolate desserts, and the more whipped cream or sprinkles the better, it was maybe the first time I recognized that there can be deep pleasure in simplicity, in textural contrast. The rest of the time I was there, I was tasked with procuring the daily bread by my host family, and every day, a small canelé and a wink from the baker, and that magic of vanilla and bitter caramel on my tongue.
It took me nearly 40 years to try and make one.
For a long time, it was the lack of proper equipment. If you want to make great canelés, the molds are copper and can run you upwards of $20-25 a pop. I love canelés, but not enough to plunk down $300 just to make a dozen. And there are a couple of bakeries in Chicago that make exceptional ones for when I crave them. But a recent trip back to Paris and a restaurant supply store having a sale, and suddenly there were canelé molds to be had for $8 each, and I pulled the trigger. Once I got them home, I needed to justify the investment, and so it was time to make canelés.
I am a good baker. Not a pastry chef by any means, but more than competent. And it took me 13 tries before I got the canelés right. Not perfect, just right. A dozen attempts of batter jumping out of the molds, making clods and goiters instead of pastries, underbaked, burnt, rubbery, greasy, stuck in the mold, I had them all. Finally, on lucky number 13 I got what I wanted. Two-inch fluted towers of slick mahogany, crunchy without, melting and custardy within, craveable canelés, with a technique I knew I could rely upon to reproduce them consistently whenever I wanted.
I literally wept with pride and joy, and to this day, I don’t know that any single thing I have done in the kitchen has given me more satisfaction.
A challenge to find your personal canelé
It is that feeling I want you to have. To find the dish that is in your heart, the one that you want on the table for your dream supper, the one that carries with it an intense flood of memory and sensual pleasure. The dish you want to woo a lover with, or comfort a friend in need, or to hoard for yourself in solitary indulgence. Whatever that is, even if it is difficult and time consuming, especially if it is difficult and time consuming, now is the time.
I promise you, as an ongoing project to tackle during your hours at home, this will satisfy more than a clean basement or well-organized closet. What's more, you will have built a skill to carry with you for the rest of your life (and let’s be real, more than two-thirds of your quarantine Kondofication will revert to chaos within weeks of our restrictions being lifted).
It might be as down-home soulful as the world’s most perfect fried chicken, or as fussy as a beef Wellington with homemade puff pastry. It could be a towering croquembouche, filled with pastry cream and garnished with clouds of spun sugar, or just a lovely little tea cake like the one your grandmother used to make without a recipe. You might have always wanted to master an eight-strand plaited bread or temper chocolate for homemade confections with professional level shine and snap. Close your eyes and imagine one dish appearing beautifully on your table. What is that dish, and what would it mean to you to be able to be the one who made it?
Is it time to conquer the cassoulet?
Maybe you have always wanted to tackle a true cassoulet, the rustic French dish of beans and meats that can take up to three days to prepare authentically. Start with this one, and work your way up from there. Cassoulet is comfort food at its best, and frankly the one dish every bean should aspire to become. It serves a crowd, can be made well in advance for parties, and lasts nearly a week in the fridge once completed. Once you have a basic sense of it, you can find the combination of meats that best please you, from sausages to lamb to duck or goose. The permutations can be deliciously endless.
Master the macaron?
Antonis Achilleos; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey; Prop Styling: Kay Clarke
Perhaps you are enchanted at the pastel perfection that is a macaron but have been scared off by its reputation as the fussiest of all cookies. But what could be a better project? Once you know how, any flavor under the sun is possible, and any size from tiny half-inch morsels to giant versions you can slice like a cake. Macaron bakeries sell theirs for $2-5 a pop, making them an occasional indulgence in the best of times, but what you pay for is expertise, not ingredients, so they are actually an affordable baking project to tackle. Now is the time to give it a try; the mistakes are as delicious as the successes. This recipe is a great place to begin.
Perfect your own pasta?
And if you have always wanted to be able to emulate your Nonna, making pasta from scratch seemingly effortlessly and entirely by feel, what better time to tackle the kind of project where practice makes perfect? This version requires no machine, so there is nothing to stop you. Making pasta, once you know how, can be a skill you develop your entire life. And one that you can teach to your kids, your partner, or your friends: a wonderful way to come together in the kitchen.
Whatever that dish is for you, now is your time. The mistakes will (almost) always be edible, if not downright delicious, and every attempt will get you closer to the mastery you seek. There are lessons to be learned in the process, the focus will quiet your head, slow your breathing, and distract you from the relentlessness of information. The journey is everything, especially right now, when the destination feels like an ever-moving and somewhat unknown target. Imagine a time in the future when you can say to your gathered friends or family,
“Oh, this? Just a little thing I taught myself to do. Enjoy!”