Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Disaster and Redemption

I've had a few disasters happen in the kitchen, and though none involved fire, broken limbs, or deep, hospital-enducing burns, none has ever been quite as disastrous as my attempt to make Day of the Dead Bread. I've tried making pumpkin fritters that disintegrated, I've made bread that tastes like yeast, I've burned onions to the point of being inedible, those would all qualify as run of the mill "fails." This sweet bread was what the internet calls an "epic fail," a train wreck in slow motion, and I knew it had the potential for failure from the very beginning yet I held out hoping beyond hope that it would work out. I figured if it failed to be bread it could at least be cake, at least it can taste sweet and delicious even if its rocks hard and dense. No, I was wrong.

The problem was two-fold and it involved the yin and yang of cooking: heat and cold. My first mistake was to mix scalding hot milk milk fresh off the stove with delicate, vulnerable active yeast. I never read this but learned through osmosis from my boss that high heat kills yeast yet all recipes
involving yeast require lukewarm water. I failed to put these two pieces of information together and ended up trying to get a three from the equation 1+1. I had unwarranted faith in my two packets of yeast, I believed they would fight and prevail, like when you go to a holiday dinner and promise yourself you won't overeat or drink too much. There's certain thing that science simply does not allow. The second mistake was an honest one and once again, my boss called it. Following the advice of my now two most trusted cooking gurus, Bittman and Smitten, and in consideration of limited weekday time, I decided to let it rise "overnight" (
while I was at work) since I've heard doing that allows the dough to absorb flavors better. I don't think that works with this bread, granted it would've been nice if it had rising agents to begin with. But when I took it out of the fridge and felt the cold sticky dough I knew I'd put the
last nail into this experiment's coffin. I went through the motions, fingers still crossed, I even pretended to let it rise one more time, glazed it, baked it. We didn't cut into it until next morning because I needed to photograph it for F&F. While very pretty on the outside, inside it looked like something dead. It seemed to have not cooked through so the innards were an uneven, white-ish-yellow-ish color even though the exterior had browned. It was cold, too, and damp. R wanted to try it, also hoping that maybe it would taste good, but I didn't even let him. It didn't taste like anything, cardboard maybe. I threw it out.

I think the epic fail of this dead Day of the Dead bread inspired me, though, to make something bigger, better and also very time consuming and hard to make. A winter squash was sitting in my fridge for a couple of weeks asking me to do something with it, throwing out suggestions like soup, sautee, beans... But at the end I decided I wanted to stand in front of a stove for an hour stirring rice.

Squash Risotto.

Luckily I had a helper. No, not R, he would make guest appearances whenever I yelled at him
across the apartment to come cut the parsley or grind some cheese amid protests of I'm almost done with my work (lies). No, there's a reason kitchens are mostly staffed with Hispanics. My friend D, who inhaled a quesadilla in front of me while I sliced into the squash with the biggest knife I own. ("It's like cracking open a skull," said D, his face covered in cheese and guac, "just straight in and then down." I've cracked skull before, thank you very much.) I designated half of the squash to the rissotto and the other half to Tortitas de Calabaza, or Pumpkin fritters (in PR we think squash is pumpkin, but that's OK).

A word on Tortitas de Calabaza. For some children it was freshly baked cookies, for others hot cocoa, or a warm pie, or something else you can buy in a box and heat up. For me-- and I know I'm not alone in this because I got the recipe from a close friend of mine-- it was Tortitas de Calabaza. They're basically fritters: fried dough, except these are made with "pumpkin," brown sugar, and cinnamon. As I mentioned earlier, my first attempt at making these was disastrous. I was inventing the recipe and had no idea what I was doing. The dough disintegrated in the hot oil and I had throw away the whole mess. Flour and egg yolk are key, I discovered. I mean who needs nutritional value when you have a crispy exterior and a chewy interior and its fried? Its my childhood, dammit!

But I digress. D and I were in the kitchen for almost two hours making these two squash-laden dishes. The risotto took twice as long as it normally would and about a chicken's worth of chicken broth because I made the mistake of using brown rice. It really does seem the moment you try to add nutritional value to anything traditional it just ruins it somehow. People in China worked very hard to eat white rice for a reason. But it was the choice between long-grain risotto and short-grain brown rice risotto, we all have our choice to make in life. The consequence of this was that the squash almost completely dissolved into the sauce, thickening and sweetening it to astronomical proportions. It was almost too sweet at the end, though still delicious, and it was the first time I was the one to grab salt and pepper and doused something I'd made with it. Balance is important: heat and cold, sweet and savory, healthy and awesome. And yes, the tortitas were perfect-- can't go wrong with white flour, egg yolk, and sugar fried in oil, specially when there's squash involved. D fried them to their precise color, a dark, golden brown, some developed shapes like hearts or ghosts, they were sweet without being overly sweet, the perfect side dish dessert. (In case you were wondering, yes, I was fat as a child.) Between the three of us we ate an entire winter squash in one dinner. It was glorious.

My previously mixed feeling about the fall-- cold, short days, too much clothes, the official beginning of the eating season (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas)-- have been giving way to a true appreciation of it. The days are brisk and chilly which for the first time in my life I'm genuinely enjoying, the seasonal produce is outstanding, and its the official beginning of the eating season (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas). I think after this dinner I've officially been converted to loving fall. Winter is going to take a little more effort.

** Note: None of the pictures are mine, they were pulled from the web.

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