Our son was still only crawling when Marie-Cécile, a young Frenchwoman, became his babysitter. That she stayed with us for years explains why he has a near-perfect French accent and why I know the lyrics and accompanying hand motions to nursery songs from the 1960s. It’s also why I know the expression au pif.
The first time I heard the words (pronounced “oh peef”) was when I asked Marie-Cécile how she made the rice pudding that was cooling on the counter. “Au pif,” she said, bouncing her index finger off the tip of her nose as though she were playing charades. Encouraged to give a definition, she shrugged her shoulders and shook her head slowly.
As a noun, pif is slang for nose, and au pif can mean randomly, roughly or off the top of your head. Having cooked with Marie-Cécile a few times before then, I should have guessed that it had something to do with feeling your way around a dish. Marie-Cécile never turned to a recipe, not even to check a measurement, a step or a tip. She cooked simple, satisfying food, calmly and assuredly, partly from memories of things 3,600 miles away and partly from good kitchen sense.
Although it sounds most adorable in French, au pif is the way people everywhere cook. A dash of this. A bit of that. We toss broccoli into the pasta because we find some in the corner of the vegetable bin. We put the stew to braise in the oven when the stovetop is full; open the spice drawer, see star anise and flavor a stir-fry with it. We cook with what we have on hand, making changes to recipes as we go along. Sometimes cooking au pif is creative; sometimes it’s practical; and most of the time we don’t even think about it. It’s just how we move about the kitchen. It’s how we put together a meal — until we get to dessert, which so often involves more precision than inspiration.
Marie-Cécile’s desserts were never exact, formal or fussy. Those she returned to often — poached fruit; baked apples; a thick, sweet pancake; and a memorable rice pudding — were made in the spirit of au pif. I thought of them as this-and-that sweets: A little more of this or a little less of that, and they would still be fine. If precision were important and if recipes were required, Marie-Cécile, like so many good cooks faced with flour, sugar, butter and measuring cups, was timid.
When I knew her, I was timid, too. I was just learning to bake and hadn’t yet discovered that within the bounds of a recipe, a baker with an imagination could find room to play.