By Tina Traster
June 11, 2009 -- My childhood home always smelled of freshly baked goods thanks to my stout Polish grandmother, who pulled trays of mandel brot (almond bread), cream cheese cookies and challah out of the oven daily.
She was also a decent cook.
That gene skipped a generation (Mom shunned the kitchen), but over the years, I became an adequate self-taught chef. Living in New York City apartments for two decades, however, dampened my enthusiasm for cooking. Why bother when there is no counter space, crummy appliances, a drawer full of takeout menus and a thousand restaurants at your doorstep?
But when I got my dream kitchen during an old farmhouse renovation, my inner Julia Child resurfaced.
The 225-square-foot space is a sea of green tile and emerald granite. Light pours in through a wall of tree-filled windows and skylights in the soaring, vaulted ceilings. Stainless-steel appliances, a double sink, a quiet dishwasher and a garbage disposal are arranged at spacious intervals in the U-shaped custom maple cabinets.
In my new domain, I toyed and innovated and found pleasures my grandmother must have known. Happy faces at dinner told me I should scribble the ad hoc recipes into a book. These days, we rarely bother eating out.
One day, my husband tore a peasant bread recipe from a magazine.
"What's that?" I asked with dread, because while I was ready for an "Iron Chef" competition, I never, ever baked.
"I'm going to make bread."
What I've learned from nearly a decade of marriage is that my husband has the uncanny ability to teach himself how to do anything, as long as there is a manual.
Still, I figured bread making was a passing whim. But soon after his pronouncement, he was online, ordering Mario Batali's enamel cast-iron Dutch oven and buying large sacks of flour and packets of yeast from Whole Foods.
Lo and behold, soon after, a round, golden-crusted loaf of peasant bread emerged from our oven. We stood over it as if it were a newborn.
We have not bought a loaf of bread from a store in nearly a year. Every three days, my husband bakes peasant bread or challah or focaccia.
My kitchen cabinets have filled with measuring cups, tin pans, rolling pins and sifters. Countertop real estate has gotten more crowded since I bought him a KitchenAid stand mixer for his birthday.
One day, he said he was ready to try cupcakes. I didn't love the first batch. I suggested a vegan recipe.
"Let's make these together," I said.
Side by side, we assembled ingredients. We poured batter into paper liners. When the oven beeped, I stuck in toothpicks and said they were ready. He said to give it three more minutes. Two minutes later, I pulled the pan out.
He thought they should cool in the pan. I suggested we tip them out and let them cool on a baking sheet.
We made the chocolate frosting. I said I would dress the cupcakes.
"Use the pastry bag," he said, pointing to paper funnels he'd bought for cake decorating.
"I'd rather use the spatula."
He left the room in disgust. I could see in my mind's eye his imaginary toque thrown to the floor; I could hear him sputtering incomprehensible French phrases, even though he doesn't speak French.
So there we were, a happily married couple, scuffling over icing cupcakes.
But it wasn't about the cupcakes. It was about pride. Our big, inviting kitchen had room for two, but it had boundaries. I suppose if he hovered over my pasta sauce and said to put in more onions or oregano, I would likely have reacted the same way.
Lines were drawn. From then on, we decided, I cook, he bakes.
One day I saw him rip out another recipe.
"What's that?" I asked.
"It's a shrimp-and-onion pancake. I thought it was something we could try to make together."
With trepidation, I donned an apron. We prepped the shrimp and vegetables. He made the dough mixture, and I sautéed the pancakes.
"Hey, that smells good. What are you making?" my daughter yelled from her room.
Progress, I thought to myself, progress.
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