On being ... your fussiness threshold

By Ingrid Sapona 

I’d never thought about the idea of a fussiness threshold until this past week. It came up in the April 17th NY Times cooking newsletter, where Melissa Clark said:

“I confess: I refuse to blanch, peel and seed a tomato, even if the recipe says to. Every cook has a fussiness threshold, and that exceeds mine. 

So when the whole blanch-peel-seed thing comes up in dishes … I simply cheat and throw unblanched, unpeeled, unseeded chopped tomatoes into the pan, where they release their sweet juices and coat the leeks just as richly. The skin and seeds may add a bit more texture, but certainly not enough to distract … and I’ve saved 10 precious minutes.” 

Given that Clark ends with a comment about saving 10 minutes, one might assume she’s talking about time saving hacks. But, I don’t think that’s really what she’s getting at. She’s talking about steps she’s taken the time to do before, but that she found don’t make an appreciable enough difference to continue taking the time for. 

Clark’s example reminded me of a friend who’s well known for one particular cake. Her fussiness threshold involves forgoing the eggs, flour, sugar, etc., required for making a cake from scratch. Instead, she relies on Betty Crocker and then embellishes the cake mix with all sorts of extras, including Baileys. She swears no one can tell the cake isn’t totally from scratch.  

I’ve been thinking about how my fussiness threshold manifests itself. Unlike Clark, I can’t think of particular cooking steps I routinely don’t bother with. Instead, if I’m reading a recipe with steps that seem overly fussy, I’m more likely to just veto the recipe. I also summarily veto recipes that call for hard to find ingredients, like particular (in vogue) chili peppers that are impossible to come by or are so unusual that no one can even suggest a reasonable substitute.  

My fussiness threshold for baking is pretty high. I love making fancy desserts and it’s rare that I find steps that are too fussy. I did hit my fussiness threshold last Christmas, however, when a recipe called for using a piping bag to form delicate seahorse-shaped cookies. I tried piping the dough but it was so stiff I ended up bursting two piping bags! So, I ended up shaping the dough into a log and slicing it into rounds. The cookies were delicious and no one (but me) knew of my little cheat.  

I’ve also realized that my fussiness threshold isn’t set in stone. I recently returned to a much fussier method than one I had been using for decades for cheese shortbread-like cookies. The recipe was from a family friend (I’ll call her Mrs. Munich). Mrs. Munich was known for her buttery cheese sticks. When I first tried the recipe (over 25 years ago) I painstaking piped the dough through a cookie press, just as she did. I quickly concluded that making them that way was time consuming and hard. So, I switched to the log and slice method, making cheese cookies instead of cheese sticks. Everyone I’ve ever served them to has loved them. Well, Mrs. Munnich passed away last fall and to honour her memory, I decided to try her cookie press method again. The result was AMAZING. Piping them increases the surface area that crisps up when baked, raising the taste from delicious to scrumptious. So, with Mrs. Munich smiling down on me, my fussiness threshold was nudged back up and from here on I’ll be taking the time to make proper cheese sticks.  

Beyond cooking, I’ve been thinking of other fussiness thresholds I’ve adopted over the years. Turns out I have a few around laundry. One is that I don’t bother sorting the wash into light and dark loads. I’ve never noticed the whites being whiter if I wash them separately. The one thing I do pay attention to is the fuzz factor of different items. If I’m washing something that’s more likely to give off fuzz – like a fluffy new(ish) bath towel – I try not to wash it with synthetics, like yoga pants, because the towel lint is bound to end up on the pants.  

Hand washing also exceeds my fussiness threshold. The only special treatment I give items marked Hand Wash is that I put them in a mesh laundry bag before they go into the machine. I don’t even worry about using a delicate setting because my washer doesn’t have an agitator. I’m a bit less dogmatic about items marked Dry Clean Only, but that’s because I rarely buy anything so labelled. But, when I do end up with something that’s Dry Clean Only, unless there’s sequins or some special applique or fancy lace, into the mesh bag it goes and into the machine.  

Hand waxing the car is another activity that’s beyond my fussiness threshold. I’ve never been totally clear about whether hand waxing is more about making the car look super shiny or whether it’s about helping preserve the finish. Regardless of the benefits of hand waxing, I’m perfectly content relying on the liquid wax that’s applied at the car wash.  

Focusing on my fussiness threshold has helped me see the different ways I give myself permission to not worry about always following directions. It’s kind of a freeing thought and it’s made me want to think about other tasks I might reassess my process on. What about you? When do skip a step or creatively interpret directions? When does your fussiness threshold kick in?  

© 2024 Ingrid Sapona


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