Monday, April 26, 2010

Patience, grasshopper

We planted grass seeds around our front steps almost two weeks ago. Each day, I would go outside to check on their progress. On my hands and knees, I would examine the grass seeds laying inert on the dirt, say "c'mon guys, grow!", add some water, get up and go back inside. I was really just following the directions on the bag they came in (with the addition of verbal encouragement) but saw nothing for my efforts and was beginning to doubt we would ever succeed. Until today. This morning I looked out the front window and saw these delicate 1-inch sprouts standing tall and proud.

I hate following directions. I'd rather do something wrong my way than plod step-by-step toward someone else's successful result. This gets me into all kinds of trouble, but after so many years of being me, I've accepted my peculiarities. What's my method for achieving a successful result? I do everything twice. The first time, I learn how not to do it, and the second time I do it right.

Although this quality serves me well as an artist, it is an impediment for more activities than I care to think about. (I would make a terrible accountant.) In the kitchen, I play to my strengths: I throw most of my meals together on the fly, adding a pinch of this and a smidgen of that, tasting as I go and relying on experience of what I know works. Baking, however, has always eluded me. For as much as I would love it to be otherwise, to succeed in baking means following the directions.

A couple of months ago, I made the worst muffins I have ever tasted. Seeing a pair of bananas turning black on the counter, I decided to use them in some baking. I imagined light fluffy muffins risen to perfection, golden brown and steaming, waiting to be broken open and smothered with butter. Armed with nothing more than my big glass mixing bowl and an idea, I proceeded to throw together some ingredients I thought belonged in my fantasy muffins: flour, soda, mashed banana, yoghurt, some honey, spices. After hastily filling some muffin tins, I baked the batter, which rose successfully but didn't brown, and the muffins I pulled from the oven after 20 minutes were dense and shiny white domes. Undeterred, I broke one open, added the butter and took a bite: sour and chewy with a hint of banana, only the too-green taste rather than sweet ripeness. They were so bad, we decided it would have been cruel to feed them to the animals, so they went in the bin.

When the opportunity for baking scones for my sister's bridal shower arose a few weeks ago, I decided I had to go against my instincts and follow directions. I wanted them to be great and I didn't want another muffin fiasco on my hands. I went to the source of foolproof cooking: Canadian Living's "Tested Til Perfect" recipes were the only ones I would consider for my task. Fortunately, Canadian Living magazine now has a vast online database of their wonderful recipes with the added features of recalculating for different portion sizes and auto-generated grocery lists. I chose their "mini lemon scones" for my baking project and followed the directions to the letter. They turned out perfectly. In fact, I was so impressed with the result, that I tried other recipes: sugar cookies, vanilla cupcakes with chocolate buttercream frosting, lemon poppyseed cake, pecan shortbread, all step-by-step and with grand results.

So, I'm bending a little. I'm beginning to see the benefits of relying on someone else's perfected method. It's not easy, and I have doubts; one more day, and I would have declared our grass project hopeless and the seed manufacturers a bunch of idiots. Today, those fine green shoots reminded me yet again of the value of occasionally trusting another, a task made far easier on a stomach full of fresh-baked scones.

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