I believe the true secret of successful cooking lies not in ingredients and recipes, but rather in experience and practice.
And having made such a sweeping generalisation, let me backtrack a little to explain how this topic came up in conversation yesterday.
Our dear friend Craig is an extremely talented baker. He popped in for a meal last night, and brought with him a pear and berry galette that he’d “thrown” together that afternoon. The pastry in the tart was fabulous – flaky, crisp and delicious. I’ve never been able to make anything like it. Craig explained that it was the simplest of recipes, comprising only flour, butter and water.
Now, I can take flour, butter and water and end up with a perfectly acceptable shortcrust pastry, but I have no idea how to make pastry that flakes away in sheets. Craig, on the other hand, has spent countless hours perfecting his craft, and can turn exactly the same ingredients into something completely different.
My elderly Hungarian neighbour is another great example – her vanilla kifli recipe has only a handful of ingredients, but years of experience and literally hundreds of batches have given her the necessary skill to produce cookies that are unparalleled. I’ve had the benefit of her expertise, which has allowed me to circumvent a decade or so of practice, but even after a couple of years of baking her recipe, I still can’t touch her offerings, which are known up and down our street as “June bikkies”.
The 21st century moves so rapidly that we’ve lost the patience to persevere. We want to be instantly good at all things, including cooking. We want recipes that will work perfectly each and every time – when they don’t, we’re inclined to dismiss them as faulty, or poorly written. Some skills, though, can only be attained through trial and error – everyone will burn caramel the first few times they try to make it, until they’ve learnt to recognise the exact shade the melted sugar turns just before it needs to come off the heat.
Modern society is intolerant of failure. It’s viewed with derision and contempt, rather than as the necessary learning process that it actually is. We forget that nearly every task becomes easy with sufficient practice, and every failure brings with it new knowledge. To never fail is to never improve.
We believe that we should celebrate our failures, because each and every one of them offers an opportunity for growth – they’re all stepping stones towards the final goal.
Let me give you a personal example – our very first loaves of sourdough bread were difficult to make and barely edible – we watched the clock to ensure the exact proving time, fussed about the hydration of the dough and measured the ingredients down to the last gram.
Now, after five years of weekly breadmaking, the process has become automatic – I mix together flour, water and starter in the morning, ignore it all day, and come back late in the afternoon to shape and bake it. I know instinctively when the dough is ready, and can intuitively adjust hydration levels and oven temperatures to suit fluctuations in flour quality and the responsiveness of my starter.
Along the way, I’ve had some spectacular disasters, with the occasional loaf that even the chickens wouldn’t eat (thankfully, the worms would). And whilst I’ve been disappointed when things have gone pear-shaped, I’ve always been grateful for the lessons learnt as a result of the stuff-ups. Without them, it’s unlikely my breadmaking would have progressed beyond its initial stages.
So, let me encourage you not to be disheartened when things don’t go exactly as planned in the kitchen. There is nothing “wrong” with what you’re doing – it really is just part of the learning process. You’re unlikely to repeat the same mistakes (although you’ll possibly make new ones), and eventually you’ll develop such mastery over your craft that, like Craig and June, you’ll be able to turn out magnificent creations on a whim!