Not too long ago, flipping through an old issue of Scientific American, I came across one of the most dismal terms in the medicalisation of fear – MAGEIROCOPHOBIA. The sheer idea of it floored me. Not because I don’t believe it exists – the kitchen can be a scary place for a lot of people – but because I couldn’t imagine it as a bona fide psychological condition for which someone might seek cognitive behavior therapy, or treatment in the form of serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
Pretty heavy stuff.
Like other phobias, it seems to have varying degrees of severity. And since “the fear of cooking” is rather large in scope, mageirocophobia encompasses a wide range of anxiety triggers: it can be the fear of cooking for a large crowd, or the fear of injuring oneself while cooking, or it can be the fear of complex recipes. While each of us has particular aversions in the kitchen, I find it compelling that we’ve come to dread something that has, at least traditionally, been an integral part of our social exchanges as families and communities, not to mention our basic survival. How did we come to be so apprehensive of the one thing that provides us sustenance? Is it because we’ve gotten used to having other people do it for us? Is it because frozen pizza and powdered sauces have become our steady kitchen companions?
Thinking about this phenomenon made me curious to find out what the people around me were afraid of in the kitchen. Over the course of a week, I asked friends and colleagues to submit ideas of “food that scares them”: meals or recipes they’ve wanted to make, but have avoided for fear that they are too complicated or intimidating or too time-consuming. After collecting about 30 submissions – ranging from Beef Wellington to macarons – I put them in a hat and selected one at random. I gave myself the task of making whichever recipe came out.
The winner was my friend, Kate, who submitted “cream puffs”. Kate is a very good cook and baker – and a brave one at that (the first time I made home-made ice cream was thanks to Kate’s initiative) – but cream puffs seemed arduous to her: “I hear they’re easy but I haven’t tried because it just feels like work.”
Like Kate, I thought cream puffs would be a pain to make. It turns out that they’re really no sweat – the dough comes together in few minutes, in a pot on the stove (so no finnicky kneading, chilling, rolling) and is then piped out onto baking sheets; the cream filling is fairly simple too – a handful of ingredients that come together on the stove with the help of some warm milk and a whisk. C’est tout, les amis.
You might decide to make these cream puffs, or not. Either way, I’m hoping this post will entice you to face your cooking demons, however they manifest themselves. I’m also hoping it will be somewhat therapeutic; think of it along the lines of remedial exposure therapy, where the more you do the things that scare you, the less afraid you’ll be of them.
Happy cooking, everyone x
Cream Puffs = choux pastry + custard or cream filling
Pâte à choux– makes about 24 small buns – adapted from the Encyclopedia of French Cooking, 1982
- 1 1/4 cups water
- 1/2 cup butter
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 4 large eggs
Preheat the oven to 400° F.
Heat the water in a large pan with the butter and salt. When the butter has melted, bring the liquid to the boil and remove from the heat.
Immediately add the flour all at once, then beat vigorously with a wooden spoon. Return the pan to a low heat and continue beating until the mixture draws together and leaves the side of the pan. Do not overbeat – the dough should be smooth and shiny, but not oily.
Remove the pan from the heat, then add the eggs one at a time, beating vigorously after each addition and making sure the egg is fully incorporated before adding the next. Add the last egg a little at a time, beating to make a shiny dough that just falls from the spoon – if the dough will not absorb the last egg, then do not add it.
Fill a pastry bag fitted with a large plain tip with the warm choux mixture and pipe small (about 1-inch) dots onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Wet your finger with cool tap water and lightly tap any peaks on the batter.
Bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375° F and bake for another 10 minutes. Allow the pastries to cool before filling.
Crème pâtissière (vanilla custard) – makes about 2 cups – from the Encyclopedia of French Cooking, 1982
- 2 cups milk
- 1 vanilla bean, sliced down the center lengthwise
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1/2 cup of sugar
- 1/2 cup of all-purpose flour
- knob of butter, to finish
Bring the milk to just below boiling point with the vanilla pod, then cover and leave to infuse for 15 minutes. Strain, then bring to the boiling point again.
Put the egg yolks in a medium bowl with the sugar and whisk together until pale and thick. Add the flour and whisk again until thoroughly incorporated, then gradually whisk in the boiling milk (do this in a slow, steady stream to avoid scrambling your eggs).
Pour the custard into a heavy-based pan and whisk over medium heat until boiling. The mixture may be lumpy, in which case, remove from the heat and whisk until smooth. Return to the heat and bring to the boil again, the simmer for 1 to 2 minutes to cook the flour, whisking constantly.
Remove custard from the heat, then rub the surface with a knob of butter to prevent a skin from forming. Once cool, either fill the dough puffs by spreading a layer of custard between two halves, or alternately, fill a pastry bag with the custard and gently insert into the dough puffs, filling them until you feel a bit of resistance.
Note: as there is no sugar in the dough, these work equally well (sans custard) along savoury dishes or on a cheese plate with other breads.