Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Melting the meltdown

In between running around on errands, sending books out to family and friends (signed of course) and working, I finally sat down last night and watched Julie & Julia. It was very good.

I loved watching Julia Child cook on TV with Jacques and others, but she was the draw. It wasn't her high nasal whine of a voice, but her love of the art of making art with food, food that was wonderful, flavorful and just plain good. The movie showed that, but it also showed the main character, Julie, taking her cue from Julia's cooking. Making 524 recipes in 365 days was indeed a feat and it was well done, but what surprised me the most was when Julie had a meltdown when things didn't go right. The cream and liver stuffing fell out of her poulet (chicken to you and me) and she ended up in a crying, messy heap on the floor. The aspic failed to jell and she blamed her husband. Another meltdown. Julie seemed like a fairly histrionic female and a bit always on the edge of a meltdown, never a good thing whether the person is a cook or a writer, and one I've never dealt with. When all else -- or everything -- fails, start over. That's how I deal with disaster, like last weekend's first foray into homemade cinnamon rolls.

The recipe was one I hadn't used before (got it online), but I wanted to make cinnamon rolls and couldn't remember where I found the recipe the last time. Oh, yes, it was in a kit I purchased from King Arthur Flour online. Not enough time to buy it and get it here for the weekend and cinnamon rolls were on my mind and lingering like a ghost at the edge of my taste buds. To the Internet for research and I came up with what I thought was a good recipe -- until I tried it out.

Four cups of flour into the recipe and the dough didn't feel right. Kneading it was like punching Mike Tyson with pillows -- before he got into ear biting. My arms were getting sore and I had to go to the bathroom. When I came back from the bathroom, hands suitably washed, I punched and kneaded the dough some more, but it wasn't getting soft and smooth and elastic and my arms were sore and tired. I turned it into an oiled bowl, put a cloth over it and sat down to rest my weary arms. More than an hour later and the dough sat there like a lump of . . . dough. It hadn't risen, at least not as far as I could see. I had wasted the eggs, milk (and there wasn't much of that left) and the yeast, not to mention the time, but these things happen. I covered the bowel and set it aside as I sprinkled more yeast over warm water and assembled the ingredients once again. I was going to take another stab at it, and I did. The recipe was wrong and I stopped at three cups of flour when the once sticky dough became soft and pliant and kneaded like a dream. Once it was smooth and warm and elastic, I put the dough into an oiled bowl, covered it and set it on the stove, which is the warmest part of this house in the winter. The front room is so drafty and cold most of the time, except in summer when it's hot and sticky and uncomfortable.

At any rate, 1-1/2 hours later the dough had risen to 3x its original size and was ready to be rolled out and covered with butter, cinnamon and brown sugar and then rolled up. Lacking string or kitchen shears, I used a sharp knife to cut the dough and place it into the greased stoneware 9x9 pan to rise one more time before I placed it in the oven. When I finally pulled away the cover, the result was beautiful puffed coils of brown sugar and cinnamon rolls ready to be baked. Soon they filled the house with the scent of butter, cinnamon and melting, oozing sugar and I could hardly wait to spread on the thick, creamy vanilla-laden icing.

As I sat down with my warm, fragrant cinnamon roll to call my mother, I cast a thought toward the recalcitrant lump from the first trial. I could either use it as starter for sourdough bread or put it down the garbage disposal. Either choice was good and it didn't really matter. I had a gooey delicious cinnamon roll to savor, and savor them I did for four days. I went a little overboard on Sunday and had three, not at the same time, but spaced out over the whole day.

That first trial was a disaster and the recipe needed adjusting. Less flour and more time to bake. Things don't always turn out the way I think they should the first time, so I give it another go and rely more on my senses than sticking to the recipe. Cooking, like life, is fluid and changeable, so is writing.

A draft can start out horrible and end up magic if the writer is willing to adjust, retrace and rewrite. It's not a disaster and there's no need for meltdowns. Nothing is a disaster unless you make it one. For instance, next time, instead of using melted butter, I'll use soft room temperature butter, mix in the cinnamon and brown sugar and spread it over the dough. I'll get a better result. The recipe is a starting point. The Ultimate Cinnamon Roll recipe wasn't tested and retested by Julia Child who, in the movie and likely in real life, made several bowls of mayonnaise, changing the ingredients and the mixing until she had the right combination. I found the right amount of ingredients and the perfect method for me and for the environment where I live (high altitude and organic ingredients) and will make the cinnamon rolls again. Nothing is without hope or without the need for a little tweaking. If I had given up after the first mistake, I wouldn't have been able to taunt my mother with homemade cinnamon rolls, and I'd have nothing to write about now. Even in the midst -- or on the far edge -- of failure, there's something to be learned.

In writing, as in cooking and life, sometimes the best results come from failure, providing you don't give in to meltdowns and negativity. Every road leads somewhere and detours often provide more than a scenic route; they provide insight and sometimes a better way of getting where you're going. Without failure, there would be no progress. Don't be afraid to fail. Try it some time. The results may surprise you.

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