Whenever a drama teacher decided to do improvisational games with the class or a group of friends gathered to play charades, I froze. Given a monologue from "A Midsummer Night's Dream", I would give the character all I had, but the moment I am told to improvise I tighten up. I would much rather write down a scene on the spot than stand awkwardly in front of a partner trying to summon up clever bits and revealing retorts.
Cooking disguises itself as a cold reading, hard but manageable and even entertaining if you stick to what's written. It's edgy and raw and is clearly your own interpretation of classical text. Inevitably, it won't turn out the way you expected it to, but that's what gives it style.
The other night I had an inexplicable urge to bake a Polenta, Rice and Lemon Cake from my Rose Bakery cookbook. I was preparing for my cold reading by setting my stage: I heated my oven and picked out my ingredients from the cupboard, when I realized that I had no white sugar, no almonds, and two few lemons, all of which were required for the recipe, I knew it was time for improvisation.
I thought briefly about a story I had when I was little, a parody of "The Three Little Pigs,"by A. Wolf (Jon Scieszka) called "The True Story of the Three Little Pigs." In this version, the wolf's version, "way back in Once Upon a Time time, [he] was making a birthday cake for [his] dear old granny. [He] had a terrible sneezing cold. [He] ran out of sugar." I thought about knocking on a neighbor's door and pleading for two and 1/4 cups of sugar, two lemons and 5 1/2 cups of almonds, but then I thought of the ending to the story.
"So I walked down the street to ask my neighbor for a cup of sugar. Now this neighbor was a pig. And he wasn't too bright either. He had built his whole house out of straw. Can you believe it? I mean who in his right mind would build a house of straw? So of course the minute I knocked on the door, it fell right in. I didn't want to just walk into someone else's house."
Of course you know the ending, but what you don't know is that the pigs were rather rude and said some rather distasteful comments about the wolf's granny. In short, I decided to improvise rather than borrow.
First improvisation: brown sugar instead of white sugar. Result: moister, darker, molasses- ëer. Second improvisation: two lemons a dash of lemon extract and half of one orange instead of four lemons. Result: tastes a bit more like orange than lemon, although the lemon is still noticeable. I actually misread the original recipe which calls for the juice of one lemon and the zest of four, but this worked as well. Third improvisation: 1 1/2 cups of ground walnuts and 1 cup of ground pignoli nuts instead of 5 1/2 cups of almonds. Result: Moister cake (less dry ingredients), tastes like walnuts and pignoli nuts. Foreseeable conclusion.
I also had to lengthen the baking time from 40 min to 50 min and raise the oven temperature from 325 F to 375 F. To begin the cake (I will give both scripted and improvised ingredients and methods, do with them what you will), mix 2 1/4 cups white sugar or 2 cups of brown sugar with the juice and zest of four lemons or two lemons and 1/2 an orange. Feel free to add either 1/2 tsp of vanilla or lemon extract as well. Mix the sugar and juice with 2 1/4 cups of butter.
Gradually add in 6 eggs and continue mixing. In a separate bowl combine 1/2 cup rice flour (amazingly enough I had this) and 2 cups of polenta, plus 2 tsps of baking powder. Mix together with your choice of nuts. Fold this into the wet batter until it is all combined. My recipe told me to bake in small, rectangular bread tins because this cake is known to sink in the middle.
Of course I had no small rectangular bread tins so I used a pie tin and used my culinary expertise to ensure a successful outcome, which consisted of crossing my fingers and wishing really really hard. I also frantically checked the consistency of the middle with a knife every few minutes. Granted it was soft for a longer time than I've ever experienced, but hey, I rolled with it, because that's what improvisation is all about.
I also sprinkled confectioner's sugar on the top and spread it around with a rubber spatula. This cake was an experiment, and one with great potential to explode or deflate or do whatever else it is that ad libbed experiments do, but it was a success. The polenta gave it a wonderfully grainy texture that rivaled the subtle flavor of the rice flour and the citrus fruits. I accompanied the cake with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, which I labored over for ten minutes, and downed both before school.
All of my drama teachers and summer stock directors would be proud of my improvisational skills. And unlike the wolf's eventual framing for the three little pigs incident, my adventure turned out to be quite enjoyable and delicious. "That's it, the real story."-A. Wolf