Monday, July 20, 2009

I Read, I Yawned, I Made Freakish Muffins

I've been having no luck with summer reading this year. I've been keeping an eye out for a bit of fluff, something not too serious but interesting that I could read by the pool or on bus trips out of the city. Back in April the Times did a write up of a book called I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti by Giulia Meludcci and I thought, perfect! I was a big fan of Julie and Julia (and am looking forward to seeing the movie in August) and was excited about the prospect of another book about a young woman cooking in her New York kitchen. Sounds like familiar territory right? And this one even listed recipes! Well similar kitchens did not equal similar results.

The book, unfortunately, is boring. The title, which isn't exactly an eye catcher to begin with, basically spells out the entire plot. She meets a guy, falls hard, cooks something unexciting in order to please and impress the guy, breaks up with the guy when he turns out to be a complete douchebag, and then makes even more generic Italian food. Recipes include Fried Eggplant, Breaded Cutlets, Spaghetti and Meatballs, and Apple Muffins, among others. I'll give you a minute to catch your breath from the excitement. Even this was interesting for maybe the first two or three guys, but by guy number four you're thinking "Yeah, I wouldn't be ready to marry you either, you whinny, unimaginative, compulsive cooker." As much as I love food, it will not solve your problems (except for that one time a steak kebab helped me with my tax return,) but that seems to be the only idea Melucci seems to be able to come up with. She also changes the names of her boyfriends, apparently in order to protect the privacy of the jerks who took advantage of her love and culinary talents. Books like this are supposed to feel like gossip, like one of your girlfriends telling you all their secrets about their love life a la Sex in the City. There is nothing more annoying then this friend eluding to but not revealing the really good details of these stories. Melucci also likes to be all coy when she's eluding to the fact that she got laid, which doesn't come off as discreet so much as juvenile. How hard is it to say "His name was Jim and after dinner we totally had sex"?

A few chapters into the book I came across a recipe for her grandmother's blueberry muffins the same week that blueberries happened to be on sale at Whole Foods. Latching onto this bit of serendipity I decided to make them, and then spend the rest of the week enjoying my home baked work. Now, I am not really a baker. You know that thing, where most restaurant chefs are men, but most pastry chefs are women? I don't understand that. I can pull off a couple of sweets, but really I'm a savory kinda girl so I'm already starting off with a disadvantage. Looking at Melucci's recipe I have to ask, does anyone actually keep "Self Rising" flour on hand? And if "All Purpose" flour is to live up to it's name, shouldn't that be one of its purposes? You can see where this is going. Once I finally had everything mixed, I looked at the next step,"Spoon batter into muffin tins." I didn't have batter, I had crumbly dough. Shit. Digging out the "Better Homes and Gardens" cookbook my cousin Joanne gave me (not the most creative cookbook in the world, but damn will it save you if you have questions about the basics) I found another recipe for blueberry muffins. It had twice as much milk and much less butter. Hmmmm. I dumped more milk in. Then I noticed that the
cookbook called for "All Purpose" flour (HA!) but also called for Baking Powder (SHIT!). I dumped in some baking powder, but of course this was to the finished batter and not to the dry ingredients, in a last ditch effort to save the muffins. And so they baked, and surprise surprise, did not rise. I ended up with something more akin to a blueberry biscuit. Someone graciously told me it was kind of like a scone, but alas, it was a biscuit. Still tasted pretty good, but disheartening none the less.

From what I can tell, the book sets out to give the reader two things--some helpful cooking tips and some insight into her personal life and how it relates to cooking. She accomplishes neither very well and what we're left with is a kind of literary slurry that's almost a coherent narrative and almost a cookbook. But what does Melucci get for her inability to tell a compelling story, communicate a recipe, or, it would seem, keep a man? According to the Times article, a $250,000 advance. Well if any publishing company is just handing out advances, I've got the perfect pitch for them--it's a book called I Woke Up, I Brushed My Teeth, I Had Some Berry Berry Kix. It'll be a good beach read.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this story. I enjoyed it. Must be the sadist in me. No, I related to it. I belong to a baking group and I have to convert all the ingredients because they use self rising flour and I haven't gotten it right, yet.

I do what you did. Look up another, similar recipe, and make that one. The last one was a cake and the first try, we called the bumpy lump. That is exactly what it looked like. It tasted good though.

The second came out the way it should and it tasted better.

We are in good company, I am sure.

Martha said...

You can find conversions to make AP flour into self-rising. Let me know if you can't find it. Self-rising is much more common in England (don't know about other parts of Europe). The key to baking is that it's chemistry and there's little or no room for deviation.

Stef's friend, Clare's Mom

clare said...

see-- i hardly ever blog the total disasters, but pie season is coming up and i'll take pictures.

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