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My Oven, My Self

I have to move out of my apartment in less than a month. This is not such a bad thing for several reasons: a. I can hopefully move into someplace better for a more reasonable amount, as the rental market in my neighborhood in New York has gotten very soft; b. I’m due to clear out cupboards and closets to throw things away so it is a good excuse to do this; c. I will get a completely renovated apartment, including super-new kitchen appliances out of it. The downside, and there’s always one of these, albeit a small one in this case, is that I have to give up my relationship with my current oven.

I can’t say that I love this oven, but it has been a trusted friend and companion these past nine years. It has also been infinitely more reliable than any guy I’ve dated during that time. A perfectly-calibrated oven, like the perfect mate, is not a casual thing to be tossed aside, unlike those clothes I will never wear again and that should not be packed up to go to my new home. I will be sad to leave it. It was an older model that had the added advantage of having a top oven as well, in which I stored the pans I used on a daily basis.

Ovens and I have had a tumultuous history, I realized. Growing up, my parents had an in-wall gas one that occasionally had to be lit with a match. The stove, a separate unit, was also powered by gas and had to be lit in the same way. When my parents redid the kitchen many years ago when I was in college, in-wall gas ovens were not available, so they replaced it with an electric dual oven unit. I’ve never really worked with it much, as I had moved out by then, but it seems to give good results.

The electric version of these items has always been a bit foreign to me, and I’ve never quite gotten the same feel for cooking with electric. As I grew up with a gas oven, I’m a bit more used to their temperaments (same with gas stoves), even though we have had a turbulent and firey past. This has been true no matter where I have lived.

After college, I lived in London for about eight months on a student visa. London in the late 80′s was a vast culinary wasteland in many ways – no liquor stores open on Sundays, peanut butter sold in the smallest-sized jars imaginable, brown sugar had to be sent to you from the U.S. in order to make cookies – but it also gave me one of my strongest oven memories. I’ve never seen this set-up before or sense, but one place I lived had basically a death-trap oven. You had to open the door, pump a button at the bottom of the oven (the ignition?), and then stick a lit match into a hole in order to light the pilot. You had to have just the right touch to light the pilot and then jump back before being burned. Needless to say, I did not do much baking in that house, it just wasn’t worth the risk to venture there.

Upon returning to the U.S., I moved into a much more modern condo rental and had my first experience with cooking with electric heat. Although I had good results with almost everything that I tried, I realized that I am a gas-cooking girl at heart. I like to see the burning flame and do the mutual dance of just how hot it needs to get to get the right results. I think that we just understand each other’s needs better when we can interact more transparently.

My next big oven adventure was when I lived in Italy several years later. Here is the tale of the two ovens. In the first place where I lived, the gas for the oven was also linked to the gas for the heating system for the apartment (i.e., they actually came out of the same unit). This version of the appliance required that a lit match be waved over the bars where the gas was coming out in order to ignite the flame. I realized, early on in my stay there, that too much gas was coming out of the oven. Unfortunately, I only discovered this as I was trying to toast bread for bruschette.

When trying to light the oven, I was not quick enough to jump backwards. There was a rather startling whoosh-boom, and the flames singed off the hairs on my right arm as I recoiled from the noise and the fire. The next day, I ran into the Sicilian agent for the landlord (I am not making this up.) when he was at our school, and I asked him to check the gas coming out of the pipes. I even showed him my arm as evidence and expressed that I knew that this was not normal. He mumbled something about gli americani not knowing how to use cooking equipment properly but came over to check on it the next day all the same.

While I was standing there in the kitchen waiting for his verdict, still glad that I had not been more seriously injured, he confirmed what I already knew: There was too much gas coming out of the pipes that were feeding into the oven. Although he managed to adjust the gauge, we still smelled gas every time we cooked, and, in the end, we just decided to keep the apartment’s large kitchen windows open for ventilation while making meals, even in the dead of winter.

The second place I lived in Italy had an oven with which I had a love-hate relationship. I think that we liked to torment each other, although we could never stay apart for long. It worked fine for the small things, like heating up breakfast pastries or toasting bread or baking a lasagna bolognese. However, for the more delicate tasks like cakes or my infamous brownies, it fell woefully short.

One batch of brownies, in particular, came out severely undercooked in the center, cooked to a perfect crust on top, and were charred on the bottom. This was after more than an hour’s worth of cooking time. I just sighed, turned the dial to zero, and salvaged what I could for the picnic in the hills for which they had been destined. The black clouds were looming over our relationship anyway for other non-oven related reasons.

After many years in Europe, I ended up in New York. The apartment from which I am moving is the one into which I moved when I set up house here. It has been a more fulfilling interaction this time around. We’ve made dozens of cookies, warmed up many a slice from the corner pizza shop, roasted chickens, baked gratins, and heated up my apartment time and again. I think that we’ve turned out some gorgeous dishes together.

For old times’ sake, this long, cold holiday weekend, I took the oven out for a one almost-final spin and tried out the chocolate chip cookie recipe from The New York Times from July of last year, when it was far too hot to be cranking the oven up to do anything. The cookies turned out perfectly, as I expected, because the we know each others quirks and foibles, but still manage to make it work out to a mutually-beneficial end. I hope to have as great a relationship with my new oven.

Buon appetito!