It’s All In How You Present It

I initially learned to cook at camp.

I started going to this camp when I was 11, fell in love with it, and I’ve been running the place the last 10 years (not alone, mind you — with three other equally-insane women).  My first staff position was in the kitchen when I was 16, where my friend’s dad, “Kingfisher” (who happened to be the local police captain and the director’s husband, which gave us lots of immunity and plausible deniability) was head cook.  He taught me how to crack 4 eggs at once (when you’re cooking for 150, this comes in handy), how to bake without a recipe (a skill that has served me very, very well), why you don’t press down on a pancake on the griddle, and how to creatively use what you have on hand rather than let food unnecessarily go to waste.  He also taught me how to throw biscuits out the kitchen window at unsuspecting staff without getting caught, but that’s not a skill I intend to share with my kids.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing lessons I learned in the kitchen those summers was how to package and promote something so that people will want to eat it.  For example, at 8000 feet elevation when baking brownies in 24″x36″ commercial pans in 60 year old propane ovens, things invariably end up baking unevenly.  Rather than use the firmer outer portions and throw away the soggy center, he chose to overbake the brownies so that the centers were perfect; he then marketed the hard-as-a-rock outside edges as “biscotti” and of course the unsuspecting staff couldn’t get enough.  Who knew you could pass off your kitchen mistakes as gourmet fare?  That lesson, and the very self-satisfied smirk on his face, has stuck with me ever since.

I admit, I’m a bit too much of a perfectionist to allow mistakes to ever leave my kitchen.  But when I first started canning and making various jams and such, I did once label some unsuccessful cherry preserves as “cherry dessert sauce,” tied bittersweet chocolate chunks to the top with a grater, and called it a “black forest kit.”  People thought I was a genius, but I was really just covering up for poorly, no very poorly, made preserves.

This brings us to our next addition to The List.  I initially set out to make daal, something the kids like and something I hoped to officially add to The List.  Maybe I was distracted, maybe I was cocky (I’ve made daal so many times that I don’t use a recipe anymore), maybe I was just plain stupid…but for some reason, my lovely, smooth, creamy daal turned out lumpy, chunky, dry, and not the least bit appetizing.  I tried adding liquid to it, but it was like this living thing by now, absorbing and assimilating the liquid and getting not creamier but stickier with each added tablespoon. 

It tasted ok, albeit a little bland, but when kid #4 walked past the kitchen and asked if I was working on a camp art project (the mass did faintly resemble the papier mache goop we’d recently played with during the creation of a decapitated head on a stick designed to look like one of kid #2’s classmates for his 7th grade production of Macbeth), I had to think fast.  I rolled my eyes like they do and heard myself say “duh, it’s dough, silly, for daal cakes!”  (Another lesson in kid feeding: the word “cake” in the title makes everything taste better). 

#9: Daal Cakes

Obviously this isn’t a photo of my Daal Cakes; my cakes were a kitchen mistake, hence no photos were taken.  But they come out looking sort of like this…

I quickly added some bread crumbs from the freezer, had her go outside to pick sage and lemon balm, threw in some more crushed garlic and a few other things, and added a couple beaten eggs.  I sauteed blini-sized patties in vegetable oil mixed with a little sesame oil for flavor, threw together a dip of yogurt and mint from the yard, and dinner was saved.  Find the recipe here, on my site.

See?  It’s all in how you market it.  Thanks Kingfisher.

The List currently sits at 9…

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