sinope: [believe] (believe)
posted by [personal profile] sinope at 10:28pm on 04/09/2011
Warning: You know how the Bible's parables often rely on agricultural knowledge that's totally alien to modern readers? Well, this does the same thing, except with culinary knowledge. I do try to explain the process of making each product, but it may not be very meaningful if you haven't experienced making them yourself.

Also, this is ridiculously long for a silly metaphor.

The Parable of the Baked Goods

One of the methods for making "quick breads" (i.e. baked goods that don't involve yeast) is the "biscuit method." This method begins by mixing together flour with a solid fat (butter, lard, shortening). You cut the fat into the flour without melting it, until it's all mixed together with a texture something like lumpy breadcrumbs or wet sand. Usually you'll include some combination of salt, sugar, and/or baking powder with the flour.

Then you decide what you're going to make.

If you're making a pie crust, you take your mixture and add just a bit of ice-cold water. You mix it in until it's dispersed into a dough still dry and crumbly, but able to be shaped. Then you form the dough into a ball and refrigerate it for a while. When it's nice and chilled, you roll it out into a thin crust. This isn't supposed to be an easy process, if you're using butter (shortening is easier to manipulate, but the taste and texture are inferior). You're basically fighting the dough with your rolling pin, aiming for the perfect point where it's soft enough to roll smooth and thin, but still cool enough that the butter hasn't melted, so you keep a flaky texture; where the flour above and beneath the dough is just barely enough to keep it from sticking. So you roll it out, thin and smooth and even, into a rough circle. Then you carefully transfer that to your pie tin, neaten up the edges, and let it chill some more before you fill it and bake it.

A pie crust is a perfect vessel. It's a pure expression of flour and butter, formed by force into something with a uniform texture and symmetrical shape. Ultimately, its goal is to contain and complement the pie filling. You can't have good pie without a good crust, but a good crust combines with its filling to create something greater than either alone. It just takes a long, careful process to get there, filled with patience and chilling and force.

If you're making layered biscuits, you'll add a more significant amount of a flavorful liquid -- generally milk or buttermilk. Again, you don't want to overmix it, but the goal here is to get something closer to a bread dough in moisture, thick but soft. Then you flour a smooth surface, scoop out the dough, and spread it out in a thick layer. A rolling pin makes this fast, but you can also pat it out with your hands; precision isn't important. To get those great layers, all you do is fold the dough over itself, roll and press it out, and repeat. (Optionally spreading butter between the layers helps keep them extra-distinct.) It's a tactile pleasure, working with the soft, tender dough. Finally, when you've got enough layers, you spread it out one last time, up to an inch thick, then cut biscuit rounds out of it and bake them.

I love eating a good, homebaked layer biscuit. You can pull it apart and divide it different ways, top it with butter or jam or honey or sausage gravy. The outside is nice and crusty, keeping its basic shape, but the inside just melts in your mouth. It's its own thing, a food to be eaten alone or with a full meal, and the layers make it rise up tall and fluffy. Plus, making it is quick enough to do for an easy breakfast -- no chilling or waiting or tricky dough manipulation required, just mixing, folding, and baking. But you have to have just the right touch, know just when the dough feels right, if you want it to be as light and beautiful as a cloud.

Then there's scones. When I say "scones," I mean the American kind, the big lumps of crumbly sweet bread sold in coffeeshops -- essentially sweet drop biscuits. Scones are easy. Once you've got your flour and fat cut together, all you do is mix in some milk and stir in your seasonings -- chocolate chips, lemon zest, whatever. Then you scoop up a large spoonful of the wet dough and plop it on a baking sheet. If you're especially ambitious, you plop it down in a large round, then cut the round into wedges, so it bakes into rough triangles. That's all; pop it in the oven until it's done.

Scones look rough and lumpy; they have no particular internal structure; they take relatively little skill. But they're tasty and sweet and low-effort, and some days, anything more complicated seems pointless.

The Interpretation of the Parable

I've always thought that I ought to aim to be a pie crust. I wanted to be a perfect vessel for my goals -- doing good, saving the world, following God's will, however I defined them -- and I knew that becoming that perfect vessel wasn't easy. It would be time-consuming, and painful, and it would require devoting myself to a single purpose and contorting myself to a shape that might not feel natural. But in the end, it would all be worth it.

These days, though, I often feel more like a scone. The idea of being something as firm and well-formed as a pie crust seems laughable; all I want to do is plop down on the baking sheet, just as I am. This is chronic depression, yes, and sometimes I wonder if I should be fighting my scone tendencies more. But sometimes, the simple act of acceptance, of saying "I'm a scone today," is about the only thing I'm capable of doing.

But what I think I truly want to be, in my heart of hearts, is a layer biscuit. I want to be layer after layer, piled on top of each other, made into something that billows upward when it encounters the heat. I don't want to pretend to be single-purpose when every instinct in me is to chase a hundred different directions. I want to have a clear shape, the crisp round cookie-cutter edges, but to use that shape to contain something remarkable.

Honestly, I still haven't given up on my pie-crust dreams. I haven't persuaded myself that a biscuit is an inherently worthwhile thing to be, even if it's not existing in service of a single filling. And I haven't figured out how to stop having so many damn scone days. Part of why I like using baking images is because they help make these different tendencies tangible and open for discussion, even if the discussion is only barely beginning.

But if you hear me using these metaphors, that's what I mean.

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