I’ve been obsessed with food and fine dining since childhood when I used to pore through my mother’s copy of Gourmet and make horrific messes in the kitchen. Then, like today, I was always way better at cooking than cleaning and then, like today, I found that kitchen experimentation teaches life lessons.
I learned about materials and the joy of Sil-Pat when I stained my mother’s counters with a turmeric pastry dough for Caribbean Meat Pies. I learned why you can’t bake a layer cake in pie pans with a chocolate/banana “vol-cake-o” (so named because I piled the trimmings of the cake on top and let them explode over the sides). Most importantly, I learned that when your mother forbids candy in the house, you can still indulge your sweet tooth if you bake dessert for the whole family.*
When I went on junior year abroad to Paris, I was in food heaven and learned that when you’re in Europe with your dad’s credit card, you should eat up! I had croissant or pain au chocolat every morning from my local pâtisserie. As I was studying at the École du Louvre, I was able to go to Angelina, the famous salon du thé known for its divine, thick, practically perfect chocolat chaud and fancy pastries frequently but absolutely despised their most popular dessert: le Mont Blanc which was a mix of chestnut purée and whipped cream.
Study abroad in general is a time when it’s best to say yes as often as possible. It leads you to amazing wine tastings, South African rugby bars, sketchy men, and strange art galleries. However, for me, it led me to my first opportunity for professionally published work. While flipping through Time Out Paris one day, I saw a small ad that read “do you love to eat?” The ad went on to explain that Time Out needed restaurant critics — something I had done for the Williams College newspaper in spite of the very limited dining options in the Berkshires. While I wasn’t paid, Time Out would reimburse me for my meals and needed someone to write the new reviews for the Salon du Thé chapter.
I suddenly had an excuse to spend more time at Ladurée and Pierre Hermés while also hopping around the city and finding new pastry shops. I said “oui” to every carb, sugar, cake, cookie, sorbet, and chocolat chaud I could find. I ended up trying virtually every macaron flavor on the map as well as pastries flavored with roses and flecked in real gold fit only for a princess. Since Paris is a magical place, I was able to do all of this while still losing 20 pounds.**
In the last few years, macarons have gained popularity in the U.S. especially now that Maison du Chocolat, Pierre Hermés, and Ladurée all have establishments in New York and, moreover, I was able to find delicious ones at ACKC in DC. However, now that I’m in Michigan, what’s a French pastry-lovin’ gal to do?
I thought I found the perfect solution: a macaron making class at Sur La Table . You may recall I’ve shared experiences at cooking classes before, but was hopeful a baking class for a fairly challenging pastry would attract a different crowd.
Today’s lesson in the kitchen is that I have no future as a pastry chef. I found myself thinking way too often: this is way more trouble than it’s worth. You see, I’m an ambitious but lazy cook in that there are some things that are just easier to buy than make. I’m never going to spend a day making fresh pasta and I feel similarly about ice cream. I’m now adding macarons to that list. While not overly complicated, a lot of effort goes into producing a final product that, for what it’s worth is tasty but lacking the sophistication of the originals. The meringue based pastry is actually rather simple to make: egg whites, cream of tarter, and sugar brought to soft peaks, fold in almond flour, pipe into circles, let sit for a bit, then bake.
However, it’s just very finicky material: easy to let sit too long pre-baking, can’t use food coloring drops because that’s too much added liquid so you must buy food coloring gel, etc. Furthermore, the fillings are a reasonable amount of work and if you want any variety at all, you do need to make multiple fillings or multiple shells. The results were tasty, but I know myself well enough to know this is likely not a project I will repeat.
Sadly, more memorable than my below average cookies, were the other women in the group. Out of 14, nine were women who belonged to the same knitting circle led by a tall blonde named Beth. I won’t judge them for their lack of culinary knowledge (although if you don’t know how to fold in flour, you might want to re-think the class), but will judge them for mean girl antics. They insisted on going four and five to a table even though we were supposed to be three and four. Then, when my table produced the only decent trays of lavender cookies, Beth and her comrades seized them and filled them. They commandeered all of the fillings leaving the remaining two tables with one each and walked out of the class with 3x the cookies the rest of us had because one of the women brought her daughter and kept sending her to the back to get the cookies that had just come out of the oven before the teacher brought them to us.
Perhaps that’s the the thing that was ultimately missing from the experience: there’s something about entering a French bakery and seeing macarons displayed like jewelry and needing to respect the food and the venue. Parisian culture is that certain “je ne sais quoi” that takes a macaron from mere cookie to food of the gods.
*Or smuggle in Tootsie Rolls and hide the wrappers under the bed. Guess we now know how I got those 13 cavities…
**I’m typing this and wondering why I came back.
Real World, Thug Kitchens, Modern-Day Eloise, Jon Hamm in the closet of my dreams, Identity Politics, etc: Links I’ve Loved of Late
Well, this is a long one and one with more commentary than usual. But it counts as a post so I am at least still posting regularly!
- In an obviously linkbait-y post, Vulture ranked all the seasons of Real World (hat tip to Sean C for posting on FB and Jackie for wishing she’d shared it before Sean). While not 100% off, here’s my take on the top 5 seasons in order… I’m also sharing this post with a BREAKING REALITY TV ANNOUNCEMENT — I *will* be watching the Portland season marking the first season I’ve committed to watching since Brooklyn (yawn) in 2009:
- Los Angeles
- San Francisco
- New York
- Kaitlyn introduced me to Thug Kitchen. I am obsessed.
- GigaOm wrote about what Airbnb learned from Jiro Dreams of Sushi. If you haven’t seen the movie, stop what you’re doing — it’s streaming on Netflix and is a must watch. In addition to just being a fantastic movie, it truly makes you rethink what it means to master a craft and what success in a role is. Jiro’s son has held the same title and position for decades, but for that family/culture, true success and professional excellence is ensuring that every single detail of a skill is mastered and done perfectly every day. While I have no desire to learn from Jiro directly and massage octopus for 8 years before being trusted with eggs, I did finish the movie and think that that’s the kind of attitude I’d like to bring to my job. I just love the idea of a business leader bringing it to his team as well.
- Jon Hamm did “7 Minutes in Heaven” putting me just one creepy SNL writer and a camera away from my dream of being trapped in a small space with Jon Hamm.
- Stephen Sondheim turned 83 last month and BuzzFeed provided this list of “15 Unforgettable Sondheim Songs” and because I love Sondheim, I’m sharing with you as well. Personal favorites are: 2, 3, 8, 10, 13, 14, and 15.
- Whether conservative or liberal, if you attended a small liberal arts college, this WSJ article on identity politics at Bowdoin is really interesting.
Published Wednesday, the report demonstrates how Bowdoin has become an intellectual monoculture dedicated above all to identity politics.
The school’s ideological pillars would likely be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to American higher education lately. There’s the obsession with race, class, gender and sexuality as the essential forces of history and markers of political identity. There’s the dedication to “sustainability,” or saving the planet from its imminent destruction by the forces of capitalism. And there are the paeans to “global citizenship,” or loving all countries except one’s own.
The Klingenstein report nicely captures the illiberal or fallacious aspects of this campus doctrine, but the paper’s true contribution is in recording some of its absurd manifestations at Bowdoin. For example, the college has “no curricular requirements that center on the American founding or the history of the nation.” Even history majors aren’t required to take a single course in American history. In the History Department, no course is devoted to American political, military, diplomatic or intellectual history—the only ones available are organized around some aspect of race, class, gender or sexuality.
One of the few requirements is that Bowdoin students take a yearlong freshman seminar. Some of the 37 seminars offered this year: “Affirmative Action and U.S. Society,” “Fictions of Freedom,” “Racism,” “Queer Gardens” (which “examines the work of gay and lesbian gardeners and traces how marginal identities find expression in specific garden spaces”), “Sexual Life of Colonialism” and “Modern Western Prostitutes.”
- DIY ALCOHOLIC DIPPIN’ DOTS!!! (If you have some liquid nitrogen handy…)
- An all-male version of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” and it’s pretty fabulous!
- I’m obsessed with the Lift app for iPhone for tracking daily habits. Since adopting, I’ve gotten better about flossing, drinking 8 glasses of water daily, exercising and more.
Last week, I checked a major Someday/Maybe item off my to do list (also the sole item in the “Fun” section of my task management system… feel free to judge accordingly): an introductory culinary knife skills class.
I’ve always loved cooking, but these days it’s not a practical hobby: I travel a ton, I live alone, and if I were to spend a weekend home cooking, I wouldn’t be able to consume the food before either it went bad or I got sick of it. Also, my kitchen is an ugly, sad, poorly ventilated room with hideous cabinets and thus, I don’t spend much time there.
Anyway, you should run — not walk — to take a knife skills class (and if in DC, I highly recommend the one at CulinAerie with Susan Watterson as the instructor). Here’s why:
- You are probably not holding your knife correctly. I know this because the last four friends I told this story too (who love to cook) were not holding their knife correctly.
- You are probably not be efficient with motions while chopping or slicing.
- Deboning a chicken will be one of the more satisfying experiences of the week.
- You’ll learn a number of ways to be more efficient with your shopping — both of knives and food.
- You will produce a beautifully cut carrot within the first 20 minutes. Please see mine:
That said, I’m a big fan of optimizing experiences. Here’s what I would keep in mind if you are taking an introductory cooking class on a Saturday morning:
- Apparently a lot of people give newlyweds/newly-engaged/cute couples in their lives cooking classes as a present. Here’s the thing: the cute couple in someone else’s life is not a cute couple in my life. I spent three hours behind two hippies making out between cuts. And I had a big knife at my disposal. It was quite an exercise in restraint.
- A lot of people see knife skills as a good intro class and, literally, have never cut anything other than the packaging around a microwave meal. Be prepared for people around you to be confused about pretty much everything. Wait… when you said keep the root on to hold the onion together, did you mean this root that I just cut off? Ooopsies!
- You just might be forced to work next to Mary Jane. Because I did and she was a complete moron who will likely have to repeat the course several more times. Mary Jane was a delightful Southern belle in a relationship with a hairy and verbally abusive man whose name I’ve already forgotten. What’s great about WhatsHisName is he doesn’t let his own lack of knife skills slow down his criticism of everything Mary Jane does. And what’s great about Mary Jane is like a goldfish, by the time she swims around the bowl, she’s forgotten everything he’s said.
Since I’m solutions-oriented, rather than offer a multi-paragraph, detail-studded “Ode to Mary Jane,” I’ll give you this advice: if you take this course, you should call and find out a) if you work in partners and b) if you’re at small tables or in small groups. And then, you should take the class with however many friends you need to use as a buffer from everyone else in the room. Sartre was right: hell is other people, but if you’re going to be stuck there, you don’t want to be while learning how to wield sharp objects.