My daughter is home from college and tells me it is my fault she does not know how to cook. I cook dinner every night from scratch and more elaborate meals on the Sabbath and holidays. My friends know a cookbook is always a welcome gift, particularly if full of chocolatey desserts. I’m not such a great cook, but I like to have diverse and healthy meals, and then sometimes luscious desserts. When I was living with my parents, I didn’t cook much either. It never seemed like a particularly exciting thing to do. Once I got married and started to make sure my husband and I ate dinner together every night, cooking became my task. I like it more than he does, and found it easier than other household tasks, so it became my side of the chore docket. I tried things even for just the two of us, hating to eat the same food all the time. It’s boring.
My daughter will be living in an apartment with a kitchen next year and wants to have some things in her repertoire so she can have friends for dinner. She’s only home a short time before she spends the summer doing an internship and living with her grandparents. I tell her she can make her favorite apple cake herself, to start, handing her the recipe , the ingredients and the equipment. She complains that it is hard to cook at home because she does not know where things are, so I simplify for her.
It is a fairly straightforward recipe: cut up apples to make 4 cups and break 2 eggs over them. Then mix the dry ingredients – flour, baking soda, cinnamon, – put in the apples and eggs and vegetable oil, then add chocolate chips. Walnuts or raisins optional. She asks me so many questions – should I add nuts? I notice she hasn’t peeled the apples. I always do, but the cake tastes fine with unpeeled fruit. As she cooks, we talk and I realize how many things that I know intuitively (like peeling the apples) are not contained in the recipe.
Herewith are some life lessons – recipes at bottom – from our cooking session making apple cake, Teriyaki Salmon, and sesame noodles— all simple, delicious, easy staples in my kitchen.
You are the judge. Please yourself. When you are the cook, you make the decisions. Though there are many things in life you can’t control, when you cook, you do dictate most aspects of the outcome. You choose whether or not you like raisins and walnuts in the cake. I usually just put in chocolate chips, but am happy with what the cook chooses. One of the joys of cooking is that you can make a recipe the way you like it.
Be aware of time. We had guests coming at 5:30. My daughter agreed to make the fish with a marinade that tastes better when it soaks longer. Coming home after 4, beginning to mix up the marinade, and then baking the dish right away will work. Is it optimum? Not really. But next rule…
There is a fix for everything. No, the fish won’t taste the same as if it marinated longer, but yes, it is still delicious marinated only briefly. And putting some more marinade on top to serve helps too.
Though I promised all week to make ice cream and did, in fact, mix up the custard the night before— guess who forgot that the part for the ice cream maker must reside in the freezer for 24 hours? Yes, the mom. The ice cream was a total failure and did not freeze. We had the cake, intended to be for the next day, at dinner. But when I brought the soupy ice cream to the table, one of my clever offspring suggested we dole it out in cups with straws and tell all assembled that a milkshake had been prepared. Guess what? It was good that way. Had I just announced we were having milkshakes for dessert, no one would have been the wiser. My friend, legal adviser, and kitchen fix expert adds, “Put anything on a china plate with a garnish and it is delicious,” while reminding me that Brian Wansink and the Cornell food lab have proved this scientifically. Some of cooking is confidence at figuring out what to do next. Which leads to …
Don’t be afraid of failure. It happens. I’ve put lumpy baking soda into cookies and been rewarded with big disgusting bites of the stuff. I love pasta, but if left in boiling water too long, it becomes a gloppy, gelatinous mess that no one wants– best sometimes to toss it out and start over. Anyone who cooks enough will have cooking embarrassments and flops. Remember, too, that maybe it isn’t you – perhaps there is an error in your recipe somewhere.
The best antidote to failure in the kitchen and anywhere else? Practice. And more practice. Lorraine adds, “Even with practice, things go wrong.” Her advice? “An ugly cake can be trussed up with cookies and frosted or smashed and made into rum balls.” Don’t be discouraged if things aren’t perfect on your first try. That only means you need to keep at it. Cooking shows make things look easy because so many aspects of cooking do take practice. However, once you’ve cooked enough, you can read a recipe and guess whether it will be good or not. Unless you don’t have the right ingredients or miss a crucial step; many causes lead recipes not to turn out well.
One thing practice gives a cook is a way to estimate whether it is worth the investment of time to execute the idea. This too, is an important life skill, knowing how to prioritize and whether a more simple dish will yield results as good as something more labor intensive.
Be willing to make adjustments. I asked my daughter’s visiting friend to make my sesame noodle recipe that calls for rice vinegar, but I had only white wine vinegar, with a slightly different taste. He adjusted with more brown sugar so the sauce was less tangy. It is sometimes okay to substitute ingredients, but make sure to taste for palatability. And annotate the cookbook so you remember for next time what worked or did not.
Be flexible. No, it doesn’t matter whether you let the eggs sit on top of the apples for an hour or not, because they will bake and soften in the cake, even though the recipe calls for that. Balance between following the directions exactly – yes, have the right amount of soy sauce to balance with the other flavors – and improvising. If you don’t have cinnamon, add some nutmeg instead, but less, since it is a strong flavor. If you like ginger better, go with that. The more you cook, the more you will be comfortable putting your own stamp on recipes and learning where you can take shortcuts or how to do things in ways that make sense for you.
I make challah every week. To do it easily, I put all the ingredients in a bread machine Thursday night and then take the completed dough out to store in the fridge overnight. I bake the bread with my other dishes in the oven on Friday afternoon. It is a routine that makes the complicated process of homemade bread possible. Every time I read a new recipe for challah not made in a bread machine, I think, yeah, it sounds great, but I want this to be a project that is doable, not dauntingly complicated. This leads to….
Have balance in meal planning – have one elaborate, more labor intensive dish but others that are simpler. This ability to plan things that are capable of actually being accomplished and served and completed is a valuable skill to have in all you do in life. Yes, we would all love to eat elaborate multi-course meals each night, but, no, that isn’t going to happen if you have other goals too. However, you can have healthy, not too complicated meals regularly with thought and planning….
Ask for help. When you are making the marinade and realize you only have a fraction of the soy sauce you need, call your neighbor. Don’t bother running to the store for one thing or trying to substitute. Better in a recipe with 3 ingredients to get the balance between them right. And ask your friend the kitchen-fix expert if you need more serious advice.
Work together. If you want to do multiple things…make assignments, and apportion tasks. Not that it always works in my house, but we need to start somewhere.
Accept compliments graciously. You worked hard for this. You planned the meal, shopped for ingredients, prepared it, set the table, cleaned the house to prepare for guests. Accept that eating this food makes them happy. That is your goal, not putting a picture on social media for others to see and be envious of your skills or jealous that they didn’t get an invite. Food is immediate – meant to be smelled and savored and tasted, not looked at.
Overall: Enjoy the things in life that you can, like sharing meals with friends. Don’t let the details of the process cause you stress – keep the big picture in mind.
Teriyaki Salmon – adapted from Susie Fishbein’s Kosher by Design
¾ cup teriyaki sauce
¾ cup soy sauce
½ cup dark brown sugar
Mix and stir to dissolve sugar. Pour half of marinade over salmon. Marinate 1-4 hours. Either grill or cook in oven at 350 degrees till fish is done, and baste with reserved marinade during cooking.
Sesame Noodles – from Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook
5 tbs soy sauce
¼ cup sesame seeds toasted( I deem this optional). 3 tbs for sauce, rest for topping
¼ cup peanut butter
2 tbs rice vinegar
2 tbs brown sugar
1 tbs minced or grated fresh ginger
2 medium garlic cloves
1 teaspoon hot sauce (I omit, as hot sauce lovers are a minority of 1 in my house.)
16 oz noodles, cooked
Process all – with just 3 tbs of sesame seeds – in a blender or food processor or with immersion blender(easier and less clean up). Add hot water 1 tbs at a time until the sauce has the consistency of heavy cream, about 5 tbs in all.
Mix with noodles. Optional – add cubed tofu or cooked chicken, grated carrot or scallion. Top with sesame seeds and serve.
Apple Chocolate Bundt Cake. Janet Snyder is listed as contributor in 1982 Philadelphia Hadassah Cookbook. My late grandmother, Gus Stein, did not make this recipe, but it was in her cookbook and I use her Bundt pan for it, so I think of her anyway when I make it. Only difficult part is peeling and cutting apples, but otherwise simple and delicious every time. I just made it this past Shabbat and 7 people managed to consume the majority of the cake in one sitting….
Preheat oven to 350.
4 cups diced apples(Winesap, Granny Smith or another with good flavor)
Cut up apples and measure 4 cups. Beat eggs and pour over apples.
2 cups sugar
2 ½ cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
Add ¾ cup vegetable oil. Then add apple/egg mixture.
Optional but good: 1 cup chocolate chips, 1 cup chopped walnuts, 1 cup white raisins(brown are fine too). Add to dough.
Grease a large bundt pan and bake at 350 for an hour or until done, top brown and a fork stuck inside comes out clean.
Beth Kissileff is the co-editor of the anthology Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy, author of the novel Questioning Return and the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Michigan Quarterly Review, New York Times, Tablet, the Forward, 929English and Haaretz, among others. Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.