A baking secret stays in the family

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The other day I overheard a conversation between my teenage son and one of his friends. They were talking about food.

"Is your dad a good cook?" the friend asked.

I braced myself for Alyosha's response. All too often I had watched his heart sink as I announced the evening's repast. Occasionally he will drop his head to the table, as if devastated by the news of yet another quickie pasta dish.

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But with perfect poise he gave his friend an answer for which I was completely unprepared: "My dad is a great cook."

Perhaps it was a flush of paternal allegiance or a fragmentary recollection of something that had once pleased his palate; but I swelled with pride and slinked away to private chambers to consider the kindness of my son's words.

Truth to tell, I am a middling cook. Part of the problem is that I am a linear thinker: I do things in a straight line, one after the other. For me, the result is that trying to coordinate the preparation of, say, meat, pasta, and vegetables is like directing air traffic. I find it much easier to prepare one after the other, which means the meal arrives at the table partly hot, partly cold, leaving my son more often than not partly miserable.

Maybe the problem is that I was never taught to cook as a child. My mother was one of those women who liked her kitchen "just so." The result was that I was always the recipient of wonderful, tasty meals, but I looked upon them as pure gifts from the blue, concocted by magical means, the savory products of talent, experience, and sleight of hand.

One day, though, at the age of 18, I was suddenly inspired to cook something. What's more, I wanted to do it on my own, in secret. I envisioned presenting the finished product to my parents with all the ceremony of a coronation.

I decided to bake a babka.

Why this Polish sweet bread? Because I had found a yellowed recipe in a kitchen drawer, and it seemed simple enough, the ingredients and method filling only one side of an index card.

And so, on a summer afternoon when the house was empty, I pulled my ingredients together and delved into the world of cookery with all the optimism of the recent convert.

I began by dissolving a package of yeast in milk, sugar, and flour. The instructions said to let it rise until doubled; but I've always had difficulty envisioning things like proportions, so after 20 minutes I looked at the foaming mass and decided that it must have doubled by now. I added the requisite half cup of butter and three eggs. The instructions said to "beat until fluffy." I attempted this with a wooden spoon and wound up chasing the clump of butter around the bowl. Was I supposed to soften it first?

I decided to try an electric hand mixer. I sank the thing into the dough, but it froze up, humming and moaning with deliberation. So I turned it to "high" and watched as the babka flew from the mixing bowl and plastered doughy wads all over the kitchen.

I dutifully scraped the babka from the walls and cupboards, returned it to the bowl, and stirred in more butter, raisins, and an egg white. I gave the electric mixer another try, on the "low" setting this time, and watched in horror as it began to smoke and spark. Abandoning the babka in favor of fire control, I brought the situation to heel, and decided to head straight for the baking pan. My feeling was that the oven would make everything right, sort of like walking away from a car that won't start, in the hope that time would heal its ills.

The final instructions said to bake the babka until it sounded hollow when tapped. After 40 minutes I tapped it, but it sounded more like a two-by-four than a bass drum. It also had not risen very much. Nevertheless, time was up, and I removed my creation from the oven and set it aside to cool. Exhausted from my exertions, I cleaned the kitchen - and the dough and egg from my face and clothing - and took a nap.

WHEN I awoke, I returned to the kitchen to inspect my handiwork. I noticed that a thin sliver had been removed from the slab of babka. So I tried a piece myself.

It was the worst thing I had ever tasted. Abominable. Atrocious. I peeked into the living room, where my parents and three siblings were occupied. One of them had sampled the babka, but who? To this day no one has said a word. If there was ever a more moving tribute to mercy and familial integrity, I am not aware of it.

I have come a long way from that inaugural babka, having made the arduous culinary journey from "horrendous" to "average." Just the other day, when my son returned from school, I was gratified when he looked at the kitchen table and exclaimed, "Hey, babka!" I watched as he buttered a slice and bit into it with enthusiasm.

If he had asked whether I had baked it myself, I would have had to tell him "no." As it stands, he had a good after-school snack, I managed to make him happy for a moment, and, as far as his friends know, I am, in Alyosha's words, a great cook.

My family can keep its secrets.

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