February 2008

Melissa Lion

Culinaria Bookslut

Baking Illustrated: When Mean Girls Bake

Remember when you were twelve and you had a best friend and then one day she wasn’t your best friend anymore because you might have said that you didn’t love New Kids on The Block, or maybe you said you loved them too much? After that you ate lunch by yourself and felt the angry eyes of her and her new best friend on you for dissing Jordan Knight and you’d sit there and want to fall through the floor because middle school truly was the seventh circle of hell? I’m not saying I know anything about this, as you can see from my use of the second person, but I am saying that I’ve read a lot of books on the topic and spoken to several therapists about these hypothetical situations and I might just be repeating the behavior in adulthood every time I pick up one of my seventeen cookbooks by the authors of Cook’s Illustrated.

Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen have mastered the art of the pre-teen girl friendship. They are very good cookbooks. Meaningful and sincere. And they’re open to everyone! No, really, America’s Test Kitchen. But truth be told, not everyone can be a part of it. No, you need to be able to detect an aftertaste that’s “almost metallic” or have enough culinary confidence to say “to heck with tradition” and cook mac ‘n cheese solely on the stovetop. If you don’t have these qualities, you won’t be invited back to America’s Test Kitchen and behind your back, Cook’s Illustrated might recommend you “with reservations” or worse, not recommend you at all.

And maybe I haven’t gotten over my teenage angst. Maybe I still believe that my friendship with Cook’s Illustrated’s head Heather, Christopher Kimball, is always good, instead of, like a properly ripened banana, “darkly speckled.”

My first impulse when I get this book down from my shelf is to hold it in my arms and run to my bedroom where I’ll tell it all of my dirty cooking secrets -- I use canned beans… shhh. Then I get a hold of myself. I open it to the Banana Bread recipe and I get to cooking. This recipe is just as prissy and perfect as the rest of Cook’s Illustrated. It calls for yogurt and gives the strictest instructions to lightly fold the wet and dry ingredients together to “minimize gluten development.” Minimize gluten development! Oh Christopher Kimball, I love it when you talk dirty.

The result is a light, banana-y banana bread. It’s moist and not too sweet. Perfect warm with some butter.

The gingerbread is succulent and gingery and should in no way be confused with brownies. I might have made this mistake when spooning up my first batch and realizing that a whole corner of chocolate is fine, while a corner of thick gingerbread is a little like swallowing a sponge. And then feeling the sponge travel through your esophagus cleansing every pipe along the way.

We make the pizza dough weekly for a fast, tasty, use-up-everything-we-have-in-the-produce-bin meal and the apple crisp might just be an orgasm in an 8-inch square-baking pan.

But Chris isn’t always so kind. There are a few duds in the mix. And when I say duds I mean, super good, but Chris’s bowtie-twisting-anal-retentive-didacticism reminds me that I will never make it running with this crowd. Including two chocolate chip cookie recipes remind me of that second day of school when I was told to wear no socks and loafers and I do, but everyone is wearing socks and I have blisters on my feet. Okay, that wasn’t me, that was Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. But back to the point: which one is right? The thin and crisp cookie or the chewy one? The reader is also given hand-drawn illustrations for correctly shaping the cookies. “Creating a jagged surface on each dough ball gives the finished cookies an attractive appearance.” We’re then shown, in four steps, the exact method of breaking the dough balls in half and smooshing the halves back together. I can just picture Christopher Kimball watching me and then writing in the slam book that my cookies weren’t correctly jagged.

I write all of this, and the truth is, I cook with Cook’s Illustrated weekly. I seek their approval for boiling eggs and roasting chicken. Best Recipe is my Bible and I’ve hardly made a culinary move without glancing over to see if their eyes are narrowing in a mild blend of horror and disdain. I wonder at my quivering fear of breaking their rules. I wonder if these cookbooks are toxic like so many people and office buildings in our lives. I have a passing thought that maybe it’s time for a best friend break-up and then I remember the white light of their approval and I open their covers again.