Sunday, June 13, 2010

My First Meal?

While my focaccia for the Bread Baker's Apprentice Challenge proofs in the refrigerator, I am taking a challenge of another sort. Inspired by Shauna, aka Gluten-Free Girl, I began searching my memory for the first meal I ever made as a child. It didn't take long to think of it. It wasn't organic. It wasn't natural. It wasn't even made in a real kitchen. It was brownies, baked with love in an Easy Bake Oven.

I can still remember huddling with my sisters around the "oven, " which resembled a tiny orange microwave, and blended perfectly with the decor of our 1970s rec room. We just opened a package of powdery chocolate, added some water and slid the pan into the oven. And how did our brownies bake? By the heat of an incandescent light bulb. The Easy Bake Oven was nothing more than an oven-shaped lamp, disguised as a toy. Genius!

We could hardly wait for the brownies to cool before devouring them, and scorched our taste buds in the process. They were raw in the middle, and the edges were crunchy if not slightly burnt.

My inner Alice Waters grows faint at the memory. But my inner 6-year-old wants to kick Alice to the curb. Those Easy Bake brownies were one of my first experiences with the alchemy of cooking. Powder + Water + Heat = Chocolatey Goodness. What could be more magical for a child? I still carry that wonder with me, every time I see flour, water and yeast transformed into bread. I see it in my five-year-old's eyes, as he kneads the dough for English muffins, and then enjoys them for breakfast.

I don't necessarily endorse the Easy Bake Oven as the most natural place to discover a love for food and cooking. In fact, I was kind of surprised to discover that it's still around. It seems like a naive relic of the 1970s when lawsuits and toy recalls weren't so plentiful. (I remember burning my fingers regularly.) It also seems to go against today's trend towards all things healthy, organic and sustainable. But when it comes to cooking, you have to start somewhere. In 30 years, I've gone from half-baked brownies to fresh, seasonal strawberry cake that's worthy of my daughter's birthday celebration. To quote another wacky relic of the 70s: You've come a long way, baby.

Bread Baker's Apprentice Cornbread: It's Not You. It's Me.

I wanted to love the cornbread from the Bread Baker's Apprentice. I really did. But there just weren't any sparks. I'll admit I made some pretty bold changes to the recipe without trying it first. I left off the bacon cracklings and halved the sugar. The result? It tasted like it needed ... something. Perhaps bacon? Or more sugar? What a genius idea. Perhaps I'll try following the recipe next time.

Even if I made the recipe just right, I'm not sure I would have fallen in love with this cornbread.

I'm sorry Peter Reinhart. It's not you. It's me.

Let's be honest. I was raised on corn bread by Jiffy. In my mind, it was pure magic. Take that little blue box (just 99 cents!), mix the powdery yellow contents with some milk and eggs and pour the lumpy batter into a cake pan. 45 minutes later you have corn bread -- light and golden, with a delicate balance of salty and sweet. The soft crumb dotted with the crisp bite of cornmeal was addictive. As far as I'm concerned it's still the gold standard. Of course, the list of ingredients is a mile long and many of them were likely invented in a laboratory. What does Michael Pollan say? If you can't pronounce it, don't eat it. But I managed to survive. And my memories are warm and wonderful. I always loved eating my Jiffy cornbread with my mom's homemade chili.

Corn bread comes in one hundred and one varieties and is steeped in memory and history. It is one of those foods that inspires heated debates. Those debates often divide along North and South, like the Civil War itself. Is the Bread Baker's Apprentice corn bread quintessentially southern? Did it offend my Yankee sensibilities? I may need to consult a culinary anthropologist to help untangle the deep roots of taste and memory I've uncovered here. In the meantime, I'm heading to Safeway to stock up on Jiffy.