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How I Learned To Cook
Five questions for Dr. Eve L. Ewing: our debut column on cooking journeys
I’m fascinated by cooking journeys: Everyone’s is so different; everyone comes to cooking in their own unique way. Maybe you learned with a parent — or maybe you learned because your parents weren’t around much and you had to fend for yourself. Maybe you learned in order to impress a potential partner. Maybe you’re just an overachiever. So, in an effort to quench my curiosity, we’ve decided to start a new series. Each person in the series will answer the same five questions and in the process tell a little about themselves. We hope you enjoy this, our inaugural Q&A, with the incredibly inspiring Dr. Eve L. Ewing. She’s warm, brilliant, and charming, and we’re happy to share her journey with you!
Keep Eve in mind for tomorrow’s discussion at 3 p.m. EST during which we’ll be talking about how we’ve learned to cook: We'll talk about gateway recipes, cooking mentors (IRL or in cookbooks), and those aha!-moments when we realized we’ve got this. Really, it’s a discussion in which anything you’d like to bring to the table in terms of what has shaped your cooking journey is fair game.
First, please tell us a little about yourself.
I'm a professor and a writer born and raised in Chicago. I'm the author of several books, including two poetry collections (Electric Arches and 1919), a non-fiction book (Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago's South Side), several Marvel comics, and a forthcoming book for young readers called Maya and the Robot which will be out this July. In terms of my food life, what most people know about my kitchen habits is that I have been methodically baking every bread in the America's Test Kitchen handbook Bread Illustrated since November 2017, and documenting my process on the internet. I love cooking everything and I really love baking, but I have a soft spot for bread in particular. (And that soft spot ... is called my tummy.)
How did you eat growing up?
I feel really lucky because I was raised by a single mom who worked multiple jobs, yet somehow we ate breakfast at the table every single day (even if it was cereal or frozen waffles), she packed our lunch, and we usually ate dinner together. I totally took it for granted at the time and now I literally don't understand how that was possible. I grew up in a primarily Mexican and Puerto Rican neighborhood and so we ate a mix of Black American classics (grits, cornbread, fried chicken), and Mexican and Puerto Rican food (tamales, arroz y gandules, arrachera on the grill, paletas). I also was a latchkey kid in the peak of the ‘90s when no one knew what "organic" meant yet, so I ate a ton of Lunchables, honey buns from the corner store, Kool-Aid …
How old were you when you learned how to cook? Why’d you start?
My earliest cooking memories are of making bread with my mom, but she tells me that I got the job of cutting biscuits out with a glass when I was younger, maybe five. My grandmother was a great cook but was one of those people who didn't really want anyone in her kitchen, so my mom didn't learn to cook until young adulthood. I think she wanted us to have a different experience, so she let me be a helper when I was pretty young.
When I was 6 or 7 I would get curious and started trying to entertain myself by just mixing different things together to see what happened, and I was never punished or discouraged from that, which I think matters. I started cooking basics — grilled cheese, fried egg — when I was about 12 out of hunger and necessity, and I discovered baking in earnest when I was about 14. Baking was absolutely magical to me because it was about following directions. Many things about my life growing up were precarious, unpredictable, or chaotic, and baking was the precise opposite. I learned that I could follow directions precisely and make something magical out of nothing — and I could make people happy by doing it. But I realize now that there are some things I took for granted in terms of technique: My mom taught me about how to cream butter and sugar together, for instance, and what it's supposed to look like, and about how to knead dough – things that are harder to learn from reading that sometimes get people tripped up when they first start baking.
I started getting way better at cooking in my early 20s, and I'm not saying this to engage in inane flattery, but Mark's column The Minimalist was a big influence on me. One summer it was just sweltering heat and I didn't have AC in my apartment, and Mark published that list of 101 things to make without having the stove on for more than a few minutes. Absolute game-changer. Iconic. His style of cooking also made a big impact on me because I started moving past recipes and more toward the essentials of how cooking works, and learning to use your senses, improvise, and not take yourself too seriously.
What's your favorite thing to make?
I'm very mercurial so this changes! One year all I did was make fruit galettes. Another year I made ice cream over and over. In the time of the pandemic, I've come to love making lasagna. It's so time-consuming and involves so many steps and ingredients, and it's something I really do when I'm trying to care for someone else and show them that I'm thinking of them, if they've been sick or suffered a loss. Going through the whole process of getting the pieces together, assembling it, baking it, and dropping it off to someone: It just provided me with time and centeredness to think about that person and reflect on whatever is going on. I like to try different recipes, but Samin Nosrat's lasagna has come to reign supreme in my household.
Is there something you can never seem to get right?
I've made the best of meringues ... and I've made the worst of meringues. When meringues fail, you still end up with delicious sugar disks, but it's awfully humbling.
What advice can you offer to your fellow cooks?
Be judicious about your tools. I usually only buy a new cooking tool after I've found myself in a dozen or so situations where I wish I had it. A lot of people start off by filling their kitchens with clutter that they don't really need or use. That said, I think a rice cooker and an immersion blender are two of the most underrated kitchen appliances. If you like making creamy fall soups, an immersion blender is your best friend.
Another piece of advice I would give is to read about food when you're not just searching for something to make for dinner. A lot of what I've learned over the years is stuff I've absorbed when reading for fun, and then I have it in the back of my head when I need it. If you only read about food (or watch videos, or whatever you happen to prefer) when you're stressed out and have 30 minutes to make something and you're starving, you'll learn how to make that one recipe in survival mode, but you're unlikely to really retain anything new about technique or flavor. If you just read a magazine article or watch a video about something when you're relaxed (I like to do this at the gym, trolling everyone around me), I think it will go into the happy and memorable part of your brain where the random Wikipedia factoids and childhood commercial jingles live, and you'll recall it later.
Someone on Instagram once joked that multiple times in a given week I gave the following advice: "The trick is a sharp knife." So I guess that's my essential maxim.
Eve’s Hedgie Rolls
Every year at the holidays my family makes this recipe. We call them Hedgie Rolls, named after my great-aunt Hedgie who first brought the recipe around. Me, my mom, my grandmother, and my aunt have all made them at various times and now that I'm married they're a hit with the in-laws, too. Since this is a family recipe, there's a lot of detail missing, but I've tried to fill it in as best as I can! If something is messed up don't get mad at me!
Mix together in a small bowl and set aside:
2 packets yeast
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons warm water
In a large bowl, combine with a wooden spoon:
2 cups warm milk
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
3 cups flour bread flour
1. Mix into a smooth dough, then add yeast mixture and stir until well incorporated. Add another 2.5 cups of flour and knead until just combined and smooth.
2. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise in the fridge overnight.
3. In the morning, divide the dough in half. Sprinkle some flour on the counter and knead one half for five minutes, keeping the other half covered. Then swap them out and knead the second one for five minutes.
4. Roll each dough ball out so that it's round and flat, about 1/2 inch deep. Using a pizza cutter, slice each circle into 12 equal slices. (I usually cut it into quarters, then cut each quarter into three even pieces.) Starting with the wide end, roll each slice tightly over itself. Put them on a cookie sheet covered in parchment paper with plenty of space in between-- no more than 8 per sheet. If you can position them so that the small pointy corner is on the bottom and doesn't come undone as they proof.
5. Cover them loosely and let them rise again at room temperature until about doubled in size.
6. Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes or until they're golden brown. Sometimes my mom brushes melted butter or honey on them when they're done.