Downtime

Projection Cooking

Why I stockpile hideously complicated recipes I know I’ll never make.

A box filled with notecards of recipes
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Joe_Potato/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Rabbit Holes is a recurring series in which writers pay homage to the diversity and ingenuity of the ways we procrastinate now. To pitch your personal rabbit hole, email humaninterest@slate.com.

My first writing memory is also a food memory. My mom, who likes to say she can’t cook at all, makes my favorite dish: chicken linguine, the al dente pasta tossed with a healthy mix of red onion, basil, garlic, roasted chicken, and chiles. The recipe was my inaugural entry in a ratty, olive-colored notebook where I wrote all of the dishes my 6-year-old heart loved, almost none of which were sophisticated, or even edible. I included my nan’s recipe for Play-Doh, for one, which she made each time I visited her in the summer, as well as ants on a log, which I probably got from an episode of the PBS kids’ show Zoom.

In the intervening years, like so much else, my collection of recipes migrated to the web, and I now pay for the privilege of accessing itl—$5 per month, courtesy of the New York Times cooking platform’s storage function. But my home cooking pales next to the site’s hypnotic grids of earthenware plates and china piled high with glistening foods I can’t pronounce, unsubtle hints that I could eat better if I tried harder. There is a disarming ease in cruising for recipes—which is not to say you’ll succeed in the kitchen with them. But the intimacy of food writing, coupled with the proliferation of it, has me addicted to the possibility of trying.

From all corners of the web, I’m prodded, with varying degrees of my own consent, into more fully embracing this delirium. My email accounts ping with a number of food newsletters, like Josh Gee’s “Snack Cart” and Helen Rosner’s “Helen: A Handbasket”; my office’s Slack, where we have a #GoodEats channel and seven active participants who regularly cook from Bon Appétit and Epicurious, routinely makes me regret my grocery purchases. YouTube now almost exclusively recommends videos of Italian nonnas making pasta by hand after I read an article about the wisdom of older cooks.

So for me, procrastination means manically collecting all these hyperlinks, because of course I will eventually make the recipes they contain. It’s 1:13 a.m. on a Monday, and I’m staring bleary-eyed at Gabrielle Hamilton’s Times recipe for pâté à choux, which is pastry dough that she urges readers to pipe into swans. I know that I’ll never make these swans, because who the hell do I think I am? I once saw a contestant on The Great British Bake Off cry over it. But into my recipe box her pâté goes.

Cooking blogs from witty, self-aware writers make things worse for me, because I actually believe I can make what’s on the page. I’m looking at you, Fancy Pasta Bitch, and your pappardelle Bolognese, which led me to order a pasta maker I’ve used exactly twice. (Every attempt results in noodles with the texture of an old tire.) Months later, inspired by the Perfect Loaf, I began feeding a sourdough starter. To facilitate my bonding with it, I named it Pearl and set a nightly reminder to tend to it. But a week of travel over the holidays rendered Pearl shriveled and crusty, a resounding culinary failure.

But reader, the recipes themselves are so marvelous: the cardamom cream cake with milk syrup and candied rose petals; Anthony Bourdain’s 18-ingredient budae jjigae, a Korean stew that somehow requires both one lone shiitake mushroom and three thinly sliced hot dogs; a 10-layer Russian honey cake, of which the inimitable Samin Nosrat writes, “You’ll reach a point when you’ll wonder why you ever set out to do this.” Duck prosciutto. Spit-roasted Moroccan lamb. Ras el hanout.

But that’s all “project cooking,” you console. Why not try something easy in an Instant Pot? Dozens of guides to the pressure cooker already sit in my recipe box, like Snuk’s Instant Pot lamb and date biryani (23 ingredients) and the Times’ Instant Pot sticky tamarind baby back ribs (13 ingredients). My mom, bless her, ordered the machine for me after I complained about how hard it is to muster the energy to cook when I get home from work. And now that I have it, my excuse is that I’m too busy to learn how to use it. (Can it “layer flavor”? How will I know when the pressure valve has released? Will I blow up my apartment?) These are easily answered questions, though I’ve yet to tackle them. There is an entire industry for this fatigue too, and it usually involves the phrases one-pan or simple weeknight dinner.

Food is personal, but it’s also political and commercial—marketed as a way for middle-class people to “hack” the creeping banality of their lives. Between my 20-square-foot kitchen and $50 per week grocery budget, these recipes I collect are largely aspirational. But finding one that hits the sweet spot of ease and sophistication is nothing short of miraculous. It’s exhilarating to stew a perfect beef bourguignon. There’s a recipe for Jerusalem chicken that I’ve now made so many times that it’s become intuitive, no recipe needed. Yes, I think, I can cook.

A close friend recently gave me a copy of René Redzepi’s The Noma Guide to Fermentation, which advises readers to construct a fermentation chamber made of a Styrofoam cooler, electric heating mat, humidifier, and temperature controller. I couldn’t even pretend, while reading the book in a flu-induced fever, that I had the energy or resources to assemble the contraption. But the first recipes, some preserved blueberries and plums, only involve two ingredients (fruit and salt) and three steps (measure the salt and fruit, dump them into a jar, wait). The real trick with it is patience. Maybe I can start there.