As the hours in my days slide by lately, with a 9-month-old on my hip and a 3-year-old at my feet, I find myself grasping at recipes, too tired to think through the cooking process. This hit a new low recently, when I decided to try a snack recipe from a parents magazine. (The worst recipes in the world may come from these magazines, which purport to give health-conscious recipes that kids will still eat. My son scoffs.) Essentially, it called for heating peanut butter, sugar, water and powdered milk together, then stirring in rolled oats, scooping out small balls, and eating them 10 minutes later. In my sleep-deprived state, I hadn't read the recipe carefully enough (that's my story, anyway) to comprehend how disgusting that would be. After I stirred in the oats I thought better of the whole endeavor and took a taste. Clearly, force-feeding would be my only hope for getting this into my son. I hated to throw the stuff away, though, so I jumped in, adding eggs, melted butter, flour, more peanut butter, more sugar, and a dash of baking powder. I spread the batter in a baking dish and checked it 20 minutes later. I probably wouldn't make them again, but they were surprisingly tasty bar cookies.
This isn't something I'd want to try on a regular basis. Baking does require some level of care and specificity; the science behind it is a large part of what I find appealing. Cooking (as in supper) also requires an understanding of the underlying science, but it always feels more open to experimentation, and that can make me nervous. This time, experience led me to trust that I could make something edible, if not delightful. In everyday life, though, it can be tough to feel like winging it. Here, then, are a few pointers.
Taste your food. At this point in the column, I should make you feel inadequate by regaling you with tales of how I, a trained professional, taste my food at every step along the way, fearless in the face of salmonella and E. coli, and I should finish with the phrase "do try this at home, kids." Instead, I'll 'fess up that I've always found tasting along the way somewhat icky, and I try to avoid it whenever possible. But do as I say, not as I do, as much as you can stomach. You'll learn much faster how flavors come together and how to build layers of flavor.
Salt early and often. My fellow cooking-school students and I were often horrified by the regularity with which our teachers would dump fistfuls (or so it appeared) of kosher salt into the food we so proudly presented as perfect. By the time I finished school, though, I had fallen in line. As a young cook, I was never afraid of salt, but I used less and less after I met my husband, who thought a pinch of salt was getting a little too footloose. At school, I learned anew the value of salting early on in the cooking process, so that the final dish didn't taste salty (as it's more likely to do if you just add salt at the end), just balanced. Salt enhances flavors in such a complex and often complete way that dishes invariably taste better with it. So start with salt, taste, and add more midway as needed. One of the best salt tips I got from school was for a basic oil-and-vinegar vinaigrette: If, when you taste the vinaigrette, you first taste oil and then a shock of vinegar at the back of your throat, don't assume you need more oil for balance. Add a little more salt instead, and taste it again; often, that's enough to bring the flavors together. As I've noted before, I prefer using kosher, or coarse, salt for most of my food, as its larger grains have allowed me to train my fingers to pick up just the right amount. Once you start focusing on salt, consider expanding your horizons to sea salt and other, pricier varieties, but know that while fun to play with, these certainly aren't necessary for daily cooking.
Go on food jags: As the once-exotic has become routine in our world, I think it often seems harder than ever to feel up-to-date and sophisticated in the kitchen. Not only do I still need a crib sheet to keep straight all the various cuts of beef, since I so rarely cook them, now The New York Times tells me I need to conquer yak, too. Sometimes I wonder how food writers can possibly be telling the truth when they say "I make this dish frequently," given how many kinds of food there are out there that we're supposed to be making and reporting on--who has time to make any dish more than once or twice? This is the main reason why I still follow recipes. Even books that purport to teach how to cook without recipes still expect you to memorize formulas. How can I find time for that when I'm dealing with a big yak attack? But focusing on a certain ingredient, or better yet, on a style of cooking, for even a week at a time will give your skills a quick boost. I fall into this naturally, as I tend to go on food jags of, say, all kinds of dumplings, for a week straight. Fun for me, though a little weird for my highly tolerant family.
Most recipes, of course, are just variations on other recipes. When I create recipes, I first get an idea and taste it in my head. But I don't run to the kitchen and start cooking; first, I look through all my cookbooks and find recipes that bear some similarity to my vision, and then combine and adapt them as needed. Likewise, once I'm in the kitchen, I rarely cook straight through one recipe without making changes along the way. That way, I'm no recipe slave, but I'm also not wasting my time.
Cook's notes: When baking, it's especially useful to start with a basic, trustworthy recipe and then go wild with variations. This recipe is based on my mother's plum kuchen, which has a foolproof crust; we eat it for breakfast and dessert. Try varying the fruit toppings, replacing the plums with cherries, blueberries, blackberries, or sliced apples. Or bake the crust blind (prick it all over with a fork and bake it at 375 degrees till golden and crisp), paint it with some melted chocolate, and cover it with strawberries (glaze them with a touch of melted jam). If you're feeling patriotic, bake it in an oblong dish instead, and decorate it with fresh berries and whipped, lightly sweetened cream cheese to resemble a flag.
Mom's Plum Kuchen
1 1/4 cups bleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar, divided
Pinch of coarse salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon water
5 or 6 ripe red plums (about 1 pound), unpeeled, thinly sliced
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional)
Lightly sweetened whipped cream (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees; butter a 9-inch tart pan set on a rimmed baking sheet.
Whisk together flour, 1/4 cup sugar, and salt in a medium bowl, or process briefly in a food processor. Cut in butter by hand or by pulsing in processor until coarse crumbs form. Whisk together egg yolks and water and pour into flour mixture; knead gently or pulse in processor until dough just forms a ball.
Press dough into bottom and sides of prepared pan. Place plum slices, slightly overlapping, in concentric circles over dough. Stir together remaining 1/4 cup sugar and cinnamon, and pecans if using. Sprinkle evenly over dough.
Bake 45 minutes, until plums are tender and pastry is golden. Cool on a wire rack at least 15 minutes before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature, plain or with a dollop of whipped cream.