Sunday, January 27, 2002

Chemistry in the kitchen

Popular teacher Shirley Corriher blends the precise amounts of knowledge, charm, humor

        Shirley Corriher is so excited about umami she can barely get a fork into her mouth. A teacher and cookbook author, Ms. Corriher has come to town to teach and talk about her specialty, food science. Her friend, Marilyn Harris, is trying to feed her braised veal brisket and s picy mixed greens on this afternoon at her Clifton home. But the woman from Georgia has umami (oo-MOM-ee, a Japanese word) on her mind.

        “Umami is the fifth taste,” Ms. Corriher says. “There's sweet, sour, bitter . . . What's the other one? Salty? And now there's umami.”

        The umami flavor comes primarily from fermentation, she explains. You can also pick it up from foods containing shiitake mushrooms, Parmesan and tomatoes. Researchers at the University of Miami have identified taste buds that respond to umami, and that has obviously tickled Ms. Corriher to death.

        “I sincerely believe, down the road, umami is going to be one of the hottest things coming and going,” she says in her peaches-and-cream drawl.

        Actually, Ms. Corriher may rival umami in the growing popularity category. After spending years behind the scenes, researching food and assisting chefs, the Vanderbilt chemistry grad is approaching mini-cult status among foodies. A regular contributor to Fine Cooking, she makes frequent appearances on the Food Network's Good Eats and Sara Moulton's Cooking Live, and on HGTV's Smart Solutions.

        Published more than four years ago, her book, CookWise (Morrow; $28.50), continues to sell well. Ms. Corriher, named “Cooking Teacher of the Year” in September by Bon Appetit, is hoping to finish a second book, BakeWise, by the fall — if she can find the time.

        She came to Cincinnati to speak to an overflow crowd at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, teach a packed cooking class at Culinary Sol and sign books for fans at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. People recognize her at airports, she admits, and there was the time when some woman caught her about to walk into a New Orleans porn shop.


        “I just wanted to buy a dirty post card to send to Arch (her husband),” she says, in her Sunday school voice. “I was about to cross the street to go to the shop when this woman yelled: Shirley! Shirley! I was terrified.”

        This sense of humor, and the ability to make terms like “nucleotides” and “glutamic acid” comprehendable — even fascinating — partially explain her popularity. Mostly, it's just Shirley — moon-faced with round glasses and eyes that disappear into tiny squints when she laughs and smiles — which is pretty much all the time.

        Ms. Corriher's approach is not to preach, but to teach the pleasures of cooking, explaining how and why cakes rise and chicken fries along the way.

        “You don't have to think of cooking as science,” she says. No. 1, it has to taste good. No. 2, in our modern times, it needs to be easy.”

        And No. 3, the recipes have to work. Hers certainly do. For many of us, making a perfectly, moist and flaky biscuit was only an aspiration until Ms. Corriher showed us how, with her recipe for “Touch-of-Grace” Biscuits in CookWise. When she was a girl, Ms. Corriher's grandmother told her you need a “touch of grace” to make the best biscuits. But the food scientist knows you also need wet dough and a very hot oven to make the biscuits incredibly light and feathery — every time.

        She laughs at the question, but there's probably at least a pinch of umami in there, too.


Touch-of-Grace Biscuits

        1 1/2 cups Southern self-rising flour, such as White Lily
        teaspoon baking soda
        1/3 teaspoon salt
        1 tablespoon sugar
        3 tablespoons shortening
        1 to 1 1/4 cups buttermilk, or 3/4 cup buttermilk and 1/2 cup heavy cream
        1 cup bleached all-purpose flour
        2 tablespoons butter, melted

        Preheat oven to 475 degrees and spray an 8-inch round cake pan with nonstick cooking spray. Combine self-rising flour, soda, salt and sugar in medium mixing bowl. With fingers or pastry cutter, work shortening into flour mixture until there are not shortening lumps larger than a big pea. Stir in buttermilk and let stand 2 to 3 minutes. Dough should be so wet you cannot shape it in the usual manner.
        Pour the cup of all-purpose flour onto a plate or pie tin. Flour hands well. Spoon a biscuit-size lump of wet dough into the flour and sprinkle some flour over the wet dough to coat the outside. Pick up the biscuit and shape roughly into a soft round, shaking off excess flour.
        As you shape each biscuit, place it into cake pan. Push biscuits tightly into against each other so they will rise up and not spread out. Continue shaping biscuits in this manner until all of the dough is used.
        Brush top of biscuits with melted butter and bake just above the center of oven until lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool 1 or 2 minutes in pan, then dump out and cut biscuits apart. Makes about 10 biscuits.
        Note: If Southern self-rising flour is not available, use 1 cup national brand self-rising and 1/2 cup instant flour, such as Wondra, or cake flour, plus 1/2 teaspoon baking soda.
        CookWise (Morrow; $28.50)


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