Biscotti was my first reset recipe. In the months before my wedding, no one warned me that every week would offer a new discovery. An avalanche of Pinterest and vendors and spreadsheets obscured the big stuff: families shifting, commitments changing, life taking on new meaning beyond the minutiae of place-cards and dress fittings.
I needed time to let my mind rest and to process all this change. Without really knowing why, I started baking biscotti. First, I mixed a dough that had limited interest in mixing. It had a pudgy stiffness to it that required I dig in with my hands when my wooden spoon grew weary. I shaped the dough into two loaves and baked them. The house began to smell like candy-studded butter and warm sugar. I removed the loaves from the oven and let them cool. I sliced them into individual biscotti and baked them again. Each step sectioned time: 40 minutes, 20 minutes, 15 minutes. There was a physicality to each instruction: slicing, pivoting from counter to oven, stirring, poking, watching. The recipe was a series of steps and while none of them were difficult, wavering attention could result in burnt biscotti or, worse, burnt hands. Typically, I am a quick cook with a limited interest in complex recipes. I am a fan of the thirty-minute dinner, a deep believer in the recipe that is just fresh ingredients, torn and dressed in olive oil and salt. My ideal cake is one that can be made in one bowl. But when I’m in a period of change, I seek out a reset recipe.
A reset recipe claims time and fills it. It demands attention and devours it. In its wake, it leaves a blank space in your mind, a steady hand guiding you through the swirling confusion of whatever life is currently throwing at you. It contains multiple steps and instructions. It offers guidance in a moment when guidance is scarce. “When you are cooking, you’re not just working on food. You’re working on yourself. You’re working on other people,” Zen priest Suzuki Roshi says in “The Complete Tassajara Cookbook”. When your brain is processing a seemingly unsolvable problem, a reset recipe is a challenge you can claim. It builds your reserves of strength. It shows you your power before it fills your belly. My reset recipes contain at least one moment that you have to watch for: dough that turns shaggy, hot fudge that acquires a sheen, browned butter that releases a single sharp note before it burns. These moments tether you to the recipe, and in turn, connect you to the present. I make the same reset recipe every year on the day after Thanksgiving. The seasons are shifting, winter is starting to show its teeth, joy and stress and shredded wrapping paper are all on the horizon. Before time speeds up until it’s unrecognizable, before I look up to find a glass in my hand and a new year shouted all around me, I make Biscuit-Topped Miso Stew. It starts with homemade vegetable stock, which includes eight ingredients that need to be scrubbed and chopped. Onions brown in a heavy pot, miso sauce is mixed and simmered, more vegetables and tofu are slowly cooked in stages. I make biscuit dough, then roll it and cut it with a glass. I pour fragrant miso stew into a deep pan, tuck it under a quilt of raw biscuits, and bake. The steps are not complicated, but they are consuming. I stand in the hush, the click-thwack of knife against cutting board, the sizzle of onions, the cymbal crash of a whisk negotiating the interior of a miso-streaked bowl. By the time it's in the oven, every dish in my kitchen is dirty. I clean until the baked stew is ready. I made Tofu Miso stew when a friend died. I made Tofu Miso stew during a time of great joy, new connection, and dizzying change. I made Tofu Miso stew in the hazy few months after my parents broke up. I made it and it did what no one else could do, no matter how kind they were or how well they listened. It gave me time. It slowed time down. It let me sit in the very moment when my hands hit biscuit dough. It lets me rest in the slicing of vegetables.
Ruth Reichl’s cookbook “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life” is a tome of reset recipes. It’s an ode to the return to home cooking that “saved” her after Gourmet magazine was shuttered and she lost her prestigious job as editor. In her recipe for “The Cake That Cures Everything,” she explains how this recipe, which serves 20-25 people, offers “an antidote to the poison of self-pity.” She writes: “Why a cake? Because the precision baking demands total attention. Why this cake? Because the sheer size of it makes special demands. But most of all, because it is impossible to hold onto gloom with so much chocolate wafting its exuberant scent into every corner of the house.” Full of science and attention and time, baking projects are the ideal reset recipes. My mom, who bakes at World Peace Cafe in Baltimore, turns to challah. “The braiding, the multiple rises, the waiting. Challah gives you time to think and time to not think. Both are important.” In times of political turmoil and transition, food writer Daniela Blei bakes complicated cakes. Two reset recipes that are in regular rotation for her this year: Heidi Swanson’s Rye Cake with Seeds and the Grand Marnier crepe cake from Epicurious. Food writer Jenn Hall recently chronicled her experience with a recipe she turns to when she craves relief. “Strange as it is, when I need to center myself, I find myself making chicken divan,” she tells me. “Rich with fat and savory from a shredded rotisserie chicken, it comforts like nothing else, warding off uncertainty through an eternal flavor combination.” A reset recipe can help move us through a transition by offering consistency in deeply inconsistent times. Food gives us more than sustenance, more than day-to-day pleasure. In the kitchen, there is order, possibility, wonder, and play. In the kitchen, there is a chance that in times when you have no idea what the right thing to do is, that the right thing is a teaspoon of baking soda or a spoon spun through batter by a tired, grateful arm. In the last six months, a series of shifts have left me with an unmoored feeling that catches my breath. When this period of change began, I didn’t have the time or energy to go to the top of a mountain and contemplate eternity. But I did have a kitchen, pots and pans, a stained cookbook, and a pile of vegetables waiting to shine. When I am lost and confused, there is an arrow pointing toward my oven, blocks of text that allow me to think of exactly what I’m doing when I’m doing it, that ground me in the moment. That’s the power of the reset recipe ritual. When I move in the kitchen, I’m always moving forward.