Monday, December 26, 2011
Holiday Baking: A Study in Contrasts
Aftermath: what's left of 3 tourtières and 3 batches of sucre à la crème
In an unusual move toward domesticity, I decided I'd take on some holiday baking this year. Shortbread, rum balls, traditional French-Canadian tourtière and sucre à la crème. To turn the pressure up a few notches, we decided to host a Christmas dinner for friends, so I couldn't just feed the results to myself and my squeeze (or the compost bin), real live friends and even a couple strangers would be gladly forking my efforts down their gullet, and I was determined not to kill them in the process.
Now, while I'm not a total newbie when it comes to baking (I recall a rather well-turned out Ginger-Brandy Cheesecake from the Moosewood Cookbook on New Year's Eve, 1999), I would say that the general infrequency of these trials makes them much more of an event. Expectations run high.
Holiday baking, for me, is purely about nostalgia and pride. It's about recreating the sights and smells of childhood, and checking my ability to live up to, or rather strive to imitate, weakly, my own mom's indisputable talents in the kitchen.
Unlike cooking in general, baking requires extreme precision, which is why I often fail at it. My tourtière pie crust, which I was determined to make from scratch, turned out too dry and crumbly to even hold together. Despite adding far more water than recommended (I am repeatedly baffled by these recipes that call for no more than 2 tablespoons of water... Were these written for the tropics?) it just would not co-operate. Devastation! Oh my wounded pride! After a brief cooling off period, I trudged over to my local grocery store and picked up 3 boxes of Tenderflake ready-made pie-crust, and finished the job thusly.
Seeking guidance from my old French-Canadian cookbooks, the Joy of Cooking, plus innumerable websites, one thing became clear: the more I looked for clear, concise, simple recipes, the more convoluted things seem to get. Favouring tradition over modernity, sadly, did not prove to be the magic bullet I thought it would be. Perhaps knowing that today's folk bake far less than their parents' generation did, websites generally offer much more detailed, step-by-step insructions, as if speaking to a child, or someone who'd never seen an oven before. This works for me. In the typical shorthand language of recipes in ye olde cooke book, I cannot decipher what "boil until ball forms in cold water" means when making sucre à la crème. A minute ago I was combining the ingredients, and the next, balls and cold water are expected. Say what? I shamefully admit that I ran to the oracle, Master Google, for the answer to this age-old cryptic puzzle. What has become of me? Why do I turn to a faceless, heartless Internet in search of clues into such traditional wisdom? Still, it took me three batches to finally nail that sucker. And the results, I might admit, were heaven.
Of course, when I later spoke to me dear ol' ma, recounting my day's adventure, she calmly unraveled her own culinary wisdom, as if speaking to a child, which, in this case, she was.