By PJ Parrish
I love to cook. I love the whole process of finding a new recipe or riffing on an old one. I love shopping for ingredients or adlibbing and using say dill for chives. I love making a hot mess in the kitchen, knowing that a detour can sometimes lead to delicious surprises, like the time I subbed dry vermouth for wine in a chicken recipe and it made for the best meal we’ve had in years.
I hate to bake. I hate the precision of it. I hate the math required to make a souffle rise. I hate having to follow exact directions with no room for error or surprise. The last time I tried to bake a cake I almost burned down the kitchen because I didn’t have any parchment paper and thought — “Wax paper! Why not?”
Cooking is an art. You’re not bound by limitations. If a recipe calls for “a little wine” you don’t sweat it; you just make sure you have enough for the glass you drink while you cook. If a dish calls for shallots, you know you can use scallions in pinch. And if it tastes a little flat, add more garlic! Your errors can become triumphs.
Baking is a science. You are bound by its laws. And deviations usually mean disasters. Like the time I brain-farted and used baking soda instead of baking powder then wondered why my biscuits came out like hockey pucks.
Good cooks often make lousy bakers, and vice versa.
Part of this is basic human psychology. I hate being told what to do. I’m not good at following “you-must” directions. I also hate that if something is not coming together as it should, it’s because I didn’t understand the chemistry.
Does this have implications for writers? I think so. The cook vs baker paradigm applies to how we approach our way of doing business, as pointed out by Damon Brown, who writes a blog on start-ups:
- Certainty vs. agility: “Bakers” aim for certainty, repeating a process until it is virtually guaranteed to produce the same result, while “cooks” focus on agility, adapting and maximizing to new circumstances as quickly as possible
- Routine vs. schedule: “Bakers” get energy from routine, knowing what they are going to do and when they are going to do it. “Cooks” thrive under a to-do list that provides guidance but is flexible enough for improvisation.
- Precise measurements vs. slight variations: “Bakers” love precise measurements, thriving in the beautiful details. “Cooks” prefer room for last-minute insights once they are deep in the process.
You can probably guess that I am devoted pantser. I never outline. I plan oh, maybe four chapters ahead and often deviate from that as the plot moves me. I don’t keep any records of word counts and have no set goals for daily or weekly output. As a newspaper reporter, I was a captive to hard deadlines and I seldom missed one. But as a fiction writer, I find I have to roll at my own odd pace — sometimes I can turn out 5K words in a torrid heat. Other days I can barely manage a tepid page.
Being a cook-writer does have its problems. Recently, I had to toss out two chapters because I had fallen in love with a secondary character who had led my story off the rails. But a baker-writer friend of mine recently had to start his book over because, ten chapters in, he realized that he had dutifully followed his outline into a plot cul de sac.
I sort of envy those of you who keep to a set schedule or word count. I get that it imposes discipline and engenders the deep satisfaction of accomplishment. I’ve tried to do this, but I just can’t. When forced to a schedule or word count, I get resentful and crabby. Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy? No, and don’t make her or she’ll bite your head off.
Perhaps there is something to be gained from both the “baker” and “cook” models. We cook-writers might benefit from trying to outline, if for nothing else than getting the bad ideas out of our cluttered heads and into the cruel light of day. We cook-writers can also be lazy or procrastinators in absence of any deadline. But you baker-writers out there might benefit from being more open to the unknown path even if it feels like it’s going to lead you off a cliff. Maybe you need to build in room for agility over certainty.
Maybe it’s just a matter of recognizing your own personal style and making your writing model more aligned with it. Neither cook or baker is right or wrong. What’s wrong is thinking you have to be what you aren’t.
I will leave you with one more thing to chew on. Here is my favorite chicken recipe. I think I got it from France magazine years ago. It’s super easy but very impressive. I guarantee you will have clean plates. Rock on, bakers!
Creamy Chicken Thighs
Serves 4-6 but you won’t have anything left over.
1/2 lb. thick-cut bacon, sliced into small pieces. Don’t use gawd-awful turkey bacon. Plain old Oscar Meyer will do but any quality unflavored (ie no “applewood smoked” or such) is best.
8 boneless chicken thighs, skin on
2 onions cut up into thin slices.
3 large cloves garlic. Can’t ever have too much garlic.
1 cup of dry white white. Yes, you can use something cheap.
1 cup chicken stock. Whatever you have handy, even from a can. I keep Better Than Bouillon my pantry.
1/2 cup heavy cream. No, don’t sub milk or worse 2% milk. We’re going for creamy here not healthy.
2 tbsp Dijon mustard. That grainy stuff works best.
1 large tomato diced up.
4 cups of baby spinach. But adult spinach will work.
1 tbsp thyme. Don’t leave this out..it gives it a nice kick. You can use dried bottled herbs.
2 tbsp lemon juice. I just squeeze one lemon in when the time comes.
In large pot over medium heat, cook the bacon until brown but not too crisp. Use a slotted spoon to take it out and set it on a plate so you have some bacon grease still in the pot.
Season the chicken on both sides generously with salt and pepper. Add the chicken to the pot and brown it on both sides, about 15 mins. Don’t worry if it’s not cooked thru cuz it gets cooked more in the sauce. Take the chicken out and put it with the bacon.
Cook the onions in the remaining fat until brown and soft, about 10 mins. Add the garlic for 2 more mins. Add the wine and deglaze the pot. This just means you scrape any bits off the bottom. Add the stock, whisk in the cream (yeah, a whisk works best but use a spoon if you must). Add the tomatoes.
Bring the sauce to a soft boil then turn down the heat to med-low. Return the bacon and chicken thighs and simmer, no lid, until chicken is cooked through and sauce gets a little thicker. This should take about 25-30 mins.
Try the sauce and add salt and pepper if you think it needs it. It’s up to your taste buds!
Last minute before you get ready to serve: Stir in the spinach and cook until it’s just wilted, about 3 mins. Stir in the thyme and lemon juice.
I like to serve this in a deep dish plate over any kind of noodles, like pappardelle or good old Muellers egg noodles. But you can serve with rice or taters if you like.