Happy Easter, y’all.
This is birthday cake. According to my cohort here at the center, it’s also the best cake I’ve yet to make. There were some mutters that the red velvet might still give it a run for its money, but all-told, it was a major hit. As was intended. I made it for the only other resident American, and I felt the need to go all-out for the sake of nationalistic solidarity, and well, also, because s’mores. The French don’t know or understand them, and I’m not sure this cake really clarified the situation as it only resembles its inspiration in flavor and not at all in form, but in any case, I’ve convinced them that this strange American phenomena called a “s’more” is a good and delicious thing.
This picture is blurry and not the most tantalizing, but you can see the tattooed hand of the birthday boy in the background, and so I decided to include it. He’s off gallivanting around India for the next month, taking spectacular photos and bringing together art, communication, and the amazing lineage of Tibetan Buddhism we have the good fortune to be a part of.
I’m keeping it real in the Dordogne writing budgets for the Lama House and trying to train myself to read practice texts with something resembling a proper Tibetan accent. If you want to see me stare intently at the ceiling and spit a lot while I try to produce a convincing ཁ (kha), stop by the community room after lunch, where my patient friend Julie gives me pointers based on her studies in Katmandu. I might not be able to speak yet, but I can hear alright, and I’m grateful to have somebody around with a decent accent and the generosity to help me work on mine. Also, I’ve started giving English lessons to a few folks who live nearby, which is a blast honestly and a nice way to meet people in a different context than my role as an uber-busy volunteer. It’s been a very linguistic couple of weeks, I guess.
I wouldn’t say that life is exciting, but it’s enriching. I’ve taken to listening to Brahms’ violin sonatas while doing office work, and yesterday a few of us took a break from the daily grind to share a hearthside dinner at a friend’s house; such things give me this strange feeling of settling inside. That despite my longtime penchant for wandering and adventure-seeking, I’m learning something about stillness. How to find the joy and the resources to get through and even appreciate the slow-going, unglamorous business of doing what needs to be done.
Recipe follows… Continue reading
“Si tu demandes une question aux maîtres, ils vont te donner la réponse qui va le plus te faire galèrer.”
I could translate this like this:
“If you ask a question of the masters, they’re going to give you the answer that will make you work the most.” Reasonable enough. However, this misses the more particular sense of the word “galèrer.” It comes from the word “galère,” as in a galley, one of those enormous wooden ships built by nations in days of old that were out to take over the world. The verb “galèrer” refers to the dolorous business of rowing said craft when the winds were down. So now you see.
My friend Loïc said this to me last week in relation to the nature of planning one’s life around the study and practice of Dharma–what the Buddha taught. At the time I thought, “Pfft, everything about my journey has been super natural thus far. One week I was in Santa Barbara, the next in India, and now I live in France. I hardly had to anything but show up. It all just happened. Clearly this whole rowing-a-giant-boat business is a matter of perspective. He must be overthinking things.”
Yesterday I had a meeting with Jigme Rinpoche, a master teacher in the Kagyu Lineage and the spiritual guide of the center. I had a simple question: “Do you think it’s appropriate for me to prepare for a long-term retreat?” He had a simple answer: “Yes, I think it’s good.”
I promptly floundered. I had been mentally anticipating this meeting for weeks, debating about asking this question for months, considering this possible path for years. I crafted an extremely precise and thoroughly reflected e-mail just to request the meeting. Seventy-two seconds after showing up…that was it. I queried for more specific directives; books to read, things to do. Rinpoche nodded and said, “Yes, I think it’s good you came back. You live here in the community; keep studying, meditate, prepare for some years.”
And just like that, my whole life is different. By being the same. Somehow I thought that the decision to prepare for retreat, to someday do a long retreat, would instantaneously catapult my days and thoughts into a more enlightened form. I thought that something important and tangible would change. I think I thought life would get easier. That making a big choice would somehow get me out of making all the little hard choices that fill up a day.
Read or draw? Meditate in a rush before dinner or sleepily after dinner? Write a blog post or answer e-mails? Start learning Tibetan or start a new art series? Shredded carrots or beets with lunch?
These questions don’t go away. They seem small and silly written out, but they tend to be enormous and weighty in the course of day. I was so hoping that settling on a big important goal would get me out of these kinds of questions, of the business of everyday life. But the thing about Dharma, the thing about masters, is that all they ever do is throw you back into the business of life. Because life is where transformation happens. Even though retreat often seems like a method of stepping out of life for a while, it’s actually the opposite. In retreat, you spend nearly all day meditating, which to me means watching my brain argue with itself until the futility becomes apparent. Then, calm starts to arise on its own.
The business of life is no different. Watching myself fight out these questions until I learn to ask them more peacefully. When I stop and think about it, nothing seems more sensible than that preparation for retreat comprises the same activity as the rest of life. Make art; make food; study Dharma; meditate; be a person in the world with other people. Try to be patient. Try to be kind.
The brownies I made for a friend whose ship is taking him away from France and back to the US, and eventually to India. Transition times, even when transition means coming to terms with life staying the same, necessitate a bit of comfort food to offer the finest thread of stability when all else becomes fluid. If you have any childhood brownie memories, these are likely to be the perfect fit. They are chewy and dense and rich, almost veering toward underbaked even when fully done, but without hitting that mouth-glued-together effect that causes some brownie recipes to flounder. Also, they have the crackliest of crackly tops. And finally, they are ridiculously simple to make, practically the most basic recipe I’ve ever used and definitely the best so far.
On Sunday, I made this tart. And it was, ahem, not one of the prettiest things to ever come out my kitchen. I had the best of intentions. I discovered an actual tart pan in the kitchen of the Lama House, so that my tart could actually resemble a tart, rather than whatever would ensue from the tart ring I had planned to fabricate out of tin foil. I successfully adapted my frangipane in the direction of a pastry cream to account for a slight deficit of almond meal. I had exactly the right amount of chocolate for the ganache. It was going to be gorgeous enough to impress the natives of France, which is truly the land of tarts.
But then I started the actual process of making it. The dough baked much faster than I anticipated, so that it was dark at the edges but still quite blond at the base. The frangipane bubbled up one side, and even after I remedied that by covering it with ganache, the ganache got all ripply while I was transferring the tart to the fridge. Not to mention that half the crust shattered while I was unmolding the darn thing. I ate the shards of pate sucree as consolation. One must get through these things somehow.
After all that, I wasn’t exactly, totally looking forward to presenting it to my cohort. They’d found out that I worked as the pastry chef at a restaurant in California, and I aspired to live up to what the term “patissière” signifies, though in truth my experience brings me nowhere close to the true pastry chefs of either France or the US. I cached the thing in the fridge and somewhat ruefully brought it out after lunch, hoping it would at least be tasty enough to overcome its aesthetic shortcomings.
We cut it into thin slivers to share it among the many of us that there were, and everyone hurrahed as we dug in. I feared that the frangipane was maybe a teeny bit overdone and that the salt wasn’t evenly distributed, but no one remarked it. In fact, every one was thrilled. It’s amazing how even such a small thing as a slightly unsightly pastry can bring about a collective joy that is quite out of proportion with the sum of its parts.
The next day, some one stopped me in the stairwell to thank me again. She said, “It was a moment of perfection, like I haven’t had in ages: the crust was tender, the frangipane was just sweet enough, the chocolate was soft, and the temperature was – ah, just right! So thank you for that.”
And I thought, this is the reason why we make things. Because even though, every time you start, uncertainty nips at your heels, and during each step along the way, unforeseen obstacles may befall you, when it’s all done, you may have something to give, something that extends beyond the borders of what you thought possible to bring something meaningful into the lives of others. Even if it’s just a single moment of gastronomic joy, it matters. What we share and what we can exchange far outweighs the doubts and struggles that go along with bringing anything into this world, be it a pastry, a painting, a song, or an idea.
Recipe after the jump… Continue reading
Sometimes you move to France. And sometimes when you get there, the home you wanted waits for you. But sometimes also, you realize, home is many places, many people, experiences, histories, sounds, and flavors.
Sometimes, after years spent studying French pastry, the thing you most want to bake in France is chocolate chip cookies. And you’re proud to share them even when they come out different shapes and even if they seem a little pale on account of the French conception of “brown” sugar. Because sometimes the act of sharing is better than worrying so much about whether what you have to give is good enough. And sometimes you learn that when you give what feels natural to you, it feels natural to others too. Even the French like chocolate chip cookies.
And apparently people also like the stories I have been spinning in this small corner of the interwebz. As with the cookies, they are made spur of the moment, out of memories and wishes and hands outstretched, a not small amount of sugar, a large amount of care, and a teeny bit of trepidation.
This is all to say that, last week, for the first time, purelysubjective got Freshly Pressed! And holy cow, the amount of support and excitement that has been sent my way is slightly overwhelming and also totally wonderful.
Welcome to all you new folks, and thank you ever so much for sharing your time and your thoughts and your presence. You are lovely and excellent, and I am so pleased to have you here. Though I have not had the chance to shake your hand or make you dinner, I can give you the recipe for my all-time favorite chocolate chip cookies, which have a vast following among chocolate chip cookie aficionados in the States and have also garnered the stamp of approval of the French, if my couple dozen compatriots may be allowed to represent their country. I’m gonna go with yes.
These cookies pass the chewy middle, crispy edge test. They have the proper brown sugar/vanilla/butter flavor that defines a chocolate chip cookie – in my world, at least – and enough salt to balance the sweetness and punch up the whole eating experience without becoming a “salted” cookie. Also, they require no special flour or weird quantities as some of the currently popular “best” chocolate chip cookies do (I’m looking at you New York Times). They are easy, classic, and damn delicious. Thanks for being here; have a cookie.
Recipe after the jump…
It’s a trait of the women in my family that we have food phases. During one of my most fondly remembered childhood food phases, my mom cooked homemade pizza at least twice a week for five weeks straight. For years my sister only ate Inari sushi, California rolls, and teriyaki chicken at Japanese restaurants. She never strayed. I myself had a phase that lasted from probably age nine to thirteen: the chocolate and peppermint candy phase. While other people dabbled in Skittles and Snickers and everything in between, I invariably ate either York Peppermint Patties or Junior Mints. Sure, on Halloween, I took whatever came my way gladly (with the exception of Bottle Caps, which I consider an affront to the concept of candy), but if we stopped for snacks on a road trip or got a treat at the movies, I always, always chose chocolate and peppermint.
The weird thing about food phases is that they end, and often the food which you once so loved sort of just falls off your radar. You hit your limit, or OD, or something like that. I don’t think I’ve eaten a Junior Mint or a Peppermint Patty in, I dunno, maybe five years and I stopped being impassioned about them long before that.
Then, when my sister and I were at See’s Candy a couple weeks ago, she ordered a peppermint patty, and some faded memory whispered to me. The next time I was at a candy shop, I got one myself, and it was like being hit over the head with my childhood, in the nicest way. A long forgotten source of pleasure resurfaced, like a friend you run into unexpectedly after years of absence. And as with that friend, you feel sort of bad that you’ve been out of touch for so long. Why did I let this loveliness go unappreciated for so long?
But hey, there’s a way to make up for the oversight: by creating a scrumptious ode to the altar of chocolate and peppermint with my own two hands. So I did. And you can too. Recipe after the jump…