In Life and in Food, Overthinking Spoils Everything
About the time my junior year in college rolled around, my boy-crazy roommates and I would indulge in one of our favorite games in our limited spare time. We called the game "baby-fooding." It went something like this: one of us from our mostly naive and inexperienced lot would detail some unexpected encounter with her current male fancy. The rest of us would promptly analyze every nuance of that encounter. "He told me it was a pretty day and he liked my skirt," she would declare. Great! "But, what does that MEAN? Does it mean he likes me or was he just being nice?" would begin the long list of queries. And on and on and on, until one or all of us would declare this discussion an official game of baby-fooding—when something got analyzed, chewed, and re-chewed so many times it essentially was reduced to baby food-like mush. Mindless, meaningless mush. (By the way, the girls really had a field day when I came back from an hour-long interview with Doug Flutie and confessed I had asked him, for lack of better phrasing, if he "ever got ball hungry." Translation: Just take the ball and run...)
Really, in the end, as most of us eventually learn, things are simply what they seem, especially when it comes to 19-year-old boys and how their minds work when it comes to girls. And so it is with cooking.
The Cook Who Thought Too Much
I started thinking about the uselessness of baby-fooding yesterday as I was researching the art and technique of making choux pastry. Although fabulous, it's ultimately a fairly straightforward pastry formed by combining butter and water, mixing in flour, and incorporating eggs until you have a pliable, glossy pastry. It can be made into sweet and savory delights such as cream puffs and eclairs. Or, so I thought from my training and extensive experience with the stuff.
Yet, the further I delved into the pages of cookbooks and online discussions, the more confused I became. Does one use bread flour, AP flour, or pastry flour? Does one incorporate the eggs with a wooden spoon (as I was taught at Le Cordon Bleu) or a blender to help regulate the temperature? Does one pipe or dollop the pastry? What's the best oven temperature? While I respect why these questions are important (to some degree), it all started to border on the edge of the ridiculous. My head began spinning with numbness, just like back in the old baby-fooding days.
So I decided to take a 30-minute break and watch Chopped on The Food Network.
Bad plan—at least initially. Before I knew it, there I was again, deeply entrenched in the world of cooking overthink, and worse, one peppered with debilitating ego—that's a deadly combo in any kitchen. The chefs were given a basket containing walnuts, creme de menthe, golden raisins, and canned salmon. With this, they were expected to prepare a first course. My attention turned to the chef who decided to take 15 of the 30 precious minutes to prepare a walnut flour because he was certain "none of the other chefs would do (the same)."
I would give him an "A" for originality and self-challenge, except he had no plan for what he was going to do with said flour. He just wanted to make it to impress. It turns out, he made a rather banal dish with a bizarre sauce, but he went ahead and put the flour on top, because "he had made it." It added nothing to the dish, it took away from it. Ultimately he got "chopped."
Less is More
He missed what really is the truest of true about good cooking. The best cooking doesn't come with pretense and bravado or over-complication. It doesn't require a thousand gadgets (or ingredients), or a doctorate. The keys to good, even great cooking are beautiful produce/food, respect for technique and ratio of ingredients, minimalistic and sensible treatment of the food, and balanced and beautiful pairing of textures and flavors. And, it always needs to be fun. In the kitchen and in life, over-thinking leads to inertia and exhaustion.
With that in mind, I'm heading back to the kitchen and the choux drawing board. I'm going to keep my head out of the game as much as possible, and let my training and taste buds lead the way.
Happy cooking from my kitchen to yours!