You wouldn’t know it by looking at my Instagram feed, but by nature, I’m a cautious cook. Unless something is roasting comfortably in the oven, with a timer [or two!] ticking away, I tend to like to hover. I know, I know: it’s not a very good quality. But what if the pasta water boils over? What if I need to add cornstarch to thicken a sad sauce at the last minute? What if I forget to come give the onions a good stir?
Needless to say, I am also easily rattled – if there are more than three burners going, if I’m cooking for a crowd, or if I have to substitute an ingredient or tweak an instruction in a new-to-me recipe. In these moments, you’ll find me with more than just my curls unraveling.
My mom, on the other hand, is as décontractée [French for “relaxed”] as can be in the kitchen. After une gorgée de vin [a sip of wine] and with une bouchée de fromage [a little bite of cheese] in hand, she radiates contentment. She looks as comfortable scraping down the sides of a whirring Kitchen Aid as she does coaxing a stubborn middle rack out of a 425-degree oven. Sharp ceramic knives and pretty pliable spatulas and sturdy wooden spoons look like natural extensions of her arms. She’s a total tornado when left to her own devices, but I can’t help but feel a surge of warmth whenever I dust five fingers of flour from her jeans.
In this space, she has seemingly no qualms. If it doesn’t turn out hyper-bon [really good], tant pis [too bad]!
She does things like:
- Add 3 cups of zucchini to a perfectly acceptable chocolate cake [incredibly moist and fudgy, it turned out to be a unanimous family favorite]
- Stick a knob of ginger in the freezer [it won’t spoil or need to be peeled; just run a micro plane over the open end to quickly make zest]
- Extract the gizzards from a slimy raw turkey, without even wrinkling her nose [he looks much more presentable all stuffed and golden-brown, don’t you think?]
- Use an apparently arbitrary amount of molasses and maple syrup to compensate for that’s what we forgot in Honey and Cream Cheese Oatmeal Bread [tasted just as good as it looks]
- Dump a third of a cup of heavy cream on top of a halibut steak, in response to my complaint that it was going to be too plain [now I have a crush on cream…and it feels pretty serious]
- Trim and tie up 8 pounds of beef tenderloin that looked like it belonged strictly in a butcher’s capable hands [YouTube is the new Google!]
- Drench a gorgeously gooey gingerbread cake with lemon sauce, one night on a whim [when sweet met tart and warm met cool and they all lived happily ever after, with three pairs of stretchy pants on rotation]
AND, years ago [judging by the tea-colored recipe card I’m holding], she had the gall to try packing an entire meal inside a twist-tied loaf of homemade bread. Sidenote: yours won’t be missing an end, like ours is…as my brother says, “ya gotta eat!!”
I still haven’t learned how to make this alone yet – I’m a little apprehensive about working with yeast. This isn’t even an unfounded fear. You can kill yeast, you know! And here I hear my mom’s voice, gently infused with a smile: “You can also open another packet, dear…”
But today was a day where I just wanted to set up shop on the other side of our marble island and learn through osmosis. The whole thing comes together pretty quickly – and if I HAD left the kitchen, I would’ve missed her nimble fingers rolling out the dough and the little incisions that eventually join hands over the filling.
Said filling involves a ménage à trois of ham, cheese, and mustard. We added tomatoes this time too, but you absolutely must not omit the cornichons listed [as we had to do today – that’s what we forgot]. I am not a pickle person, but they belong in this recipe just as much as the flour and the sugar and the butter and the cheese do.
Mom still knows a thing or two! …Including that brushing bread with egg before you bake it will make it turn all kinds of appetizing.
And also, just as importantly…that men like meals like this. They like them a lot. In fact, meals like this can make a marriage.
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 packages Fleischmann’s RapidRise Yeast [I think this recipe was on the flip side of one of their packages way back when]
1 cup water
¼ cup Dijon Mustard
2 tablespoons butter
1 ½ chopped cooked ham [8 oz]
1 cup shredded Swiss cheese [4 oz]
½ cup chopped pickle
1 egg, beaten
Set aside 1 cup flour.
Mix remaining flour, sugar, salt, and yeast.
Heat water, mustard, and butter to 125 degrees F to 130 degrees F; stir into flour mixture.
Mix in enough reserved flour to make soft dough, and knead 4 minutes.
On a greased baking sheet, roll dough to 14×12-inches.
Sprinkle ham, cheese, and pickle down center third of dough length.
Make cuts from filling to dough edges at 1-inch intervals along sides of filling,
Bring strips from opposite sides of filling together; twist and place at an angle across filling; cover.
Place large shallow pan on counter; half-fill with boiling water.
Place baking sheet over pan; let dough rise 15 minutes.
Brush loaf with egg.
Bake at 375 degrees F for 25 minutes.
Serve warm from the oven, to a very hungry four or a saving-for-dessert six.