WOK PRESENCE

WOK PRESENCE
Or
Culinary Alchemy

For maybe over five years I have been searching for a quote – a particular food quote. I searched high and low and far and wide, somewhat under the impression that it was something that perhaps M.F.K. Fisher or Elizabeth David had written. Needless to say I didn’t find it in either of their books that I have on my shelves. I searched through three books of food related quotes and did an extensive search on Google without having any success.

What the quote related to is the name of that “thing” – the subtle changes that occur when cooks trained in the same kitchen making the same dish, following the same recipe–end up with different results. Also got to thinking the other day as I was watching “Chopped” on the Food Network – is that they do a take off on this quote I am searching for. On Chopped, the contestants are given 3 or 4 of the same ingredients and in a specific amount of time, have to create a dish–appetizer or an entrée or a dessert. They present their dish to the judges who decide which dish is the best and one contestant at a time is “chopped” or eliminated from the competition until finally one chef is declared the winner. You all are probably familiar with this show so perhaps I am unnecessarily digressing.

I accidentally found a quote recently while searching for something else. It was something Karen Hess wrote about in her outstanding book “THE CAROLINA RICE KITCHEN….THE AFRICAN CONNECTION”. Ms. Hess was referring specifically to African American women who, during the times of slavery, left their thumbprint on everything they cooked. They were a part of the south but they brought with them African influences which eventually changed the palate of southerners. Ms. Hess writes that the Chinese have a name for this, those subtle changes, and they call it Wok Presence. (*I wrote an article for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange years ago, titled “OUR AFRICAN HERITAGE” which appeared in the Feb/March 1996 issue of the CCE – which was how I was led to The Carolina Rice Connection by Ms. Hess).

Another cookbook author, Rosa Lewis had a somewhat different take on the same concept and wrote, “Some people’s food always tastes better than others, even if they are cooking the same dish at the same dinner. Now I will tell you why–because one person has more life in them–more fire, more vitality, more guts–than others. A person without these things can never make food taste right, no matter what materials you give them, it is not use Turn in the whole cow full of cream instead of milk, and all the fresh butter and ingredients in the world, and still the cooking will taste dull and flabby–just because they have nothing in themselves to give. You have got to throw feeling into cooking.” – and no, this is not the quote I have been looking for.

I have been aware of these subtle changes for most of my adult life. It’s why a recipe can be published in a cookbook with exact directions and measurements and my results may not be the same as your results. And there may be a dozen reasons why not.
In the early 1980s, when I was living in Florida, I became even more acutely aware of this difference as I tried to share some favorite recipes with my next door neighbor. She would come crying to me “My cookies burn! They don’t turn out like yours!” – I was baffled – after all, it was the famous Toll House cookie recipe on the back of every package of Nestle’s semi sweet morsels. How could it be different? I went over to her house to watch her bake the cookies and discovered that she would put two cookie trays, side by side – wedged in really, on a rack. The air couldn’t flow; the bottoms of the cookies burned.

I have been a great proponent, ever since, for baking two trays of cookies on two separate racks and switching them, top to bottom, bottom to top half way through baking to assure even baking, so the hot air circulates.

But “Wok Presence” can affect us in many other different ways. For instance – a girlfriend of mine says my ranch dressing tastes better than hers. I discovered she uses Kraft Miracle Whip salad dressing. I use Best Foods Mayonnaise (Hellman’s if you are East of the Mississippi). Another time I discovered that a friend used a Polish kolbasz for the Hungarian Layered potato recipe. You really need Hungarian kolbasz to make an authentic Hungarian Layered potato casserole. That’s not to say that your dish won’t taste good. It just won’t taste AS good. It’s like – the difference you will get if you use margarine instead of real butter in a recipe. It will be ok. It just won’t be great.

Wok presence can be affected by the type of baking pans you use and the length of time something, such as a drop cookie, remains in the oven. I had this girlfriend at work who made such wonderful chocolate chip cookies. I asked her what the secret was. She replied that she underbaked the cookies; she would take them out of the oven a few minutes early and let them stand on the cookie sheet on a counter until they were cool enough to move.
Such a small change but it made the difference between soft and chewy – and crisp.
I adopted her underbaking rule with most butter cut out cookies that I make – when they are brown around the edges yet firm enough – I take them out and let them stand on the cookie sheets for a while before transferring to wire racks to finish cooling. And cookie sheets! The kind of cookie sheets you use can make all the difference in the world with your finished product. Now I replace cookie sheets every few years – and I use parchment paper on all of them, all of the time. It works better than aluminum foil which I used on the cookie sheets for years.

But the more I think about this – the more certain I am that someone else, a famous cookbook author (and I am leaning heavily towards Elizabeth David) said that the FRENCH have a name for it, those subtle differences that take place when two chefs – cook the same recipe, with the same ingredients – but each will turn out differently. There is a NAME for this and I am going crazy trying to pin it down.

If anyone knows what that something else is, please write!

Happy Cooking!
Sandy

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2 responses to “WOK PRESENCE

  1. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me. Now, I too am curious as to what it is called. I will be paging through my cooking quotes books when I get back to PA for sure. Thanks Sandy.

    • Louise, if I ever find out you will be the first to know. This has been driving me crazy for a very long time & I just can’t let go of it.

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