by Melissa Myers Place
There have been many challenges this past week or so since my stepfather died, but honestly, the one I feared the most was melding my baking style with my mother’s.
Let me explain.
My mother belongs to an online cooking group called Tuesdays with Dorie. Twice a month, she and approximately 500 other dedicated bakers from around the globe try their hand at creating an assigned recipe. The group is currently working their way through the book Baking with Julia, which was compiled and written by Dorie Greenspan. My mother was a recipe behind, so she suggested that we bake together to help her catch up.
Herein lies the challenge:
I am a by-the-seat-of-my-pants baker. I read a few recipes and then make it up as I go. I skip steps, omit or add ingredients, and rarely measure. Much of the time, my end results are good if not great, but occasionally there are some big flops.
My mother, on the other hand, is a by-the-book kind of gal. If she doesn’t have the precise ingredients on hand (may God strike you down if you substitute regular vanilla when it calls for Tahitian Vanilla), she will either run to the store or not make the recipe. She checks accuracy of liquid measurements by squatting to eye level, and she times everything to the second. As she says, “I don’t waver from the exact.”
I knew we were especially doomed when she opened the weighty Baking with Julia to page 315, and announced we were making Hazelnut Biscotti. “My biscotti always turn out awful,” I confessed.
“Mine too,” my mother countered.
I would have considered throwing in the dishtowel right there, but I didn’t want to leave my mom in the lurch and I figured that during this biscotti round Julia Childs AND Dorie Greenspan had our backs. With uncharacteristic politeness and restraint, we began to bake. She got out the ingredients while I scanned the recipe.
We decided to make pistachio biscotti as those were the nuts we had on hand. (Thank goodness Greenspan offered them as an alternative in the preface of the recipe or we would have been in the car on our way to the store.)
Our first disagreement was over the merits of splat mats versus parchment paper. My mother had misplaced her silicone splat mats and felt they were too expensive to replace at $7.00 apiece. I couldn’t live without my splat mats and felt they were a more environmentally-friendly alternative to parchment.
“Well,” said my mother as she ripped a length of parchment paper from the roll to prepare the the biscotti baking pan. “Dorie advises the use of parchment.”
“Heaven forbid we should use something else,” I thought but smartly did not verbalize. I was on my best behavior.
My mother measured the 2/3 cup of pistachios on a cookie sheet (no parchment needed for this step) and put them in the oven to toast. We set the timer for ten minutes, and then got into a minor squabble about the necessity of mise en place. I preferred the grab-it-from-the-cabinet-as-you-need-it-and-then-put-it-back method, while my mom quoted Mary Sue Salmon, her first French cooking teacher, who said you always prepare a mise en place before you start cooking. Midway through our discussion and with four minutes to go on the timer, I smelled something burning.
“The nuts!” I yelled as I lunged for the oven. I pulled out the pan only to discovered that the nuts were already overdone. I examined one closely and then retrieved the bag of already shelled pistachios from the pantry.
“Mom,” I said carefully, we were both just barely hanging on this week and I didn’t want this to totally push her over the edge, “Um, these were already toasted.”
We looked at each other and started to laugh.
When we finally pulled it together several minutes later, we got serious about our biscotti. This wasn’t about baking styles anymore, this was about getting something posted. We both realized that we needed to join forces to make this work.
We cleared the counter and started again. I chopped the nuts and my mom finished getting out the ingredients. I even measured the dry ingredients into a separate bowl rather than throwing everything together willy-nilly as usual.
“Where’s the baking soda?” I asked. According to Greenspan, “It’s the baking soda in the dough that gives the biscotti their wonderful open, crunchy texture.”
“Oh no, oh no, oh no,” said my mom, in a near panic. Before I could respond, she had grabbed her keys and flown out the door. “I’m just running over to a neighbor’s,” she called over her shoulder. “I’ll be right back.”
While she was gone, I mixed up the rest of the batter. Earlier that week I’d read a baking hint that suggested always doubling the amount of vanilla you add to a recipe. So I did, hoping that Childs and Greenspan would approve. I couldn’t find the brandy, so I made a mental note to ask my mom when she returned.
Once I added the baking soda to the dry ingredients, I mixed everything together. I was just about to shape the dough onto the cookie sheet when I remembered the brandy.
“Oh man, I forgot the brandy and I’ve already mixed the wet with the dry,” I told my mom.
She retrieved the cognac from the pantry and handed it to me. Forgetting myself for a moment, I failed to measure, and simply chugged some into the batter, probably about three times the suggested two teaspoons. The room filled with the smell of alcohol.
“I hope these turn out,” said my mother as she retreated to the kitchen table where she’d set up camp since her baking soda run. She poured herself some more Fritos, her comfort food of the week. “I don’t want to get kicked out.”
No pressure there.
Batter complete, I began to shape the dough. Greenspan suggests making two chubby logs 12 to 13 inches long. “Chubby logs” was a vague description, so my mom got out a measuring tape and pulled up the food site Vintage Kitchen Notes. Paula, from Argentina, had kindly posted a photo of her biscotti logs before they hit the oven.
After much shaping and reshaping, we put the biscotti in the oven for the first and then the second baking. As my previous biscotti attempts had been undercooked, I left the crescent cookies in the full fifteen minutes for the second go-around. For good measure, when the timer dinged, I turned off the oven and left them in another three minutes.
As you might imagine, with all that baking time, the biscotti were a little overdone. “Hard as a rock,” according to my mother. Nonetheless, we filled a special tenth anniversary bowl of my mom and Michael’s with our baking feat and headed over to a friend’s house. Adriana and her parents are originally from Sicily, and we knew they would be hard, yet fair critics.
I explained to our tasters that the cookies were a little firm. “Be careful not to break a tooth,” my mother helpfully interjected. I suggested they not only dunk them in a drink, but maybe soak them a while.
The verdict: Overcooked by several minutes, but great flavor.
I guess my mom and I learned a little something from each other during our baking challenge: Exact is good as long as you are willing to throw in something extra now and then.
(If you are interested in the retro kitchen mixer tshirt I am wearing in the photo above, please visit Caustic Threads located at Etsy.com. Shop owner Erica Voges creates and prints these original designs for an amazingly economical price. Check out her wares and support a small business today!)