Monday, April 18, 2011

The Dark Truths of Pillow Book, Or, Death by Ginger Snap

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Pillow Book, it’s that baking is one of the great ways to relax and enjoy life in all its simplicity and wonderment. If one delves into the backlog of this blog, one will find numerous stories of a quiet afternoon spent baking eight different batches of cookies simultaneously whilst reading a book of Appalachian poetry and writing a contemplation on the various reasons why people should love the Avett Brothers [Entry One: Beards]. All very quaint. All very pastoral.

So, I thought to myself a few weeks ago, I should do that myself! I have all the things I need! I have an oven! I have an ingredient or two! And I have a dozen spare brain cells unclaimed by dissertation work that I’d been saving for a rainy day! What could possibly go wrong?

Ah, my oven. If I had a nickel for every frozen pizza that she's cooked, I'd have a very embarrassing number of nickels.

Of course, there are numerous kinds of cookie, from the humble yet tasty chocolate –chip varieties to the mass-produced Oreo. I realized I wanted to do something outside the ordinary, so that ruled out chocolate-chip cookies. I also recognized that I have no marketable baking skills, so that ruled out most everything else. In the end, I decided on a simple ginger snap recipe, one that was passed down to me by my mother and passed down to her by her dollar-store cookbook.

The ingredients are as follows:

-2¼ cups all-purpose flour [note: not actually for all purposes, will not plug a flat tire or substitute for fertilizer]

-1 cup brown sugar

-¼ cup molasses

-1 cup shortening [I do not know what’s in shortening, and I would like to keep it that way]

-1 egg [if you do not eat eggs, this means you get the pleasure of having 11 eggs in the fridge for a week without any clue what to do with them]

-1 teaspoon of baking soda [this is surprisingly important]

-½ teaspoon of salt

-1 teaspoon ground ginger [note: not a tablespoon, also surprisingly important]

-1 teaspoon cinnamon

-½ teaspoon of cloves [I was alarmed when I first read this, but it turns out these are different from those things that Wendy’s puts on baked potatoes (those are chives)]

-enough sugar to roll stuff in

It was probably a bad sign that, when I first started this project, I officially had two of those ingredients, namely salt and sugar. I did have some flour from a previous Presidential Administration, but I was pretty sure flour was supposed to be fluffy and powdery and less brick-like. But anyways, after a trip to the local supermarket—er, farmer’s market—I settled down and prepared for my senses to be literally assaulted by waves of relaxation and enjoyment.

Not so much. The first task at hand was to mix the “wet” ingredients—brown sugar, shortening, molasses, and egg—in a bowl until “creamy,” whatever that meant. It was at this point that I realized I did not have a mixer or, really, anything appropriate other than a spoon. After destroying several nerve endings by frantically stirring with a spoon, I accidentally launched half the mixture into the kitchen floor—which then, of course, led to me tackling my dog, Linus, before he could eat all of it, throw it up, then repeat the cycle ad infinitum.

Linus, considering whether he feels up to puking or not today.

I returned to the superma—farmer’s market—to pick up a hand mixer for the price of eight dollars, which, as we all know, is certainly enough money for fine kitchenware. After a minute or so of fine hand-mixing, the so-called wet ingredients appeared to be in a state that could be identified by a casual observer as “creamy, albeit lumpy,” so I moved on.

The next step was, apparently, to “sift” the “dry” ingredients into a separate bowl. This created two immediate problems: first, I didn’t know how I was going to go about “sifting” ingredients, and second, I would need a second bowl, which is far less of a given in the sub-human living conditions of a single male graduate student than should reasonably be expected. I ended up using a Tupperware container and a strainer of sorts that I had bought in the distant past for some unholy purpose. I managed to get most of the ingredients safely into the container, though I did learn that all-purpose flour, like the ice you try to tap into your mouth after finishing a glass of water, follows an “all-for-one/one-for-all” mentality when being poured into a too-small strainer.

Some of the baking tools of the single male graduate student. Not pictured: any self-respect whatsoever.

And here, my friends, I must admit that I was beginning to feel a bit perturbed. Two hours and multiple trips for ingredients and accessories into the process, I had not yet reached the point where I even had cookie dough. Where was the moment of insight? When would my attempts at baking culminate in one of those crystallizing moments that Liza seems to have every other week? Where, indeed, was my Folk Hipster Nirvana?

Things only got worse during the next step, combining the “wet” and “dry” ingredients. Technically, the “dry” materials were only supposed to be integrated into the creamy mixed goodness a bit at a time, with a slow pattern of sift/mix/muse/sift/mix/etc. until the two portions had become one. Unfortunately, the “dry” ingredients again decided that they performed better as a single unit, so this multiple-step integration became one horrible mishmash of disparate elements, like Elton John and Eminem at the 2006 Grammies. Then, in a shocking moment, my eight-dollar hand-mixer shuddered to a stop and whirred at me reproachfully. If anyone is going to learn something from this post—and the possibility is highly doubtful—I would have it be this: never check to see if a hand-mixer is broken by pulling it out of the mix and then squeezing the trigger.

After cleaning cookie dough off 80% of the exposed surfaces of my kitchen, I finally moved to the final pre-baking stage of ginger snaps, wherein I rolled the ginger snaps into balls and then rolled those in sugar. The recipe called for the oven to be pre-heated to 375 degrees and left for 12 minutes or until “golden brown”; I had no idea what “golden brown” meant, since the dough actually already looked “golden brown,” so I chose the fire-and-forget method and went to play some video game for 12 minutes.

Unfortunately, my oven has a strong can-do attitude, and when I returned, I discovered I had just spent approximately 2.5 hours perfecting a recipe for charcoal briquettes. As I laid the first batch to rest with the appropriate mixture of respect and muttered profanities, I decided to keep a watchful eye on the second. And lo and behold, when about six minutes had elapsed (six, I will note, is half of twelve), the cookies in the oven looked somewhat similar to ginger snaps.

This, then, was the moment of truth, the moment where I realized the hidden truths of Pillow Book and wept the tears of fulfillment. I waited for the cookies to harden into sufficiently edible consistencies, grabbed one that looked especially aesthetic, and took a bite. And lo, I realized then the self-worth that grows from working with one’s own hands to produce something that could be described by any baked goods connoisseur as “pretty much adequate.”

So, what, then, did I learn from this experience? Well, first, I learned the fundamental truth that I am not Liza Turner, and if I ever end up digging a posthole, painting an abstract depiction of a landscape, baking a soufflé, and reading a book on organic food in the course of one day, it will have to be at gunpoint. Second, some clichés are true. For example, anything worth doing is worth doing right—did you know that if you don’t put baking soda in ginger snap mix, the cookies come out as weird misshapen masses that somehow manage to look sad? Finally, and I’ll try to remove several layers of my natural irony here, sometimes it actually is worth it to try something new every once in a while. In my case, I had to try something new about nine times before I finally came out of it with something worthwhile (in one attempt, I forgot to turn the oven on and couldn’t figure out why they weren’t baking right), but I can now make a ginger snap that has been called by an unbiased observer, and I quote, “the best cookie ever.”

OK, perhaps not aesthetic wonders, but still...

And speaking as the least crafty person on the face of the planet, that has to be worth something.

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