I think about the time last winter when I confused my two standard breakfast recipes and added far too much flour. Two cups, as if for biscuits, instead of just the 3/4 cup needed for German pancakes. It was a momentary lapse. I can bake either on autopilot most any day. No recipes ever needed. That pancake lacked its signature lightness, and my family looked dubious as they chewed and chewed, but we survived.
I pull out (Great) Aunt Julia's metal bowl, the one that had a piece of masking tape on the bottom for many years after I got it. I couldn't bring myself to scrub off her early twentieth century school teacher's handwriting, claiming the bowl for the Gallo family as it was born to and from potlucks at the Lodge. But I've been mixing in this bowl for two decades myself now, and her name is gone from it.
Three eggs. Three-quarters of a cup of milk. For our family of four, everything in threes. Add one more person, add one more egg, one more tablespoon of butter, one more quarter cup each of milk and flour. One less person...okay, we'd still make the same size batch. German pancakes are delicious.
I whisk the eggs and milk with my misshapen egg whisker, thinking of the kitchen shop I wandered through yesterday. It would be nice to have a shiny new whisker, but this one still works. It would be nice to have a new basting brush, a meat tenderizer, or a citrus juicer, but would those things add anything more than clutter to my life? I get the job done with what I have.
Three fourths of a cup of flour and a shake or two of salt. I just washed the plastic measuring cup, and it's air-drying in the sink, so I pull out the metal one, its handle snapped off, but the intermediate measurements marked on the side, handy for 3/4 amounts. Whisk everything together, pull the hot pan of melted butter out of the oven, pour in the batter just as the oven beeps its readiness at me, and put the whole thing back in for twenty minutes.
Biscuits have a shorter baking time, but a longer process. I lay every little thing out ahead of time, since my hands will soon be covered in buttery flour. The kids always offer to help, which really just means they want to roll and cut the dough, and snitch as much of it as they can before I shoo them from it. They will be in for a sad surprise the first time they order biscuits out in public. I've ruined them for anything other than homemade, just as my mother did me.
Cooking can be done without recipes, especially once you've made something a time or two. I can make spaghetti, or Pad Thai, or soup, without having to pull out any cookbooks. It won't taste exactly the same twice, but it will be recognizable as itself, and (usually) good enough to eat.
But baking needs a recipe, so to bake without a cookbook means rote memorization. When I was a kid, I had the oatmeal chocolate chip cookie recipe down cold. I could probably fake my way through it now, for that matter, but it wouldn't be exact. It's the breakfast recipes that have worked their way into my long-term memory.
We sprinkle lemon juice and powdered sugar over our slices. Too soon for all of us, the pan and our plates are empty. "Maybe I should make two next time," I say to my husband as the kids run back outside to play in the morning sunlight. We sit and drink our coffee. The dishes will wait.