French Bread and Intuitive Cooking

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December 23, 2010 by buttermilkbaker

The other day I read an article about “intuitive cooking” in Food & Wine magazine. The article was about a guy who’d read and cooked through Alice Waters’s and Thomas Keller’s cookbooks, dedicated and determined to execute every step denoted by these culinary masters word for word. Eventually this guy had the chance to meet Keller, to cook with him, and to discuss the ways of becoming a ‘real chef’. Keller talks about his learning experience, heralding the liberation he felt from a lack of direction in the kitchen. He posits that in detaching yourself from the exactitude of recipes, you open yourself up to discovering your own cooking stylegoing with your gut–otherwise known as cooking intuitively.

It’s not that this one article completely revolutionized the way I think about cooking. That would be too dramatic. What it did do, however, was affirm for me an idea I’d been following all along: good food doesn’t have to come directly from a recipe, but can come from–and even taste better as a result of–spontaneous/improvised/intuitive cooking. In other words, going with the flow and letting the food come from you and your instincts can be just as effective as following a recipe you’ve printed out. I think this is an especially important concept for at-home cooks to grasp: recipes are not the end-all-be-all. Cook how you want! Cook to your tastes! The worst that can happen is you end up eating something borderline-edible, and next time you’ll know better. It’s a learning process, and it’s supposed to be fun…right?

I love this attitude. I love it because on those days when I really don’t know what I want to make, or when I have a limited/random assortment of ingredients, I want to be able to improvise–and to do so without fear. Tonight, for example, I wanted to caramelize onions for the first time. What did my instincts tell me to do? Google “how to caramelize onions”, obviously. 1.3476 seconds later, I’d found a wikihow article on this very topic, replete with 9 steps of exactly how to achieve the perfect caramelized onion.

All seemed right in the world. I began chopping my onions and threw them in my hot pan with oil. But I wanted some butter in there, too. The wikihow didn’t mention butter…what to do? My heart (and tastebuds) said, add the butter, but my recipe-bound mind did not.

Ah, screw it, I thought. What’s a little butter gonna hurt? NOTHING. In fact, I don’t think butter has ever hurt anything or anyone–I think butter has only ever made the world a little bit better, one gorgeous pat at a time. From that moment on I decided to put the laptop away and go with my gut. Look at me go! Cookin’ intuitively.

I continued sauteeing the onions until they turned golden brown, and eventually a shade of deep mahogany.

I’m so poetic.

Anyyyway…the onions were sticking to the pan at this point, but I didn’t want to use wine to deglaze them. Not a big fan of wine in my food. I tried water–didn’t help. So what? What would add a bit of acid to cut through the buttery onions, but not so much sharpness as to negate their creamy sweetness?


Balsamic vinegar! Brilliant. Worked. Like. A charm.

But that’s not where the story ends. Oh, no. For my birthday dinner in November, we all went out to one of my favorite restaurants where they offer a daily twist on traditional bread and butter. This basically means that they make some kind of creative compound butter: aka butter with something mixed into it. That night they were serving BBQ-Caramelized-Onion-Butter…I know. Amazing. Tonight, I wanted to recreate that ball of deliciousness.

I took a tong-full of those beautiful caramelized onions, put them into a ramekin, and added a dollop of BBQ sauce. Then I stirred in about 2 tbsp of butter until it was thoroughly combined and threw it into the freezer to let it harden up again. My 2nd intuitive move. And it worked out swimmingly–the buttah was delicious!

Sweet, soft caramelized onions + smooth and tangy BBQ sauce + creamy, creamy butter = deeeevine.

Another (and perhaps the most significant) example where intuitive cooking comes in handy is in making homemade bread. At least for me, bread-baking instructions are some of the hardest recipes to follow: instant vs. active dry yeast? bread flour vs. AP? how hot should the water be exactly? should the dough be shaggy, smooth, or somewhere in between? and how do I know?!?

Ugh, it’s just a headache waiting to happen. Whenever I begin to stress about the state of my dough, I tell myself to take a breath and do what I can. People have been baking bread for centuries, using all different sorts of flours and yeasts and rise times and baking temperatures…whatever will be, will be.

Tonight I set out to made a loaf of french bread. And make a loaf of french bread I did! I found the recipe here and once I read through it two or three times, I stepped away from the computer and took what I remembered and applied it to the most important part of any recipe: what I saw in front of me. I added more flour to the dough as I felt necessary, and even though it wasn’t perfectly smooth all the way around, I stopped kneading when I felt it was solid but not too dense, subtly rippled and a nice hefty size.

I really have grown to love making homemade bread. It’s fun, it’s easy, and nothing tastes better than fresh bread hot out of the oven. Nothing.

Might’ve pulled this one out a wee bit early–it was pretty doughy as you can see. Luckily we like doughy bread in this family. Heck yes we do.

Served alongside this bootiful plate: brown rice pilaf, sauteed chicken breasts, caramelized onions (woop!), steamed broccoli on a bed of baby spinach. Mmmhmmmm.

Close-up shot: I loved the colors on this plate. A forkful of bright green spinach with chicken, rice, and luscious brown onions? Perfectamundo. (Chick + pilaf are thanks to Buttermilk Mom, of course!)

Now watching Top Chef: All-Stars. The judges are being so nuts this season–first Jen, now Dale?! I’m nervous to even watch. Night everyone!


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