I made a failed cake yesterday. I loathe few things more than failed foodstuffs, but like most anything, they require a bit of failure now and then to season a person into sanity. It was a pineapple upside-down cake, and while a specific procedural error led to the failure, the real cause of the soupy, inedible (but still quite deliciously fragrant, because fuck me) disaster that flowed out of my pan was a momentary preference for not thinking.
In general I don’t use recipes when cooking, though only yesterday did I really understand why. Inasmuch as a recipe presents itself as a complete set of instructions and a material rider, it offers a replacement for thinking, if you’re prone to succumbing to that sort of thing. So a recipe for pineapple upside-down cake that calls for fresh fruit and doesn’t mention the need to wring the juice from the cut pieces nor to evaporate extra juice with a long, slow, caramel-covered sauna over low flame is a recipe for sludge –similar to the substance occupying the space between your ears as you mindlessly list-check and step yourself along.
Here’s version one, in all its abortive glory:
The conversation upon opening the springform went something like this:
Person Promised Cake: “So…how many cups of water did you put in here?”
Me: “…water?! There’s no water.”
PPC: “You put some water in here. Some liquid with water in it.”
Me: “Uh, well the caramel had like a tablespoon of cognac in it…the batter had around four.”
PPC: “Nah, you put like a cup of water in here.”
I was incredulous and combative until the virgin pineapple was finally dragged on stage. This’d be another symptom of eschewing thinking for the instructions. It didn’t call for a cup of water, I didn’t just randomly throw uncalled for things in, obviously I didn’t put a cup, a whole cup, even, of water in there! Except I did, because the poor pineapple is simply going to do what it does without a care for what should be or what someone else assumed it’d do.
It’s not that cooking can’t be learned in the presence of recipes, just as it’s not true that math can’t be done with calculators. The problem is that relying on such things to do one’s thinking for oneself is a quick ticket to amorphous mush, of whatever kind follows from the inputs. I never knew what the fuck I was doing with basic math until I stopped using calculators and did things in my head, and I only learned how to cook well when I became actively engaged in making new things, which absolutely as a first step requires thinking. Faking understanding with tools may go unpunished for a while, especially in an environment marked by mickey mouse tests and tasters and “scores” that reflect what should be rather than what is. Math, cake, or anything else, though –it’ll fall apart at some point, and the more you seek to find fault with the tools rather than with yourself, the worse it’ll be.
Here’s version two, which landed upside down cake firmly in my repertoire:
It’s a banal accomplishment in the grand scheme of things, but served as an important reminder of the wasteful stupidity of tuning out, and of the pernicious poison of poorly-chosen submission.