Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Having time to make mistakes

Today I made croissants.

In general, I've never baked very much. My mother died when I was young, which is like losing your cooking confidence; there are so many things I've never tried because I had no non-judgmental mentor to guide me. I've never made a pot roast or a ham. Angel food cake. Pie crust. These are things that require guidance and confidence and knowledge.

Or at least time and resources to mess it up while you figure out what you're doing.

The time-consuming aspect of not buying things with ingredients (like bread, or fancy cereal, or crackers, or snacks other than fruit) I think is the true challenge of "eating real." Even buying these things from local, owner-operated shops takes more time than simply stopping at the national chain on the way home from work. Right now in our society "eating real" is a privilege of those blessed with the twin resources of time and confidence. (Contrary to popular belief, it does not cost more; in fact I have cut our grocery bill by more than half doing this.)

Fortunately for me, I cooked a lot with my mother until I was 14 and she got ill, at which point I just made all her recipes for the whole family (she would leave me instructions on the 'fridge that I would find when I got home from school: "marinate the chicken in the juice of one lemon and sprinkle with salt, oregano and pepper." Or sometimes, "make spaghetti sauce tonight." Uh, right. How do you make spaghetti sauce?)

You'll cook like your mother cooked. My mother cooked from scratch, and mine may have been the last generation (the early and mid-Boomers) who can say that as a general rule. Our mothers came home from the factory or the base, and spent the next 20 years cooking. The generation after ours have had to figure it out largely on their own. I rarely read a cooking blog that says "my mother never cooked." How do you learn to cook if your mother doesn't cook?

If you don't have the time and confidence to make mistakes, and to try again, then you're eating out and eating out of boxes.

I've never really had the time or confidence to bake before, and this family's baking knowledge died with my mother and grandmother. There are no aunts. My obliging boss recently gave me the time by cutting my job (and my salary) by half. Writing about cooking on line, and the Eat Real Food challenge have upped my confidence. All I need is knowledge, so I pulled out my mother's trusty Joy of Cooking (no stains on this page, so if Mom ever made these, it wasn't from this book).

Maybe next I'll try a pie.

Croissants, from Joy of Cooking
About 18 Crescents

7/8 cup milk
1 tablespoon lard or vegetable oil
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 package active dry yeast
2 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour

Scald the milk (about 3 1/2 minutes on high in the microwave, or until just before it boils on the stovetop), then stir into it, until melted and dissolved, the lard, sugar and salt. Cool until lukewarm. Activate the yeast in 1/3 cup 105°-115° water and add it to the liquid. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Stir in or knead in the flour to make a soft slightly sticky dough (you have to guess the amount of flour by the quality of the dough, which should be smooth and elastic.

Knead on a lightly floured surface, using a pastry scraper to flip the soft dough end over end 10
times. The dough should now hold together. Place it in an ungreased bowl. Cover with a cloth and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 11/2 hours. Then cover the dough with a lid and place m the refrigerator until thoroughly chilled, at least 20 minutes.

Roll or pat it out on a floured surface into an oblong 1/4* inch thick. Whip 1 cup of unsalted butter. Spread 1/4 of the butter over two-thirds the surface of the dough, leaving an unbuttered border 1 inch wide. Fold the unbuttered third over the center third. Then, fold the remaining third over the doubled portion. The dough is now in 3 layers. Swing the layered dough a quarter turn—or, directionally speaking, bring east to south.

Roll it again into an oblong 1/4 inch thick. Dot the center third with 1/4 cup of the whipped butter, and again fold it one-third over one third, turn and roll out to 1/4 inch. Repeat this two more times. (NB: The dough will start becoming more springy and elastic, so you have to roll it quite thin for it to retain that thickness.) Now, cut off any folded edges, which might keep the dough from expanding. Cut the dough into 3-inch squares, and cut the squares on the bias (i.e. into triangles) Roll the triangular pieces, beginning with the wide side and stretching them slightly as you roll. Shape the rolls into crescents. Chill for 20 minutes, not allowing it to rise again.

Preheat oven to 400°. Bake the crescents 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350° and bake until done—10 to 15 minutes longer.

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