Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Little (Heavy) Reading

Or, Why Cookbooks are So Damn Heavy

I love to read. Maybe it comes from being an only child left to my own devices for quiet self-entertainment, or perhaps from my mother's habit of reading to me a lot as a kid. Either way, put me in a bookstore and I'm in a kind of tortuous heaven: so many things to read, so little time and money. I've always been a fiction lover, attracted to the sheer creativity and detail that goes in to producing a first-rate novel. I also read non-fiction of the narrative variety, thanks in large part to the trend of cool people writing about doing cool things.

But lately I've been getting into a whole new genre: cookbooks. Well, cookbooks, baking books, magazines with recipes in them, blogs about food, and pretty much any piece of literature devoted to the goings-on in the best room of the house. Not everything is good; in fact, the majority of cooking-related material is notably sub-par because it focuses solely on the "how" of it all, rather than the "why." 

Now don't get me wrong, I need quite a lot of the how-to-do-this kind of instruction. I read those parts as I would if I were preparing for a test in school: read, memorize, add context, remove fluff, repeat. But in order to get the real (sorry) flavor of something, I need more -- in fact, continuing the bad food pun, I crave more. I need to know why I should pre-bake my pie crust, why I should dry the scallops before pan-searing, and why, WHY some recipes call for shortening when others ask for butter.

Happily, there are a few people out there who must feel the way I do about the hows and the whys, because they've created cookbooks around the concept. I'll never forget the first time I timidly cracked open The Art and Soul of Baking, terrified to be confronted with hundreds of tiny-print recipes of unfathomable difficulty. But lo and behold, instead I found chapter after chapter of helpful and straightforward information, filling in the gaps of my working knowledge. Want to know if your dough is ready? Stretch a piece between your hands, hold the "pane" to the light, and check out the gluten strands. See them? See how they congealed and darkened, making the dough pliable but not tough? It's ready. I got it. Magic.

At the moment, I'm working my way through a new acquisition, courtesy of my mother (and my birthday): the newest Betty Crocker Cookbook. It's in ring-bound binder form for easy tabbed organization and page-holding, boasts some lovely pictures for the did-I-do-this-right visual learner, and goes a long way toward building me a better foundation in my everyday cooking. I intend to try some new versions of old recipes in the very near future.

The best part about these books (and others) is that I can pour a glass of wine, sit back, and read through a chapter or two as though reading one of my beloved fantasy novels. It may the how-to parts that I need, but it's the whyfores that keep me reading -- and cooking.

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