Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Mark Bittman

The rendering time

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No-knead bread

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on December 30, 2015.

Last year, I went through a period in which I was baking a lot of bread at home, initially as an activity to share with my daughter. Not surprisingly, I relied entirely on the no-knead recipe first developed by Jim Lahey and popularized by Mark Bittman over a decade ago in the New York Times. As many amateur bakers know, it’s simplicity itself: instead of kneading, you mix a very wet dough with a tiny amount of yeast, and then let it rise for about eighteen hours. Bittman quotes Harold McGee, author of the legendary tome On Food and Cooking, who says:

It makes sense. The long, slow rise does over hours what intensive kneading does in minutes: it brings the gluten molecules into side-by-side alignment to maximize their opportunity to bind to each other and produce a strong, elastic network. The wetness of the dough is an important piece of this because the gluten molecules are more mobile in a high proportion of water, and so can move into alignment easier and faster than if the dough were stiff.

Bittman continues: “Mr. McGee said he had been kneading less and less as the years have gone by, relying on time to do the work for him.” And the results, I can confirm, are close to foolproof: even if you’re less than precise or make a few mistakes along the way, as I tend to do, you almost always get a delicious, light, crusty loaf.

And the idea that you can use the power of time to achieve results that would otherwise require intensive work is central to much of modernist cuisine, as the freelance food scientist Nathan Myhrvold notes in his massive book of the same name. Government food safety guidelines, he points out, are based on raising the core temperature of meat to a certain minimum, which is often set unreasonably high to account for different cooking styles and impatient chefs. In reality, most pathogens are killed by temperatures as low as 120 degrees Fahrenheit—but only if the food has been allowed to cook for a sufficient length of time. The idea that a lower temperature can be counterbalanced by a longer time is the basic premise behind sous vide, in which food is cooked in a warm water bath for hours rather than more rapidly over high heat. This works because you’re trading one kind of precision for another: the temperature is carefully controlled over the course of the cooking process, but once you’re past a certain point, you can be less precise about the time. If you’ve ever prepared a meal in a crock pot, you already know this, and the marvel of sous vide lies in how it applies the same basic insight to a wider variety of recipes. (In fact, there’s a little gadget that you can buy for less than a hundred dollars that can convert any crock pot into a sous vide machine, and although I haven’t bought one for myself yet, I intend to try it one of these days.)

Sous vide

But the relationship between intensity and time has applications far beyond the kitchen. Elsewhere, I’ve talked about the rendering time that all creative acts seem to require: it seems that you just have to live with a work of art for a certain period, and if your process has become more efficient, you still fill that time by rendering or revising the work. As Blinn’s Law states: “As technology advances, rendering time remains constant.” And rendering, of course, is also a term from the food industry, in which the inedible waste from the butcher shop is converted, using time and heat, into something useful or delicious. But one lesson that artists quickly learn is that time can be used in place of intensity, as well as the other way around. Many of the writing rules that I try to follow—trim ten percent from each draft, cut the beginning and ending of every scene, overlap the action, remove transitional moments—are tricks to circumvent a protracted revision process, with intense work and scrutiny over a focused window taking the place of a longer, less structured engagement. If I just sat and fiddled with the story for months or years, I’d probably end up making most of the same changes, but I use these rules of thumb to hurry up the revisions that I would have made anyway. They aren’t always right, and they can’t entirely take the place of an extended period of living with a story, but I can rely on them to get maybe ninety percent of the way there, and the time I save more than compensates for that initial expenditure of energy.

And art, like cooking, often consists of finding the right balance between time and intensity. I’ve found that I write best in bursts of focused activity, which is why I try to keep my total working time for a short story to a couple of weeks or so. But I’ve also learned to set the resulting draft aside for a while before the final revision and submission, which allows me to subconsciously work through the remaining problems and find any plot holes. (On a few occasions that I haven’t done this, I’ve submitted a story only to realize within a day or two that I’d overlooked something important.) The amount of real work I do remains the same, but like dough rising quietly on the countertop, the story has time to align itself in my brain while I’m occupied with other matters. And while time can do wonders for any work of art, the few good tricks I use to speed up the process are still necessary: you aren’t likely to give up on your dough just because it takes an extra day to rise, but the difference between a novel that takes twelve months to write and one that takes three years often amounts to one you finish and one you abandon. The proper balance depends on many outside factors, and you may find that greater intensity and less time, or vice versa, is the approach you need to make it fit with everything else in your life. But baking no-knead bread reminded me that we have a surprising amount of control over the relationship between the two. And even though I’m no longer baking much these days, I’m always thinking about what I can set to rise, or render, right now.

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2017 at 9:00 am

The rendering time

with 5 comments

No-knead bread

Over the last month, I’ve started to bake bread at home, initially as an activity to share with my daughter. Not surprisingly, I’ve been relying on the no-knead recipe first developed by Jim Lahey and popularized by Mark Bittman a decade ago in the New York Times, which I recently rediscovered after neglecting it for years. As many amateur bakers know, it’s simplicity itself: instead of kneading, you mix a very wet dough with a tiny amount of yeast, and then let it rise for about eighteen hours. Bittman quotes Harold McGee, author of the legendary tome On Food and Cooking, who says:

It makes sense. The long, slow rise does over hours what intensive kneading does in minutes: it brings the gluten molecules into side-by-side alignment to maximize their opportunity to bind to each other and produce a strong, elastic network. The wetness of the dough is an important piece of this because the gluten molecules are more mobile in a high proportion of water, and so can move into alignment easier and faster than if the dough were stiff.

Bittman continues: “Mr. McGee said he had been kneading less and less as the years have gone by, relying on time to do the work for him.” And the results, I’m pleased to confirm, are close to foolproof: even if you’re less than precise or make a few mistakes along the way, as I have, you almost always get a delicious, light, crusty loaf.

And the idea that you can use the power of time to achieve results that would otherwise require intensive work is central to much of modernist cuisine, as the freelance genius and food scientist Nathan Myhrvold notes in his massive book of the same name. Government food safety guidelines, he points out, are based on raising the core temperature of meat to a certain minimum, which is often set unreasonably high to account for different cooking styles and impatient chefs. In reality, most pathogens are killed by temperatures as low as 120 degrees Fahrenheit—but only if the food has been allowed to cook for a sufficient length of time. The idea that a lower temperature can be counterbalanced by a longer time is the basic premise behind sous vide, in which food is cooked in a warm water bath for hours rather than more rapidly over high heat. This works because you’re trading one kind of precision for another: the temperature is carefully controlled over the course of the cooking process, but once you’re past a certain point, you can be less precise about the time. Anyone who has ever prepared a meal in a crock pot knows this, and the marvel of sous vide lies in how it applies the same basic insight to a wider variety of recipes. (In fact, there’s a little gadget that you can buy for less than a hundred dollars that can convert any crock pot into a sous vide machine, and although I haven’t bought one for myself yet, I intend to try it one of these days.)

Sous vide

But the relationship between intensity and time has applications far beyond the kitchen. Elsewhere, I’ve talked about the rendering time that all creative acts seem to require: it seems that you just have to live with a work of art for a certain period, and if your process has become more efficient, you still fill that time by rendering or revising the work. As Blinn’s Law states: “As technology advances, rendering time remains constant.” And rendering, of course, is also a term from the food industry, in which the inedible waste from the butcher shop is converted, using time and heat, into something useful or delicious. But one lesson that artists quickly learn is that time can be used in place of intensity, as well as the other way around. Many of the writing rules that I try to follow—trim ten percent from each draft, cut the beginning and ending of every scene, overlap the action, remove transitional moments—are tricks to circumvent a protracted revision process, with intense work and scrutiny over a focused window taking the place of a longer, less structured engagement. If I just sat and fiddled with the story for months or years, I’d probably end up making most of the same changes, but I use these rules of thumb to hurry up the revisions that I would have made anyway. They aren’t always right, and they can’t entirely take the place of an extended period of living with a story, but I can rely on them to get maybe ninety percent of the way there, and the time I save more than compensates for that initial expenditure of energy.

And art, like cooking, often consists of finding the right balance between time and intensity. I’ve found that I write best in bursts of focused activity, which is why I try to keep my total working time for a short story to a couple of weeks or so. But I’ve also learned to set the resulting draft aside for a while before the final revision and submission, which allows me to subconsciously work through the remaining problems and find any plot holes. (On a few occasions that I haven’t done this, I’ve submitted a story only to realize within a day or two that I’d overlooked something important.) The amount of real work I do remains the same, but like dough rising quietly on the countertop, the story has time to align itself in my brain while I’m occupied with other matters. And while time can do wonders for any work of art, the few good tricks I use to speed up the process are still necessary: you aren’t likely to give up on your dough just because it takes an extra day to rise, but the difference between a novel that takes twelve months to write and one that takes three years often amounts to one you finish and one you abandon. The proper balance depends on many outside factors, and you may find that greater intensity and less time, or vice versa, is the approach you need to make it fit with everything else in your life. But baking no-knead bread has reminded me that we have a surprising amount of control over the relationship between the two. And as we approach the start of a new year—or what the Irish once called the Day of the Buttered Bread—we should start to think about what we can set to rise, or render, right now.

Written by nevalalee

December 30, 2015 at 8:34 am

A writer’s diet

with 4 comments

A writer's lunch

It was Larry Niven, I believe, who pointed out that there’s nothing more boring than hearing about somebody else’s diet. Which is probably true. Still, since this is my blog, I can talk about whatever I like—and since I’ve spoken at such great length about other elements of my routine, I may as well write a bit about how I sustain myself nutritionally throughout the day. Besides, my eating life, like everything else, has been shaped by years as a starving writer, which encourage a set of habits that are simple, frugal, and capable of being followed with a minimum of conscious attention. Writing is physically draining, but also sedentary and tedious, so I offer up the following suggestions as a guide to what works for one particular person who does most of his work at his dining room table. (With a baby on the way, I also suspect that my routine is about to be upended forever, so I’m writing this as much as a memento for myself as anything else.)

I’m generally up around a quarter to eight, and after a comically brief session on the elliptical, I settle in for breakfast. The first, crucial step is brewing a pot of green tea, using one of those lovely infusion teapots that used to be sold by Hues ‘n Brews, but seem to be rather hard to find these days. The tea itself consists of three scoops of loose jasmine leaves from Sunflower, which can be easily bought in bulk tins from Amazon. Breakfast tends to be an egg-white omelet made with salt, pepper, basil, and whatever cheese I happen to have lying around, usually shredded mozzarella. My beverage of choice is orange juice, with plenty of pulp, mixed with a shot glass of pomegranate juice, which is both rich in antioxidants and hideously expensive. It’s a light meal of four hundred calories or so, but it’s just enough, along with a second steeping of green tea, to get me through a blog post and a morning’s worth of writing. (And for real devotees, I can reveal that I also take a multivitamin, fish oil, and Vitamin D.)

A writer's breakfast

Lunch tends to come around 1:30, or after I’ve finished my first awful draft of the day. It’s probably a sign of my obsessiveness, or my essentially boring personality, that I’ve eaten the same lunch for years with little variation. It’s granola, soy milk, and blueberries—frozen is perfectly fine—and the result is simple and tasty enough that I’m still not tired of it. I also like to have about ten grams of spirulina, more out of fancy than for any proven effect, although it does seem to give me a necessary energy boost. Lunch, again, comes to about four hundred calories, which is more or less adequate to see me through until dinner. I also snack on dark chocolate throughout the day, preferably the cheap Hershey’s Special Dark kind that tastes so good when fresh, but soon turns crumbly and waxy when left around the house too long. Plus plenty of green tea, of course, and occasionally coffee on the weekends, or on days when I don’t have time for a rejuvenating nap.

And a big part of the reason why I’m so abstemious at breakfast and lunch is so I can indulge myself at dinner, in which anything goes. In practice, this usually turns out to be stir-fry, or fish or other protein prepared in a cast iron skillet in the broiler. (For this, I have this classic article by Mark Bittman to thank. I can honestly say that it changed my life.) Lots of greens, lots of white rice. Favorite recipes include classic baked chicken, sardine pasta with bread crumbs and capers, and spicy eggplant with ground beef. On the weekends, my wife and I like to make lots of waffles, using the secret method from The New Best Recipe, which calls for sour cream and seltzer water and immediately became a household tradition. And that’s pretty much it. I’m not sure if it makes me a better writer, but it’s tasty, healthy, suited for any budget, and leaves plenty of time for outlining. What more could anyone ask?

Written by nevalalee

December 11, 2012 at 9:50 am

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