The smart-alecky answer is I would starve. As with anything I write there are multiple reasons at play, and this is true of my cooking and baking. Some of the reasons are: it is an activity I enjoy very muchly; it is a challenge; it is a way to explore my creativity; it is something I can share with others; it makes me proud; and finally, it is a way to insure I am eating healthy.
Let me first set the stage about how I came to this point in my life. As I mentioned in my blog Is Life a Financial Transaction?, I have dealt with bipolar disease for a long time. As I said in that blog my mental wellness* began to surface when I was taken off klonopin, took on developing and managing a client library at CBH Life Skills, and leading a book discussion group.
As part of my branching out, going three years back, I decided to make two New Years’ resolutions. The more important of the two as far as this blog is concerned was to branch out in my cooking. The other resolution was to get back on track with my physical health, which actually plays a part in this blog too because it was in pursuing this resolution that I had found out that I had type 2 diabetes. And further, I found out I would need to improve my diet a lot as well as having an exercise routine.
I will add that I had never really made any New Year’s resolutions before. I believed in making these two I was expressing my mental wellness. Now a days I do not call them New Year’s resolutions, but a to do list for the year. In fact, they are just goals. Before, goals were a downer because I never believed I could accomplish any. How wrong I was. I now feel that goals are an integral part to my continuing mental health and wellness.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I was able to start branching out in my cooking almost right away. I had injure my tongue on some jagged teeth, and I could only tolerate soft or puree foods, so I started making a bunch of pureed soups. Some of the recipes I found in my girlfriend’s (Bette) cookbooks and some online. Other soups I created out of my own head. As the soups turned out to be tasty, I gained confidence to try other things when my two teeth that caused the injury were extracted and my tongue was healed.
From the soups I went on to other recipes. I did recipes that required the oven, which I had always shied away from. I did recipes with sauces. I did many different things and learned many new techniques (e.g. separating eggs).
Then the diabetes hit. It is funny how working on the second resolution helped to work on the first. The first thing I did was attend a diabetes class at my doctor’s office. In the class I learn the proper amounts and proper times for carbohydrate consumption, and how exercise and fiber intake helps to regulate blood sugar.
Also, at this time I decided to check out free online courses. I found a course called “Food for Thought” by McGill University through Edx, which focused on the science of nutrition and on how to eat healthy. My big take away from the class was plenty of fruit and vegetables in lots of colors. So, I started to experiment with making vegetables in many different ways, one of which was roasting, which I just love.
The following year I began to bake. This was a brand new adventure, having never baked before other than a box mix. I have learned how to bake pies, breads, cookies, and cakes; I have even devised my own scone and quick bread recipes, and I am working on a yeast bread recipe.
Now that I have given a little history of my cooking and baking, I will begin to discuss the reasons why I do it.
The first reason would have to be because I enjoy cooking and baking. I have always like cooking, but because of the anxiety I used to have along with the bipolar, it always seemed to take extra effort to get started. Once I did however, I would get into it and like it. This liking has now turned into enjoyment. And, instead of being anxious about beginning to cook or bake, I look forward to it, sometimes with much anticipation.
What do I enjoy about this activity, which I would rank as my number one favorite activity if it were not for writing? The first thing is probably the planning of the food dish or baking goody. In my blog Is Life a Puzzle? I explored puzzles as a metaphor for life. I think about solving a puzzle when I am gathering the ingredients and pots, pans, and utensils, being the first things to be taken care of in preparing a recipe.
After everything is in order then the preparation phase is undertaken. Whether it is chopping up vegetables, or preparing some kind of meat (usually chicken, turkey, fish, or pork), which involves cutting and seasoning, measuring out and mixing up ingredients for sauces, or whatever else might need doing, I enjoy it all. If I am baking than I need to combine my dry and wet ingredients along with solid fats before combining them together. Baking also requires thinking about the method of mixing. This could be using a whisk, a electric hand mixer, a blender, or a food processor. Again, sometimes figuring out what equipment to use is like solving a puzzle. All of these activities I enjoy—some immensely.
So you can see that I enjoy cooking and baking, now what about the challenge of it. There are actually two challenges here. One is taking someone else’s recipe and creating the finish product. The second is the challenge of creating my own recipes. The second is probably, most of the time, the more challenging. I say most of the time because some recipes, especially baking ones, can have many steps and components and assembling these components together.
An example of a challenging baking recipe is a Blitz Torte. I use a recipe from Cook’s Country’s website. There are two main components to this cake. There is the cake and meringue and the filling. I need to first make the cake batter, and then I need to whip the meringue. I then put the batter into two pans and top it with the meringue, and finally sprinkle them with slivered almonds and, of course, bake them. For the filling I need to dissolve some unflavored gelatin, whip some heavy cream, and make a lemon curd (the recipe does not specify making your own). I then have to mix the gelatin with the whipped cream and fold in the lemon curd. A final component to the filling is mashed up raspberries with orange juice (recipe calls for Grand Mariner, but I do not consume alcohol in any manner). To assemble I place one cake and meringue on a cake plate and spread half of the whipped cream mixture on top. I then placed the raspberries on top of this and finish spreading the rest of the whipped cream mixture. Finally, I top this with the other cake and meringue. As you can imagine this is quite a challenge. It is a huge reward to cut pieces of the cake and serve. It is super tasty too.
The challenge of making my own recipe can be even greater. Sometimes I will use a technique I have learned from other recipes. Like a Mark Bittman technique in his cookbook How to Cook Everything that combines sauteed vegetables and steamed seafood. There are endless combination to put together. I tend to use what I have bought on sale at Aldi (a local inexpensive grocery store). I use potatoes of some kind and combine them with colored bell peppers, mushrooms, and green beans for example. For the seafood I have used salmon, cod, or shrimp, which I marinate first, usually in something of my own devising, but occasionally someone else’s recipe. I precook or partially cook the vegetables in the microwave (another touch to the recipe besides the ingredients and marinade) and then saute them in a frying pan with some oil and minced garlic and maybe some herbs. When they have browned I add the marinated seafood and about half a cup of the marinade and cover it to steam. These meals always turn out to be so tasty. And, Bette (my SO) would definitely agree; she thinks it is one of the best recipes I do. Again you can see the challenge of coming up with the combinations.
I do some recipes totally from my own mind. A selection of these that I have devised and made are chicken cacciatore, chili (which I have done for years), stuffed chicken breast, honey garlic chicken, some stews, cod fish sticks, and various combinations of sauteed and roasted vegetables.
Then there are the few baking recipes that I have concocted so far. These often take the studying of other recipes, which I do in cooking recipes as well. My proudest creation has been my cinnamon raisin scones. After studying numerous recipes I decided on about two and half cups of flour (half whole wheat) and other dry ingredients (leavening agents, salt, and sugar) with a stick of butter combined in the food processor. To this I add sour cream as my liquid fat. The reason I chose sour cream is so I could use both baking soda and baking powder. You need something acidic for the baking soda to work. When the mixture is halfway processed I add the raisins (I once used chopped prunes). The raisins are soaked and tossed with some flour. The dough is real sticky, so I well flour my pastry mat and place the dough on it. I top this with plenty of flour as well as my hands. I pad it into a disk and cut it up into eight wedges. I have topped them with milk or cream and cinnamon sugar or cane sugar crystals, but I have also top them with a streusel. This recipe was not simple to accomplish. It took four attempts to have a good scone. I was actually surprised that it only took four attempts since this was my first baking recipe that I attempted to put together. The challenge is great, but so are the results. And, everybody likes them.
I have also made my own carrot and banana quick bread recipes. And as I mention above, I am working on a half whole wheat yeast bread recipe. The quick breads are very good, but the yeast bread is a work in progress. My first and second attempts did not work out, but I am planning on persevering. My main problem seems to be that the bread comes out under baked because the dough feels good and it raises nicely. This could be do to a fairly recent change from an electric oven to a gas oven because other breads that I have bake with the electric oven were rarely under baked.
So why are challenging recipes so important. For one thing they help to set goals, and goals are an important component of a flourishing life, which I prefer over the more common term of happiness.* And, goals should be challenging, but not out of reach. So, a challenge gets me to move beyond what I am currently capable of, which gives me a sense of direction (you could say meaning and purpose). And, while I am not totally convince of the results of positive psychology (happiness studies), it does seem to be a component to my own personal flourishing.
Now onto how creativity figures into my cooking and baking. My creativity has been kind of front and center in the challenge part of this blog, so I will just recap a little here. I build on other recipes both by borrowing a technique or modifying one, and I create recipes out of my own mind (Stevie’s Mind as I tell Bette). These totally original recipes are both things I create by cooking and baking. I would have to say I feel more creative when I create baking recipes.
One additional aspect of my creativity is in connection with baking. I will combine different components of a pie or cake from other resources. An example of a pie was to do a graham cracker crust with Kraft minute tapioca (the fluffy version with a whipped egg white) for the filling and fresh kiwis for the topping. For a cake I combined a chocolate sponge cake, no bake chocolate custard, and a chocolate fluffy frosting. My advice is do not do a chocolate fluffy frosting, at least with cocoa powder, because it crystallized on me, which was not all that bad in the end.
There is one other thing about cooking and baking that makes it creative, and this goes for anyone that does it. When you have finished a recipe you have made something. Something that was not in the world before you finished it. In other words you have created something—a finish product.
Of course, cooking and baking is not the only thing that sparks my creativity. Obviously, I hope, is my writing. If you find my writing creative, then maybe you will take my word for it, that my cooking and baking is creative too. I am also a fractal artist, but I have not done any new work since the early 1990s.^
There are a couple of other samples of my work on my home page and in my blog What Did Aristotle Mean?
So what is creativity anyway? Some have argued that only god truly created anything because he supposedly create something out of nothing, and all other acts only rearrange this something. I have read of some Muslim philosophers that take this view, and I knew one personally (person, not a philosopher). It should be no surprise from some of my other blog postings that I do not buy into this argument. First I do not believe a god exists to do this sort of creating. And second, taking raw materials and forming them into something else is creation pure and simple. Something that did not exist has now come into existence.
I looked at some definitions of creativity, but they did not seem to hit the mark. So I will tell you what creativity means to me. Creativity is using the imagination to envision something new out of any materials at hand and then producing it. In cooking and baking it can be seen in two ways, one of which involves more action of the mind than the other.
The first and most plain is to take a group of ingredients from a recipe and make a finished edible dish or baking goody, hopefully tasty. This involves at least a little bit of imagination because without it I do not think the brain could produce the right motor output.
The second and more involved is to design a recipe yourself that produces, by your actions on the chosen ingredients, a new edible dish or baking goody, hopefully very tasty. This to me involves much more imagination. Not only do you have to see it in your mind’s eye, but you must combine things and techniques that have not been put together before, and this must be done in some imaginative space of the mind.
So, why is creativity important? For me it comes down to doing a job well done. Something that has not been done in that way before when you create your own recipe, or when you are following someone else’s recipe, but not quite in the same way. This leads me to my next item to talk about—being proud.
Now, some people consider pride a bad thing, and it certainly can be if it leads one to think of themselves as a better person then someone else. But, to take pride in a job well done does not necessarily lead to this kind of disrespect of others. Well, I maybe a better cook or baker than another person, but it does not give me the right to put that person down because of it.
My focus here is on what could be called self-esteem. Self-esteem is taking stock of oneself and being confident of one’s abilities. It is an honest undertaking. One who has false confidence only fools themselves, so some cross checking with others is essential for the most part. You go to school to learn skills and are tested by the teacher. When you receive a passing grade, you can be confident that you know the material to a necessary degree. So, for me it is by sharing the outcome of my cooking and baking, that I receive, so to speak, a passing grade by others that enjoy the food I make. And this leads me to my second to the last reason I cook and bake.
I cook and bake so I can share with others. Sharing or helping others is another component to human flourishing. Paraphrasing the Jewish Talmudic sage, Hillel, if I am only for myself who am I. Minus the religious context, this is indeed sage advice. By sharing I am extending myself. I am also putting myself at risk. This can be seen as an additional challenge, adding to the challenge of making a recipe.
Okay, now to the last of my reasons. It enables me to eat a healthier diet. By using as few processed foods as possible, which are often high in sugar and fats, I increase the level of nutrition I incorporate into my diet. Fresh is best. By eating healthy I can very my diet in a much more nutritional manner. Of course, not having a lot money, I by what is on sale most of the time. Aldi, my main grocery store, has a nice variety of fruits and vegetables on sale every week. As I learned in the online food class, many colors in your fruits and vegetables is the way to go. They have plenty of vitamins and other health promoting components, like anti-oxidants. As for baking, I can control the sugar, fat, and fiber that goes into my goodies, not that everything I bake is completely healthy, but in any case, it is healthier than eating store bought baked goods.
So, there is some truth in my smart aleck reply at the beginning. While I would not starve, my body would not obtain all the health promoting nutrients it needs as easily if I did not cook and bake the foods I eat. Do not get me wrong, it is not that I do not indulge in less than healthy foods from time to time, it is that overall my diet is healthy enough that I have no need to take vitamins or supplements. In a way I am still a work in progress. I need to lower my lipids, so some more adjustments are called for and planned.
* I prefer human flourishing rather than happiness because it encompasses so much more. A healthy body is one, and a healthy body means a healthy mind, and a healthy mind produces mental wellness, which is much more than the absence of mental illness. This, of course, can be extend to wellness and illness in general.
^ I produced these images with Turbo Pascal 7. After purchasing a new computer the graphics of the program were not compatible with the new computer. Last year I attempted to redo parts of the old program in Python, but ran into some snags and decided to concentrate on my writing as my major form of computer time.