I am usually a by-the-recipe kind of cook.
I learned to bake before I learned to cook, helping Mom mix up brownies or scooping chocolate chip cookie dough onto baking sheets in Neno’s (my grandmother’s) farmhouse kitchen. Baking often requires precise measurements, specific steps, double-checking the recipe to make sure you’ve done everything right. Too much flour, too little butter, and your cake will fall flat, or your cookies will remain gooey lumps.
There are a few discrete kitchen tasks I learned early on: chopping vegetables, peeling potatoes, sprinkling brown sugar on a pink slab of ham. But for years, I checked and double-checked the recipe every time I made a dish. I lacked confidence in my own ability to improvise, faith in the muscle memory of my hands and arms.
During these years, I marveled at a few college girlfriends who could whip up a stir-fry or a soup – sometimes fairly complicated ones – without so much as glancing at a cookbook. (Especially in Oxford, this creativity was often born out of necessity, if we found ourselves low on grocery money or newly back from a weekend jaunt and forced to make a meal out of odds and ends in the cupboards.)
But after more than a decade in my own kitchen, I’ve become more confident, more sure. I still use recipes frequently, but by now, there are a slew of tasks and a few dishes my hands know by heart.
Rachel’s tomato soup, studded with garlic and butter and sprinkled with fresh basil (if I can find it). The creamy jalapeño soup passed on to us by my mom’s friend Connie. My version of guacamole, which is less recipe than assemblage: avocado, lemon juice, green tomatillo salsa, red tomato salsa. Chop, mash, mix, taste. Repeat the last two steps if necessary. I stop when the texture and the taste feel just right – but it’s a knowledge born of practice, not anything written down.
More recently, I’ve memorized Molly’s scones, making a batch almost weekly in my orange mixing bowl, dry ingredients whisked together before I fold in dried cranberries and stir in the liquid. I know exactly how they should look (dry-ish, but not falling apart). I’ve made them so many times that while I can see the printed text of the recipe in my mind, I don’t have to flip the book (A Homemade Life) open any more. Instead, I let my hands take over: whisk and measure, stir and fold. Knead and press and cut into eight wedges.
There’s a deep satisfaction in this simple knowledge, especially for me, since I spend my time (and make my living by) moving words and pixels around on a screen. Sometimes I hold a pen, which is more tactile, but it’s a different kind of productivity to take raw physical ingredients and transform them into something nourishing. It’s even better when I don’t have to fuss over measurements and spices, and can simply get on with the work of making dinner. (Or scones.) I like knowing that this knowledge is stored somewhere in my body, that my senses and sinews know things my conscious mind can only guess at.
What recipes do your hands know by heart?