They call it cooking meth, but really, it’s a lot more like baking.
My dad’s a cook. He’s the kind of person who makes Indian food without a recipe, who can guess every ingredient in a sauce from one taste. The kind of person who opens the fridge, laughs a deep belly laugh, and assures you “there’s a meal in there somewhere.”
He approaches food intuitively, which is why he’s never liked baking—it’s too precise. You can’t throw in a pinch of this, a pinch of that, eyeball a teaspoon of baking powder, and leave it in the oven until it looks done.
Walter White would be an incredible baker.
Baking relies on precision. Four ounces of flour is always four ounces of flour. At the right temperature, butter and sugar become light and fluffy perfection in three minutes. I can make a sheet of cookies and recreate them a year later, at a friend’s house, on the other side of the country.
I love that different ratios of the same basic ingredients—butter, flour, sugar, eggs—result in a million different desserts. I think it’s incredible that a touch of salt makes chocolate sing, but a spoonful ruins ganache. Everything from the humidity of a kitchen to the size of the eggs to the style of whisk makes a difference. Who knew the art of pastry was such an exact science?
For some cooks, the exactitude of baking stifles their creativity. I like it. The chemistry excites me, challenges me. I think it’s sort of cool.
Maybe that’s why I look forward to the meth cook montages on Breaking Bad. Walt and Jesse might be making a questionable product, but I can’t help admiring their process. Plus, the visuals are stunning: glittering aluminum strips rain like confetti, gas bubbles through clear hose, yellow smoke puffs out a vent. Even the finished drug is pretty, big and opaque as blue raspberry rock candy.
Actually, it’s exactly like rock candy—that’s literally what they use for meth on the show.
The first time I saw it, I thought to myself, that’d look neat incorporated into a dessert. I pictured a cake, frosted pure white and topped with lots of sparkly blue crystals, marbled navy and white inside. But it wasn’t until now, as the second half of the last season is about to start, that I went for it.
My boyfriend took the first bite. I could hear the rock candy crunching between his teeth as he slowly nodded, eyes widening. He didn’t say anything, just took another bite, and I knew he was hooked.
The finished cake isn’t as chemically sound as Heisenberg’s Blue Sky. Maybe because I mixed it by hand, the white cake got a few air bubbles, and in the summer heat the cream cheese frosting stayed soft. My marbling didn’t come out perfectly, more blotchy than swirled. But the cake’s still beautiful. It grabs your attention. And above all, it’s definitely addictive.
Consider yourself warned.
I made this coconut rice pudding planning to eat it cold.
I was warned about the heat before I moved east for the summer, but growing up in the Pacific Northwest left me helpless. I thought it’d be a little warmer than Seattle, where July is sunny with a breeze. I figured I should probably pack a tank top or two.
I found out summers in New York laugh at summers in Seattle.
It’s hot here, but then again, it’s hot everywhere. I’m not used to this kind of weather, where the heat firms up against your shoulders like wax, and the humidity settles heavy as wool. My apartment is a fourth floor walk-up, which means I always come home out of breath and embarrassingly sweaty. We haven’t figured out how to install the AC yet.
Last weekend, I woke up before the heat crept in. I knew it wouldn’t last long, though, so I decided to cook while I could. I poked around my cabinets and found a can of coconut milk.
I’m surprised by how many people don’t like coconut. I’ve always loved the stuff—so smooth, sweet, and rich. I admire its versatility, delicious whether stirred into curry or scooped straight from the husk, and the smell of toasting coconut is one of my all-time favorites. I especially like it in desserts. Usually, when it’s not too overpowering, the coconut adds an elusive balminess. It shouldn’t taste like sunscreen, but add a special oomph.
I also found some white rice, leftovers from a Chinese take-out night, and that’s when I decided to transform the two into coconut rice pudding.
I like rice pudding because it’s so unfussy. This version is especially convenient. You use pre-cooked rice, which means you don’t need to make any beforehand, and you can throw in whatever you have. You can add any sized can of coconut milk, and make up the rest with skim milk (no heavy cream, half and half, or egg yolks needed!)
I whipped this batch up in thirty minutes flat. But I wasn’t fast enough. As the milk simmered and the rice grew fat with coconut and sugar, the temperature rose in that little kitchen. It was scorching by the time the pudding was thick enough to give a spoon trouble. I thought I’d let it chill completely and eat some after lunch, but ultimately I couldn’t resist a taste.
Wholesome, comforting, creamy, decadent. The coconut was mild—-maybe not even strong enough for a coconut fanatic-—but gorgeously buttery. It was sweet, but not sugary, and luxurious enough to make me feel guilty.
In the end, I ate a piping hot bowl right then and there for breakfast. And that night, I tried a spoonful cold, and it was respectable. But this dessert comes alive when it’s warm. All the flavors breathe, the pudding melts into utter goodness, and your belly heats up like you might boil over with happiness, even if it couldn’t get hotter outside.
Maybe it’s time to install that AC.
[Happy 4th of July!]
[It's the anniversary of my most popular post ever, my 4th of July Flag Cake from 2009.]
I bought a carton of strawberries.
I did it against my better judgment—the berries were suspiciously big and still a little out of season, not to mention overpriced. They were so red I couldn’t help but feel suspicious.
But I bought them anyway because I wanted to make panna cotta, and I thought berries would make the plate prettier. Plus, I’d found a half-cup of cheap cabernet in the fridge, forgotten by the apartment’s previous tenants, and I figured that would be enough to make mediocre berries taste good.
I went home and got to work, chilling the panna cottas and reducing the wine to a slow-bubbling glaze. After all that, I popped open the box of strawberries. I was surprised—they actually looked really good. Well, I thought, I’m glad they’ll photograph nice. I scooped up a handful, ran them under water, and let them tumble onto a cutting board, which slowly pinkened with juice. Before slicing, I picked up one of the smaller berries, pinched off the green, and popped the whole thing in my mouth.
With one bite I was transported home to Seattle, to our front yard, to my mom’s strawberry patch.
She planted the seeds when I was a senior in high school. They’ve grown prolifically since then, the leaves a dense carpet. The berries are tiny, thimble-sized, and redder than roses. They’re profusely floral, like perfume in your palms, so fragrant you taste them before you’ve parted your lips. Each bite melts on your tongue and the sweetness probably causes cavities.
They’re the best strawberries I’ve ever had.
One year, I infused some into a jar of bourbon. Another time, I made shortcakes with thick dollops of real cream. But they’re always best as-is, still warm from the sun, by the bowl-full. My dad likes to dip them in black pepper, a preference I found off-putting until I tried it. You can’t actually taste the pepper—like salt on chocolate, it simply enhances the berry itself.
Once I’d settled on red wine strawberries, I added pepper to the panna cottas, without hesitation.
The grocery store strawberries weren’t as good as my mom’s. Not even close. But they were outrageously better than I expected. The panna cottas were, too.
I was nervous they would stick to their molds, but each panna cotta wobbled right onto the plate. The texture was perfect—-firm enough to hold a shape, yet soft and creamy as pudding. The edges were smooth as marble. I’d originally imagined the pepper sprinkled throughout, and I was disappointed they had settled down instead. But on second glance, I liked the way it looked—-pure white with black flecks crowning the top, like caviar, gently trickling down.
And the berries. Glossy, sweet, and superbly robust. The color contrast was gorgeous. I didn’t regret stirring them into the red wine reduction, even though I usually like to eat delicious fruit as-is.
I’ll save that simple happiness for the next time I’m home.