Caramelized Onions and Rolls

Of the four elements, the onion is like the earth that balances the fire. A humble servant, it forever wants to be liked and always tries to please. It is like your best friend who brings you soup when you are sick. The ring bearer who knows that it is your day.

And how do we treat our best friend, the onion? We hide it in the basement. Toss it in a drawer. Forget about it until it starts to sprout green ears.

Many years ago, I loaded crates of onions onto awaiting trucks on an onion muck in Oswego, NY. Every night I came home wearing new layers of dirt. The wet earth lived inside my nostrils. When it rained, the crates doubled their weight. I sustained myself with peanut butter and banana sandwiches. The few weeks that I did this defined for me what hard work is. I learned that not only were onions bad for your breathe but they were also bad for your back—at least my back. I can’t say that I experienced a romantic back-to-the-land moment. I didn’t. But holding an onion in my hand has become a grounding experience. Once my knife penetrates that first layer of the onion, I know that my family will have a home cooked meal.

When I want to move onions from the supporting cast to center stage, I caramelize them. I slice two or three onions and let them simmer in a pan with a few splashes of olive oil for about 30-40 minutes. Stirring is the enemy of caramelization. An occasional stir or shaking of the pan is all that is needed. Cook until they are golden brown. Let the onions sing their song. You will know they are ready when pesky family members decide that the kitchen is the only place in the house where they want to be. My wife loves scraping the pan for burnt pieces. You might want to keep a flyswatter nearby. Caramelized Onions

Like onions, rolls are workhorses. And like onions, they are often taken for granted. They are also overly sensitive to the weary voices of deli clerks asking, “What type of roll do you want that on?” Rolls are bread’s stepchildren and wear IWTBL (I Want To Be Loved) t-shirts in all colors. They are fond of accessorizing with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, rolled oats, and when they’re feeling down, a pick-me-up of egg wash. Unlike one who is on a lifetime diet, rolls don’t seem to mind what shape they’re in. Round, oval, knotted, square, baked together in a pan; they know they look beautiful no matter what their shape. When I make challah, I usually bake two loaves, often giving the second one to a friend. But sometimes I shape the second one into rolls for burgers. I especially like them with wild Alaskan salmon burgers that I buy at Costco. Ten or so minutes in the frying pan makes it for a really quick meal. And nothing sits better on that burger than a heap of caramelized onions. Challah RollsOne of my favorite roll recipes is Peter Reinhart’s Hoagie and Cheesesteak roll, though I have to admit I’ve never had a cheesesteak on one. I usually opt for chicken apple sausage, topped, of course, with caramelized onions and served with potato salad or oven fries and coleslaw on the side. You have to plan ahead for these because they require an overnight fermentation, but you don’t have to bake the rolls until the next day. The dough can keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Shape and you are ready to go. Get crazy and even caramelize some red peppers along with the onions.
A roll and caramelized onions glom onto each other like two teenagers sitting in the backseat of a car at a drive-in movie theatre. I’m not sure if I use caramelized onions as an excuse for baking rolls or baking rolls as an excuse to caramelize onions.

Either way, it’s a win-win situation. Hoagies and  Cheesesteak Rolls

Hoagie and Cheesesteak Rolls (Makes 10 Seven-Inch Rolls Or 5 Foot-Long Rolls)

5 13cups (24 oz/680 g) bread flour
2 teaspoons (0.5 oz/14 g) salt, or 1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon (0.5 oz/14 g) sugar
1½ teaspoons (0.5 oz/5 g) barley malt syrup, or ¾ teaspoon (0.17 oz/5 g) diastatic malt powder (optional)
1 egg
3 tablespoons (1.5 oz/43 g) vegetable oil
1 cup (8 oz/227 g) lukewarm water
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (5 oz/142 g) lukewarm milk
2¼ teaspoons (0.25/7 g) instant yeast

Do Ahead
1. In a mixing bowl, whisk the flour, salt, and sugar together. In a separate bowl, whisk the malt syrup, egg, and oil together. Separately, combine the water and milk, then whisk in the yeast until dissolved.
2. Add the oil mixture and the water mixture to the dry ingredients. If using a mixer, switch to the dough hook and mix on the lowest speed, or continue mixing by hand, for 4 minutes to form a coarse ball of dough.
3. Let the dough rest for five minutes.
4. Knead for 2 minutes more on medium-low speed or by hand with a spoon, adjusting with flour or water as needed to form a smooth, supple, and tacky but not sticky dough.
5. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead for 1 minute, working in more flour or water as needed.
6. Form dough into a ball.
7. Place dough into a greased container, cover, and place in the refrigerator overnight or for up to 4 days.

On Baking Day
8. Remove the dough from the refrigerator about 2 hours before you plan to bake and transfer it onto a floured work surface – divide the cold dough into 4-ounce (113 g) pieces for 7-inch rolls or 8-ounce (227 g) pieces for foot-long rolls.
9. Flatten each piece of dough with your hand, then form it into a 4-inch torpedo shape, or a 7-inch torpedo shape for foot-long rolls, much as you would do for a batard. Let each piece of dough rest as you move on to the other pieces.
10. When you return to the first torpedo, gently roll it back and forth to extend it out to about 7 inches, or 13 inches for a foot-long roll. The roll should only have a slight taper at the ends.
11. Place the rolls on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat with about 2 inches between the rolls. Mist the tops of the rolls with spray oil, cover loosely with plastic wrap, then let the dough rise at room temperature for about an hour.
12. Preheat the oven to 425. Place a steam pan in the oven (a cast-iron frying pan or sheet pan works just fine).
13. Remove the plastic wrap from the rolls. Continue to proof the dough for another 15 minutes, uncovered. The dough will rise only slightly—not more than 1½ times its original size.
14. Use a sharp serrated knife, lame, or razor blade to cut a slit down the center of the roll (about 1/4 inch deep). Let dough proof for 15 minutes after you make the cuts.

Transfer the rolls to the oven, pour 1 cup of hot water into the steam pan, then lower the oven temperature to 400.
▪ Bake for 10 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 10-20 minutes, until the rolls are light golden brown and their internal temperature is 190 in the center.

Feel free to substitute whole wheat flour or other whole grain flours for some of the bread flour, If you do so, increase the water by about 1 tablespoon (0.5 oz/14 g) for every 7 tablespoons (2 oz/56.5 g) of whole grain flour you substitute.

Celia’s Rugelach

Lovin Spoonful is the name of a band that was popular in the 60s. Years ago, I changed the colors in my crayon box, exchanging the grey skies of a New York winter for the golden-orange welcome mat of San Francisco. I was giddy those first days. “Do You Believe In Magic” was the song playing in my head. Yes, I said. I believe in magic.

I’ve been thinking about my mother-in-law, who died last week. She wasn’t the best cook, but she dished out plenty of spoonfuls of lovin during her almost 92 years. Hers was a quiet presence; she inhabited the spaces between words and the corners of rooms. Her love didn’t need words. While her husband was the exclamation point at the end of a sentence, she was the parenthesis, often containing a meaning within the meaning of what she said. Her observations were always spot on, even when she was struggling with dementia at the end of her life.

Three of her grandchildren spoke at her funeral. Like a Greek chorus, they provided commentary and brought back the spirit that was missing during the last years of her life. Through them you could feel the love that she and her husband passed down. They talked about how their grandmother cared for them when they were sick. Tofutti Cuties in the freezer. Rugelach. Mandel bread. Their grandmother’s selflessness. That in spite of their grandmother’s problems walking, each step she took was a victory over her pain.

It has become a tradition in our family that when a loved one dies, we cook one of their recipes. When my wife’s grandmother died, she made her chicken fricassee. It was the first—and I think, last time—that she cooked this dish. Chicken fricassee will never taste as good as it did that night. The morning after we found out that her mother had died, my wife scanned her mom’s handwritten recipes for rugelach, mandel bread, and chocolate mousse pie and sent them to her sister so that she and one of her daughters could make them. They were waiting for us when our plane landed in New York. Her chocolate mousse pie was a family favorite, even after it was discovered that cool whip was one of the main ingredients. There was always a chocolate mousse pie sitting in her freezer, on the ready should anyone drop by. I’m sure there’s one in her freezer in heaven.

I pick up my mother-in-law’s cookbook and see the creases and stains in the pages of her recipes. A life was lived. Her life mattered.

A lifetime of photographs is scattered across our table. “Do you believe in magic in a young girl’s heart?” I look across at my wife and then at my daughter seated next to her. I do.

Celia's Rugelach

Perfectly Good

I used to think that good was the enemy of great—an acceptance that you couldn’t or didn’t want to make something better, that you had grown weary of trying and had given up. In your resignation, your half-hearted admission of defeat, you somehow convinced yourself that it really was good enough, not great, but good enough, and that, in itself meant it wasn’t really that bad, not bad at all, maybe even good, just good enough to be perfectly good.

Perfectly good celebrates the simplicity of the ordinary: unadorned, unencumbered, and virtuous. Stripped away of all pretense, it has the promise of an empty room, freshly painted, the hope of the first spring rain, and the familiarity and comfort of an old sweater.

Perfectly good is the sound of popcorn kernels ricocheting against a blackened pot, knowing that you will happily be smuggling it into the movie theatre. It is the clanking of a knife in a jar of peanut butter, and then wiping it off on the other slice before dipping it into the jar of jam, pretending that you weren’t the one that smeared the peanut butter into the jam jar. Peanut Butter & Jelly It is a glass of milk, well, just because. It is eating a bowl of yogurt and stone fruit every day for lunch and still looking forward to having it again the next day. It is a bowl of warm oatmeal with a sprinkle of cinnamon. It is rice and beans because they are the best of dance partners. It is taking leftover pasta out of the refrigerator and eating it while waltzing around the kitchen singing the lyrics to one of the stupidest top 40 songs because it has been residing in your brain for days and doesn’t everyone do this when they think no one is watching? It is a supper of scrambled eggs on a roll with just enough ketchup to celebrate one of your guilty pleasures of childhood. It is a handful of walnuts and cranberries to keep away the demons of hunger. It is a salad of tomatoes and avocados with just a touch of salt. QuesadillaIt is cheese melting in a tortilla, no salsa, no jalapeños, just cheese pulling away from the tortilla and while you’re eating that one, you throw down the next one, because you know that it tastes good, good enough to be perfectly good.

What do you find that is good enough to be perfectly good?

Focaccia: A Baker’s Tale

They were the Morengellos, two brothers and a cousin: Dom, Vince, and Joey. It was their grandmother, Rosemarie, who named them the Focaccias because of their dimples. Rosemarie, who loved Italian art songs, encouraged their singing and performing and introduced them to melancholy and angst, the cruelty of love, and that the heart weeps forever – all suitable topics for teenage torment. As the Focaccias, they sang at family gatherings, parties, and street fairs, such as the Feast of San Gennaro, where so thunderous was their performance that when they sang the line Vissi nel tuo respiro (I lived in your breath) fairgoers had to stop whatever they were doing to wipe away tears, using napkins saturated with grease from zeppole that they had just scarfed down, causing them to forever associate that greasy smell with being in love. As the Dimples, they stood shoulder to shoulder on the street corners of Brooklyn, singing doo-wop to the stars and the heavens and to anyone who walked by, burning with the immensity of their dreams. But Rosemarie did more than give them a name. She also taught them that to take a bite of focaccia is to taste the earth and soil, heart and soul of the world. While dimpling the dough that she had stretched out on a baking pan, Rosemarie would teach them about flour, yeast, and water, telling them not to add extra yeast to quicken the rising time because, like love, you should never hurry the dough. Lastly, she told them that when love or life was making you pazzi in testa (crazy in the head) it was time to knead the dough.

Rosemary Focaccia

Rosemary Focaccia

That’s one baker’s tale and you can choose to believe it…or not. As for me, focaccia is both doo-wop and Italian art song, the rhythm of the street corner and three voices singing into the night, the laughter of family and the love of a grandmother. Too often focaccia is thought of as bread for beginning bakers. Although there might be some truth to that because it doesn’t involve shaping or rounding or forming baguettes, focaccia is very much like an artist’s palette. What I love about it is its versatility. It’s an improviser’s delight; you can play with different flours, use a biga or a sponge, let it rise in the refrigerator, or it can be ready for your first bite within a few hours after kneading. It can be round or square, savory or sweet. You can dress it up and take it anywhere or keep it as humble as a starched white shirt. Dot its landscape with olives, onions, tomatoes, peppers, potato slices, or fresh fruit such as grapes, or strawberries. Paint it with tomato or pesto sauce. Scatter herbs with a few sweeps of the hand. One of my favorite combinations is Gorgonzola, red onion and walnuts.

Focaccia with roasted peppers and goat cheese

Focaccia with Roasted Peppers and Goat Cheese

I’ve been sworn to secrecy so I can’t reveal Rosemarie’s recipe. However, I encourage you to try Carol Field’s recipes from any of her following books: Focaccia, The Italian Baker, or Italy in Small Bites, especially the onion-covered bread ring. Below is her basic focaccia recipe. If you really want a hero’s welcome, bring one of Nancy Silverton’s focacce to a dinner party or gathering. I have to admit that I do reduce the amount of olive oil called for in her recipe. Amy Scherber’s focaccia recipe also has a special place in my heart, as does her rustic Italian bread. Lately, I’ve been baking breads from Flour Water Salt Yeast, where each recipe make two breads. I’ve been sticking the dough for the second loaf in the refrigerator and taking it out a day or two later and baking focaccia. Removing it from the oven, it looks like it has been colored by the Italian sun and the singing of Brooklyn nights.

Sweet_Focaccia

Sweet Focaccia

Carol Field’s Basic Focaccia

SPONGE:
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water, 105° to 115°F
3/4 cup (100 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour

DOUGH
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 cup warm water, 105° to 115°F
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Sponge from above
314 cup (450 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sea salt

TOPPING
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 to 114 teaspoon coarse sea salt

To make the sponge: Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in a large mixing or mixer bowl, whisk it in, and let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in the flour. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise until very bubbly and doubled, about 45 minutes.

To make the dough: Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in a small bowl, whisk it in, and let stand until creamy, about 5 to 10 minutes. With a wooden spoon, stir the yeast mixture and olive oil into the sponge and mix with a paddle attachment until well blended. Add the flour and salt and stir until thoroughly mixed, 1 to 2 minutes. Change to the dough hook and knead at medium speed until the dough is soft, velvety and slightly sticky, 3 to 4 minutes. Finish by sprinkling 1 tablespoon of flour on your work surface and kneading the dough briefly until it comes together nicely.

First Rise. Place the dough in a lightly oiled container, cover it tightly with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled, 114 hours.

Shaping and second rise. The dough will be soft, delicate, and full of air bubbles. Flatten it on an oiled 11×17 inch baking pan and press it out with oiled or wet hands. Because the dough will be sticky and may not cover the bottom of the pan, cover it with a towel and let it relax for 10 minutes, then stretch it again until it reaches the edges. Cover with a towel and let rise for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the dough is full of air bubbles. Just before baking, dimple the dough vigorously with your knuckles or fingertips, leaving visible indentations. Drizzle olive oil over the dough, being sure some of the oil pools in the little holes you have made. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt.

Baking. At least 30 minutes before you plan to bake preheat the oven to 425°F with a baking stone inside if you have one. Place the focaccia pan directly on the stone and spray the oven walls and floor with cold water from a spritzer bottle 3 times during the first 10 minutes of baking. Bake until the crust is crisp and top is golden, about 20 to 25 minutes. You may remove the focaccia from the pan and bake it directly on the baking stone for the last 10 minutes. remove from the pan immediately and place on a rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes one 11 x 17 inch focaccia.

Easy To Make Vinaigrette

Paul Newman and I have something in common. No, it isn’t our good looks or the twinkle in our eyes. Our Jewishness? Oy vey, you didn’t know that Paul Newman was Jewish? You don’t have to look for six degrees of separation, just look for two. What we have in common is oil and vinegar. Salad dressing.

Why does whisking oil and vinegar together cause such angst? Say these two words together and you can make a Buckingham Palace Guard blink his eyes. You can cause an elocutionist to stutter. I’ve even heard stories of neighborhood bullies repenting and getting down on their knees while pleading for forgiveness just because of these two words.

I was thinking about this when we recently had dinner at a friend’s house. Judy follows recipes like a classical musician playing a score as written. I might tease her that she should improvise more and measure less, but like that classically-trained musician, Judy hits the right notes that make you feel as welcome as a blessing in her life. But I was surprised to see a bottle of salad dressing on her table guarding the big wooden bowl of salad. I looked at the label. It said Ken’s Balsamic Vinaigrette. Ken? Who is Ken? Does Paul know that Ken is at Judy’s house? Judy looked at me as if the salad dressing police had arrived. She started to defend her use of store bought dressing, which was totally unnecessary. When someone invites me to dinner, I appreciate their effort and try to stay out of their kitchen (especially if it’s my sister’s kitchen since I know she will ask me to chop onions). Still, it made me wonder about why making salad dressing is often an afterthought, when it should be forethought.

The first secret to making vinaigrette is to know how easy it is to make. Now that you know the first secret, the second one is ratio: three parts oil to one part vinegar. The third secret is that you have to taste it. Dip a piece of lettuce into the dressing. Does it need more salt? More vinegar? Or more oil? Since it’s your salad dressing, you get to play around with it. For instance, instead of balsamic vinegar use the lemons that your neighbor brought over. Add a little honey mustard, if you are in the mood for a sweeter version. I usually make enough to last for 3-4 salads so that I don’t have to use the same dressing over and over—the way you would if you purchased a bottle from the store.

Now, I am not here to tell you that the act of making vinaigrette will heal the sick, make the blind see, or make a crazy man sane. I will leave that up to you to decide. However, this small devotion can change your life forever and lead you down the mystical trail only few are courageous enough to travel. At the very least, you won’t find yourself stumbling down supermarket aisles five minutes before your dinner guests are to arrive, spittle rolling down your chin, your eyes like two burning beams scanning the shelves, with your hands held out seeking salvation from the salad dressing deities.

Naming your dressing can be fun. You can call it “I’m Waiting In the Living Room While My Wife Is Still Dressing.” If I let my daughter name it, she would call it “My Dad’s Crappy Salad Dressing — Why can’t I have Ken’s or Paul’s?” Or you could just call it “Judy’s Salad Dressing.” Now, that has a nice sound to it.
Judy's Salad Dressing

Basic Vinaigrette

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon or honey mustard
½ teaspoon of minced shallot or garlic
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper

Pour vinegar into a bowl or jar. Whisk or blend in a pinch of salt. Add the shallot and mustard and then whisk in oil. Season with pepper to taste.

Variations or add-ons:

Don’t feel like you can’t make this dressing if you don’t have any shallots on hand. Even simply made with oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, this will beat anything you find on the supermarket shelf. Feel free to replace the balsamic with red or white wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, or lemon juice. Walnut or hazelnut oil can replace some of the olive oil.

Chocolate-Almond Upside-Down Cake

I was born to be a baker—and by that I don’t mean just a bread baker—something that I’ve been accused of pursuing and talking about obsessively in the way that an insurance salesman talks about, well, insurance. I have patience and curiosity, the humility of a novice, and a cautious and attentive hand that will watch over sugar and butter and cream the way a mother will cradle her newborn infant. What I do not have is a baker’s sweet tooth. A few nibbles of cake, a fingertip of frosting, and two or three, okay, I will admit to four or five spoonfuls of ice cream, and my primordial hunger is satisfied. So, I usually bake bread while my wife is the enchantress of all things sweet. She, however, will not bake her own birthday cake. Nor will she buy her own presents. Or offer hints, other than to say, “I am the easiest person to buy presents for. Just don’t get me another pair of heavy earrings.”

This year I dragged my daughter along with me to shop for my wife’s presents. I didn’t ask my son because when it comes to birthday celebrations, he has two questions: What time should I be home and where are we going for dinner? Most of my daughter’s one-sentence conversations are versions of “can you take me shopping?” so I assumed that she would be my savior. Instead, she was my fitness instructor. Up one aisle and down another. I lifted clothing off racks. She raised her eyebrows. A desperate man does what he has to do. I started filling up my shopping cart. My daughter looked at me. “What did you expect from me?” she asked while putting a pair of leggings that she wanted me to buy for her in the cart. “Remember, I was the one who bought you a broom for your birthday.” When she suggested sexy underwear, I knew it was time to leave.

While we were walking to the car, my daughter sensed my desperation and offered to bake my wife’s birthday cake. “Does this mean that you won’t need my help?” I asked. “Yes, dad, I’ve got it covered. Now that I had a few extra minutes, I could walk up the avenue to our local jewelry store. I found a pair of reversible earrings. She had to like one side. Didn’t she? I asked the saleswoman to try them on. How heavy could they be if she was able to talk with me while wearing them?

When I returned home, my daughter was staring at a TV show on her computer, playing a game on her iPod touch, and texting on her phone. I didn’t smell chocolate and sugar fusing together in our oven. “Dad, I didn’t say I would bake mom a cake. I said I would make the frosting.” Oh, is that what you said?

A few years ago, my wife received the book chocolate & vanilla as a present. If Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder collaborated on a cookbook, this is what it would look like. Written by Gale Gand, James Beard Award-winning pastry chef, it’s a flip/cookbook. One half chocolate recipes, the other half vanilla; you can flip the book over and start from either direction. I zeroed in on a recipe for chocolate-almond upside-down down cake that my wife had made before so I knew it would taste good and that she would like it. I had all the ingredients. I wouldn’t have to melt chocolate because Gand uses cocoa powder, which is easy to measure and mix—and it transports an intense chocolate flavor.

Cakes can be temperamental. Or maybe it’s my oven. Baking time for this cake is 25 to 35 minutes. I turned the timer off after 35 minutes and kept checking it until it was finally done. It was like peeking into the bedroom to see if my wife had finished dressing and was ready to finally come out.

My daughter came into the kitchen and said, “I’m ready to make the frosting.” “It doesn’t need any. Take a look. It’s topped with almonds.” Dad, are you serious? The only reason people eat cake is because of the frosting.”

Have you ever noticed that the person with the worst singing voice is almost always the first one to start singing “Happy Birthday?” I am not going to rat out who that was, but my wife, who is an amazing singer—had to suffer through our rendition—and pretend that she enjoyed it. She didn’t have to pretend that she liked the cake. The caramel topping was just as Gand described it. Gooey-Nutty.

My son was eating his second piece. My daughter was scraping her finger across her plate. I looked at my wife, whose earrings were dangling as if the weight of the world were lifted from her shoulders. Sometimes you get to have your cake and eat it too. Even if it isn’t frosted.
Chocolate-Almond Upside-Down Cake
Chocolate-Almond Upside-Down Cake (from chocolate & vanilla)

For the caramel topping

6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter, melted
¾ cup packed light brown sugar
¼ cup honey
1¼ cups sliced or slivered almonds, lightly toasted

For the cake

1¼ cups cake flour
½ cup cocoa powder, preferably Dutch processed
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1½ cups sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Generously grease a 10-inch round cake pan. To make the topping, pour the melted butter into the cake pan and swirl to coat the bottom, then sprinkle in the brown sugar. Drizzle in the honey and sprinkle the almonds evenly over the bottom.

Preheat the oven to 350°.

To make the cake batter, sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt together three times (this is to make the cake extra light). Beat the butter in a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment until smooth and fluffy. Add the sugar and mix. One at a time, add the eggs, mixing after each addition. Beat until fluffy and light, about 3 minutes. With the mixer running on low speed, add a third of the ingredients and mix to combine. Mix in half of the buttermilk, and then another third of the dry ingredients, before adding the remaining buttermilk and the vanilla. Finish with the remaining dry ingredients and mix until smooth. Pour the batter into the pan.

Bake until set in the center and springy, 25 to 35 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan and immediately invert the pan onto a serving platter. Let it sit with the pan still on top for 5 minutes so the caramel can soak into the cake a bit, before removing the pan. If the topping is sticking to the pan, warm the pan surface over a low burner to loosen the caramel and pour it over the cake. Let cool completely (The cake keeps at room temperature for up to 2 days). Cut into wedges with a serrated knife.

Ratio

When I was growing up in Brooklyn and the park or schoolyard gates were locked, we either climbed over the fence or cut the chain links and squeezed through the opening. Nothing was going to keep us out. Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, Michael Ruhlman’s latest book, is like a wire cutter that frees you from dependence on recipes. He calls it an anti-recipe book.

Cooking, like writing, is an act of learning, finding one’s voice, cutting away the clutter, and paring down to the essentials. It is exploration and celebration. Getting from A to B to C.  Cooking is also the magic of memory. Touch.  Taste. Commemorate.

Ruhlman thinks of ratios, adding fixed proportions of ingredients, as the “truth of cooking.” While working on The Making of a Chef, his book about the basics of cooking, he interviewed  Uwe Hesnar, a dean at the Culinary Academy of America (CIA). Hesnar is like the mysterious stranger every seeker encounters on their journey. A sorcerer, he comes and goes, hiding behind the fog of cooking, the mystery of silence. As they talk about the craft of cooking and how one learns to cook, Hesnar hands Ruhlman two sheets of paper. Like the Ten Commandments handed to Moses, these are the holy foundations of cooking. They contain a chart or grid of 26 items and their ratios. This meeting is the genesis of Ratio.

What I find appealing about Ruhlman’s book is that it is instructive. He says that ratios help you to better understand cooking in general. I also think they can help you become a more confident cook. For the curious or inquisitive cook, or dare I say, obsessive cook, ratios will quickly become habit forming. You will find yourself starting your sentences with “What if I” or “How about…”

I wanted to have fun with the ratio for bread dough: 5 parts flour to 3 parts water (plus yeast and salt). My daughter was leaving for 3 weeks of sleep-away camp and I wanted to grace her with white bread as a parting gift. I knew I would be able to indulge my love of whole grain breads in her absence. I admit that I was also up for sinking my teeth into an unadulterated loaf of white bread. Her first bite yielded a big smile with a thumbs up yum of approval. Ruhlman’s aim isn’t to make the “perfect” or “best ever” bread. It’s to set a baseline. I had been downplaying my expectations so I was surprised at how good my sandwich loaf tasted. I was thrown off by the word “basic” and overlooked his other words: satisfying and delicious. I next tried the ratio with whole-wheat bread that I shaped into a boule, buckwheat rolls, and focaccia made with leftover potatoes.

The real test, however, was when I tried my hand at pie dough. I bake bread often, but baking pie is my wife’s domain—one that I always stay clear of. But now, how could I not, in the name of research, put my hands on a rolling pin. I’ve avoided making a pie since the last and only time I tried to bake one.  We needed to bring dessert to a dinner party. My wife, who was busy that day, forced me into service. “Don’t worry, “ she cautioned, “just don’t overwork the dough.” I arranged rings of strawberries and blueberries atop a pastry cream. It was picture perfect. I was a proud papa and I was whistling a happy tune on the drive over. After dinner I escorted my picture perfect pie to the table. The rumor of appreciation going around the table was interrupted by two small voices coming from twin brothers, voices that brought me to my knees. They were sawing away with their forks at this impenetrable mystery. “Daddy, can we pick it up and eat it with our hands?” I could hear a clattering of forks dropping to the table as everyone else picked up their pie. “Well, I guess it’s a little tough,” their father added politely. Though my wife tried to reassure me that it wasn’t that bad, I noticed she stopped eating her pie after just a bite.

For my attempt at Ruhlman’s recipe (3-2-1 ratio), I cut the ingredients  in half because I wasn’t looking to make a big pie. Plus, I didn’t have two sticks of butter in my test kitchen refrigerator (who do I need to talk to around here to get a bigger budget?) I mixed the dough by hand, trying my best to gently press it together.  In no time, I was able to roll out dough for 3 individual pies and 4 turnovers.

I can now puff out my chest and say these words: flaky and tender.  My pie dough was a success. I’m not just saying this because my teenage son and his friend licked every last crumb off their plates or because of their wide-eyed admiration for the turnovers that I placed in front of them the next morning. My crust easily gave way to my fork’s caress. My wife happily, very happily, ate her piece.

Ruhlman tells a story about inviting neighbors over for dinner and needing to make some kind of dessert. He knew he could rely on the ratio for pound cake and quickly assemble it when he arrived home from the grocery store. We were invited to a barbeque a few days ago and I was asked to bake rolls for burgers. Hmm??!! I looked at the clock. No problem. Thanks to Ratio, I didn’t need to spend time searching through recipes. I knew that I could easily up the quantity to ensure that I had enough rolls to bring and keep aside a few for breakfast. I mixed oat flour into my dough for a change of pace and sprinkled poppy and sesame seeds on the rolls before loading them into the oven. In case you were wondering, they were satisfying and delicious.

Ratios enable cooks to perform sleight-of-hand tricks in the kitchen. No recipe required. Bread dough, pasta dough, pie dough, cookie dough, vinaigrette, and mayonnaise are among the 33 ratios in Ruhlman’s book. They can be as easy as 1-2-3 or is it 3-2-1 or 3-1-2?