Not creamy caramel pudding, not creamy at all

Note: Thanks to everyone who showed up to the Eat Real Lit Fest on Saturday and listened to me read. I didn’t end up telling a story about sunnies at all, but instead told the tale of the disgusting mess you see above. For those of you unable to attend, I’ve conveniently posted the reading below. To those in the U.S. of A., enjoy the upcoming long weekend. I’m taking one myself. See you back here next week!

Documenting all my cookbooks and food magazine archives last spring for Edible San Francisco lit a bit of a fire in my belly. I’ve been cooking some of those recipes over the summer and it’s been fun cooking from recipes instead of for recipes.

Or it was until last Tuesday. When I decided to make the Creamy Caramel Pudding I pulled from Food & Wine last March. (Of course in terms of my “recipe file,” of course, last March is March 2009. I mean, in terms of my recipe file “last march” could be March 1999, but I digress.)

Anyway… I was suspicious of the recipe because it has you add low-fat milk to a hot caramel. But made it despite myself. And guess what? The milk curdled, just as I thought it would and I ended up trying to work this cornstarch-thickened curdled mess through a sieve in a sad and desperate attempt to salvage “dessert.”

Please see the result above. Disgusting, right? I would like to add that, out of professional curiosity I tasted that mess. It didn’t even taste good, even when the curdled aspect was factored out in my professional taster’s brain.

A bad recipe from Food & Wine. What the hell? I know mistakes can slip through a test kitchen, but this was ridiculous. This wasn’t “it wasn’t as delicious as it could be” this just didn’t turn out, plain and simple.

The thing is, I looked it up online. The photo is a bit bigger there and I could see – in the goddamn photo – curdled bits in the pudding.

The Creamy Caramel Pudding recipe is exactly the type of recipe I hate.

I mean, a disgusting sticky mess to clean up is a demoralizing experience for me, and I’m pretty confident in my general cooking abilities. I can only imagine what it does to people less sure of themselves in the kitchen.

So what do I care if it demoralizes other people?

I’d like to say it’s because I believe deep down in my soul that if everyone loved cooking and make their own delicious food the world’s problem – or at least some of them – would slip away.

If I’m honest, though, the reason I care is that I love cooking and if other people love cooking too that helps validate my obsession and love of cooking.

I mean I really love to cook. I’ve loved it since I was a kid and became what can only be described as addicted to it during grad school. It was my reward at the end of the day. Something concrete, that other people appreciated, and that disappeared and I never had to see again. It was the perfect antithesis to the abstract work that interested no one on which I slaved away at day after day with no end in sight.

People who hate cooking—who want to get in and out of the kitchen as quickly as possible—used to baffle me. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to fill the house with the scent of homemade paella?

Then I had a kid. I also acquired a 70-mile round-trip commute that ate up at least two hours a day and much of my will to live. And I got it. All of a sudden I wasn’t cooking, I was getting dinner on the table. I was “cooking” like all those people who hate cooking cook. I was throwing together whatever was quickest, whatever was at hand. And I was doing it while complimenting my son on each and every one of his 42 robot drawings, jockeying with my husband over who would cancel their Thursday night plans since we’d accidentally double-booked ourselves, and jotting down next week’s shopping list as I wondered if I’d responded to yet another pre-schooler’s birthday party invitation. If the whole thing went down without tears or third-degree burns I considered it a grand success.

As much as I love to cook, I found I hated getting dinner on the table. Dinners made in a frenzied, uninspired rush that matches the “less than 30 minutes” time frame so many of my fellow Americans are willing to devote to the task are no fun to make day after day.

As someone who knows what cooking is, let me tell you: That ain’t it.

There is little pleasure or satisfaction to be found in that activity. It is a chore. It is a worthwhile chore, in my opinion, but if it’s someone’s only contact with their kitchen, it’s no wonder they hate cooking.

The ridiculousness of how much my cooking habits, and hence my family’s eating habits, changed was made all the more difficult to swallow since the job to which I commuted hours each day was as a food writer at Sunset. My days were spent discussing, dissecting, and perfecting recipes designed to tempt readers into their kitchens, yet my own small kitchen sat increasingly un-used as we became dependent on test kitchen leftovers for our dinners. There were cases of Chinese take-out containers in the pantry at work for just such purposes. It got to the point where my son would request dinner from the “little white boxes.”

Cooking – the focused, rewarding, from-scratch kind I love – became something I rarely did.

Yet experiencing what “cooking” is for so many people made me wonder about widespread claims of not liking it.

Then we tested a Three-Hour Thanksgiving at the magazine (note: it was not for the magazine, it was for an external project that was being tested in the test kitchen). I witnessed the recipe testers, people who loved nothing more than a few hours in the kitchen, people who made caramelized sugar cages for desserts and de-boned legs of lamb without a thought, rendered flustered, miserable, defeated, and actually sweaty by the task. Yes, it was possible to do the whole thing in three hours, but it wasn’t fun. One cook kept mumbling “why would anyone do this?” as she worked. Another cook, our chattiest and cheeriest member, didn’t say a thing during the entire three-hour process, but finished the final dish, set it on the table, sat down, and firmly declared: “That was the most unpleasant three hours of my life.”

I thought of all the people who don’t really like to cook, who would be the people tempted by the promise of a relatively quick homemade Thanksgiving feast. The idea of them venturing into the kitchen with these recipes and punishing timeline in hand just broke my heart. The worst part, as you might imagine, was that the result was what could be at best deemed a serviceable holiday meal. Edible but not delicious. Unremarkable in every way except its speed of preparation. The whole thing seemed designed to make anyone hate cooking.

When our only approach to cooking is as something to finish and be done with, is it any wonder so few people do it on a regular basis? And perhaps even fewer find pleasure in it?

Like exercise, we know it’s good for us. Like exercise, however, cooking takes time and effort. And if you’re not used to it, it takes even more time and effort.

There are people who truly don’t like cooking. I can accept that. I get that. It’s like me and gardening. I have gardening books. I like the idea of gardening. I do, in fact, take care of a small but pretty yard. But I don’t like gardening. I do it, but it’s a chore. I like the result, but not the process. I can accept that for some people cooking is the same.

If, however, someone’s only experience in the kitchen is getting dinner on the table in 30 minutes or less, it’s a but like deciding you don’t like gardening if you’ve only ever pulled weeds.

Or, an even better analogy comes to mind. Cooking is like sex. If you’ve only ever had a quickie in the storage closet, can you really say whether you like it or not? Quickies—of all sorts—have their place. But they shouldn’t be the only way you do it.

And cornstarch-thickened puddings? They just aren’t worth the shortcut.