One of my favorite episodes of “This American Life” begins with a conversation between host Ira Glass and culinary griot and author Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. In the episode, Mr. Glass decides to test Mrs. Smart-Grosvenor’s claim that she can tell when the chicken is fried simply by listening to the oil. He puts on recordings of hot fat: the initial sizzles of the battered chicken in the pan, the more vigorous bubbles as the oil reheats, the final murmurs as the chicken transforms.
I recognized those distinct sounds immediately and could imagine the color of the chicken deepening from mealy white to amber. As she listened, Mrs. Smart-Grosvenor trusted her own senses and what her ingredients revealed to her. That refinement of the senses, I know, is how you become a great cook.
If cooking is the tactile process of transforming ingredients, a good recipe is a path that should lead those who follow it to the desired result. But the words on a page are not the only signs that lead the way. Cooking is really an exercise in pattern recognition, problem solving, and perhaps most importantly, trusting our senses.
Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà, home cook and author of the sensual culinary autobiography “Longthroat Memoirs”, harnesses the senses to inform her daily cooking. “For me, a lot happens here,” she said, pointing to her nose. “I could pick up a scent, and a whole scene would play out in my mind of something happening. Like when I put cumin in a pan, I can smell the gradient change as it roasts. Nothing happens here in the kitchen without me picking it up.
Doris Hồ-Kane, an archivist, historian and baker at Bạn Bè, her Vietnamese bakery in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, has none of the recipes for her menu items written down. “After repeating it over and over again, there is a recipe that lives in my head,” she said. “It’s as much about how something feels in my arms, like hugging a bowl of flour, or the way I grind a certain grain, the way agar bounces or feels under my fingertip.”
“It’s just by sight, weight and touch. It’s like a voice in my head telling me ‘It’s done’”.
The flan I learned to perfect as a young pastry chef is a great example of Ms. Hồ-Kane’s philosophy. It is a simple recipe, a combination of eggs, milk, sugar and cream. But caramel cream techniques require careful attention.
I make mine in a water bath with a foil cover so the cream sets from the outside in. When I first remove the lid and give the pan a shake, I look at how far inside the cream has settled. moves uniformly: pattern recognition. Then I remove the lid completely, which exposes the custard to the direct, dry heat of the oven and allows the center to harden – troubleshooting.
Even before the custard goes into the oven, I use all my senses, leaning over the pan of toasted spices, letting the gentle heat release their oils and their aromas fill the air. For a moment, my eyes are on the dissolving sugar as it transforms into a golden amber syrup; the flavor of the burnt sugar is overwhelming, so I do my best to avoid taking the caramel too far. And when it comes time to whip up the custard base, I know incorporating too much air will deaden its silkiness, so I do as little turning as possible while folding the ingredients.
A single recipe is never the only real version of a dish, and taking sensory cues into account when cooking allows you to explore the limits of a recipe. Only by following your senses can you personalize the experience by determining how far away from that structure you would like to go.
These sensory cues, and the ease that ultimately comes to the process when you pay attention to them, is where the true satisfaction of cooking lies.
Prescription: Spiced Caramel Cream