Hi and hello you beautiful humans! I hope that you are having the most wonderful day. We’ve had rain here in NYC for the last three days but are we bogged down by it?! Heck no! Well…maybe Pete is, but that’s because he’s a cat dressed in corgi’s clothing and hates getting wet.
Today on this beautiful, rainy day, I want to talk with you about setting yourself up for success in the kitchen. So often, when talking with friends and clients, their biggest frustration comes from a feeling of not being able to pull off a recipe because they don’t have everything they need. Sometimes, and I’ve done this myself, we try to “wing it” and go in blind with the can-do attitude of “I’ll figure it out when I get there”. To reference one of the most influential people in my life, the incomparable, the incredible, the amazing Jen Waldman, what would happen if if instead of having the “I’ll cross that bridge when I get to that river” attitude, we instead approached life having prepared for the bridges we might face. Check out her blog post about this here and then fall down the rabbit hole of her genius, I’ll be here when you get back :))
I know, what a concept! But it makes a lot of sense, and while it might take some extra prep time and a bit more planning ahead, I assure you, the end result of whatever you are working on, be it a loaf of challah bread, a chocolate sculpture, an essay, a project for work, the next event your throwing, whatever it is, it will be a more complete, fully realized thing as opposed to something you just “winged”.
So, in cooking and baking, how can we do this? How is the best way to set ourselves up for success?
If you are anything like me and are finding yourself baking on the regular, I always say start with a pantry checklist. You can keep it in your spreadsheets on our computer or you can physically print it out, but it’s always good to know how much of any one thing you have on hand. This way, when your recipe calls for 8 cups of flour, you can look to your list and see how much you have ready to go. It also makes shopping a lot easier rather than standing in front of the pantry and trying to organize everything just before heading out the door.
I’m also a big fan of organizing my pantry where everything is in it’s place. This is helpful too if you’re not a fan of spreadsheets or writing everything down, you can tell by looking at what you have. Not only does this make inventory easier, it makes the process of collecting your ingredients so much easier. Labels are also your friend.
Great, so now we know what we are working with foodstuff wise. What is the net step?
Read your recipe and understand what tools you will need to complete the thing you are trying to make. Seems simple, but 99.99999% of the time I’ve seen people get halfway through a recipe and say “oh, I need baking powder” or “oh, I need a springform pan”. These are discoveries that have to happen before the butter and sugar are creamed and before the pans are coming to heat on the stove. Once that ball is rolling, especially in baking, you can’t really stop it without something going wrong. If the recipe you are making is for brownies, or cookies, something simple that you’ve made a million times before, the odds of something going wrong here are pretty slim, but when you are attempting a new technique or a recipe that you’ve never taken for a walk before, you’re only helping yourself by taking a moment to stop drop and roll through the recipe, ingredients list, and tools you’ll need. Does this mean that you might need to hold off on what you’re making to go to the store and buy some things that will set you up for success? It might, but think of how much smoother the whole process will run when you have the tools you need!
Now, I would like to add here, I am in no way saying that you have to be solely reliant on the store in terms of tools. If you are crafty and are able to build something you need for a recipe I say go for it! I’ve crafted a few tools in my day; some have been amazing, some have been disasters that I think about as I’m trying to sleep at night but can’t as images of oozing batter sticking to the oven floor flood my mind. But I remind myself it’s all a learning experience! And the next time will be better and stronger.
We now know what we have in our pantry, and we know what tools and ingredients we need to complete the recipe, what else can we do?
Practice and repetition. Repetition and practice. This one might seem like a given, but man oh man, in the age of instant gratification where we only see the best, most perfect 90 second clip of anything, it can be difficult to remember that very few people do anything perfectly the first time. And let’s not get it twisted here, the first time I ever made macarons, they were perfect and I thought that I was a master at them. Then the second time, they didn’t rise, there was no foot and they were these sad hard disks that stared up at me wondering how I could do this to them. To those macarons, I will be forever sorry ::pours sip of coffee out for that batch:: But that is just the point! Even if you make something perfectly the first time, you still need to put in the hours and build that skill. That beauty blogger who does the perfect smokey eye, or the artist who creates a galaxy from some paper plates and a few spray paint cans, the chef who makes a drum out of chocolate, mousse, berry filling and cake, they have all been perfecting and honing their craft for years. The clip that you are seeing is the culmination of that practice and repetition that has lead them to this incredible level of skill.
And please, let it be known, failure is ok. Let me say that again for the folks in the back; FAILURE IS OK!! In fact, failure is amazing. I love failing. When I fail, I have been given a beautiful opportunity to learn something new, to sit back and assess what went wrong so I can adapt and make the changes needed so it doesn’t happen again. And a reminder here, we are talking about food on this blog. Food is a beautiful and finicky little beast. The weather, the temperature inside your kitchen, the temperature of your hands, the altitude, the humidity, the building/home you live in, all of these things that are for the most part very much out of your control can have major effects on whatever you are making. So if you are making a soufflé for the first time, and it doesn’t rise, or it rises and then it sinks, or the edges have burned, pause, take a moment, take a breath and let the first thing you say to yourself be in appreciation for taking the time to make a friggin’ soufflé, and then walk back through the process. Were the egg-whites beaten to the right stage of peaks? Was the sugar incorporated slowly enough? Did we maybe over mix the chocolate in to the egg-whites? Was the oven set too low? Was the oven set too high? Was it taken out too soon? Did it stay in a hair too long? All of these things could have resulted in a soufflé that doesn’t look like the one in the book or website. And that is ok. The next time you make the soufflé - because true failure is letting the defeat get to you and not trying again in my opinion - you are building the practice and repetition that will eventually lead to the perfect soufflé.
So, our three steps for setting ourselves up for success are in fact, pretty simple. First, know your pantry. Know what you have on hand so that you will know what you need. Second, read the recipe. Your recipe is your shaman, your guru on the path to cooking enlightenment. All of the tools you need are there, you just have to take the time to acknowledge and embrace them. And then finally, practice and repetition.
Now, perhaps the more important question here could be “why worry about setting ourselves up for success?” If this is a question you are truly asking, I worry that we have more problems to deal with than just a saggy soufflé, but let’s take a moment to really explore why this is so important. Baking and cooking is alchemy. Plain and simple, it is. There is an exactness that has to be in place or else the end result will suffer. It is also extremely frustrating as a baker or as the person cooking the meal to know how the end result should be and to be stopped, slowed down, discouraged or diminished because of poor preparation. I am a firm believer that you can accomplish so much of your goals when you allow yourself the space, time, and tools to achieve them.
You absolutely got this, and until next time, stay hungry my friends!