Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Alchemist in the Kitchen

[editor's note: Hey, you know what would have been appropriate today? A post about St. Patrick's Day. You know who forgot it was St. Patrick's Day? Me.- jw]

"They are made by mixing clouds and magic together, right?"

While I'm pretty sure that is incorrect, this was the answer I gave when asked if I knew how a marshmallow was made. In truth, I'd never given it a lot of thought. I was asked this question while eating an excellent homemade (horchata flavored!) marshmallow. Previous to this, I had no idea there was such a thing as a "homemade marshmallow."

Growing up, our "baked goods" (or in the case of the marshmallow: confections) generally came from a factory, not a kitchen. I never saw what went into making them. These processed treats (i.e. marshmallows, cookies, cupcakes, and the nutritional black hole called a "Home Run Pie") were not thought of as things which had component parts or ingredients. Foods that came out of bags or boxes were not made, they just existed. As far as I was concerned, marshmallows grew on marshmallow trees which were harvested by unicorns in the Great Candyland forest. I still believe that actually.

With that (highly flawed) conceptual framework in mind, it should come as no surprise that baking has always struck me as a fairly magical process. Take a few grainy, mushy, or liquidy ingredients, mix them up, stick them under some heat, and ta-da! Cookies! Cupcakes! Muffins! Unknown burnt things I forgot in the oven for an hour and a half that are kind of on fire! Perhaps if I payed more attention to chemistry (or Alton Brown) I'd see it less as a magic wand process and more of a molecular bond process.

Currently, I'm trying to overcome my ignorance by learning how to bake. I'm coming at this as a novice so I'm focusing my attention on the humble cookie first. (Okay, perhaps it's a humble yet self-righteous cookie.) After that: cupcakes. This one scares me since it will require decoration skills of a caliber higher than a preschool craft project. The ultimate aim in this baking kick (outside of making my apartment perpetually smell like a patisserie) is to get to a level of bread self-sufficiency. I eat a lot of bread. You can't even understand how happy I would be if I could make my own. We all have goals... mine just happen to be doughy and wheat-y. Don't judge.
posted by jw