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Cooking by the Numbers
Back to September - October 2023
Julia Child once gave me her formula for making custard (probably crème caramel), which was something like two eggs per cup of milk. I never thought of Julia as a cook-by-the-numbers type, and so I was intrigued. There was method to the madness, a system behind the magic, and it worked.
Any bread baker knows about the baker’s percentage, the weight of the water divided into the weight of the flour. This percentage is an indication of hydration; some breads run 70 percent to 80 percent, while a standard loaf of white bread might be more in the 60 percent range. I once did a pour-in-the-pan pizza dough that was just over 90 percent hydration, based on an unusual focaccia recipe from Bari, Italy. I had to literally pour the dough onto the pizza pan.
There are 1-2-3-4 cakes that call for 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour and 4 eggs. The French have a yogurt cake recipe that uses the yogurt container as the measuring cup. There is a dreadful 3-2-1 cake that calls for 3 tablespoons cake mix, 2 tablespoons water and 1 minute in the microwave.
A soufflé is much less mysterious if you think of it as a formula by weight—3 parts milk, 2 parts eggs and 1 part base (butter and flour). A sugar cookie is 3 parts flour to 2 parts fat to 1 part sugar. Gougères are 4-4-4-1; 4 eggs, 4 ounces cheese, 4 ounces flour, plus 1 cup milk and some butter. The list goes on.
One of the most argued issues of our time is the nature of the universe. Can we someday explain the origin of the universe through science, or is this more a matter of faith, something well beyond the pale of our ability to understand dark matter, black holes and multiple dimensions? When it comes to the kitchen, if not the universe, I think that it behooves any good cook to split the difference.
Cooking by the numbers, even if we use them as rough guidelines, builds confidence. But the numbers tell only part of the story. Two cooks can make the same exact recipe; one turns out sublime, and the other is hardly fit to eat. Is the difference a matter of skill and practice, or does divine inspiration offer a clue? One answer might be that a good cook lives in the moment, marshals all his or her senses to the task at hand, and is able to balance aromas, flavors and textures in a manner that appears mysterious to the average home cook.
I recently read about a winemaker in Oregon who suffers from synesthesia, a condition that causes one to experience one of your senses through another. In her case, tastes are experienced as colors, and so she is able to blend wine in an entirely new way. For those of us not so endowed, it looks like alchemy.
There is a life formula that goes like this: Events + Response = Outcome. Many people leave out the response part, thinking that one’s life is determined by random events. Back in the kitchen, I think that response is the secret to great cooking. The cut of steak determines how to cook it. Tasteless vegetables change how one makes a pot of soup. A dry bread dough needs more liquid. One adapts, changes tactics and amends recipes to get the desired result.
Or, put another way, I believe that we have free will in the kitchen, the ability to change outcomes through our actions and full use of our senses. Great cooks live in the moment, a period of time between a nonexistent past and a future that never arrives. This is where life and cooking should live: a sensual ground zero, an eternal moment when we experience the art of cooking to its fullest.
I believe that Julia had this gift, as we sat around her small kitchen table one evening, eating boiled new potatoes with caviar and wine. At the time I was confused—there was no pot au feu or French classic—but the potatoes were freshly dug, the caviar briny and buttery, and the wine cool enough to perfectly enshrine the food.
It’s a moment in time that we try to capture in our kitchens, a taste of the infinite, lived in the moment.