Can You Use a Paring Knife to Split Hairs?

By Adam Kraemer 

I’ve stated before that my mom is an excellent cook. I think I’ve also stated before that my dad’s mom was not at all an excellent cook, but she was an excellent baker. I think I’ve also stated that I’m an excellent person who deserves to be written down in history as such.

Okay, maybe I’ve never stated that last one, but I’m pretty sure you’ve all thought it.

Anyway, you may be asking yourselves right now, “What’s the difference between a baker and a cook?” Or you might be asking, “Does he really think we feel that way about him?” I’ll answer the latter question first: maybe.

The first question, however, is as much about process as it is about ingredients. I mean, of course everyone knows that generally a baker is someone who makes, for lack of a better generality, desserts. Cookies, cakes, pies, brownies, tarts, etc. Sure, there are exceptions (pretzels, for example), but let’s not concentrate on those. Plus, my grandmother never once made pretzels.

To be a cook — or a fine cook, a chef — in my mind, at least, tends to cover the other food groupings. For starters, stuff not necessarily made in an oven. A frying pan, for example. You rarely get good cakes out of frying pans. Or a slow cooker. Or a wok. Try making a pie in a wok some day.

So, at least for the purposes of this entry, I think we can agree on basic definitions of cook vs. baker. At least in terms of ingredients. As far as process goes, my grandmother always followed recipes to a T. Seriously. “Season to taste” was never an instruction in anything she ever made and creativity didn’t really enter the picture. However, no one really wants all that much creativity in their baking, which is what made her such an excellent baker. The cookies she made me in 1982 tasted exactly like the cookies she made me in 1992. For her, creativity meant that she once mixed peanut butter chips and chocolate chips in the same cake. She once used mint icing.

For my mom, however, creativity makes her an excellent cook, but a frustrated baker. She could take a recipe that started as chicken and leftovers and turn it into a gourmet meal in just a few hours. However, she never wrote down any of the recipes as she made them, so many of her best meals as I was growing up were just one-offs. “Mom, that was amazing. What was in that?”

“Umm… a little of this and a little of that. I don’t remember. Cumin and coriander, probably. I think I added some mustard….”

“Great, we’ll have to have it again...apparently never.”

I like to think I fall somewhere in between. I can follow a recipe without deviation, but I also know how to try things as I make them and determine what they might be missing. I once even ordered hot and sour soup that was so awful, I had to doctor it myself. What I wound up with was so good, I almost brought it back to the restaurant to show them what their soup should taste like.

I mention all of this because I stumbled upon an excellent article (or, at least, webpage) on the Weight Watchers site today. A bunch of how-to videos on everything from Baked Chicken to Maple Pecan Grilled Bananas to Shakshouka to Chocolate Soufflés. Check it out here. Also, if you could tell me what shakshouka is, I’d appreciate it. I’d look it up myself, but you know how busy I am, what with the … thing … and all.

I’m also reminded, of course, of that brilliant Saturday Night Live sketch in which Dan Aykroyd played Julia Child. It’s not for the very squeamish, but if you can stand the sight of seriously ridiculous fake blood, I’m sure you can find it online. And, yes, every time I watch a cooking show, I can’t help but think, “Oh, I’ve cut the dickens out of my thumb.”

I’ll leave you with that thought.

Talk to you soon.

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