Search This Blog

Saturday, January 2, 2016

A New Year 1, 2, 3

A small kitchen is necessarily kept simple. There is no room for a dishwasher, for instance, and nowhere to stack all the bowls and utensils for one big wash-up later on. Instead the cook is motivated to keep dishes washed up, a few at a time, by hand, during the food preparation and cooking process. Washing dishes by hand can be meditative. For me it’s often time to begin planning out a blog post, writing and rewriting in my head before sitting down to look at words in sentences.

Limited counter and storage space keep electric appliances to a minimum. Having dishcloths, towels, spices, and utensils close at hand is a higher priority, and often, from years of simple habits, I reach automatically for a hand whisk rather than hunt up the electric mixer.

But there is no substitute for a waffle iron.

My mother, my earliest teacher of kitchen wisdom, knows this well, and it was she who gave me my waffle iron. Most of the time, it’s hidden away in the back of a cupboard, but a couple times a year, on special occasions, out it comes, and New Year’s Day morning was one of those special occasions. A holiday, of course, meant a relaxed morning at home, but besides that, I’d fallen behind in my bread baking over a stretch of unusual holiday scheduling at the bookstore. No eggs without toast for David! But he loves waffles.

For some home cooks, simplicity means mixes and frozen entrees. For me it usually means cooking slowly, from scratch, with fresh and organic ingredients, but I have to admit that on New Year’s Day I had a box of pancake mix in my cupboard -- pancake mix, not pancake and waffle mix, though. So out came my oldest and most trusted cookbook, because I was going to be improvising and needed to check several recipes, both for pancakes and for waffles, to see what I would need to add to the mix. And if not for that need to improvise, I would never be writing about my New Year’s Day waffles at all. From a mix? Please!

The most basic difference between pancakes and waffles is that the eggs are separated in the making of waffles, the egg whites beaten stiff and gently folded into the other ingredients at the very end. A bit of shortening is also called for in waffle batter. So I melted a couple tablespoons of butter and separated three eggs (I was flying by the seat of my pants, but two just didn’t feel like enough), and also substituted whole milk for the water called for on the pancake mix box. It all seemed reasonable, but would it work?

The moment of truth is opening the waffle iron to take out the first waffle. It is an anxious moment! Will the hoped-for waffle stick to the iron? Will it tear apart? Or will it retain its integrity but be disappointing in texture or taste?

Practically perfect! The kitchen new year is off to a good start!

Number 2 kitchen project of the day was hoppin’ john. Good ham, chopped finely, cooked up with chopped onions. (How can any dish fail when it begins with an onion?) Chicken broth from the freezer. White and wild rice. Organic (yes, canned) black-eyed peas from a company right here in Leelanau Township.

Black-eyed peas always make me think of my mother’s stepfather, who grew up in northern Florida. Wild rice carries my mind up to the Upper Peninsula, the birthplace also of the maple syrup on the morning’s waffles, gift of a writer friend. And of course I’d already been thinking of my mother, who gave me the waffle iron. So you can see, what with all those memories, it was pretty crowded in my tiny kitchen on New Year’s morning. Fragrant, too.

We were invited to a neighborhood party in the late afternoon, inspiring me to undertake NYD kitchen project #3, sour cream pumpkin cake, made entirely from scratch, with no canned ingredients or mixes. I had frozen the excess cooked, mashed pumpkin from my Thanksgiving Day pie and had everything else in the refrigerator or cupboards.

I rarely bake cakes. Pies, yes. Cakes, seldom. Consequently, every cake project is a learning experience for me, and one lesson I learned the last time around was that mixing cake batter by hand with a whisk or wooden spoon is more than I can successfully manage. My arm would fall out of its socket before the batter achieved desired smoothness, the necessary prelude to a light finished cake. 

Out came that electric hand mixer, after all. Oh, my god, the roar! I felt as if I were standing on a helicopter pad, in a war zone, surrounded by menacing airborne machines! The front of the mixer even looks menacing, doesn’t it? 

But the batter grew smoother by the minute.

I love the moment, not captured here on camera, where cake batter is poured into a pan, falling from bowl to pan in a series of graceful folds. That is a moment of grace, full of promise. And then the pan goes into the oven. A twist of the timer. (Simple, in the Paris kitchen!) [photo of timer] And gradually a spicy aroma emanates from the tiny kitchen and fills the old farmhouse. Waiting, writing....

The toothpick (test for doneness) comes out clean. The cake smells delicious. It looks a bit pale and plain, but I don’t feel like making streusel topping. Perhaps a dusting of brown sugar? Or cinnamon sugar? Let is cool and sift on powdered sugar? How about sifted powder sugar and cinnamon. I think I’ll go that last route.

Well, it’s been a good morning in the kitchen. Now it’s early afternoon and time for tea.

Postscript: Was that cake not strangely pale? Oddly flat? When it was cut into at the party (luckily, I had also taken my hoppin’ john), the peculiar texture was not at all what I’d hoped or expected. People liked it anyway, most for being “not too sweet.” But what went wrong? Baking powder too old? Around 5 a.m. the answer came to me. I remembered photographs, in that oldest of my cookbooks, of popovers at different oven temperatures. I must have bumped into the dial on one of my passes through the doorway. Oven temperature too low would give exactly the result I got.

Which goes to show that no kitchen is so small that it will not yield failures as well as successes. In that the kitchen is a microcosm of life. And in the kitchen, as in life beyond it, failure usually has something to teach. Good reminder for the first day of a new year, which will no doubt bring new challenges on many fronts.


  1. So many memories, feelings and thoughts as I read this. Waffles were special at our house too...not done very often, as our family numbered six and that took awhile. But we have (and I still have) my Aunt's recipe. It's in my recipe box and when I'm looking for something else I often see it and pause. I don't own a waffle iron. I have often thought I needed one.

    And washing as you go. I do that, even though I'm lucky enough to have a dishwasher. When I'm baking or cooking I like to handwash to big pots and bowls and utensils as I go. I like my hands in warm soapy water, I like the feeling of accomplishment. I like not having a disaster in the sink when I've finished cooking.

    And baking for an event. Don't you just want to cut into it before you go? You never know what's in there. If it tasted good then it was fine. No one but you knows what it was supposed to look like.

    Happy New Year. 2016 has promise.

    1. Dawn, thanks for leaving a comment here. Maybe I should have photographed my waffle iron, too? It's small but would be enough for your two-person, one-dog household. Cake, though -- no, it was definitely disappointing. Everyone knows what a cake should look like when cut. But live and learn.

      Now I'm puzzling over why another friend could not see a way to leave a comment. Different browser, maybe?