Cooking, I understand. Dinners are a cinch to plan and execute. I understand the savory, how garlic will flavor a dish, how too little or too much salt can affect the outcome of a navy bean stew.
I wasn’t always this way. I remember the desire to be, in my tiny studio near my college campus. I’d tune into the food channel in between classes and watch Giada and Ina make it all look effortless, and then write down the recipe in a hurry (this was before it was all online), and drive across the river to the SuperTarget, where I could actually procure some of the more elusive ingredients in the dishes, and then return home to my miniature galley kitchen and (cheap) electric stove, and manage to burn the entire thing. I wanted to blame it on the stove, truly I did, but it wasn’t the stove. I didn’t understand timing or how to follow a recipe, and I had no knowledge of creating a meal, let alone an experience. That would come later, after many years of not quite figuring any of it out.
When my daughter was a year old and my then-marriage was crumbling, I had two sweet friends who lived two blocks down from our house, and I spent many nights in their cozy abode, drinking wine in their kitchen and watching Kelly cook. She always had music playing, and I loved the conversations that would ensue. For awhile, I'd let go of the dream of mastering cooking, but seeing Kelly move around her kitchen with such ease, tossing in herbs and garlic, her effortless way of keeping time, and her ability to simultaneously entertain inspired me to give it another go.
My initial efforts were rough, just as they had been before. My rental kitchen was dark, cold, and entirely too large. I longed for the galley kitchen, where everything had been within reach. Yet I found peace in the efforts, there was something therapeutic about the process, even as I was still learning. I pored over cooking blogs (which were still fairly young at the time), and checked out cookbooks from the local library. I peppered Kelly with questions, yet mostly, I knew I needed to figure it out by putting in the time.
My marriage inevitably ended during this time, yet the second night I was in my new rental house, freshly single and mothering alone, I unpacked my kitchen and got to work on a briny mushroom dish. I ate it alone that evening, on the sun porch of the house, where I’d placed a small table and two chairs. The room was accessed through two slim French doors and was entirely encased in large paned windows on the surrounding three sides. I lit candles, poured a large glass of red, and completely immersed myself in the dish, the setting, and the absolute satisfaction of knowing I’d made the right choice for me and my daughter. It was then that I realized how important the experience of a meal was, how it went beyond the cooking. I thought back to the times in Kelly’s kitchen, where the music, conversation, and fresh flowers on the tiny café table had given shape and definition to those nights, how she’d not only been cooking a meal for us to share, but creating a space that was welcoming, beautiful, and encompassed what home should be.
I still find myself in the kitchen, creating. I’m more adventurous now, and a bit devil-may-care when it comes to tossing ingredients around. I’ve settled into my way of being in my kitchen. I am continually evolving and growing in my cooking, and I’ve begun to not only understand but advocate using seasonal produce and local ingredients. Choosing to become a vegetarian last year transitioned me into a new way of cooking, a way of viewing food as I never had before. I’m finally beginning to create my own recipes, which was a goal that I'd felt was so unattainable for so long. I am aware of the shift that will take place when I begin cooking while traveling full-time on a basic camp stove, a wood stove, and over an open fire out of doors.
I struggle with baking and often say I loathe it. It’s often too structured for me, reminding me strongly of my early days learning to cook (eight years ago). It intimidates me to start again, while I’m still honing the craft of savory. But as of late, I’ve found myself pulling out the flour, poring over cooking blogs and books, and making notes to myself as I slowly work flour and other substances into pliable doughs, crafting tarts and breads and rolls. I find myself deducing why the yeast didn’t react, and retracing my steps to unveil the mistake. I hugged a bag of wheat flour to my body a few days ago, while creating these rolls, while reaching for the oven timer at the same time, and managed to shower my face, hair, and person with pretty speckled flour bits.
Yet I’m finding some successes, and the move to baking more often has not been nearly as difficult as I’d expected. I’m not necessarily starting over, I’m just continuing to create. Continuing to self-medicate by the very art of cooking, finding myself invigorated by the smashing of the garlic and the herbs, the slicing of the onion, the sprinkling of the flour onto the clean countertop and the pound of the dough. And later, I catch a whiff of garlic and it’s on my hands at the close of each day, a subtle reminder of what I’ve put on the table, and how it came to be.
Spiced Earl Grey Cinnamon Rolls
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
1 c. coconut sugar
1 c. almond milk
1 c. grapeseed or coconut oil
9 c. whole wheat flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. fast-rising yeast
1 c. coconut sugar
5 tbsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. clove
1 c. unsalted butter, melted
1 c. unsalted butter, melted
2 c. powdered sugar
3/4 c. steeped Earl Grey tea
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. clove
Scald the almond milk, oil, and sugar in a large Dutch oven, bring it just to the point of boil, then shut off burner. Wait until the mixture is cool before sprinkling on yeast, and then let sit for one minute. Add eight cups of flour to mixture, stir thoroughly until well combined. Knead slightly, then put ball of dough back into Dutch oven, cover with a linen towel, and set in a warm place for one hour. After dough has risen, add one more cup of flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Knead with fingers to combine. Sprinkle flour on a clean countertop and knead dough thoroughly. Begin rolling out dough into a long, thin strip. It should be about three feet long, maybe a bit less, and about a foot in width. Melt butter and pour over dough, spreading it evenly. Add sugar and spices, and then begin rolling the dough slowly, working in sections, tightly rolling the dough. Tightly pinch the ends as you roll. Take a sharp knife, run it under warm water, and then quickly slice into your dough in one-inch or slightly less increments. Place in a baking dish, close together, but not touching. Let the rolls rise a bit more, maybe five to ten minutes, on top of the warmed oven. Slide into the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, keep a close eye on the rolls and don't let them brown.
While the rolls bake, melt a cup of butter for the frosting and brew your Earl Grey tea. Mix the butter, sugar, spices, and tea in a small saucepan. Turn burner to low and stir the frosting while it heats, being sure to not leave the stove. When the rolls are finished baking, generously pour the frosting on top of the cinnamon rolls. Serve immediately, they are best warm.