On the Kitchen

A dispatch from a week of recipe development.

On day one in the kitchen last week, working on getting down all of my best and most trustworthy recipes for a forthcoming cookbook, I felt alive. Why did I ever quit the bakery? I wondered, as I dutifully wrote down all the conversions of my grams into what will be someone else’s cups. I’m happiest when I’m baking.

By day four, I was crying and almost threw the bowl of my stand mixer against the wall. My hands were covered in sugar but the water was out. My shortbread dough wasn’t coming together the way it had the hundreds of prior times I’d made it in precisely this way. Instead of forming a ball around the paddle, it was a mess of tiny fragments of dough. I checked the day’s temperature: 81 degrees. I remembered why I quit. I remembered how hard this is.

In the interim, though, I did have some good times. I danced to Madonna. I remembered how much I love Kid Cudi’s first album. I missed working at the wine bar with my friend Tawnya on Monday nights when we’d play old emo tracks. I recalled the thrill of a patron walking in and immediately singing along, the kind of community a good playlist can create all on its own in the right space. The good of being in the kitchen is all about the music.

Another good of being in the kitchen is the very specific kind of tired it makes you. Sitting at the computer all day long could never compare to the feeling of exhaustion in your bones standing up, moving from counter to oven to sink all day, taking a dance break, doing it all again. To sit down and really earn it, really feel the release in your legs and feet: I’d missed that. 

Doing the dishes over and over again—I didn’t miss that. I wore my rubber gloves each time, though. When I had my bakery and made a rare visit to a doctor for a check-up, she told me, “Your hands are aging too fast.” It was all the dish-washing. An aesthetic complaint that I don’t think had a medical purpose at the time. Now I wear them because I get nasty patches of eczema from too much time spent at the sink. Now there is a medical purpose.

Writing recipes I’ve honed over the years down for other people to bake is daunting, and I ended the week daunted—defeated! If I’ve learned anything from moving to San Juan from Brooklyn, it’s that not everything works everywhere. This is both literal and metaphor; personal and political. Even when using more or less the same ingredients, the difference in the air and the salt from the nearby ocean can make a shortbread fail even when it always used to work in cooler environs farther from the sea. How do I write it down so that it works for everyone? “No one in their right mind would make shortbread in the middle of an 81 degree day without air-conditioning!” I told my fiancé, exasperated, even though that was precisely what I had just done. Clearly, I was not in my right mind. I thought my years of practice, my 10,000 hours would save me from climate reality. Hubris, I believe it’s called.

Does that mean I can write down a recipe that I know won’t work in those conditions? How can I prepare for the least hospitable day upon which someone might feel like preparing a vegan buttery shortbread? What if they’re by the ocean? What if they’re 5,000 feet above sea level? I don’t think I can. There are limitations.

And so I had to plan again like I’m a real baker and wake up early, before the sun, to take advantage of cooler air. I put my headphones in and listened to Nada Surf, as I used to do, and had Matthew Caws tell me that what I’m looking for is looking for me too. I heated up the oven and rolled out that frustrating shortbread dough, and it worked as it always had. The cookies were delicious. They needed rest; they weren’t a catastrophic failure.

I felt relief and I felt joy, knowing I’ll always have nice moments in the kitchen; I know how to get good tired. I remembered how hard this work is, how to never take for granted any good bite. There are miserable failures behind each of them, and there will be more failures ahead, all in the name of a good cookie, because a good cookie makes people happy. A lot happens in a kitchen; a lot happens for a recipe. I’m happiest when I’m baking. It’s true.

This Friday’s paid subscriber interview will feature Ronna Welsh, owner of the Purple Kale Kitchenworks culinary school and the author of The Nimble Cook: New Strategies for Great Meals That Make the Most of Your Ingredients, which teaches strategies for using up food waste.

Subscriptions are $30 per year or $5 per month; paid subscribers have access to all past & future interviews. This summer, paid subscribers will also get access to two recipes per month.

Nothing, but this week a bunch of stuff is coming out, so watch this space next week!

A galley of Sarah Schulman’s forthcoming Let the Record Show: A Political History of Act Up New York, 1987–1993. When it comes out next month, I’ll be writing one of these Monday essays about the significance of her nonfiction work. We went to the Instituto de Cultura de Puertorriqueña bookstore this weekend and I picked up three books on local gastronomy—digging in, planning to make vegan “bacalaitos” with hearts of palm even though Israel is dubious.

Mushroom bolognese for bucatini, which I love though it seems others do not. BBQ jackfruit burritos. Lots of cake. Lots of cookies. The shortbreads in the picture are the ones I almost threw at the wall.