What Does It Mean to Be a Man?
Grilled Cheese and a Poor-Man's Croque-Monsieur

How Many Burners Does a Man Need?

This weekend I realized why people have those fancy six-burner stoves—to impress their neighbors. But seriously, folks, this Sunday morning was the first time I can remember that I did so much cooking at the same time that I ran out of burners. Other people go to church--I go into the kitchen. My four-unit Jenn-Air just wasn’t enough. I had a tagine going, a Bolognese simmering, and a pot of black beans humming along, and I wanted to start my lentil-bulgur soup. That dish needs two burners to get going—one for the lentils proper and one for the base of the soup, and I was one burner short.

What did I do? I took the black beans off the heat and let them sit, and went on to make the soup. That was an easy decision, because most of the cooking that’s taking place with those black beans is really just driving water into the center of each bean (I never soak the beans first) and if the pot just sits there, the same thing keeps happening, only more slowly. Problem solved.

That little problem was nothing compared to what happened the day before. On Saturday—a day for me that involved getting up at 5:45 a.m. to take care of the weekly food shop, then doing some business in Manhattan in the morning before coming home to take the kids to swimming lessons in local high school, whose pool is in a heated basement that I swear must have been an inspiration for Dante.

No, my real problem started when I set out to make a simple dinner of coriander-and-cumin crusted pork chops, green beans, and my signature Thanksgiving (give thanks to Sam Sifton) corn bread. It was the cornbread that gave me conniptions.

Now, the thing about this cornbread is that is super easy, and super delicious—provided you get a few basic things right, such as the leavening. One time, in Pennsylvania with my inlaws, I completely forgot to put in the leavening, and the bread came out flat and heavy. It was like Southern matzo—yuch, as they might say.

Another time, Santa Maria made the cornbread, and she did it in a rush and she substituted baking soda for baking powder. It looked right that time, but tasted very strange—double yuck, as it were as baking soda is much stronger, and much more alkaline than baking powder. It had a bitter aftertaste that had us scratching our heads, until Santa Maria realized the error of her ways.

On Saturday, when I was trying to make the cornbread, I didn’t have enough baking powder. I was one tablespoon short, but Santa Maria came to the rescue. Somehow, she knew how to substitute one for the other. Here’s how she did it:

You’ll find various ratios on-line, but the one that worked best for us is mixing half baking soda and half cream of tartar.  For example, if you need to make one Tablespoon of baking powder, mix 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda with 1 ½ teaspoons cream of tartar.

And now that I’ve had a chance to calm down, and consult a few other resources, I’ve since learned that baking powder is basically baking soda (an alkali) combined with an acid (typically cream of tartar), with a stabilizer and a moisture-absorber, such as cornstarch.

I also learned that many people combine the baking soda with the cream of tartar at a 1-to-2 ratio, and not a 1-to-1 ratio. At this moment, I can’t find a reputable source online to tell you what is correct, but I promise to look. Just know this—the way we did it Saturday worked out just fine.

So, more on the baking powder/baking soda substitution shortly, along with details on where cream of tartar actually comes from. I was surprised to learn. Do you know?

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