People think because I’ve been a newspaper food writer spanning the printing years from hot lead to the Internet, that I’m a cook.
I’m not. A cook is a mechanic. I say this with great respect and admiration. A cook is someone who can be told how to make something and then make it. And make it again. And make it again. Their kitchen skills are so well learned as to be almost instinctual; they can cut with scary precision, they can detect the doneness of a piece of meat or fish with just a touch of a finger, they can smell when something needs to come out of the oven, they can mark a grilled steak or fillet with a precise grid. And they can work fast and with intense concentration amid chaos.
At a food industry workshop I went to the other day, chef-restaurateur-caterer Bev Gannon of Maui said that, when you find a line cook like that, you do everything in your power to keep them. They may never become a chef — a chef is an artist, a creator, an idea person, an imaginator. But they will be able to reproduce the imaginator’s ideas every time.
Technically, I am neither cook nor chef. But if I trend toward one side, it’s chef. Just as I love writing much more than reporting (collecting those pesky facts you need to actually write something interesting, accurate and of value), I love thinking up recipes, different combinations and presentations. My technical skills are self-taught for the most part and  I cook with a certain reckless abandon. I try so many different things that it’s difficult for me to become consistent. I’m famous for creating a dish and not being able ever to reproduce it because I can’t quite remember what I did; I had to create a recipe testing form and record detailed notes when I’m doing a cookbook.
Testing recipes? Multiple times? Making sure they’re reproducable by anyone and everyone ad infinitum? Not my favorite thing. Not my natural talent, that’s for sure.
I make so many cooking mistakes it’s laughable. But I persevere.
Yesterday, I made a loaf of gluten-free bread that emerged from the oven smelling wonderful but resembling some kind of strange formation in a Southwest canyon  — a rough loaf shape but collapsed in the middle, lopsided, oozing at the sides, overflowing to form crusty,  stalagtites. (Tasted great, by the way, and, once I trimmed away the excess, looked okay.)
Granted, it was my first attempt at the bread (made from brown rice, potato and tapioca starches and teff flour). I’d seen and tasted the loaf only once before. The flavor, lightness and texture of the dish, which my friend chef Carol Nardello calls “Amazing Bread,” is exceptional. Most gluten-free breads are squat, dense and tend toward the dry; they also don’t last more a day. Not this one. If you didn’t know it was gluten-free, you’d swear it was a conventional wheat bread.
But my mistake was not checking my loaf pan size, which turned out to be just a bit too small, thus the spillover and the oozing. (On the plus side, I had thought ahead enough to place the bread pan on a baking sheet, so none of the use is decorating my oven floor).
Anyway, point of this blog: Check. Double check. Check even if you think you know.
Read the recipe three times. I find it helpful to print out recipes; I can always catch little anomolies or notice possible tripping-up more readily.
Read through and make little pencil check marks at each point where you need to take care: Ideally, you should read the recipe so carefully that you are able, even if you’ve not actually made the dish, to describe how it’s done.
Gather up the utensils you’ll need. Rehearse in your mind how the dish will be composed (cakes, for example, almost always require three bows: one for creaming fat and sugar, one for mixing the dry ingredients, one for wet ingredients and flavorings — all pre-measured and awaiting creaming and beating.
Check and recheck the oven temperature. Review the ingredient list with care, pull out all the ingredients from the pantry and refrigerator and line them up in order. Make little check marks next to the ingredients as you add them. Review pan or baking dish sizes. Check temperature. Check the order in which the ingredients are to be incorporated. Make no assumptions.
If I’d measured my pan (I keep a measuring tape in a kitchen drawer for just this kind of thing), I wouldn’t have created this monstrous parody of a loaf of bread. I’d have known there was too much batter for pan size and either made two smaller loaves or used only part of the batter and made a few muffins with the rest. Many gluten-free recipes, like this one, produce a soft mixture more actually described as a batter than a dough; too soft to be kneaded. But they are supposed to rise a bit; if there’s no place to go once they’ve risen up to the pan rim, they overflow, like a shield volanco.
But I’m always doing things like this. Working too fast because I’m trying to do too much in a day, distracted by the TV or the phone or a text coming in or grandchildren. So I mix all the ingredients together when the recipe has a specific reason for incorporating them in alternatively, in a certain order; or I’ll forget something like salt or eggs or lemon juice and realize it when it’s too late.
I’ve seen more failures, or at least more mediocre creations, than a hopeful artist who’s just learning their way around their brushes, paints and paper. Still, every once in a while, I create a masterpiece despite my failings, and this bread, which we’ve all been enjoying in toast and sandwiches is such a one.
Look for it in a new cookbook Kapi’olani Community College and Watermark Publishing will soon be bringing out healthful sweets and snacks for families. I’ll keep you posted.