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Relax, Dear, It's Only Dinner

Scared of the kitchen? Let America's favorite home cook walk you through a meal

April 21, 1999|MARION CUNNINGHAM

If cooking is really so hard, how did all those pioneer women manage to feed troops of people with not much more equipment than one big pot hung over an open fire? It's far easier to turn out a simple meal today.

So you can learn to cook! And, believe it or not, you'll probably come to enjoy it.

Here are five simple truths that will help you along the way:

1. Always read through a recipe and check to see that you have all the ingredients you need before you begin. For some reason, people don't like to do this, but it will save you time and energy--and anxiety--if you have all your ingredients at hand before you start.

2. Decide what you're going to make for the complete meal and see if there is anything you can do ahead, such as preparing your dessert, or making the salad dressing and washing the greens. Then figure out what parts of the dinner are going to take longest and determine when you should start the preparations. If there are unfamiliar techniques involved in a recipe, read the introductory material and the instructions carefully so that you'll understand every step.

3. The most important habit you can develop (and somehow, many home cooks never seem to) is to taste as you are preparing something. Take a sample and taste it critically at different stages of the cooking, then "correct the seasonings," as recipe instructions often put it. What you want to achieve is a balance of flavors. Haven't you often tasted something you are prepared to enjoy and found it disappointingly flat? Then suddenly a shake of the salt cellar makes it come alive. The only way to learn this all-important aspect of cooking is to keep tasting and figuring out just what's needed. It will make the difference between a mediocre and a delectable dish.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 28, 1999 Home Edition Food Part H Page 2 Food Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
In the recipe for Lemon Pudding Cake ("Relax, Dear, It's Only Dinner," April 21), the batter should be poured into the greased baking pan before the pan is set in the larger baking pan in the oven.

4. I often hear home cooks complain, "I don't mind cooking, but I hate the mess afterward." That's just a result of poor planning--of leaving everything to the end, letting the mess pile up and allowing food to harden so that everything is difficult to clean.

When I was teaching children to cook, the first lesson they learned was: "Wash your hands and fill a big friendly bowl with sudsy hot water." Well, the lesson wasn't just for children. I wouldn't be without that bowl of sudsy water in my sink. It's so simple: As you're going along, just drop every utensil and pot you've used into that bowl. When everything has soaked a few minutes, wash it up, rinse it and let it drain while you continue your cooking.

5. It is hard to know how much food will comfortably serve how many people. My rule of thumb is, when in doubt, cook more than you think you may need. After all, one of the joys of home cooking is having leftovers for the nights when you come home tired and want to fix something quick and simple. Home cooks don't think of one recipe at a time but of what may be needed throughout the week, and those treasures in the refrigerator can provide inspiration for another meal.

CAKE

Foolproof Dessert Magic

This is a first-rate dessert for two reasons. First, you will learn some good basic steps in baking: beating egg whites and folding them into batter (it's a forgiving recipe, so even if you don't do everything perfectly, your dessert will be wonderful). Second, this dessert goes through a magical transformation: As it bakes, it creates a creamy lemon custard and a tender layer of cake. Amazing!

Lemon Pudding Cake

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 40 minutes

1 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup all-purpose white flour

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter

3 large eggs

2 or 3 lemons (enough to make 1/3 cup freshly squeezed juice)

Grated zest from 1 lemon

1 1/2 cups milk

Nonstick cooking spray or 2 teaspoons softened butter (for greasing pan)

* Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

* Put 3/4 cup sugar, salt and flour in mixing bowl and stir with fork until mixed together.

* Melt butter in small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add to flour mixture and stir to mix.

* Separate egg whites from yolks, making sure there is no yolk with the whites. Put whites in clean medium-size glass or metal bowl. Add yolks to flour mixture and beat with whisk or beater.

* Squeeze lemons. Add lemon juice and zest to flour mixture.

* Add milk to flour mixture. Stir until all ingredients are mixed together and batter is uniform color. (Note: This batter is very thin and liquid and doesn't look like the cake batter you may be used to seeing--but fear not, it will work.)

* Beat egg whites, adding remaining 1/4 cup sugar until color of whites changes from clear to white and whites form soft peaks.

* Fold whites into batter.

* Grease 8-inch-square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray or butter. Set this pan in large baking pan that you have placed on middle shelf of oven. Pour into large pan enough warm water to reach halfway up sides of cake pan.

* Set timer for 25 minutes and bake.

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