I watched, in order to learn how to cook.
Maybe you always thought that learning to cook was about reading a recipe, or simply getting in the kitchen and learning by trial and error. Those methods work, sure. However, if nothing else, years of food TV have shown us that we learn best by watching. We want to see the steps as they happen.
While I knew that, it never hit me until recently how much the nuances of watching someone cook could actually change how much you understand about a recipe.
For years, the family favorite from my sister-in-law has been her homemade cream puffs. I remember the first time after I married into the family when she brought them to a family dinner. They were beautiful golden puffs sprinkled with powdered sugar and filled with delectable vanilla cream, and looked about as special as special gets.
Back home, many states away, I found a cream puff recipe and started experimenting. They came out OK, and I even began taking them out in public. But they were never quite as tall or quite as golden as those of my sister-in-law. They tended to be squatty and thick-skinned, when they were supposed to be flaky, pastry-layered, light and airy shells. My attempt to create an artistic tip at the top just ended up with overly-brown angles and underdone insides. Obviously I didn’t have the right recipe!
Recently we went home for a visit and stayed with my sister-in-law. Imagine my delight when she made cream puffs. She wrote out the recipe for me and I was amazed to see that it appeared to match my own ingredient list. Where was the magic missing ingredient?
So I watched . . . and finally learned.
First, she let the mixture cool before adding the eggs. I’d never done that – I’d always just plowed right through the steps. The recipe didn’t specify that as part of its instructions.
Then, when she was ready to add the eggs, she pulled out the hand mixer. I’d always used a wooden spoon, thinking I was doing it like the old time cooks (and about killing my arm in the process). I watched as she added the eggs—even happily dumping in more than one at a time—and then used the hand mixer to turn the batter into a smooth, creamy mixture. Mine always ended up with lumps and tended to look coarse. This looked like it could be poured.
Then, she took a spoonful and carefully placed it on a lightly greased baking sheet, and put the tip of her finger on the top to gently draw it up to a peak. My batter would only do that when molded, turning it rubbery—hers responded with just a touch because of its texture.
The things I observed were simple changes that didn’t impact quantity or any of the ingredients. And yet, I never would have learned how to make cream puffs–light, airy, perfect puffs–without watching the master at work.
The cream puffs turned out just as I remembered, golden and gleaming and ready to be filled.
The moral of the story: if you have inherited a recipe, or tried to recreate one on your own, find the expert and see if you can watch, and in the process, learn. If all else fails, maybe you can borrow my most excellent sister-in-law. She makes amazing cream puffs.
(You can, too–find the recipe by clicking here.)