by John Ryan
You know the look that comes over a kid when you offer to take them out for ice cream? Or maybe to the zoo? Their whole body smiles. If they were dogs their tails would be wagging like crazy.
That's the look that keeps me cooking.
But getting that look isn't so easy. The first step is finding a great recipe. As you no doubt know, not all recipes are created equal. Most are fine. Some are pretty good, but once in a while you put something on the table and you're hailed as the best cook in the world.
That's gratifying in and of itself. But the look I'm talking about comes later. Perhaps a culinary routine has set in and in passing you mention that you've been thinking about making, say, gumbo. You appear to be thinking out loud, but you're really fishing for the look. If you get it, you find the time and energy to fuss with a brown roux and so on. But if the look doesn't materialize, the recipe collects dust.
For years I made scones for my wife, Margaret, hoping for that look. This winter I found the scone recipe that got the look.
Before going further, I should say that my scones have a certain pedigree. Back in 1981, I was the chef that opened the cafe part of Atticus Cafe and Bookstore in New Haven, Connecticut. From day one my currant scones sold better than Stephen King.
Walnut scones came along a year or so later. One morning at about three a.m., Don, one of the bakers, ran out of currants. Rather than call me (thank you, Don!) he improvised and used walnuts instead. It was both an inspired and profoundly stupid move. Inspired, because within days Don's walnut scones were as popular as the currant scones. Stupid, because at three o'clock every single morning he, and every baker since, has had to make both scones.
And with the rising popularity of walnut scones came more requests than ever for the recipe.
I've never been one of those chefs who treat recipes like state secrets. I gladly taught the scone recipe in cooking classes and gave it out whenever anyone asked. (As far as I know, this practice never hurt sales. My thinking was that first thing in the morning, even dedicated cooks would rather buy a scone than turn on the oven and make a batch.) At one point I even typed up a modest flyer with the recipe and detailed instructions. The flyer somehow got to the local paper and when a blurb about it ran in the food section, the cafe was mobbed and my little flyer went through several photocopied printings.
With scones like that you can understand why, after I had made them for Margaret, I was expecting the look.
The trouble was that Margaret was never that enthusiastic about them. I think her exact words were "pretty good."
"Pretty good" doesn't cut it. "Pretty good" is great when it's said about leftovers. But "pretty good" is not what a cook wants to hear about their specialty. To make matters worse, every time I brought up scones, she became downright rhapsodic about her best friend's scones.
After hearing her reminisce about Kathy's scones, I was carrying a rather large scone grudge. It actually got heavier when I met Kathy. Margaret and I were visiting her in Seattle and one morning she started making scones. I was paying nonchalant attention. (I could have simply asked her for the recipe, but I didn't want Margaret to know I had the recipe. I just wanted to know where Kathy kept her recipe so I could jot it down on the sly.) The trouble was that Kathy wasn't using one. She appeared to be improvising. This drove me crazy since there wasn't going to be a recipe to steal.
And I had to admit, her scones were...pretty good.
Time passed and I was making my scones less and less often. Then last winter I got into biscuits, making them every chance I got. With one particularly good batch, Margaret remarked that they were a lot like Kathy's scones. "Ah ha!" I thought, "that's it, Kathy's scones belong to the biscuit school. I can work with that." So one Saturday morning I sweetened the biscuits up a bit and threw in some raisins.
Within bites I knew that these would get the look. Later I made them with plump dried apricots and they were even better.
Now I get the look. On those Saturday mornings when I casually say that I'm making Kathy's scones, her whole body smiles.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page created June 1999
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