Holiday Cooking Lesson 1: Fear Not The Flour

This Christmas, I finally worked through one of the main reasons why I’m a cook and not a baker. It’s not really because I prefer the instinctive nature of cooking as opposed to the scientific nature of baking (although I do), or that I prefer to taste and adjust as I go, rather than give up control and just wait for the results (although, again, I do). It is really because I have an aversion to flour that borders on the phobic. It’s true. Ask me to disembowel a small bird or animal and I wouldn’t bat an eye even if the kitchen wound up looking like an abattoir. But ask me to open a bag of flour and I begin to twitch.

I’m not gluten intolerant. I’m just intolerant when it comes to glue. I hate, loathe and despise cleaning the inevitable mess that flour makes, and I become anxious when I have gluey, pasty hands. This is largely because I am so preternaturally clumsy as to be unable to transport a quarter cup of flour from a bag into a bowl without producing the kind of dust cloud that made the Joad family take to the road.

I have usually cooked or baked in very small kitchens (such is often the lot of a single foodie), so any mess as I cook rapidly prevents the next step of cooking from happening. That’s taught me to be a real “clean-as-I-go” kind of cook- which really is no bad thing- and really it’s easy to scoop up the onion peel or give the counter a quick wipe as I proceed to the next stage. But throw a floury surface into the equation and I rapidly become a tad overwhelmed.

flourymessI try wiping with a dry paper towel first, but that just creates a floury miasma in the kitchen.

Then I go in with that damp sponge, and suddenly it’s like I’m in competition with the Elmer’s Glue Factory (no horses were harmed in the writing of this post).

There’s just a mass of gluey sticky mess all over the counter. And the time it takes to scour through all that, and then go out and buy a new sponge (if not a new counter) puts me right off the idea of baking for a good long while.

I feel much the same way about any recipe that calls for dipping something in flour, then egg, and then breadcrumbs, or even just a batter. I must refer you once again to my naturally kack-handed state when I say that I am completely incapable of adhering to the “keep one hand clean” rule. Instead, I wind up adhering to everything else and the whole “breaded” cooking experiment comes to a grim close with me desperately attempting to turn on a kitchen faucet with my elbows.

So I had some serious misgivings about the baking onslaught that I knew this Christmas would bring. My flatmate Natalie had already been talking for weeks about making her own mince pies, and more nervous-making yet, my friend Pamela was en route from New York determined to bring some Challah cheer to this year’s festivities. I was beginning to have visions of this being truly a white Christmas, and not in a Bing Crosby sort of way.

But I must say that stepping back (never easy for me in a kitchen- you think your mother backseat drives?) and letting Natalie and my other lovely flatmate Robin get on with rolling out the pastry and cutting out pretty and personal pie lids for each of us, was really rather soothing. In fact, more than soothing. Mince pies are one of the most wonderful British Crimbo culinary traditions, especially if working food retail during the holiday season tends to make you feel more Helter Skelter than Holly Jolly. Just that warm, fruity, brandied smell, and then the warm crunch of the pastry followed by the melting tart sweetness of the soused fruit (it helps if you’re a little soused too) is guaranteed to get you into more of a festive spirit.

Plus, they cleaned it all up afterwards.

challahAnd then my dear friend Pamela blew into town with recipes for Challah bread and gingerbread cookies, and on Christmas Eve I just had to give in to the blizzard of flour that was to come. Because oy, was there flour. Flour for the bread, flour for the cookies, flour for the work surface for the kneading of the bread, flour on the work surface and on the rolling pin for the rolling out of the dough for the cookies. I am fairly certain that at one point there was flour on the ceiling.

But somehow it was all right. Now at points in my childhood I had participated in the making of gingerbread cookies before, but my hand to God, this past Christmas Eve was the very first time I had participated in making actual bread. Of course I’ve made banana bread (and even gingerbread loaf) countless times, but in truth neither of those is really bread. They’re just delicious cakes masquerading as bread because they’re baked in a loaf tin.

This time, taking part in the many, many stages of making Challah, I was actually party to the damping of the yeast, the working together of all the ingredients so you get that dough, and then the proving (where you put it in a bowl and hope that somewhere in a chilly London apartment will actually allow it to rise), and knocking back and kneading (where you make like Simon Cowell and knock all hope and air out of it) and then the proving again and the knocking back and kneading again. So I learned that while I might dislike pasty hands, I love the feeling of kneading dough. And I really loved the part of the Challah process where the dough is rolled into sausages and braided, giving the bread its traditional shape during its last prove before going into the oven. Yes all that kneading and rolling and braiding meant more flour was being sprinkled onto the work surface, but any anxiety I might have otherwise simply floated away at the surprising joy of actually sharing a kitchen, as well as learning a new- and very exciting- skill.

Plus Pamela cleaned it all up afterwards.

Just as well, because while we were making Challah, we were also making gingerbread cookies. After an early blip at the supermarket where we couldn’t find the molasses for which the recipe called, we rejected treacle and decided to substitute maple syrup instead (Incidentally, this is yet another example of the US/UK language divide. I’ve since discovered that molasses and treacle-and golden syrup too- are all the same thing, just with different names). Now the gingerbread also meant a dough that had to rest (this time in the fridge) and then be rolled out on a floury surface, but as we were doing this between stages of kneading the Challah dough, it all just seemed to blur rather pleasantly together. Or perhaps I just could no longer see through the flour. Anyway there’s just something so elementally, childishly joyous about decorating little gingerbread men, even if your aesthetics have become a tad more adult. It turns out you can give a gingerbread man a sparkly speedo if you’re careful.

So by the time the gingerbread men had been decorated, and baked, and iced, and two beautifully golden braids of Challah bread had also emerged from the oven, I was on the way to becoming a baking convert. I’d finally come to enjoy the interaction with a dough the same way I enjoy the interaction with a sauce. That same personal, intimate attention is there, just in a different form. So if I have a New year’s resolution for this year, it’s to bake more, especially bread.

Though it’ll be a plus if someone else cleans it all up afterwards.

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