Friday, February 11, 2011

How to be a Domestic Goddess

Cream Cheese Frosting and Frozen Carrots
Q: Is that powdered sugar all over the place?
A: Indeed it is.

I am a fully domesticated female. This was not always the case. And no, this does not mean that I wet myself in the house or have failed repeated paper training attempts. No, no, no. It means that I used to be a complete rube in the kitchen.

Years ago, I remember standing in front of my two miniature burners set in the small stainless steel countertop of my Munich apartment, trying to figure out what had made the gorgeous pool of translucent blue goo near the burners. Well, I had made myself pancakes that evening, and I had gotten the burners pretty hot in the process. Months before, at the department store Hertie, I had purchased very cheap silverware, forks and spoons with pretty plastic handles. This, friends, was what had melted and was re-coagulating on my stainless steel cooktop.

A few months later, I was standing in front of those same gas ring-sized electric burners, and I was complaining about the watery consistency of my sundried tomato cream sauce. Believe me, this may sound like a particularly advanced culinary project for one so admittedly incapable, but I was not being an adventurous cook. I was merely copying a receipe my Mom often made when I was home. I stirred. I stirred some more. It simply would not thicken. My boyfriend at the time, a linguist for whom I was cooking, came up to the stove, looked into the pot, pulled at his goatee and said casually, "Maybe you can make a roux?"

"A what?" I asked, still looking down at this runny salmon-colored offering. Momentarily, my brain answered, you'll rue the day you suggested this.

"You know, a little flour in water?" He looked amused, twisting his whiskers between his thumb and forefinger.

"How do you know this?" I asked. This was early1998, the era before total Food Network domination.

He shrugged, "I learned to cook for myself in college."

Yeah, but a roux? Who makes a roux in college? I spent my college years heating up Ramen noodles and eating Pop Tarts, for pete's sake.

Fast forward to 2000, when I was dating this man. He had cooked for me, so I decided to cook something for him...bake something, actually. At the time, I did not understand the intricate chemistry of baking. Me, read cook books? Surely you jest. I played with acrylic paint and polymer clay, not sugar and flour. Consequently, I had no idea that too much liquid and too much baking powder meant a small culinary catastrophe. Soon, the cute little cupcakes I intended for said boyfriend were running over the sides of the muffin tin and sizzling on the bottom of the oven. But this was not the nightmare part. No, the nightmare began as my oven began emitting thin ribbons of gray smoke from its vents. This eventually turned into giant plumes of black smoke.

Sadly, I had a very touchy fire alarm. It often went off when I blew out a candle in my bedroom. And while I knew the damn thing would likely begin its piercing squeal, I did not have the sense to take the cupcakes out of the oven. (It should be noted this extraorindarily delightful auditory device was not wired to the fire department, so no clanging red engine ever arrived, much to my relief).

No, Poindexter here opened every window and stood flapping a wet tea towel for all she was worth in the direction of these windows, hoping to usher out the plume of noxious odor (look at that carmelization!) that was issuing like a forest fire from my range. When I finally got things under control, I cracked the hall door, and realized that someone had placed the floor's giant chrome-plated fire exstinguisher on my threshhold. Har, har, neighbors. Har, har, har.

Yeah...looking back on it now, I think I was pretty stupid, too. I will tell you, though, that the part of the cupcakes that baked around the edges were actually pretty good, although they formed one solid semi-leaden mass across the top of the muffin tin. Hard to get out, that.

My mother, by comparison, is a fantastic cook, and even though I remember her having lit up her oven mits several times when I was in high school (I'm serious...once, I heard her calling "help!" from the kitchen while I was reading a Rolling Stone article on, of all people, John Holmes.) I often wondered where that culinary genius had gone and why it had passed me over. Certainly my great grandmother, a farm woman, had been locally famous for her pies, a bit of useful knowledge spread about by eager farmhands who liked to work on the Leib dairy because of the lunches she served.

So, based on my track record, I began to think that perhaps the "cooks well" gene was actually a recessive trait, and I got the "makes a mean cheese egg" gene from my Papa. However, things are getting better.

Around the time I attempted to make cupcakes for B. Stanley, I read an article in the New York Review of Books (maybe it was The New Republic...I don't remember exactly) about Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking. The reviewer claimed that she had roomed with Lawson in college, and that the woman (now married to Charles Saatchi, last time I checked) was absolutely incapable of baking or cooking anything. I immediately thought: "Thank goodness, there's hope for me yet."

Savannah's new dragon dress from a 1960s pattern
(still, of course, under construction)
And despite a mishap yesterday with my new pressure cooker (nothing serious, I assure you) and fun with powdered sugar today (see picture above), I have been doing fairly well. And I can say with confidence that I have made the transition from feral female, given to painting, writing and drinking, to, well I won't say 'goddess' because there is a helluva lot of dust in this living room and sometimes, I get bleach marks on things and I have absolutely no idea how it happens (what, are there bleach gnomes that just run around sprinkling laundry piles with Clorox? And are they the same ones that steal mine and Michael's socks? Really, inquiring minds want to know).

Anyway, let's just say I've become relatively domestic, and I have to say, it's pretty nice. And while we're on this topic, check out the dress I'm making from a 1960s pattern (yes, I know, it doesn't look like a dress yet, but it will...last night, I put the darts in.)

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