February is a fun month. I was sitting around during my month of thinking in January of what my projects will be the second half of this year. I sort of hit a slump.... mid-year, mid-project of what to do next. Then as I was about to pull a batch of cookies from the oven, it dawned on me. I love to cook. I wouldn't go out on a limb and say I am anything of a professional. No, but I do love to cook and bake from scratch. Whether its a holiday, a birthday or someone in the family has a cold, I am quick to pull out the cookbooks and come up with some special themed cupcakes to decorate, a new kugel to try out or to put a pot of chicken soup boiling on the stove. I am known to give the fix-it guy at our apartment complex a homemade cupcake every time he comes to fix something and I try to always have a homemade birthday cake, if even it is only for the immediate family, before or after the big party is over.
Something about homemade food seems to say love. I love you so I made this. I love you so I measured and spiced and decorated myself. Now as a working mom, I love the pre-made mixes, frozen cookie dough and meals to go like the rest of you. But as a kid, I always remember the noise from the kitchen surrounding the holidays and the soup bubbling in the pot while someone was sneezing or cuddling under blankets in bed. And it just makes me want to recreate that feeling for my husband and my kids. Some things technology cannot take away from us. And those are our memories and the rituals we choose to bring with us into our own families and homes today.
Ok enough said. So this month, I have been fortunate to locate a professional baker, Paula Shoyer of Paula's Parisian Pastries in Chevy Chase, MD to shadow for the month of February. As a fellow Brandeis alum and working mom, Paula has built a career around cooking classes, magazine articles, baking lectures and now a kosher cookbook on non-dairy desserts called "The Kosher Baker." She was willing to help my blog project advance and took the time to show me the inside of her kitchen.
My first thoughts as I entered Paula's kitchen were the sheer size and design. The island in the middle is covered with a stainless steel top ideal for baking parties and cookie sheets to cool. Various cookies lined the table while trays of meringues filled the oven shelves. A mixer was filled with mango puree while a lemon filling was boiling on the stove. So many recipes, so many desserts being made at once. And this is exactly how Paula operates. She was preparing for an upcoming magazine article on Passover desserts. Every Jew's challenging yet exciting time of the year where cleaning haunts nightmares weeks in advance in preparation for one week of bread-free living. Cooking takes on a new meaning during Passover. Rather than sit and eat only matzah for a week and feel the oppression of our ancestors, Jews are dedicated, no determined to make foods that taste the same (or better) than the rest of the year. Just to prove to ourselves that we can take the restrictions and elevate them into something beautiful and tasty.
Between the coconut cookie tasting (I was forced) and the chocolate marble meringue development (I chopped fresh, Italian chocolate bars), I also learned how to properly zest a lemon and measure out mango puree for a mousse-inspired dessert. Wearing my apron, I followed Paula around watching one dessert layer cool in the fridge while another was being mixed on the counter. Another filling was melting in a double boiler on the stove while a ground nut crust was pressed into a tart pan.
What I learned this week in Baking 101, is that a lot of preparation goes into the behind the scenes of a pastry operation. While the baking aspect of the job is fun, it is also serious. When you publish a cookbook, you need to provide the average public reader with an accurate account of what to include and what to expect. 4 ounces of grated chocolate means to grate fancy chocolate and pull out the old scale and weigh it. A recipe that serves 8 needs to be measured into 8 glasses or bowls to ensure someone hosting a crowd does not come up short. In baking, your name and your reputation are on the line in these little details of your life.
In addition, Paula spends a third of her time on the computer filling out proposals for future speaking engagements, magazine articles and cookbook development. In order to make the time in the kitchen as productive as possible, multiple items must be made at once and often times four or five batches of the same recipe are made to test for quality and taste. Running your own shop is more than just throwing a bit of sugar over your shoulder, covering your counters with flour and hoping for the best. It's a labor of love and a demonstration of how one literally uses their hands to bring something into fruition.
I feel fortunate to have this opportunity to get my hands dirty and learn a few techniques on the side. Watching a professional in action reminds my of my nana's kitchen and all her secret ingredients some of which she only shared with me when I went to college. Sorry to be sexist here but looking in a woman's kitchen, a woman who cooks that is, can be compared to looking in a woman's purse. Choosing how to design, decorate and operate your kitchen is similar to selecting those important "cannot live without" items to carry with you every day you leave the house. A woman's kitchen is the inside of her heart and soul. I cannot wait for my next encounter in the kitchen and will have to remember to be sure to bring my palette along with my pen.