I am sitting at my desk in the office, tapping away in the ever-too-few minutes before dinnertime. Dinnertime here is a fixed affair. If you don’t show up to the dining hall between seven-thirty and eight in the evening you’re out of luck, your soup and salad and quiche or other go to some hungry Jack on the prowl for leftovers and, what’s more, you get a light slap on the wrist for missing a meal you signed up for. Thus, this time is precious, as it is limited. Whatever activity I choose to engage in must be done in twenty-six minutes. I can stretch it to forty-six if I don’t mind dirty looks or guilt-inducing jokes from the kitchen crew for showing up at the last minute.
Not that I mind, just that I’m conscious and try to be conscientious of the fact. Which isn’t easy on a day like today, when my brain jangles with ideas edging their way hurriedly toward the exit, but my fingers can’t type fast enough and the thoughts seem to risk disappearing out my ears or back into the vortex of dark matter that is my cerebral functioning or intangible mind or whatever you prefer according to your tradition.
Apparently, sudden doses of concentrated sunshine makes me slightly high, if we take this rush of thoughts and words to be the effect of springtime. Could also be that I just got handed the schedule of events for this summer, and the anticipation of future activity revs my excitement-ometer far beyond its recent norm.
Last week I wrote about sadness and hardship and an ineffable vision of pain. I also made a remark about how joy seems to be deeply entwined with future happiness. Now, I’m noticing some nuances. The levity I feel today comes both from this and from the simple fact of being occupied. My thoughts have things to do other than observe the parts of themselves that are rooted in fear and doubt, which is what they seem to do when they lack distraction. Also, my vision of the future is tied to meaningful work. Summer means lots of visiting teachers, lots of coordination and big, fancy meals and content people with sated appetites and tickled palates. Summer means using the random assortment of talents and skills I’ve got in this life for the easily-observable benefit of others. Summer means affirmation.
It also means working like a crazy person until I fall on my face, come Semptember–in a caffeine-and-possibly-sugar-induced stupor and the waves of befuddled loss that accompany too much free time after having none at all. Interesting fact about vision, at least at the level at which I’ve got it: seeing what happens inside of me doesn’t change what happens. At least not very fast. Understanding the source of my anguish, when it arises, doesn’t make it go away. Realizing the temporal nature of my anticipation doesn’t make it any less consuming. But perhaps it does give me a bit more patience with the ups and downs and ins and outs.
And this is a worthwhile affair. Because whether I’m overwhelmed with anguish or carried away by joy, there are things to be done in this life. And it is useful to be capable of action, regardless—no, not regardless—with great regard and kindness for the storm inside.
In the meantime, it is springtime, and impermanence is showing its finer features in a sudden flurry of fleeting floral display. Possibly too much alliteration; I apologize. In any case, as a cook, springtime means to me short windows of awesome flavor potential. Trees that have edible fruit also have edible flowers, and many that don’t have edible fruit also have edible flowers (but in this case it’s best to ask some one who’s very well informed). Springtime flowers taste at once familiar and unexpected. We’re all used to vanilla, which is, at its base, a floral flavor, and many of us have also come to know orange blossom, lavender, rose, and others that have recently become popular. So why not walk out your front door and try the neighborhood special?
My favorite way to capture a clean flavor in a dessert without it getting lost in a bunch of caramelized sugar/flour/cake madness, is in a cream. Panna cotta is the simplest, purest way I’ve found, and it’s also ridiculously easy to make. I used the flowers of an ornamental Prunus variety, a close relative of almond and apricot trees. The flavor is lightly astringent and well…flowery. Basically, find a flower that smells great and comes from a plant that produces other things you can eat. Be bold; have fun; it’s springtime.
(Four minutes to get to dinner and hopefully not too many typos!)
Spring Blossom Panna Cotta
Makes eight servings
4 cups (1 liter) half and half
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) agar agar
1/2 cup (40 grams) gently packed spring blossoms
Bring the cream and blossoms to a simmer. Add agar agar and whisk to combine evenly. Allow to steep fifteen minutes. Strain out the flowers by pouring the cream through a sieve into another bowl. Pour cream into eight small bowls, cups, ramekins, French former yogurt containers, or whatever you have around. Refrigerate at least four hours or overnight to set. Serve cold with spring sunshine.