I have just finished a slice of my second scratch cake. It's not so much that I needed a month and a half to recover from the butthurt of my first scratch cake as that I just don't like cake as much as pie and therefore don't care to make it for myself but also don't want to inflict loved family members with more experimentation.

It worked out much better. Properly melting the baker's chocolate and using fresh baking soda resulted in a product that was authentically cakelike. (Or is every cake intrinsically "cakelike"? I've heard it argued that a female cannot do something that is unfeminine.) I looked hard for a completely different frosting recipe and tried this. I probably shouldn't have been so desperate as to try an unrated recipe, because I don't know if it failed to thicken because I did it wrong or because it isn't a great recipe. But it turned out to be a fairly credible chocolate sauce that I drizzled over the cake, so no great loss. It'll be a pleasant dessert for the next few days.

And this topic reminds me that I need to perform important research FOR SCIENCE!

Poll #1063 What do you put in your hole?
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 3

Which is funnier?

View Answers

"Shut your piehole!"
0 (0.0%)

"Shut your cakehole!"
1 (33.3%)

They are equally hilarious
1 (33.3%)

They are equally ... what is the opposite of hilarious?
1 (33.3%)

Of course, I can make pies. Three honest no-fooling different kinds of pies. But my family, they deserve even better than that. So I decided that I would bring a scratch cake to our Independence Day get-together. It's a cake, what could be hard?

What, indeed? )

Of course, my people are a noble and fearless folk, and probably about half of them have made their own first scratch cakes before, so they eat it and praise it.

In other news, I gave my high-school graduating cousin paperback copies of a world atlas and Strunk and White, as I couldn't decide to be confident enough to give her a leather-bound copy of either. She gave the latter that withering teenager look that could only have meant "What the hell is a strunk?" because for some reason we don't teach kids that style guides are extant and essential for college. But she flipped through it and read the back jacket endorsements and all of the college graduates in this half of her family and concluded that it was "cool". So I win this round of Matthew vs. Teenager.
I bought a spice rack probably over ten years ago when I started realizing that kitchens can be used for more than boiling water and microwaving burritos. It came along with eighteen bottles of herbs and spices. Of course, I have to bear my share of the blame for buying an eighteen-slot spice rack, but at the end of the day I suspect that I am sadly provincial AND they were needlessly esoteric or perhaps taking unfair advantage of the Marjoram Glut of 1997.

Let us review these bottles. Ones in parentheses are not part of the original set, and sit in separate bottles above the rack.

Well-understood: Chopped onion, garlic salt, onion salt, oregano, parsley, sweet basil, thyme, (cinnamon), (dill weed), (nutmeg)

Opened but probably only used once for a specific long-forgotten recipe: Bay leaves, fennel seed, savory, (cayenne powder)

Never opened: Allspice, celery seed, coriander seed, dill seed, mustard seed, marjoram, peppermint, spearmint

So, in celebration of spring cleaning rituals and the simplification of life, I'm in a vague mood to start acknowledging that my spice rack is not the House of Lords and some of these hereditary peerages might need to be wiped out to make room for exciting twenty-first century e-spices. Not even the things I use a lot are immune; I can chop my own damned onions and I think that I will be replacing the garlic and onion salts with their respective powders.

Any nominees for expulsion and membership would be most welcome.
My experience with pie has mostly reached a comfortable low-grade mastery. Not that I'm a professional pastry chef, but I can make a banana cream pie out of flour, sugar, salt, butter, water, eggs, vanilla, and bananas with my eyes closed. I don't intend to come across as smug, but I don't quite get the notion that crusts are frighteningly difficult. Maybe they were fifty years ago, but with a food processor and a pie crust bag it really isn't any harder than bread. I wish I could get into online videography *kicks Vista* so I could make some YouTube tutorials for newbie geek cooks like me.

What I evidently can't do is meringue. I gather that lots of people have trouble with it, but argh the weeping! I've overcooked the pies, I've pre-cooked the egg whites, I think they only thing I haven't tried is locking the pie into a closet with a dehumidifier. Don't think I won't. What's your secret?
(Actually, I joke. Cooking for Dummies is actually an outstanding and non-insulting book for people who don't know a pot from a saucepan, the difference between oil and butter, or how much a dash of salt is, and that's knowledge that didn't come to some people through no fault of their own. Joy of Cooking is a great reference but a lousy primer.)

Anyway, I stand before you as a cook. And that's new; kindly people have told me that I have the skills of a sous-chef, but until about six months ago I was always running on the rails. I was a recipe monkey, in the same sense that a code monkey is not a software engineer. But now I have a much better appreciation, for those things that I do cook, of why those ingredients are there and how changing them changes the food that comes out at the end. It's fun. Better yet, it's cheap.

I started out very simply with things like hamburgers on the George Foreman grill and Tater Tots in the toaster oven, shredded grilled chicken breast on a bed of rice-cooker rice, Kraft Dinner with fried Italian sausage mixed in. Over time, I started Julienne-ing my own potatoes, baking my own hamburger buns, and making fresh pasta and pizzas, and just made my first dish of rice and beans yesterday. In a routine week, the only processed food I eat is spaghetti sauce.

Also, with my parents wintering in Florida, I took over the dessert duties for family dinners. Again, this started modestly with apple crisps and Toll House cookies, but I've worked up to making my own homemade pies. With homemade crust. And homemade meringue. I admit that the pies are not winning blue ribbons yet, but they taste just fine and presentation will come with more experience.

Next up is the final loin-girding: roasting a whole chicken. I don't know why it seems daunting. I am Matthew, master of pie. Bread trembles before my might, I am single-handedly putting the ravioli market out of business. Is it that it is recognizably an ex-animal? That making it wrong could make me dead from salmonella or trichinosis or whatnot? I don't know, but it's a wall I've been putting off. I also don't have a roasting rack.


Matthew Daly

December 2012

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