Cooking is both art and science and the results can be either fun and delicious or awful and humiliating. It’s a lot like playing Blackjack. Skill, preparedness and a bit of luck can make both quite enjoyable.
It is incumbent upon us, gamblers and cooks, to prepare ourselves, to learn the rules, to do everything we can in order to increase the possibility that our experience will be pleasing to ourselves and those around us. (I find the thief and the lover are usually much better prepared.)
In spite of my own best efforts, one must sometimes depend on the preparedness of others and from this I have suffered occasional frustration in both cooking and gambling.
A common casino blackjack table is often referred to in baseball terms. The person sitting to the left of the dealer is called the first base position. The last person to take cards to the right of the dealer is referred to as third base. If you consider a table of gamblers in this way it soon becomes apparent that the decisions made by the person sitting at third base can affect everyone at the table.
There are many strategies for playing blackjack and although the best require years of training and a brilliant mind some require only that you pay attention in order not to be killed by your own hand. This can be compared to looking both ways before you cross the street. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone sitting at third base walk directly into the path of a Mack truck and worse, take all of us with them.
For example, the simplest rule of all for the casual, non-brilliant, non-card counting player is: If the dealer shows a six or less, “stand” if you are holding a total of twelve through sixteen. While I’m sure there may be exceptions to this rule and an expert card counter could tell you what they are, it is nonetheless a good general rule.
Reason: The dealer must show one card. Let’s say that card is a six. We also know the dealer must take cards until they reach seventeen. So if the dealer has a six showing, even if they have a ten below (total sixteen) they MUST hit. Any card of value six or greater and they bust. The player at third base on the other hand has the opportunity to pass.
If the player at third base is holding a twelve or a fourteen for example, why in the world would that player take a card? If they draw a ten and bust they only lose their bet, but if having passed, the dealer draws the ten instead we all win!
Well, I suppose this is one of the great mysteries of life, like the mystery of the Holy Trinity. What would Jesus do at third base? He would STAND at twelve if the dealer had a six showing.
Upon reflection my luck at cooking has been much better. In fact it was a good bit of luck (and a few adult beverages) that gave me the recipe that has become my wife’s favorite apple pie. We call it French Apple pie but I don’t really know if the French had anything to do with it. Since it is Bastille Day (Vive la France!) I think it is appropriate to share the secret of the French apple pie I “discovered” many years ago.
It is common for me to start baking around midnight, well after the kids have gone to bed. I begin by pouring myself a beer or a glass of wine. You should do the same (insert beverage of choice).
Then make a double pâte brisée for the crust. Use Plugra instead of American butter and the effect is even better. The next step is to let it chill for 45 minutes. Dividing the dough into two unequal parts is important here approximately 2/3 and 1/3. During this time you may peel the apples (more on that later) accompanied by another beverage.
Once the crust is ready I take it out of the refrigerator and roll it out. The larger of the two becomes the bottom and sides of a spring form mold.
Fill the center with at least 14 medium apples steeped in secret sauce (joy of cooking) and then cover with the remaining crust. Poke the top liberally and artistically to let steam escape. Some common designs at our house are x-mas trees, hearts and a hammer and sickle.
By now another beverage should be in order since I believe a well oiled pâtissier is a key ingredient to good baking. Place the assembled pie in the oven at about 325 for some time. How long depends on your oven, keep looking at it every few minutes.
Now comes the magic. One year I may have had a few too many beverages and after realizing the pie was ready I turned off the oven but instead of taking it out I left it in the oven and went to sleep (on the kitchen floor). When I arose and went looking for the pie I thought I had either eaten it all or lost it. A dingo stole my pie!
Then I looked in the oven and there was the most amazing French apple pie I had ever seen. The sugar had bubbled out between the top crust and the sides and delicately caramelized into a golden brown liquid that sealed the edges again as it cooled ever so slowly. If you do this correctly it tastes even better than it looks.
I should add that the above may also be prepared during the day and without the beverages but it is not as much fun.
Now for the apples: In the kitchen I have been hampered only by my own will or inability to follow instructions or when the tools or technology were not appropriate to the task at hand.
To this end I made a decision a long time ago to stack the deck. I realized that good cooks have good tools like good photographers have good cameras. A good knife is important and from that point on there is no end of excellent cook’s tools in the marketplace.
As an avid recycler I like shopping in second hand stores. Also, this gives me the opportunity to select from a wider variety of cook’s tools both past and present. I am partial to some tools. I like the old handled Pyrex measuring cups not the new. I prefer wooden handles to plastic or metal in some things. It conveys the sense of a hand-crafted tool of quality much better than injection molded plastic ever could.
Another thing I am always looking to do is to save time. Some tools are invaluable in this regard. One of my favorites is the apple peeler. I began making apple pies some years ago after tasting a delicious apple pie made from scratch. I decided then and there to begin making my own as it was worlds away from anything I had tasted before.
Having discovered the joys of homemade apple pie, I was now faced with another problem, how to peel fourteen apples quickly and efficiently. I know they may be placed in water with a few drops of lemon juice, but really, why not just figure out how to peel fourteen apples in less than forty-five minutes?
At first I was able to conscript my own children in the cause. Their efforts earned them each a small sliver of pie. Later when they grew up I was able to borrow neighbor children but their parents would then also demand a cut. Faced with diminishing returns, I looked about for a new tactic and realized, once again, technology was my friend; greedy little children and their parents were not.
My first peeler had a suction base that never stayed stuck to any surface and would invariably come loose and flop around. After ducking a bushel of projectile apples and many scraped knuckles, I resolved the problem with some C-clamps from my toolbox. The peeler became slightly more efficient but the effect was unwieldy and worse, unsightly.
There are two ways of finding things. The first is to go out looking for them. The second is to convince whatever it is you are looking for, to find you. I find the second method less strenuous, therefore preferable since I feel it imperative to live up to my family motto: “Otium cum dignitate” (Ease with Dignity).
This year I knew I wanted a new apple peeler. Yes, I know one can go online and order a kitchen tool from any of a number of online outlets but anyone can do that. Where is the fun of the hunt, the mystery of the possible? Besides, then I don’t get to talk to the ladies at the second hand shop and drive around on a lovely day and walk outside and stop at the farmer’s market on my way home. All in all it is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon even if I don’t buy anything.
At the local Goodwill recently I spied my prize. There it was, sitting on a shelf in plain sight, all alone and waiting for me. It was a peeler like the one I owned but with a built in screw down clamp and rubber bushings so as not to mar the surface. It even had a little stand attached. I could not have been happier.
It looked like it could only have been used once or twice. A good thing since I knew the blade still had lots of life in it and the overall condition was very good.
July may be reminiscent of barbecues and fireworks and summer celebrations but it always reminds me of Christmas. Every year about mid July I have an annual ritual. Convinced that I will change a lifetime of fiscal irresponsibility and abject procrastination I embark on my holiday preparations. I always start out with the very best intentions.
I write a list that usually begins:
Buy children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews gifts
Send cards to siblings
Remember to visit older family members
Attend Midnight Mass
Make French apple pie
Unfortunately by the second week of December, I am usually ducking creditors, using caller ID to avoid family members and cowering quietly in a corner of my kitchen eating pie. The last time I went to Midnight Mass I was on my way home from a bar and needed to use the bathroom.
Now it is Bastille Day and I resolve once more to amend my ways. But first I think I’ll have a beer. Seize Soixante-quatre anyone?