As a kid, I remember my dad baking cookies every weekend. My dad is the first food experimentalist that comes to mind when I think of my childhood. He baked chocolate cookies, oatmeal cookies, snickerdoodle cookies, but mostly just chocolate chip cookies. Whenever we ran out of an ingredient, he would substitute, as if it was no problem, and move on in the recipe.
Sometimes this meant forgoing vanilla, or adding cinnamon. Occasionally, this meant using brown sugar when we ran out of white sugar. He did these swaps without any worry if the cookies would turn out. He was playing with the baking and each week, our cookies would turn out different.
He was no purist when it came to baking. He never sifted or leveled a cup of flour. His measurements were inexact at best. In retrospect, I’m certain that the baking soda in the cabinet was always expired. He was casual in the kitchen and that definitely lent itself into my cooking.
Whenever I make something interesting in the kitchen, my sister Jamie badgers me about my inexact methods. I very rarely label foodstuff that I’ve made. Inside my spice cabinet, my jars remain unlabeled. I have wines and vinegar bubbling in my pantry (these I admittedly labelled at my sister’s behest). The pantry is filled with flours, sugar, and odd powders in large clear storage containers without labels. I’m certain this would be a headache if anyone lived with me.
Cooking has always been an experiment to me. It’s something that you feel in the moment. Recipes are adapted to the cravings of the moment. I can’t remember the last time I followed a cookie recipe exactly. I’ll substitute flours (usually rye, it tastes better than all-purpose in cookies) and other flavors.
Jamie and I often exchange recipes and I always modify them. At this point, Jamie has given up on my modifications. Now she just teases that I am the only one who can modify a recipe that I’m making for the first time and still have it work out.
Lately, I’ve been experimenting with booze. I don’t drink very much but I enjoy finding new flavors and seeing how things are made. I had 20 pounds of strawberries this spring, so I made strawberry country wine. I’ve made many kinds of mead. Now I’m attempting a bitter melon and lemon wine.
But, this is what’s fun to me in the kitchen. I like substituting ingredients and trying new flavors. I am, as Sandor Katz likes to say, “in pursuit of compelling flavors”. What I’m making doesn’t have to be perfect or exact. It can be tossed together haphazardly and tasted with both a “hmmm” and a “whoa”.