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.
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.
What they should really tell elementary school kids who place in the 99th percentile when they take standardized tests isn’t “hey, you’re super smart, congrats, and we’re going to put you in harder math classes,” but rather “hey, 99% of the people you encounter for the rest of your life will be dumber than you. And they’ll make you miserable.”
In the last two days, I’ve had charming encounters with, what I can only assume were ERB/SAT/ACT bottom-feeders, that I feel the need to share in the hopes that maybe someone at each of these two institutions has working Google Alerts and decides to make a change:
Multiple Offenders: Registration/Security/Lost & Found at the Javits Center
One of the perks of my job is the chance to attend Press Days at Auto Shows (something I didn’t know was a perk until recently, but actually really enjoy). Yesterday, at the opening day of the NY Auto Show, I stopped to use the rest room and found a woman had left her Blackberry in the bathroom. I first checked her address book to see if she had another number listed and couldn’t find one and then emailed her to tell her I’d found her Blackberry in the bathroom and would get it to Javits lost and found. Here’s what then happened:
- I took the Blackberry to Registration on the first floor and asked if they could get it to the Lost & Found. They said no and I had to take to Security on the fourth floor/other side of the convention center.
- I went up to the Security office and they told me that I had to take the Blackberry to Lost & Found myself which was apparently located on the second floor.
- I go back down to the Lost & Found and can’t find it in the location I was told it’s in. I ask a Security guard on that floor and he tells me to go back to Security but says that Security is on the first floor.
- No one on the first floor knows where this Security office is and they try to send me back to four. At which point I audibly sigh and walk away.
- Now over 30 minutes have passed and I’m debating: how do I return this Blackberry to Sonia, its owner, but also get on with my life when I literally have no one to whom to give it?
- So I returned it to where I found it and emailed her telling her thats where it was.
But seriously, Javits, what’s wrong with your team? I bet 200 cell phones are lost during the first week of the NY Auto Show, surely there’s a procedure. Out of the seven people I dealt with, not one person knew how to handle a lost item. I think your staff FAQs need some major updating.
Second Offender: Casa Nonna Delivery Boy
Background needed for anecdote below: I live in a standard apartment building with a 24-hour front desk and elevators. I can’t stress how normal/standard my living situation is.
I returned this evening from four days of travel to an empty fridge and ordered take out from Casa Nonna, an overpriced, generally mediocre Italian restaurant that just happens to have an out of this world pasta called “Stracci di Manzo” — flat pasta in a braised short rib/tomato sauce. Thanks to Seamless.com, my meal was to arrive in 30-45 min and at the 30 min mark exactly, received a phone call from the delivery guy:
DG: I’m downstairs.
KU: Great, you can come up, it’s apartment [redacted]
Pretty clear exchange. If you were me, you’d probably expect… a delivery guy to show up at your door, right? 10 minutes later, no one’s here so I call my front desk and ask if they’ve seen the delivery guy, they say no and I see the delivery guy on call waiting. The following exchange occurs:
KU: Hi, where are you?
DG: I’m downstairs.
KU: Great, please come up. It’s apartment [redacted].
DG: I don’t know how.
KU: You just come in the building and take the elevator up, what are you talking about.
DG: I’m confused.
KU: Are you telling me you don’t know how to come upstairs? I don’t understand. Are you at the right building?
DG: I don’t know. You come downstairs.
With that, I went downstairs and Tony at the front desk pointed out the window at the delivery guy going “I don’t know what’s wrong with him.” I got my food and the delivery guy shrugged and said “Very confusing” and walked away.
I actually think this might be helpful evidence to Creationists, because even monkeys are smarter than that guy.