I hate to do this, but I think it's time to talk about a sad truth. These days we SEE so much cooking, but most of it isn't real. That is, we see it on television, or in magazines, or on people's blogs, and mostly what we see is the result, or the idealized version of the process, but we don't really see how it works to develop a dish or make a recipe that first time.
I think it's easy to fall into believing that cooking is a talent, which you are either good at, or you aren't. That's totally false. While truly genius and inspired cooking is often a matter of talent, especially the creative part of it, the actual mechanics of cooking can be learned by anyone and any dish can be made with practice.
The truth is, that most people don't just pick up a brand new recipe and know immediately how to make it perfectly. The first time you make something new is always a practice and if it comes out well, it's usually luck as much as skill. With any new recipe you have to test it out, have some trial and error runs, and see how it works with your cooking style, your equipment, and your personal taste.
Witness the cookies above. These are Christmas cookies I made for this year, and as you can see, they are pretty cute. The fact is that those cookies are the end product of a chain of failures. The ugly truth is that my first batch of cookies were burnt and had to go right into the trash, but that batch taught me how long they needed to cook in my crotchety oven. The second batch came out cooked correctly, but then I had to figure out how to use the frosting I got. That batch came out ... a little ... well ... beauty-challenged, you might say:
But after that unfortunate looking batch, I was ready ... I had mastered the mechanics of the dough and of the oven and of the frosting (kind of) and I got down to business with all of the remaining dough and managed to put out some decent cookies. But by no means was this a process that came naturally or automatically. It took some tries and it took some errors.
That's what it comes down to. Cooking is not about natural talent, it's about determination, a willingness to learn, observation, and a willingness to practice. It's about trying something, and instead of throwing your hands up when it fails, trying to understand why it failed and how you can fix it. Once you get the basic maneuvers of a recipe down, you will remember how to do it for the next time, and as you practice and learn, you will get more right on the first try, because you will have learned from your mistakes in the past. Don't let cooking shows and magazines and the internet fool you into thinking that you must do everything perfectly right away to be a good cook. Good cooks mostly get that way by repetition, not by inspiration, so you'll be fine as long as you have the interest and the time and the patience.
Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies
Gourmet, December 2008 by Shelly Wiseman
- 1 cup hazelnuts (5 ounces)
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch-process)
- 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
- 1 1/4 cups sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon dark rum
- Equipment: decorative cookie cutters (about 3 inches)
Preheat oven to 375°F with rack in middle. Toast nuts in a small baking pan in oven until centers are golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Wrap in a kitchen towel and cool to warm, then rub off any loose skins. Chop nuts. Whisk together flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt. Beat together butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy, then beat in egg and rum. At low speed, mix in flour mixture in 3 batches just until a dough forms. Stir in nuts. Divide dough in half and form each half into a 5-inch square. Wrap in plastic and chill until firm, at least 1 hour. Preheat oven to 375°F with racks in upper and lower thirds. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll out 1 piece of dough between 2 sheets of parchment into an 11-to 12-inch square. Freeze on a tray until firm, about 20 minutes. Remove top sheet of parchment and cut out shapes with cookie cutters, arranging them 1/2 inch apart on baking sheets. Bake cookies, switching position and rotating sheets halfway through, until firm and tops are slightly cracked, 8 to 12 minutes total. Transfer cookies to racks to cool completely. Repeat with remaining dough (cool baking sheets and line with fresh parchment). Reroll scraps once for extra cookies if desired.
- Dough can be chilled up to 1 week.
- Cookies keep in an airtight container at room temperature 1 week.