A recent viewing of the cult classic “Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter” justified the purchase of several jumbo boxes of Movie Candy, including Milk Duds, Raisinettes, and, of course, the original malted milk balls themselves, Whoppers. I mercifully don’t remember much about the movie, but I do remember glancing at the box of Whoppers and noticing that one full panel was devoted to suggested recipes. That’s right, recipes built around Whoppers. I’ll never claim to have the best desk-job ever, but at that moment I was glad that my list of working responsibilities has never included inventing recipes based on an ingredient that is used as the “O” in its own name on the box.
I tried to imagine the direction I would have gone in. High-brow, with dishes like Whopper-Crusted Salmon? Baked Asparagus with Whopper Apricot Glaze? Given that the recipes were displayed under the heading, “Whoppin’ Recipes”, I decided this was probably not the route that had been taken. In fact, upon closer inspection, two of the three recipes ended with the word Pie. This was not surprising. I should probably be a little more forgiving of the creative spirit of the Whopper box recipe suggestions. After all, my own culinary creativity tends to stem from sheer laziness and an understocked kitchen. Craving midnight Mac & Cheese, but out of milk? Flavored coffee creamer will do in a pinch! So will soy milk, half & half, and, once during the holidays, Eggnog.
In fact, I am a big fan of recipe substitutions. It is much easier to hunt through your cabinets and find some other, similarly-colored ingredient to use than to put on your coat and go around the corner to the store. Thus I once used heavy cream in lieu of buttermilk, and shortly thereafter was told by two people that you can essentially make buttermilk by adding lemon juice– not butter! to milk. But really, who has lemon juice lying around? And forget about milk.
While my earliest childhood forays into the culinary field involved making ‘soup’ out of things that dissolved in water (think mints), the seeds of my real interest in cooking blossomed on a stony path bordered by an EZ Bake Oven. For those of us who never had the privilege, baking with an EZ Bake Oven in the late eighties was baking by lightbulb. I use the term ‘baking’ in the broadest sense possible, because often it was more like ‘warming’, or ‘shining a bright light on’ your tiny confections. Cakes and cookies that sprang fully-formed from the forehead of the EZ Bake Oven were clearly inferior in every way to the real thing, particularly where texture and portion size were concerned, unless you like spending an hour to bake four pale cookies the size of nickels. I don’t blame my mother for holding me off of the real oven for as long as possible, however, especially considering that my recipe repetoire at that point was limited to Tic Tac Soup.
I still remember fondly the time my little sister and I, given the job of making dessert for that evening, worked all day baking cakes the size of decks of cards and batch after four cookie batch. We made signs advertising the event and hung them up around the apartment. The dessert menu we devised that night included sugar cookies and imaginatively titled “Brownie Balls”. One of my signs cleverly alternated between words written in large inch-high letters and words in tiny print. Thus, when read from afar you missed the words ‘cookie’ and ‘brownie’ and the sign announced, “SUGAR AND BALLS FOR DESSERT TONIGHT”. My four year old sister’s sign read, in large shaky letters, “IF YOU LIKK COOKIES, YOU WILL LIKK OUR COOKIES”. My parents still have those signs. It was not until later that I realized our posters were more responsible than our dessert for the amount of choking they did that evening.
Now, I use the grown-up oven! And most of my recipes do not involve adding water to powdered mixes (I said most). My interest in cooking and baking has grown, though my ambition, sadly, has stayed the same size. I have made many of the dishes in my roomate’s Betty Crocker Cookbook, and have had moderate success following several online recipes. But the gauntlet landed at my feet when I purchased my very own copy of Joy of Cooking. Flipping through it in my initial excitement, I found I had trouble identifying and/or pronouncing the names of roughtly 70% of the recipes (Quick Pink Chaud-Froid, I’m looking in your direction).
Joy of Cooking is a cookbook which takes for granted that you have access to as well as a working knowledge of Buckwheat Groats (which I capitalize out of concern that it is the name of a person), and that you may someday need to know how to prepare and cook a bear. It is the only cookbook I ever felt like apologizing to. “Um, Octopus Pasta Sauce sounds really good, Joy of Cooking, but I kind of just wanted to make spinach dip, if you don’t mind.” It is no small thing to go from recipes that show a measuring-cup half filled with light-blue liquid to indicate that you need to add a half-cup of water, with a diagram of a spoon to indicate stirring (thanks, Betty Crocker!), to recipes that begin with the words, “Draw and cut free from the shell 1 armadillo. Discard fat and all but the back meat.”
If you think Twister when you read the word ‘Game’; if you prefer pretty photographs of cakes to chilling line drawings of a hiking boot firmly planted on the head of a squirrel as the squirrel is stripped of its hide, then this may not be the cook book for you. Sometimes I feel that Joy of Cooking would be more accurately titled if the word ‘Joy’ were replaced by the word ‘Fear’ and the words ‘of Cooking’ were replaced by the words ‘of Joy of Cooking’. The first recipe I made from this book was a simple coffeecake, and throughout the ordeal I almost expected Irma S. Rombauer to jump from the pages, rap my knuckles with a wooden spoon and cry, “I said UNSALTED butter, you fool!” Like some sort of mystical Tome of Spirits, to this day every time I open that book I can hear spirits moaning, “You call that braaaaaising?”
Nonetheless, I will keep trying. While I may never churn my own butter, will continue to insist that chocolate chips are an appropriate substitution for nearly every ingredient, and will probably never perfect a Blanquette De Veau (I bet you don’t know what that is either), hopefully I will someday return the investment my parents made in my future by buying me that lightbulb oven.