|my mom and my niece, baking in the kitchen that was once my playground|
This photo warms my heart like you wouldn't believe. My parents sent this photo recently and I couldn't help but Instagram it (That's a verb now, right? Just like "I Google-d it."?).
I look at this photo, and each time I just can't stop thinking, "Awwww".
It just brings back such warm memories of learning to cook and bake from my mom. I was probably three years old, just like my niece in the photo above. And I too stood on a stool to watch my mom measure, pour, and mix as I made my own mess on the countertop (and ok, the floor too). I wrote more about it here.
In the years that followed I learned to be fearless in the kitchen. Mistakes and all.
I learned that sometimes you can have beginner's luck and turn out perfect gougères the first time -- a little triumph for my teenage self, before the advent of the Internet and on-demand, step-by-step video tutorials on food blogs and youtube. And at other times your efforts can result in a complete flop, like my first attempt at risotto at age 15 (or 16? can't remember) that resulted in a massive, sticky glob of arborio rice. Or meringues that turned into one solid layer of egg whites -- that were NOWHERE near the looks of "stiff, glossy peaks" -- hopelessly stuck to the baking sheet when I pulled it out of the oven. Apparently it caused quite an imprint on my brothers' memory as they still recount this story to this day, and we all get a good laugh out of it.
I learned that you just have to laugh at yourself (ok, maybe cry over spilled milk for a little while - er, wasted arborio rice or egg whites), move on, and try again. And clean up your mistakes, of course. Because the dishes don't magically wash themselves.
And when you have a big family waiting in anticipation of your first risotto -- or I should say the unrecognizable mass of what was possibly arborio rice -- I learned that it's important to improvise. To have a "plan B".
I learned about when you have to go at full-speed, when to pace yourself, and when to slow down. Like how vigorously stirring your custard causes bubbles, and results in unsightly little air pockets rather than perfectly smooth, creamy flan that is the outcome of slow, gentle stirring.
I learned that sometimes shortcuts are ok, but at other times they are disastrous.
I learned that there's value in waiting. It was often while waiting for a cake to do its thing in the oven that my mom and I had the best conversations.
I learned about when it's important to follow a recipe to the letter, and when it's better to use your intuition and cook by feel.
I learned to treasure yellowed, stained, hand-written recipes in a falling-apart notebook more than an untouched, glossy, for-display-only cookbook.
I learned about the pleasure of making something from scratch and nourishing others with it. About the memories built when a family sits down together to dinner. Dinners that seem to naturally stretch into a few hours as we talk and reminisce and laugh. And listen to my grandparents' stories about the war. (It's my late grandfather's birthday today...happy birthday, Papa)
I learned that life's too short to sacrifice quality and short-change yourself. My mom always said to use the good china and silver even for everyday meals. Matching placemats* for everyday, and elegant chargers for special occasions. She even had cloth napkins on which she handpainted little designs on the corners. Little ways to infuse beauty and art into the everyday. So she set the table nicely, thus giving importance to family mealtime. Although it wasn't just about the "things" on the table. It was setting the scene for something essential.
Because life's too short to not spend quality time with the people you love.
I learned to listen to the wisdom of someone more experienced - in the kitchen, and in life. And now, years later, I also know to trust in my own wisdom. Kitchen experiments** and otherwise.
Life's lessons, indeed.
* My parents always chuckle when they re-tell the story of how we were dinner guests at an aunt and uncle's house. I was maybe three or four years old, and apparently I put my aunt on the spot because as we sat down to dinner, I asked loudly, "Mom, where are the placemats?" Oh, for shame. Shame on me.
** My risotto turns out consistently creamy and al dente now, thank goodness. But I'm still not a huge fan of meringues.