Monday, April 13, 2009

Bouchons and Bike Tools

For my birthday picnic/egg hunt in Central Park this past weekend, I made chocolate bouchons from a recipe that I found on one of my favorite food blogs, Orangette ( True to form the bouchons popped out like little chocolate champagne corks, and tasted as though they were a cross between flourless chocolate cake and crumbly brownies. Yum. 
In order to achieve the bouchons' cork silhouette,  I followed Molly Wizenberg's advice and used a mini-popover pan, which, naturally, sparked a meditation on the place of single-purpose cooking tools in the culinary universe.  You see, I am a firm believer in tools--of any persuasion--that can be used for more than one objective. Many years ago I first read Laurie Colwin's wonderful essay collection Home Cooking, which is hands down one of the best food books/autobiographies I've ever encountered (see "Stuffed Breast of Veal: A Bad Idea" and "Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir"). One essay particularly influenced me, however, and that was Colwin's "The Low-Tech Person's Batterie de Cuisine", in which she lists what she considers to be kitchen essentials, preceded by the following very wise statement: "most things are frills [...] pots and pans are like sweaters: you may have lots of them, but you find yourself using two or three over and over again".

Now bear in mind that while I cook extensively, I'm not a fancy cook and therefore don't need all the gadgets that a pastry chef would require. Similarly, I don't live with any food professionals or, for that matter, children or pets, and on the occasions when I have more than three people over for dinner, I purchase disposable plates and cups (the Callaghan apartment is very classy). That said, in the ten months that I've lived in New York City, I've managed to cook a wide variety of eatables, ranging from berry pies to fagioli to gruyere fondue for twenty-five people, with one iron skillet, one 1.5 quart steel saucepan, one stockpot, one tea kettle, two casserole dishes, two cookie sheets, one pie pan, a handheld electric mixer, a rolling pin, four knives, a set of measuring cups, a set of measuring spoons, two mixing bowls, a small blender, a salad spinner, and a cutting board the size of a pizza slice. Other than a few plates, bowls, mugs, glass tupperware, and a smattering of cooking utensils (spatula, wooden spoon, and handheld cheese grater), I have a silver teapot that I picked up at the 77th St. flea market and that I use as a watering can for my rosemary when not entertaining guests.  

So it was with some trepidation that I turned over the mini popover pan (see above) in the Zabar's housewares department last week. What could I possibly use it for, other than bouchons and, well, mini popovers? Strangely cylindrical cupcakes? Arugula seedlings? Even my pie pan can be used for a variety of savory and sweet tarts, and the rolling pin could be a makeshift self-defense weapon if necessary (I'm thinking along the lines of a small baseball bat). The salad spinner drains pasta and works as a third mixing bowl when I get into the baking groove, and the cheese grater has worked its magic on both Irish cheddar and dark chocolate bars. If I'm really going to buy something for my kitchen, I thought, it should be a food processor, although my small blender has been able to puree both hazelnuts and stewed apricots, so I certainly don't need one. Plus, twenty dollars for one pan?! I could purchase a nice set of plates and have four more people over for dinner instead. 

And then the flashback struck me. Suddenly it was 2005 and I was standing in the back doorway of the RIBS bike shop in Ithaca, NY ( I had just completed my first day of bike repair-learning, which consisted of stripping a rusty, child size, hot pink wannabe huffy down to a pile of parts. The bike was so old and rusted that I couldn't even identify what type of bottom bracket it had, and BobWölfé--the RIBS guru--ended up hacking it apart with an enormous wrench, which was made all the more surreal by the fact that he is 6'4" and had come to the shop that day dressed like the Count from Sesame Street.  The backyard of RIBS used to share a fence with a community center/church, and BobWölfé had a tradition whereby a new repairer would throw the frame of the first bike he/she had stripped out the back door, and if it went over the fence then some sort of prize or honor was bestowed on the thrower. I wish I could remember what it was. But I digress; suffice it to say, the rusty pink frame made it half way across the yard--n.b. don't throw from the downtube--and so BobWölfé nodded curtly at me and then whisked me on to tradition number two.

What, he asked, as he gestured with his arms to the mess of metal hanging from the walls, is your favorite bike tool? I answered instantaneously: the chain breaker.

loved the chain breaker. I loved the satisfying snap that ricocheted up my wrist when I broke a set of links, its pins clattering to the floor. I loved the Germanic compound that constituted its name. Chain breaking without a doubt had been the best part of the stripping: the liberation of the stretched and rusty chain, which I'd twirled like a lasso over my head and thrown to the back of the shop like a metal snake. Ah. But when I looked at BobWölfé's face, I realized my error immediately. What folly, to choose a tool that serves only one purpose, that can only break and not mend if its pin is missing or bent, that is a lumpy afterthought no self-respecting rider stashes in his seat pocket on a long ride, to be nestled alongside the mocking multi-tool with its toothy chain tool arm. Why hadn't I said the hex wrenches, or at the very least, the pedal wrench, which in worst case scenarios could be used for self defense like my rolling pin? Even pointing to the rag would have been better, as it can clean the entire bike and not just one part.

From that day forward I have been a committed consumer of multi-purpose tools, and this commitment extends from my culinary batterie to the vinegar that both completes my salad dressings and cleans my bathroom mirror.  I saw, and continue to see, BobWölfé's face in that mini popover pan. However, since it was my birthday, I decided to compromise and pay homage--multi-purpose homage--both to Laurie Colwin and BobWölfé in the form of other more ingenious implements as I made my bouchons. For example, since I had to melt the chocolate slowly but I don't own a double boiler, I made one out of my saucepan and a mixing bowl.

And because I do not own a vase--although it might be time to get one--I displayed my birthday bouquets in my stockpot.
I also promise to make popovers once a month.


  1. a lovely tale, honoring (multi-purposefully!) two, not one, of your compelling interests!

  2. If I was stranded on a desert island and could bring only one thing with me, that thing would be Caitlin, because she could fashion a ROCKET SHIP from a coconut (assuming she could resist eating the coconut first).