Food & Drink: Fear of flouring

How a chance encounter with a pasta-maker cured a terrible phobia
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The Independent Culture
THERE I WAS, a fully grown (and then some) man who knew his way around the trusty four-burner and the old fan-forced convection as if born to the task.

I was a walking, talking cooking machine. The fiddlier and trickier a recipe, the better I could do it. If you wanted a genuine tripes a la mode de Caen, simmered long and lovingly all day in its cidery juices, then I was your man. A corn-fed chicken prepared "in half mourning" (with truffles pushed under the breast), and cooked en vessie in a pig's bladder? Not a problem.

Before you could say eight-jewelled duck, the duck would be tunnel-boned, the glutinous rice juicily steamed and the whole thing stuffed, sewn up, braised, served and carved, along with a side dish of dau miu (snow pea shoots) flavoured with garlic and ginger, just to show off.

But suggest a cake, brioche, tart, or pie, and I would turn to jelly.

It's a flour thing. Whenever I went near the stuff, I could feel my confidence sag, my self-esteem evaporate and my sense of usefulness shrivel away to nothing. It was kryptonite to my Superman, it was my undipped Achilles heel, it was my bete blanc.

I took consolation from the fact that flour is about chemistry, and not cooking. It is a world of glutens and lipids; a world that belongs to professors, laboratories, and expensive research grants. Who on earth came up with the term plain flour? I've never seen anything more complicated.

God knows, I tried to defeat my fear of flouring. I overcame the terror long enough to do a decent white sauce, or thicken a gravy, but when the task resembled anything remotely connected to a dough I ran a mile.

Even the toughest of trade unionists would be hard-put to set down the kind of working conditions demanded by dough. For a start, it simply refuses to work if it gets too hot. The temperature only has to rise by a couple of degrees and it won't move. Next, there's the workplace to think about. No nice little timber work-bench or plastic cutting boards, oh no, no. Only an expensive investment in marble or granite will help it keep its cool.

And after it finally does a bit of work, it's suddenly demanding a 30- minute rest break. Try pushing it around, and it breaks down, losing its elasticity.

So I did the only thing possible: moved to a nicer neighbourhood with a very good patisserie at the end of the street. And then it happened.

One Christmas, someone who knew nothing about my affliction gave me one of those little pasta makers with the dinky little handles that you clip on to the kitchen table. Terrifying, but very cute. By Boxing Day I had the thing set up on the bench. By Easter, I got around to using it.

Dutifully, I made a well in the flour and broke in the eggs, cautiously dipping my immaculately clean finger-tips into the whole shebang, expecting it feel icky and yucky. Instead, it felt rather nice, all soft and talcum-powdery. So I started wriggling and pushing and prodding and rubbing. Before my eyes, floury became crumbly, crumbly became clumpy, and finally, clumpy became an unholy mess that seemed to stretch from kitchen to second bedroom.

I felt like a four-year-old who had failed Play-Doh. Waaaah! I don't want to play any more! I threw a little tantrum, smashing my clenched fists into the dough and sending it crashing into the table. Never again, never again, beat the rhythm of my flailing hands, until ... hmmmm. I suddenly noticed the dough had achieved a sudden sheen, a glossy smoothness. It was beautiful! It was round! It was dough!

After a well-earned rest for both of us, I proceeded to make perfect pasta. Thank you, lipids and glutens, thank you, whoever you are.

From there, things were pretty much a cake walk. First came scones (a mild hissy fit was all it took), then Italian biscotti (fairly serious argument with my wife), then, one wonderful day, brioche (utter fury at the local council). Now I can do anything, as long as I can throw a complete wobbly. And they say that working with dough is relaxing.