I’ve been watching a lot of cooking shows lately. You know, the kind where contestants are given an assortment of incompatible foodstuffs and encouraged to make a feast in a ridiculously short amount of time. In some shows the chefs are sent dashing through the grocery store to snag a prescribed list of ingredients or handed money to buy groceries from a stranger’s cart. Call them far-from-reality shows, but they are a lot of fun to watch. I find myself taking sides and rooting for my favorite chef as if she were a baseball team on its way to winning the pennant. There’s that moment of elation if she wins and heartbreak if she gets eliminated from the contest. But on a deeper level, these shows often feed my culinary insecurities. I look at the beautiful plates of food which were assembled at the very last second and compare these delicacies to the macaroni and cheese that I threw together for the kids, and I know deep down that I am not a worthy chef. Under no circumstances would any of my favorite dinners shine on a network cooking show. Nobody wants to watch me make chicken apple curry, even though my kids are always happy to eat it. Let’s face it, I am a mediocre cook.
I can live with that.
I have picked up a few tidbits of knowledge from these cooking shows. I’ve learned that chef contestants routinely use mascarpone as a go-to item to transform boring ingredients into a culinary masterpiece. Me, I’d never heard of mascarpone, and had to look it up on two separate occasions. Then there’s the application of “heat,” which has nothing to do with turning up the burner. It refers to adding spices with a liberal hand. Who knew?
But there’s not much that I can take away from these shows to beef up my own cooking. I’m unlikely to pair kale with pigs’ feet, or even to have either one of those items in my kitchen. When I go to the grocery store, I range up and down the aisles collecting my usual repertoire of food, striving for nothing more novel than filling the empty spot on my shelf where the spaghetti sauce should go. If I add too much heat in the form of spices, I end up having Tums for dessert.
But there is room for a new breed of show never before seen on television. If there was a cooking show featuring sensory items for young children, I might audition. I’ve made slime, gak and oobleck in my day, but my specialty is making Play-Doh.
This was not always the case.
The first time I made Play-Doh, it was a consequence of my daughter’s behavior in preschool. Her inquiring mind led her to transfer all of the classroom’s Play-Doh into the water table, to see what would happen. What happened was that her mother was presented with a Play-Doh recipe and instructions to make a fresh batch for the class.
Play-Doh consists of flour, salt, cream of tartar, oil and water in the proper proportions. Proportion is everything. When I started my task, I didn’t realize how much salt is required to make Play-Doh. I was used to dispensing salt by the teaspoonful, not the cupful. There was not enough salt in my house to satisfy the recipe, but I decided to fudge it. I figured I could just go with what I had and call it good. Nope. I learned that the salt acts as a preservative. My Play-Doh got moldy in a matter of days. I also had the bright idea that I could use a whisk to stir the Play-Doh while it was cooking, the better to blend all the ingredients together. One broken whisk later, I realized that Play-Doh requires a firmer touch. Nothing but the old wooden spoon would do the trick.
I dropped my daughter off at school the next day with a passable batch of Play-Doh (not yet moldy) and strict instructions never to mix Play-Doh and water again. But over the years I’ve perfected my technique until I can make Play-Doh with the best of them. Armed with my wooden spoon and an ample supply of salt, I could probably hold my own with Play-Doh chefs nationwide. My signature dish is spiced Play-Doh, colored with nothing but cinnamon and nutmeg to a soft golden brown with a heavenly smell reminiscent of the Christmas holidays. It doesn’t even contain any mascarpone.
In case you were wondering, mascarpone is an Italian cream cheese featured in tiramisu. Now you know as much as I do. If you work it into your next meal, pat yourself on the back. You may just be worthy enough to join the renowned chefs of TV cooking show land.
• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother, and author who writes cozy mysteries under the pen name “Greta McKennan.” She likes to look at the bright side of life.