As a food writer I’m always trying to get all the nuanced instructions down in my recipes. I don’t want to go overboard but I do want cooks to succeed. Today, I was on the verge of overdoing it with fussy instructions but stopped myself. It’s because of an afternoon of cooking with a bunch of college students.
You may recall that I went to Yale last April. (They didn’t let me in as a student, but as an invited guest.) My niece Paulina made the arrangements for an Asian American food writers panel and I was among the speakers, along with Monica Bhide and Sunee Kim. We ended up cooking together, along her buddies from the Asian American Students Alliance.
The students had committed to baking sweets for the reception before the panel discussion. I arrived around 11am and the panel was at 3:30pm. At 12:30pm, Paulina led me to the AASA student club house, which had a shared kitchen. None of the sweets had been made. I panicked but she was cool as a cucumber. “Don’t worry auntie, my friends are coming,” Paulina assured me.
Okay, I took a deep breath and amused myself by going through the Asian student groups’ pantry. I was impressed with the ingredients that they had on hand: rice wine (what’s the legal age in Connecticut?), Pearl River Bridge soy sauce and 3 Crabs fish sauce, for example. The Taiwanese students had a ton of food prepped and stacked in the fridge. The Korean American students had ordered a bunch of food up from New York City for a special event.
After a while, Paulina’s friends trickled in and we began to cook. This was basic kitchen. (Remember your college days?) There was a lack of equipment—sharp knives and cutting boards, things that we take for granted. Certain requested ingredients were not readily available in New Haven.
But the students improvised without blinking and eye. I witnessed the following that afternoon:
- No cake pans? Use disposable pie tins.
- No frozen phyllo cups? Let’s buy graham cracker mini crusts.
- No mixer to beat cream cheese and sour cream? We’ll use a potato masher.
- No curry leaves at the Asian market? Let’s go beg the local Indian restaurant to give us some. (It worked.)
- Almond paste is too expensive! I'll Google it and make it in a blender.
- There are no small prep bowls. Let me recycle the paper box the butter came in.
- The tadka (fried spices) is burning! Open the kitchen door and move the pan outside!
They were unflappable, as far as I could tell. Or perhaps compared to their stress-laden lives, cooking was a relaxing pleasure. They worked together as a team to ensure that 3 desserts made from scratch could be prepared in about 2 1/2 hours.
I helped Paulina a bit and gave her friends pointers, but they pretty much had it all under control. When I arrived at the reception, they were cutting up the desserts and serving them in tasting portions to the 50 guests.
Thinking of that afternoon reminded me of the latitude that cooks take when using recipes. Ingredients and instructions must be thorough, but at a certain point, writers like me have to cast our culinary faith into the unknown.
I don’t know what your kitchens are like. I just hope to be a friend in your kitchen, and that you’ll make something tasty from my work.