When challenged to track down the best Barefoot Contessa episode, I was sure it would feature beach picnics, themed dinner parties, or the company of much-adored Jeffrey, sighing into pasta. I hadn't watched a new episode in years, preferring to treat Barefoot Contessa like a security blanket or comfort food. I returned to the early episodes again and again, ready to be soothed by the dulcet tones of "How bad can that be?" and the crinkle of linen shirts.
Then I watched episode four from Season 23, "Cook Like a Pro: Fearless Food."
Never before have I felt like a Food Network star was peering directly into my soul and telling me exactly how to sort out my life alongside my pastry dough.
I want this for you, intrepid viewer. To watch that swingy quasi-lob, to bliss out on the ASMR scrape and clink of metal teaspoons, to get a weird and powerful infusion of courage from watching a woman eat soufflé with a giant ladle.
Lets dig in, shall we?
It begins with "Let's take the scary out of scary food," so of course one of the next words is "soufflé." Who makes a soufflé? I've baked three different things in the last 24 hours and I wouldn't typically touch it with a 10-foot pole. That's "restaurant food" in the fear-based landscape of my brain, the one that says, with things reaching far outside of dinner, no. Stop. You'll get hurt. It won't work. Turn around.
Ina talks to the camera like she's your parents' cool friend with good boundaries. She's not going to sneak you a glass of wine, but she can teach you some solid stuff about life while talking to you like an adult. No cutesy language, no intimidating terminology. She starts her soufflé recipe by saying casually "It's really good, I'll show you how to make it."
She teaches the following little lessons throughout the episode: How to fill up and level off a metal cup of sugar with your fingers, the necessity of room-temperature soufflé ingredients, and the purpose of cream of tartar. She insists that sugar is supposed to go everywhere, there's no right way to butter a bowl, and the secret to a soufflé rising straight up is running your finger along the inside without scuffing the butter and sugar. It's all hands in dough and playful mess.
Get the recipe: Souffle a L'Orange by Ina Garten
She lifts the whisk attachment from the mixer, tipped in perfectly textured egg white, to show us how they need to look. She lays out folding egg whites into the base like nothing has ever been less complicated, saying "Do it as quickly as you can, but as carefully as you can." It looks so simple. I wonder what else this advice could be applied to.
When soufflé-making looks bearable, anything seems possible. I am relaxed and hopeful. The world is full of possibilities, outrageous projects and goals are within reach, a soufflé is just a white sauce with a dream. She eats a bite of it, eggy and steaming, off of a ladle, saying "It's absolutely perfect. Not scary in the least," then smiles.
"I always thought it looked so daunting to make, but I got up my courage, I asked for the recipe, and I made it. And you know what? It wasn't scary at all."
Ina's late friend Anna taught her how to make pastry in a food processor, and now she's teaching us. She walks us through what makes flaky pastry: It can't be totally incorporated, and you want butter the size of peas so the water in the butter can hit the heat in the oven and expand and create flakiness. For pastry pros this is all a "no duh" moment, but for baking neophytes it strips the science down to something easy to digest. Here's the shape, here's what to watch for, and here's why. Done and done.
Get the recipe: Anna's Tomato Tart by Ina Garten
"The only difference between making a tomato tart and not making it is just do it once or twice, on your own, when it's quiet and no one is watching, and you'll be an expert." The message is simple: Just try. Just practice. Let yourself be a beginner.
Homemade pastry is my baking boogieman. Ina makes it look nearly as easy as defrosting the frozen stuff. She shows us how to roll dough around a rolling pin, how to blind bake by putting another unbent sheet pan on top of your dough-covered sheet pan, how to grate Gruyère in a food processor on a carrot grating disc.
She riffs on more ideas on how to use your newfound pastry skills, but admits that she shortcuts it sometimes with the frozen store-bought stuff. Don't judge yourself. Be kind. Even Ina buy frozen puff pastry sometimes.
Salted Caramel Nuts
"I used to think making caramel was so scary," Ina says. She was afraid she'd burn the sugar, and have to throw out the pan. These are the high stakes, the things fear whispers in our ear as if they're huge problems. They're nothing. They're lost sugar and steel wool.
Get the recipe: Salted Caramel Nuts by Ina Garten
Her recipe is called "foolproof caramel," and it demands that you abandon your stirring skills and simply swirl it in the pan. She enlists your senses, asking that you toast the nuts until they become fragrant, watch the caramel as it becomes itself. Stay present by paying constant attention to the ever-changing candy temperatures.
Confronting Our (Cooking) Fear
"Didn't Roosevelt say the only thing to fear is fear itself? Now that we've conquered all these dishes, I say scary dishes are a thing of the past," Ina says at the end of the episode.
No, she never bakes or roasts or blends fear in her food processor. But she tackles it in the quiet way that we all can. Cooking is a kind of immersion therapy. We take the courage we get from trying and making mistakes, failing and succeeding and the world spinning on, and we bring it into our lives. We play. We allow ourselves to learn, we turn on our senses. Ina teaches us this by trotting out the recipes we'd all usually ignore and saying, "Yes you can, yes, you. You can do this."
Sometimes we need half an hour of gentle courage and solid pastry dough recipes. Sometimes we need a master in a soft denim button-down shirt reminding us again and again that this is not a big deal.
Listen — beach-picnic Ina forever. Jeffrey-dinner Ina for every long day or head cold or late night. But this, 23 seasons in, blows them out of the water. It's brave Ina. Ballsy Ina. Souffle Ina, the patron saint of leaps and chased dreams.