Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How to Not Curdle the Tapioca

I've had a string of cooking disasters on my hands recently-

-A batch of homemade marshmallows that were the color and texture of silly putty with a burnt chemical flavor.
-An attempt to expedite bacon cooking with an untested method ala Barefoot Contessa (she promised me it would be perfectly crisp while I remained splatter free! How could I resist?) started a grease fire (I was shockingly composed in the crisis) that ruined my BLT plans.
-A batch of tapioca pudding that turned grainy and curdled.

Each of these disasters can be traced back to rushing. Rushing forward without the right equipment (a candy thermometer in the case of the Ruined Marshmallows), rushing forward without consulting the recipe (I'd seen Ina do Oven Bacon on television, but didn't want to look it up so just attempted it under the broiler. Not. Wise.) Rushing to deal with the resultant massive grease fire raging in my oven led me to neglect The Curdled Tapioca That I Will In All Likelihood Eat Anyway.

As I thought about this string of disasters, I realized that is what I love and sometimes hate about cooking- it just can't be rushed. It takes the time that it takes. And the best results take lots of preparation and time. But not just time.

Good results in the kitchen also demand care. In fact, care is the underpinning for all good cooking. The tapioca could still have still curdled if I'd been standing there staring into space thinking about the orders I had to ship. The tapioca required not just my time, but that I care about what I was doing. That I be attentive to it.

I needed to be there in the moment, focusing only on making the tapioca. Not thinking about bills, or how I ought to sweep the floor or create a lesson plan.

Just Stirring. Admiring the little globules of tapioca turn pale and translucent. Considering how space age tapioca pearls look for an ancient root extract. Marveling at the eggs and the beautiful color and depth they add to the pudding. How they help to thicken it. Smelling the lovely custardy steam rising up as the mixture reduces. Feeling the hairs around my face curl in that steam. Noticing the sound of my whisk scraping the bottom of the saucepan, how my stirring keeps the mixture from scalding.

Practice this enough and suddenly, the task isn't unpleasant any more. It is a thing you are doing and taking pleasure in doing well. But of course, this is a challenge. To approach minutia with a fresh enthusiasm, attention and openness sometimes feels impossible. So I tried to rush. To do two things at once so I could get on to something more important. And that's when the tapioca curdled.

This is a lesson I am just now learning and that I will have to learn and re-learn. But, "making every act a meditation" seems worth it to me.

P.S) Here are the lovely Tapioca Recipes pictured if you've got the urge to make some now:

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