Monday, May 10, 2010

Dark Chocolate-Dipped Coconut Macaroons: Some Thoughts on the JOY of Cooking

Ahhh... the smell of toasted coconut filling your house on a late Sunday morning. The Splendid Table podcast is on in the background, and slippers are on your feet. The clouds are telling you that the kitchen is the place to be, and the promise of something sweet fills the air.

There's been a lot of discussion going on lately in the culinary world, thanks to this on-stage moment with Michael Ruhlman and Karen Page (here's the video clip), about this idea that we have no time to cook. Is it true? Or has the convenience industry convinced us that it's true for their benefit? Honestly, I don't know. It's probably both. But what I do know is that the ability to cook-- to bake a batch of cookies, to shake a simple salad dressing, to fry an egg--  is such a gift. I can't think of a more influential factor on the "Quality-O-Life Meter" than food.

I noticed that while I was making these macaroons, following a very simple (and very good) recipe on the back of the Baker's Angel Flake Coconut bag, a thought ran through my head like the occasional passing car on a neighborhood street: Am I doing this right? Am I doing this right? Am I doing this right?

It's true, after 10 years of professional cooking experience in some very classy places, after a culinary degree, after a whole lotta years cooking at home, I still often wonder, Am I doing this right?

And if someone like me, who's life revolves around food, is wondering that....what must the rest of America be thinking? I'm talking about the millions of people who think they can't cook, because of time or ability.

I often hear people say things like, "I'm a terrible cook. I can't boil water. I burn toast." Stuff like that. The first meal I served my family (circa age 9) was a macaroni salad I had scribbled down from "The Cajun Chef" (remember that guy?!) on PBS. It was AWFUL!! My family ate it with gusto, in one of the most generous gestures of love and support I've ever received. I was devastated with my failure.

But I kept at it. I learned a few tricks. The more I practiced, the less I failed. But still, all these years later, I DO sometimes fail. The pressure I felt coming out of culinary school, to always create something earth-shattering, innovative, and gourmet, was tremendous. It took a long time to get over that, and to accept the fact that although I occasionally like to put on a grand culinary performance, what excites me most about food is good home cooking, prepared with love. Ultimately, the lesson I learned is that if I have the POTENTIAL to create great food, I must first be willing to take chances, to allow myself to FAIL. The pressure we put on ourselves to put a masterpiece on the table is kind of a wasted opportunity. It takes the JOY out of cooking.

If I could tell my friends who claim they can't cook, one thing, it would be this: lighten up.

Saying "I can't cook," after a few failed attempts, is like sitting in front of a piano for the first time, and throwing up your hands because you can't play Bach. Practice doesn't necessarily make perfect. We're humans. We make mistakes. We over-salt the sauce, and forget about the croutons in the oven, and leave the fish on the grill a little too long. But if we come to ourselves with a little compassion, allowing the occasional car of insecurity (Am I doing this right??) to roll down the street with nothing more than a compassionate can be one of the most wonderful, and lasting gifts in a person's lifetime. A teacher. A lover. A comfort. A healer. A giver.

There I go again, getting all philosophical on you, and I'm probably preaching to the choir. I just wish every cook could know the joy I feel in the kitchen, even in spite of the occasional, inevitable bit of stress.

So, those Macaroons...turns out I WAS doing it right. They were delicious. Crisp-chewy and toasty-brown on the outside, moist and aromatic coconut goodness inside.

As I mentioned, the recipe is taken directly from the back of the Baker's Angel Flake Coconut Bag. I've made this a few times and can see no room for improvement. Hey, if it ain't broke...

These are the chewy-dense kind of macaroons. I make them about 3X bigger than the recipe recommends, bake for 30 minutes rather than the recommended 20, and then melt dark chocolate chips in the microwave and dip 'em. I also made some littles, flattened them into rounds, and made a sandwich-style macaroon. All shapes and sizes are welcome.


Margie said...

Still basking in the glory of toasted-coconut-goodness! I pulled this up on the computer and Logan goes "THOSE ARE GINNY"S YUMMY COOKIES!"
One of the best things about you is your sunny disposition...but these may come in second! Thanks for sharing!

bunkycooks said...

I bet these were really awesome! Some of those old recipes are the best. I have been following the whole no time to cook discussion as well. We can all cook way better at home with just a little effort. My hubby and I have had terrible meals out lately. We are better off roasting a chicken (which I did tonight!).


I make something similar around the holidays--but I think you've inspired me to make chocolate dipped macaroons a year -round treat!

carola said...

Ginny - I love these traditional macaroons, but I am onto a new obsession - delightful French Macarons! These little buggers are fascinating to make and master and so incredibly delicious. I have scoured the web and have a boatload of info. I've made several batches that tasted great but did not look right. After more research, I'm ready to start anew! Are you familiar with them?

Food-G said...

Have never made French Macaroons Carola, but you've piqued my curiosity. What's different about them?

Emily said...

Hi Ginny! I think this is my favorite post of yours. We have a very similar approach to cooking - fearless! I've been teaching cooking classes in NYC and a running mantra for nervous cooks is "look, you won't need to order it, but there is always pizza." Taking away the preciousness is the big hurdle. Thanks for writing! – Emily

S. said...

This is my favorite macaroon recipe. We also like to add mini chocolate chips.

I totally agree with your philosophy--it's okay to make mistakes. I share my mistakes on my blog because I think it's important for people to understand that we all mess up sometimes and it's what we learn that matters. Experimenting in the kitchen and taking that chance is also what makes cooking fun (as long as your ingredients aren't really expensive). My improvisations are always gone into with a 'what the hell, let's do it' attitude and it makes failure that much easier to take.

As for people who don't have time to cook, I partially understand. But I think that people overestimate the amount of time it takes to make homemade food. What's wrong with taking 30 minutes to make a big batch of something you can play with all week? or even freeze in individual portions for later?

Food-G said...

Emily, that's what I love about your blog--you are such a great teacher. Thanks for the feedback.

S., I really appreciate your comments. It IS a bummer when $$ product has to be thrown away, but you bring up another important point about cooking and mistakes:90% of the time, whatever it is can be fixed! Or at least turned into something edible. It's about not freaking out, taking a deep breath, and saying, "Okay, this didn't match my expectations, but are there other possibilities?" Almost always the answer is YES! And quite often it's a matter of simply adjusting the flavor.

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