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June 13th at 1:38pm

Are We Being Held Hostage by the 30-Minute Meal?

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Yesterday I made babka for the third time in two weeks. (That’s recipe developing for a cookbook for you.) I’ve baked babka - the twisted, yeast and butter-scented pastry from Eastern Europe - several times in the past, but never so much in such a condensed period of time. Along the way, lessons were learned:

1. Having that many loaves of babka around the house, with their multiple sticks of butter and densely swirled chocolate layers, is ill-advised. Make sure to clear out some freezer space or have hungry friends nearby.

2. Babka takes a seriously long time to make. Like “cancel your afternoon plans, that dough is still rising” long. And it’s exhausting. At the end of all that kneading and rolling, filling and twisting - and oh, did I mention it needs to rise again? - your feet and lower back ache with the bone-tired fatigue of a marathon runner. But instead of feeling virtuous and sweaty, you end up with lots of cake. (See above.)

And yet on the flip side, you end up with LOTS OF CAKE. Each time I pulled the fragrant, puffed loaves from the oven and sliced into the warm pastry with their convincing bakery-like swirls, I felt a flutter of triumph. I’m happy anytime I manage to make something delicious, but the significant work that went into this particular dish made it proportionately more thrilling to eat and share. 

Even when the babka turned out a bit dryer than I wanted - even when my first bite was accompanied by the immediate, sinking realization that I was destined to tweak and try it again - I was buoyed by the hard proof sitting in front of me that I made that awesome thing.

Somewhere during the second rise of my third batch of babka, I got to thinking - this recipe would never have made it into my first cookbook. That book was, like so many cookbooks today, focused on “everyday” recipes - dishes that can be quickly whipped up after a long day. Dishes designed to convince home cooks that cooking is not as intimidating or arduous as they always thought.

Well, as it turns out, you don’t whip up babka. You sweat for it and fret over it, and ultimately submit to its whims. So no, there is no babka in the everyday cook’s vocabulary. And I think that’s a shame.

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Simple. Fast. No fuss. Easy. 30-minute. Everyday. These are the words that have come to define successful recipes and cookbooks today. Nearly everyone it seems, from Giada to John-Georges has capitalized on our collective call to make cooking as painless as possible.

And it’s hardly a new phenomenon. Back in 1939, The Joy of Cooking’s inimitable creator, Irma Rombauer, published Streamlined Cooking - a collection of 30-minute recipes that portended today’s obsession with speedy meal-making. Interestingly, the book was a flop - a few years ahead of the heat-and-serve era. 

Several decades later in 1975, the French chef, Pierre Franey, debuted a significantly more successful column in the New York Times called the 60-Minute Gourmet. At the time, he stirred up a revolution amongst readers who followed his formula for making delicious, restaurant-inspired meals in under an hour. Today, he would be eye-rolled out of the kitchen. Who has a whole hour of uninterrupted time to get dinner on the table?

And then, of course, there’s Rachael Ray, the current patron saint of the 30-minute meal. Over the last decade, she has launched a career from convincing people to cook more by cooking quick. 

It makes sense why we love (or love to hate, but secretly just love) Ray’s brand of everyday cooking. We are a society of exceedingly busy people. We are grad students, and meeting-goers, and parents of young children. We are multi-tasking, hard-working professionals who know the term 9-5 is a laughably inaccurate. 

We are also, many of us, less-than-confident cooks, who fear rather than relish the challenge of a many-step, decidedly non-everyday recipe like babka. And so we never make it.

I don’t mean to downplay the value of fast, flavorful cooking. Some of my best friends are quick and easy meals, and my forthcoming cookbook will include many of them. There’s no doubt that the emergence and current dominance of the everyday cooking ethos has brought many of us back into the kitchen (including Michael Pollan). On balance, I think that’s a great thing.

And yet, when we allow everyday cooking to be the only cooking we do, I think we ultimately lose out. By elevating and idealizing the 30-minute meal, we inherently discredit any recipe that takes longer to make. We abandon the deeper pleasure of tackling a difficult recipe head-on and emerging on the other side, battle-scarred but victorious. We also cut out huge swaths of traditional, time-test recipes (like babka) from our repertoire.

As home cooks, we should continue to embrace everyday cooking. But let’s not be held hostage by it. Every so often, whether it’s before a holiday, a Sunday afternoon, or an unexpectedly quiet evening after the kids go to bed, let’s embrace cooking’s non-everyday side. While waiting 2 full hours for dough to rise is an unsustainable pursuit for most people most of the time, there is simply no substitute for the wandering, contemplative thoughts that accompany 10 straight minutes of kneading. 

We make time in life for the things that sustain us. And sometimes, there’s just nothing better or more life affirming than stopping to smell the (freshly baked) babka. 

Photo credits: babka, Leah Koenig; tomatoes, Zivar Amrami.

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