I admit I’m not your average foodie.
Most foodies I encounter are either chefs who spend their time deconstructing an average dish and re-creating it with remarkable complexity, or cooks who wax lyrical about the mysteries of a chanterelle and can pinpoint the addition of an obscure spice in a sea of various ingredients. Me? I’m the kind of foodie who simply loves to eat.
This is a story about eating and also a story about a foodie becoming the kind of person who can create meals in addition to eating them. In other words, this is a story about how I learned to cook.
I never learned to properly cook growing up though home cooked meals were definitely a thing in my house, and I was required to be present at the table nearly every school night to share in our family dinner meal. But how the food got from the Trader Joe’s down the street to my dinner plate remained a puzzle for years.
My mom still says that sending me off to college without a clear understanding of how to even make hard boiled eggs is one of her biggest regrets. The funny thing is, my mom hardly ever cooked.
I still recall the Pink Cake Episode, one of my mom’s terrifying attempts at making sweets more wholesome. We joke now how “traumatized” I was at the result. As she tells the story now, I insisted that my 4th birthday would not be complete without a proper pink cake. Not wanting to disappoint me, but also not wanting to feed me, or my friends, the unnatural additives that make up red dye #40, my mother went in search of alternatives.
The validity of natural food coloring options aside, the stench of a counter full of boiled beets wafted under my little four year-old nose and I promptly threw up. I do believe my next birthday cake came from Baskin-Robbins.
My dad was the cook in the house, but he wasn’t much help in the kitchen either. Though his delicious salmon patties were legendary, neither mom nor I could get him to divulge his culinary secrets. “Just a little of this, and bit more of that” was as much as he would share when pressed for a recipe. I was happy to enjoy his dinners without understanding how it was made and never asked to be more involved.
Living in a dorm at college and then at a yoga retreat center post graduation meant I never really had to learn how to manipulate a stove or oven as I entered adulthood. I didn’t mind at the time. Every day was a feast and I had plenty to keep my appetite occupied. Cooking novice though I was, I never stopped loving to eat.
Perhaps that’s why years later after graduating from college I fell in love with a chef. His attention to me was flattering, but it was when he fed me his novel creations that I truly fell for him. Hard. “Now I’m never going to have to learn to cook!” I thought presumptuously. All I saw was a perfect match: the cook and the foodie. And as a bonus for him, I even enjoy doing the dishes.
But something in me shifted when we got engaged. Already, it was becoming apparent that the meals I was attempting to prepare while he was spending long hours at culinary school were not going to cut it. I mean, there’s al dente, and then there’s well, raw.
I hated the idea that not knowing how to cook meant I wouldn’t be able to feed my family. What if my husband worked late? What if he was out of town? I didn’t want to be a mom that always relied on frozen pizza to feed my (future) kids. I wanted to be a part of whatever magic he created in the kitchen, to be able to treat my family with a home cooked meal once in a while that he didn’t have to prepare himself. I wanted to be able to teach my children about cooking, to empower them with recipes and know-how.
So I set about learning to cook starting where Mom left off. Dessert. And so it was that pie became my cooking baking muse. From sweet potato to sour cherry, I began to encounter the intricacies of making a perfect pie.
I loved discovering the power of executing a recipe perfectly and the disasters that ensued when I tried taking a shortcut.
I learned to become patient while waiting for the right oven temperature, to ease up on the dough, to relax while waiting for the pie to cool. I learned there’s an important difference between bread flour and all-purpose, and that when a recipe calls for cold butter, they mean cold.
These days I’m still no Martha–but I’m confident turning on the oven, mixing the dough, and pouring the sugar. I can tell when a crust is about to burn and I have fallen in love with the taste of a truly homemade dessert.
I still love to eat. And there is nothing better than eating something that came from my own kitchen, from my own hands. Not because it tastes the best–I’m not yet about to win any taste tests–but because in each bite is the miracle of trying something new, overcoming who I thought I was, and becoming who I am. Someone who cooks.
[SONKER + DIP RECIPE]
One of my favorite dessert recipes is adapted from Ashley English’s delightful cookbook, A Year of Pies, which has been a wonderful companion as I have become taken up the baking habit. This is a recipe for “Sonker and Dip” a traditional pie like creation that has its roots in North Carolina. The best part about this dish is that it was created out of what seems like pure legend and there’s no right way to make it. It’s especially perfect for using up any seasonal fruit and it’s very hard to mess it up.
Let us know how you like it!
Ingredients & Instructions
Bake in a 9×12 baking dish (or a cast-iron skillet for extra country charm)
Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees. Butter
In a large bowl, combine fruit, arrowroot or cornstarch, flour, and cinnamon. Mix well until fruit is totally coated. Cover with dishtowel and set aside for at least 15 minutes.
In a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. With a pastry cutter, work the butter into the flour mixture until the butter pieces are pea sized. Make a well in the center and pour in the buttermilk. Use a large spoon to gently mix the dough until the dry ingredients are moistened. The mixture will look quite wet, but that’s OK.
Add fruit mixture to the skillet or baking dish. Using a large spoon, add big spoonfuls (3 tablespoons or so) of the topping mixture, evenly spaced, on top of the fruit.
Pour the melted butter over the topping.
Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue baking for 35 minutes or until the biscuits are golden. Cool for 30 minutes.
Heat the milk in a medium-seized saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a gentle boil.
Whisk the sugar and starch in a small bowl to mix well, then add to the milk along with the vanilla extract, stirring until thoroughly blended and smooth.
Reduce the heat under the saucepan to a gentle simmer and cook, uncovered, 15 to 20 minutes until the mixture is reduced by half.
Remove from the heat and transfer to a pourable container. Just before serving, drizzle dip over the sonker for an exceptional taste you won’t soon forget!
Are there any memorable meals from your childhood that were utter disasters (like the Pink Cake Episode)? Share with us a cooking memory or perhaps a recipe you’re eager to try!
Photo via PicJumbo