Sunday, December 13, 2009

Savoring the Sweet


I like to bake.

Baking appeals not only to my insatiable appetite for sweets, but also to my love of order, my passion for following directions. (Yes, it is possible to feel passion for following directions.)  I like to cook, too, but not in the same way.  To cook well, I think, takes improvisation.  And, as you may have gleaned, I am not all that comfortable with improvisation.  (But that, perhaps, is a topic for another post.)

Yesterday, Big Boy and I were baking chocolate chip cookies.  (Baking with a toddler and the ample metaphors it affords is yet another topic for yet another post.)  To me, the perfect chocolate chip cookie is the Holy Grail of the confectionery world.

The ideal cookie can't be too chewy.  It can't be too crispy.  The ratio of chocolate chip to cookie dough must be just right.  The chip itself can't be too sweet or too bitter.  The center of the cookie must not be undercooked.  (A common sin of the chocolate chip cookies available in many bakeries.)  And the cookie must have just the right amount of salt.

Yes, salt. 

That delectably sweet cookie needs to have the precise punch of salt. 

Dorie Greenspan, author of my favorite recent baking cookbook, Baking: From My Home to Yours, helped teach me this lesson, one which I think applies to cookies and - wait for it - to life.  In the New York Times article, "Perfection? Hint: It's Warm and Has a Secret," a number of noted bakers shared their theories on what makes the perfect chocolate chip cookie.  My eyes instantly widened when I saw my beloved Dorie among those interviewed.
Although unsure she could bring anything new to the party, she went through the usual checklist: read through the recipe first, make sure all the ingredients are at room temperature, use the best-quality ingredients you can find, don’t overmix. Then she hit upon something everyone else had missed, and some home bakers are nervous about: salt.
“You can’t underestimate the importance of salt in sweet baked goods,” she said. Salt, in the dough and sprinkled on top, adds dimension that can lift even a plebeian cookie...Five years ago, sea salt as a must-have ingredient and garnish for sweets wouldn’t have registered on the radar of many home bakers, but now it has become almost commonplace, in part because of Ms. Greenspan’s unwavering belief in its virtue.
And that's just it, isn't it?  Salty in the sweet.  (You know, Sweet | Salty.)  Think about it: how often have you heard someone express a desire for something savory when they're eating something sweet?  For something sweet when they're eating something salty?  For a coffee break in the middle of an afternoon at work?  For a rest stop on a long drive?  For a languorous stretch in the middle of a session at the computer?  For a chance to stop and bake cookies with a two year old in the middle of a Saturday morning of writing?

And isn't that a metaphor (hi, Aidan) for life?   A treacly tonic for our elusive quest for balance?  A gastronomic reminder to stop and smell the flour?

Variety.  It's the spice of life.  It's the salt in the cookies.  Bon appetit.

What little treats do you give yourself every day?  What puts the salty in your sweet?

10 comments:

  1. Well, this made me smile, and I have a feeling your cookies are LOT better than my cookies and they make me want a cookie even at 8 in the morning!

    This also sparked a post (which I hesitate to hang out there so early, still fussing with moving content) - but - indeed - your metaphor of salty and sweet is all too true. The sweet moments are many, and certainly highs. But without the proverbial tougher moments we would not appreciate them quite so much. So it is about the balance - if we can find it - only a small amount of salt (savory) to offset the sweet.

    And balance is terribly difficult when you're a mother. You're pulled in every direction, often simultaneously. (Which leaves me wondering how mothers like Nicki with SIX ever survive at all - not to mention, in my grandparents' day, where it was routine to have 8 or 9 children or more; one of my grandmothers was one of 11 children - CAN YOU IMAGINE???)

    Balance? No clue. Hit or miss. A breath in a busy day. An uninterrupted hour to write, or even 30 minutes (when they were little). Or just walk, walk, walk. Even 30 minutes...

    Metaphors aside, picturing you baking with a toddler made me smile. (Seeing the world through their eyes - and firsts - helps us appreciate the essentials.)

    Now you've made me hungry! For chocolate! In the morning...

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  2. Oooh. The sweet/salty dichotomy, the metaphors, the link my way. This post is delectable :) I am a huge salt person. I have the History of Salt book sitting on my desk, waiting to be devoured. I also love the combination of sweet and savory...

    I wish I loved baking. Husband and the girls are in the kitchen baking banana bread as I sit here hiding behind my screen commending your yummy post.

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  3. A couple of years ago, someone gave me some cookies and I was convinced for two years that she had accidentally put salt on top instead of sugar. A week and a half ago, someone who'd gotten the same batch of cookies told me that it was intentional and she thought the cookies were delicious. I had been unable to eat them. I am definitely still a sweet girl, not salty. At least with cookies.

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  4. Yes, baking. Today is Christmas Cookie Day at our house. I have six recipes lined up. And every single one of them contains salt. A pinch. But without it, none of them would be right.

    I think you may have summarized how I feel about, well, everything with this post.

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  5. I also love baking. Though I'm a casual baker, not as much of a careful rule-follower as I should be (or as most people - including me - expect I would be). I have tried making chocolate chip cookies with sea salt sprinkled on top and WOW ... delicious.
    Yum!

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  6. I will have to try that. Or, rather, Husband will :)

    My treat is tea - I drink my tea and refuse to hold any Mommy visiting hours while I do.

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  7. God, I have a basement full of stinky teenage boys as we speak. I am so much like you and yet so opposite; you find comfort in the directions, the clarity of baking.

    I prefer cooking because I can just say "screw it all" and do whatever I think best.

    But the basic foundation is the same: we tie on the apron (or not) mix things together, hope for magic, and serve it up because we love.

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  8. I'm with Kitch here. I love the END RESULT of baking but love the improv of cooking. It fits my style. Don't have to follow directions so closely, can make mistakes. I guess cooking is more the IM-perfectionist! That's me! BUT, maybe I should try throwing a little salt into my baking. I'm the one who always decides, eh, who needs the salt? I always TAKE OUT the salt. And I see that's a big mistake now. Maybe this is why my days don't always feel so balanced. I always take out the salt and leave the sweet. I'm sensing my days would be more fulfilled with the savory added back in. OK - I've taken this metaphor as far as I possibly can.

    Great post!

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  9. Hi Kristen,
    Well, I do like to bake but I don't eat it, for many, many voluminous reasons, the least of which is that I used to be really, really fat. But my kids love to bake and so we do and, I have to say, it's a lot of fun for them, never having to worry about sharing with me! Husband is another matter...

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  10. I, too, am a baker. I love to bake. I love to create recipes. I love to cook, also. I find some comfort in knowing that what I am making can sustain - providing they at least try it - those I love.

    I have yet to start the holiday baking but have friends coming over on Friday, a Christmas luncheon on Wed, and a party on Saturday. I will have to get cracking.

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