Columnists / Food

Julia and Jamie vs. The Kitchen — which one takes the cake?

BY: BARRY LAZAR

When I cook, there is often a battle between my two masters—the mentor and the teacher.

My cooking mentors speak to me in volumes. They are wonderful practitioners with lots to convey. They inspire me. They are alert to correct but don’t intrude.

I open their books with reverence and appreciation. My mouth waters. I stand ready to receive instruction.

But they are often in conflict with my teacher, The Kitchen.

My mentors present me with an ideal world. “Here is what you will achieve, young grasshopper, if you follow my instructions.”

I know what a dish is supposed to be like under the tutelage of a Julia Child or Jamie Oliver or Vikram Vij.

There may even be pictures to help me visualize my objective or helpful tips to get me around some of the thornier details (“take the foil covering the butter to grease the pie pan”).

They renew my faith through their commandments and warn me of failure should I deviate from their ways (“using a copper bowl is the only way to get stiff egg whites”).

When I fail, it is because I erred (“Butter? Damn – I forgot to get some. How about vegetable oil, Julia?”).

With my mentor propped up on the table, I confidently enter new territory, also known as something I have never made before. Then, bolstered by their confidence, I invite friends for dinner. Mastery requires faith.

Meanwhile, The Kitchen stands in the background as if reading over my shoulder and muttering what can go wrong.

“The recipe says to turn the oven to 350 degrees; too bad it’s finicky today. Let’s see what happens at 400. Five eggs, hmm, the fridge only has three. Souflée tonight? No, I don’t think so.” My mentors may raise my objectives but The Kitchen sets the parameters.

One parameter is time.

My mentors may have taken weeks or years to perfect their recipes. They have probably had access to test kitchens and made countless versions to get everything right. The Kitchen lets me know that I have 30 minutes before company arrives.

Another parameter is ingredients. While I could make sure that I have every item on the list (“let’s see, do I really need black walnuts?”), The Kitchen is more expedient (“nah, let’s use the cashews on the top shelf”).

The Kitchen is an alchemist. Cooking, in many ways, is like magic and, above all, this teacher is a magician.

The roast, brought from the oven, is crusted outside, rare within and carved at the table. The salad is dressed with freshly cut herbs hiding chunks of blue cheese.

The blueberry pie reveals itself under a mound of whipped cream. The tastiest dishes practice deception.

My mentors have taught me right and wrong but The Kitchen negotiates reality. More importantly, when I confront failure, The Kitchen shows mercy.

“Umm, well the pastry is supposed to be soggy. In Italian, it’s called inzuppato. Doesn’t that sound divine?”

Leftovers for dessert

I like taking leftovers and using them for dessert. British trifle, Italian tiramisu, and even American strawberry shortcake are simply different versions of a basic idea: leftover cake or biscuits, fruit and something dairy with a nice amount of fat.

Nobody ever served strawberry shortcake with a dollop of skim milk. The fat in whipped cream or ice cream is necessary to enhance the biscuit and support the other two key flavours in this dessert: tart and sweet.

Start with something stale – old biscuits, yesterday morning’s leftover pancakes or last Easter’s panettone all work well.

Let these soak up something tasty—such as a sweet, thick fruit juice, a coffee liquor or brandy.

Pile on some fresh or semi-frozen crushed fruit that has been mashed with a little sugar and a dash of vanilla, add a layer of dairy (ice cream, a rich yogurt, mascarpone, ricotta, whipped cream, etc.), repeating the layering as necessary.

Finish with a dusting of cocoa or shaved chocolate.

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