Saturday, January 03, 2009

Butter, flour, water & eggs

Late this afternoon I am baking from a recipe I had written in ink on a piece of lined paper that I folded and inserted in a bound notebook I use to hold some recipes.  The paper is faded and has brown splotches on it.  My mother has made this baked good often in the past (baked good is a soothing compound, isn't it?  implying both floury, moist, lightly browned substance that is inherently 'good' tasting or does this imply in and of itself an absolute value with some uncertain equivalence to currency?).  From where she obtained this recipe, I don't know: clipped from a woman's magazine, from a friend at Home Dem (or Home Demonstration, a club she belonged to when I was younger), or from a friend at church.  

I am baking "Danish Pastry," but this is just a label for something that tastes very good and is made from only four ingredients: butter, water, flour, and eggs.  Add appropriate heating techniques at various junctures along with a variety of mixing techniques and thus a double-layered pastry emerges: the bottom like a crumbly soft pie crust and the top like a puffy, almost sweet pop-over.  Go out of your way to add two more ingredients (ok, three), and a polished product is on the table--confectioner's sugar, milk, and nuts.

Some of the things that I like about cooking, especially baking, is making just a few common ingredients do this kind of dance.  Mix some of these ingredients differently, add yeast & some sitting-around time to let the yeast do its stuff, and you've got bread.  A different proportion without yeast and with sugar and baking powder makes cake.  Variations on a theme. 

Making this pastry always reminds me of Harry Mathews' poem, "Butter & Eggs," the only source for which I have is the 2002 Best American Poetry anthology, the one Creeley edited.  It's a long poem, six sections, and each section except the last, gives exacting instructions for making various types of eggs, each a bit different.  The last section explains how to clarify butter.  The language is really great, and part of what lifts it from instruction to poetry: words are repeated in patterns that oscillate throughout each line and the poem, and there's a grace and elegance to the phrasing that emphasizes the ways in which cooking is an art--an attention to detail, the visual, the olfactory, the tactile.  

At the back, under his bio, Mathews says: "My intention in composing 'Butter & Eggs' was to create poetry unlike any I had previously written.  It would be instructive, devoted to everyday subject matter, and eschew not only Oulipian but traditional poetic resources such as metaphor; the result all the same had to be unmistakably poetry.  But what is unmistakably poetic?  Readers know; but of course they may not agree."

I have spent most of the last several days cleaning my house myself after removing a domestic helper who was not, well, helpful.  This, too, is a form of poetry: detailing surfaces, looking into corners and under objects, polishing and mopping and making the available components of my life, the composition of the daily sphere, burnished and best possible.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Another thing in common, I think. In my last life (before children), I was a pastry chef.