Hustle And Stack: Vanilla Ice Cream With Tamarind Caramel And Spicy Peanut Crumble

I am not a rise-and-grind, hustle-and-stack kind of girl.

While I recognize the value in this philosophy for some folks, it just doesn’t feel good for me. It feels frantic and crazy-making and doesn’t leave any space inside it for enjoying the fruits of your labor.

It’s a grind. A slog. An ongoing rush to get something more than what you have.

My dad, in his day, and all of the days I had with him, was a hustle-and-stack OG. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2001 and given six months to live. I quit my job and flew back East from Seattle so he could get to know his infant granddaughter in whatever time he had left. Although he positively doted on her (for the next six years), he was often too busy to do more than come up from his basement office and say hi. He traveled for his work constantly and worked through multiple bouts of chemo and radiation and many courses of experimental treatments.

In a moment of frustration, I asked him once what amount of money it would take for him to stop working long enough to come out of the basement and enjoy his family before he died. He had no answer – it was literally the hustle he liked, I think, more than the progress towards any goal.

Part of this compulsion to grind stems from fear. Fear of not having enough, being enough, or deserving enough.

But then I read this quote from Osho:

“Don’t move the way fear makes you move. Move the way love makes you move. Move the way joy makes you move.”

Yes. THIS.

Fear is oxymoronic in that it can alternately hold us back and compel us forward. Fear is the trigger that serves our flight, fight, or freeze instincts, the ones buried so deeply in our brains that we don’t even recognize that this compulsive need for hustling and stacking is just a modern-day version of fleeing from a saber tooth tiger.

The other side of this compulsion is that we never truly get to experience whatever it is we say we are seeking to experience if we are constantly hustling. There is no ease, no balance. No repose. No rest.

Of course, this ease and repose can masquerade as lazy, and the whole world will jump to tell you that time spent slowly is time wasted.

As all three regular readers of this blog can attest, I disagree with the whole world in this regard. I don’t think you can really know what it means to feel something without slowing down to feel it. You might think that “hustle and stack” has little, if anything, to do with feeling, but think back to a time when you won something. That rush of adrenaline; that quick flush of victory. For some people, it’s positively ADDICTIVE.

Today in my yin yoga class with Jessie Kates, she talked about the idea that having goals and plans in this life are good, but sometimes we get so distracted by them that we forget to slow down to take detours to do things that give us joy just because. Maybe the detours don’t make us money, or they don’t increase our social media reach, or otherwise elevate us to the lofty, random standards that others set. But WOW.

Joy? The possibility of joy? The potential to do something just because it feels good for your soul?

YES. THAT.

That I would rise-and-grind for.

I will also rise-and-grind for:

  • an early morning camping trip
  • a road trip
  • my birthday
  • Sicily’s birthday
  • Khristian’s birthday
  • most people’s birthdays, if I am honest
  • complicated cooking projects
  • a long walk in the woods
  • a heart-opening yoga class

I am done rising-and-grinding for the sake of itself, and I am certainly not making the hustling and the stacking a priority. I sound like your grandmother, adding “the” in front of “hustling” and “stacking” (as I often do with The Facebook, except that’s what it used to be called, but I digress), but know that it’s a writing device and is not accidental and since I know the rules I can break them so there.

I like the idea of a leisurely morning on my balcony with coffee and three trees’ worth of birds twittering and flitting. I like listening to little kids walking to the park across the street and watching dogs with their zingy little bodies flinging themselves around with sheer delight at being outside because they can. This is not time wasted. This is time spent rooted in the essence of respect and awe, and wouldn’t that be a lovely thing to do?

We can actually construct a life that has built into it more time for joy and awe and respect and wonder and zingy-body flinging, so long as we are willing to shuffle off the mortal coil of Stuff and Striving. I suppose it’s a bit of striving to make this happen, too, but in the very best way – the shedding part of striving, where you shed the illusion that you have to Do and Be and Go in order to be considered Successful.

(and true and weird thing that just happened: as my brain wanted to type “Successful,” my fingers typed “Suzannah.” STRANGE.)

The best parts of this will come together with less effort than one might think necessary. Just like this ice cream. Khristian and I are cooking our way through Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India, and as we finished up one meal and began to plan the other, these flavors came to me. Sweet. Sour. Spicy. Salty. The balance of flavor was not instantaneous, but that’s just the way things go, mostly, in ice cream as in life.

Take a detour with me here, and then tell me the best detour you ever took in the comments.

New feature here, for your edification, this was on the blog two years ago today: Galentine’s Day: Coffeecake and Connection

Vanilla Ice Cream With Tamarind Caramel And Spicy Peanut Crumble

Ingredients

Ice Cream

4 cups of dairy (see Recipe Notes)

1 vanilla bean, scraped (or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)

1/2 cup sugar

4 egg yolks

pinch salt

Tamarind Caramel

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 or 3 teaspoons of tamarind concentrate (see Recipe Notes)

Peanut Crumble (from Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian Indian)

1/2 cup unsalted roasted peanuts

1/3 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Method

Make the ice cream: Place dairy and vanilla bean (or extract) in a heavy saucepan over medium heat and heat until small bubbles appear around the sides (do not boil).

While the dairy is heating, place egg yolks, sugar, and salt in a large mixing bowl and whisk to combine.

When dairy is ready, remove from heat and begin to slowly add to eggs, whisking constantly. I cannot emphasize enough the words “slowly add” and “whisking constantly.” If you add quickly and don’t whisk, you will make sweetened scrambled eggs. Pour a few drops of dairy at a time to begin, gradually working your way to a thin, constant stream of dairy, whisked into the eggs.

Once combined, place the saucepan back on the stove with a fine-mesh strainer on top of it. Strain the milk and egg mixture back into the saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, whisking constantly, for about ten minutes (or until the mixture begins to thicken). Eventually, the mixture will thinly coat the back of a spoon, and you will know it’s done.

Place the fine-mesh strainer over another bowl, and strain dairy mixture into the bowl. Place plastic wrap on the surface of the dairy mixture and place in ‘fridge to cool completely. This can be done a couple of days ahead of time if you prefer.

Make the caramel: While the dairy is chillin’, make your caramel. Caramel is not hard but requires patience and a tiny bit of finesse. Combine sugar and water in a high-sided heavy saucepan over medium heat and swirl gently to mix (don’t use a spoon; pick up the saucepan and swirl it around).

You can leave the sugar/water mix briefly to combine the heavy cream and tamarind extract in a separate bowl. The tamarind extract immediately makes the cream thicken. This is totally fine. Do not panic. Set aside.

Take a look at your sugar/water mixture. You are looking to see if the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture is bubbling. The bubbling will cause sugar deposits to climb up the side of the pan; use a pastry brush dipped in water to encourage those crystals to rejoin the liquid, but do not stir in.

Once your sugar mixture turns a light golden yellow, remove from heat and whisk in the cream and tamarind concentrate mixture. The sugar will bubble up (hence the high sides of the saucepan), so work quickly to incorporate the cream mixture. Stir and cook over medium-low heat until the mixture begins to thicken enough to coat the back of a spoon. Place in a jar or other container and let cool to at least room temperature. Set aside.

Make the crumble: Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender and pulse until you have medium-fine crumbs. Set aside.

Put it all together: You will process the ice cream according to your manufacturer’s instructions. I pour my custard in and process for about 15 minutes, then add the peanut crumble for five minutes (until totally incorporated) and then the completely cool tamarind caramel. I like there to be chewy streaks of caramel throughout, a little tartness to cut the sweet.

Recipe Notes

  • A word on dairy: I generally use 50% heavy cream and 50% whole milk in my ice creams, but you can use whatever is on hand. The more cream, the creamier (which makes sense). You can also be vegan AF if you like, but I have not tested this with plant milks (the ice cream or the caramel). Both might be very delicious with coconut milk.
  • I ordered my tamarind concentrate from the interwebs; it’s also referred to as tamarind paste, and I used the brand Madhur Jaffrey recommended.

 

 

The Brady Bunch Challenge: Spicy Sweet Corn Ice Cream

Like butter drippin’ off a hot biscuit.

My particular friend and I have Brady-bunched our households recently, in a much less dramatic fashion than the TV show (he brings a near-teenager part-time, D, and I have a teenager, Sicily, who is full-time but who is also a working stiff with lots of friends and is not around as often as she used to be).

It has been challenging, which is an understatement along the lines of “That iceberg looks pretty big,” and “Is it dangerous that this zeppelin is filled with extremely explosive gas?”

It is hard to know whether the best way to do this is to rip the Band-Aid off and just shove everyone together with family-type events or to let things just happen.

If you have teenagers, you know both are loaded propositions. Trying to manufacture a new type of family can be saccharin and artificial, and teenagers tend to mostly want to hibernate in their own rooms. So if we force everyone to a nightly family dinner it might feel fake and super awkward, but when left to their own devices, the two teenagers tend to disappear to their respective rooms, emerging like hibernating bears for food and occasionally to wash a huge load of laundry and shower. This makes getting to know everyone in this new way difficult.

And then there is the challenge of nurturing and growing our own relationship in the face of surly teenagers, differing parenting styles, and the shit that is cohabitating with others (how are there so many freaking bobby pins and single socks in this house?!). How do you manage an adult relationship with children that is not based on those children?

If you are a parent who is still partnered with the other half of your offspring’s DNA, you have exactly zero idea of what I am talking about. That’s totally amazing, and I am truly happy for you in your relationship. DON’T WASTE IT.

If you have lost a spouse to divorce or death, and you have managed to pull your soggy, mangled heart off the wasteland of the floor that is your life and actually get out into the world and meet another person, you are in for a challenge that goes far beyond being vulnerable, confronting loss, and worrying about showing your naked self to someone new for the first time in ______ years.

Turns out, those things are easy when compared to navigating the treacherous waters of parenting someone else’s kid.

For the record, I will never be D’s mom. She has a mom who loves her fiercely, exactly the way a mother should. I don’t share the birth experience with D, and that in and of itself is a powerful connection that only a biological mother can feel.

Side note: I have an adopted brother. Adoptive parents can feel just as powerful a connection in a different way that is no less valid and potent. Don’t get mad and send me hate mail. I mean no disrespect.

But there is no way around it: I am an adult in D’s life, and she is a child in my house. Khristian is looking down the barrel of a 17-year-old teenager (my daughter) who lost a dad of her own and isn’t really looking for a replacement.

Do you see how things can become/have become/are becoming more complex?

Parenting is the worst best job when the kid is your own. I never wanted to be a parent. If I am being honest (which I always try to be), I am not a huge fan of kids in general (which is pretty funny since one of my callings in life has been as a teacher, both in a classroom and now on a yoga mat. But I digress.) So what do you call parenting when the worst best job applies to someone else’s kid?

How do you not be an asshole to a 12-year-old, or, at the very least, not feel like an asshole when you correct said 12-year-old in the same way you would correct your own child but when the 12-year-old is not, in fact, your 12-year-old?

It is complex. Add to this a biological mother who is struggling – understandably so – with this reconfiguration, and the layers begin to look geologic. I started this blog post a couple weeks ago, and as time passed things got more heated. For all intents and purposes, and even though D has moved in, I am an outsider to one of the main struggles in her former-family, looking in on a parental relationship that failed and continues to be problematic for the parents (and increasingly, for the child). The first sentence of this blog in its first draft asked which was harder: death or divorce.

When it comes to parenting the answer is very, very simple: divorce.

Divorced people who want nothing to do with each other are forced to interact when they share a child. That interaction will only get worse as the kid gets older and decisions get more complicated and more expensive. In contrast with Sicily, whose dead father is a keen and deeply felt knife-like absence on (increasingly predictable) occasions, Khristian’s former spouse is a keen and deeply felt knife-like presence in even the most mundane of daily decisions. These are the fogs of a former dynamic that don’t quite seem to be dissipating.

So in essence, as of now, it seems that the house is just not big enough for everyone who is here.

I talked to my therapist about this today (and I don’t care who knows). My particular friend, my sweet love – he is struggling. And so am I. I am angry, explosively so but with no proper target and no real right to be angry. I can see from the outside what I think should be done, but it’s not mine to do. And yet the center, as it is, cannot hold.

My therapist is pretty much right on with most things. Previous examples of her brilliance include the acronym SET when dealing with teenagers (Support, Empathy, Truth), an approach that revolutionized the way I dealt with The Kid when her teenager was hanging out. True to form, today she proposed that I approach the situation with this thing called “radical acceptance.”

Whereas depression says, “Nothing matters, so it’s pointless,” radical acceptance realizes that there is nothing to be done one way or the other; things just are the way they are.

In other words, there is nothing for me to do about the hovering presence of a former spouse.

Getting involved doesn’t help.

Having an opinion doesn’t help.

Getting angry/sad/bitchy about it doesn’t help.

I can listen. That’s about it.

And when I can’t listen anymore, I can even say, “Hey, man. I can’t hear this right now.”

Therapy is a fucking miracle sometimes.

In the meantime, there is always food. That constant thread.

The above-referenced 12-year-old is a big fan of ice cream (and the 17-year-old works at The Charmery in Hampden, bringing home samples after each shift). D is a talented maker of ice cream herself, but she has a palate that is, to be frank, picky, very selective , and difficult to please (it’s hard to compete with grilled cheese and tater tots). I made this sweet and spicy ice cream using corn harvested from a friend’s father’s garden on a whim, not wanting to waste either the corn (which I made into relish) or the cobs (which found their way into this recipe). D loves it, cayenne pepper and all.

I am not naive enough to think that ice cream – however delicious – will make this transition pain-free. As I write this, the adults in D’s life are still trying to get their shit together. All I can do, all any of us can do, is try to recognize that all of the conflict really has nothing to do with me and everything to do with a past that is still present for D and her father. Divorce is its own particular kind of hell, I think, a hell that expands and contracts with each passing year. This particular divorce comes with a morass of painful feelings that sit on our doorstep as we combine families. After supporting the people in my household through this, I figure the very least I can do is give them something sweet.

Spicy Sweet Corn Ice Cream

The first thing you taste is sweet corn, followed by a hint of vanilla and the scratchy burn of just a touch of cayenne. This is pretty much the best summer dessert ever.

Ingredients

4 corn cobs, corn removed (but don’t be too precious about it; you can leave some on there)

2 cups heavy cream

2 cups milk

1 vanilla bean (or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)

3/4 cup sugar, divided

6 egg yolks (make meringue with the whites, or give your dogs a treat)

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 cup whole milk yogurt

Method

Place heavy corn cobs, heavy cream, and milk in heavy saucepan and heat until bubbles form on the edges of the milk. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely.

Remove the corn cobs from the cream/milk mixture, scraping all of the delicious bits off the cob with a spoon before pouring the milk through a fine mesh sieve. Return the milk to the heat. Scrape the paste from the inside of the vanilla bean and add to the milk (or add vanilla extract, if using) and add 1/2 cup of the sugar. Heat until bubbles begin to form on the sides of the pan, stirring occasionally.

Combine egg yolks, salt, remaining 1/4 cup sugar, and cayenne in a bowl. Use a whisk to combine completely.

This next part is where you might completely ruin your custard, so go slowly. If you have no experience with this sort of thing, go at half the speed you might normally go.

Using a whisk and whisking constantly, pour a thin stream of the hot milk into the eggs. You can pour a little and whisk, or pour a thin stream constantly; you are bringing the cold eggs up to the temperature of the hot milk (or close) so that you don’t make sweet scrambled eggs (BARF).

Once you have poured and whisked about a cup of the hot milk into the eggs, add the egg mixture back into the pan and return to medium-low heat. This is the second part where you might screw it up, so go slow and keep the heat low. Cook gently, stirring constantly, for about ten minutes or until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Remove from heat and once again pass the custard through a  fine-mesh strainer. You need to chill this mixture before processing, but it’s important to bring the temperature down quickly as you have just created the perfect petri dish for bacteria (eggs and sugar and milk that’s warm). To do this, fill a large bowl (bigger than the bowl you have the custard in) with ice cubes and water, and place the custard bowl inside. Stir custard occasionally. When it has cooled enough to touch, remove from ice bath, cover with plastic wrap, and chill until completely cool (at least four hours but overnight is good, too, making this a great make-ahead dessert).

Chill according to manufacturer’s directions on your ice cream maker.

Love And Anger: Chocolate Cupcakes With Mole Ganache and Cinnamon Buttercream

Moody. Just like you.

Four years and four months after his death in a car accident, I am beginning to only remember the bad things about Dane.

The stages of grief are not stagnant and are generally understood to be fluid and back-and-forth; you don’t reach one stage and then never backslide. I seem to be moving back and forth between anger, depression, and acceptance, settling in mostly to the easiest emotion for me to deal with.

Anger. Which often hides its evil bitch of a twin, depression. So there’s that also.

I think we most of us are very comfortable with anger. Every time I open The Facebook or listen to the news, there’s something else to be angry about. I feel it when I get behind the wheel of my car (this is infrequent lately) and spend most of my time driving talking myself down and taking deep breaths.

The hardest thing these days is moving towards love.

I believe deeply in love and compassion and kindness. This is at war with my general dislike and distrust of strangers, but it dovetails nicely with my deep-seated and long-held belief that love truly is all that matters. Real, deep, abiding love. It’s the one thing that is free and available to anyone. You don’t even have to have a target for that love. Love, in general, can be spread all around, like butter on a hot bagel (and just as delicious).

I think that love is healing and softening and strengthening and is, ultimately, the thing that every single person on this planet actually wants and needs to survive.

But shit, man. Sometimes people are deeply painful and difficult to love. This is our 5th Father’s Day without Dane. Every year Sicily and I mark the day by doing something that Dane might have liked to do, but this year I find myself increasingly angry when I see and hear all these tributes to great dads. I can only see the negatives, chief among them the fact that he did not take care of himself and has left his daughter father-less, for this Father’s Day and an infinite number of other days that will find his child with teary eyes because her father isn’t there.

I did love Dane, deeply. He was funny and clever (see also “Wormaggedon” to describe the surfeit of dead worms in our driveway after a gully-washer). He could fix pretty much anything, and if you wanted to have fun, he was your go-to. He was generous to a fault and took everyone at face value (a trait his daughter has deliberately and conscientiously cultivated in herself). He loved his child, and he loved me – it was obvious in the way he wanted to be with us all the time. No one was happier than he was, puttering around the house and hanging with his girls.

But he sabotaged himself at every turn, his death just another example of that. He was careless with his time and money and he often avoided responsibility, making me the bad cop (but also the person who kept our ship afloat and mopped up his messes). The aftermath of his sudden death is another example of that, and I have been the target of some spectacular grief  outbursts from our child. I have parented very poorly at times these past years (well beyond minor poor parenting. Have you ever told your kid to shut the fuck up? I have. For the record, even though she really, really needed to shut the fuck up, I deeply regret telling her to do so.#ForReal), and I have, at times, found myself thinking about just how long I have to actually keep myself alive, respectably and so that our daughter is stable and set.

These have been rough days of late. No one tells you that grief lasts so long, not the wailing and teeth-gnashing part but the part where you have to figure out actually what the fuck and how to move forward.

Not surprisingly, I am craving comfort food. Chocolate comfort food, specifically. I guess I don’t actually know many people who crave a heaping bowl of kale when they stress eat, but I am also past the days when a simple piece of chocolate will do. If I have my say, my comfort food is cake of some kind, with plenty of frosting.

Just like love, these cupcakes are not just a straightforward chocolate smack in the face. They are complex and have deeply flavored layers of cinnamon and spice. They are warm and comforting  – just like love – and spicy and easy to overdo – just like anger.

Chocolate Cupcakes With Mole Ganache And Cinnamon Buttercream

Ingredients

Chocolate Cupcakes

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar (not packed)

1 1/2 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour (regular AP flour works, too)

3/4 cup cocoa powder, sifted

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoons salt

2 eggs + 2 egg yolks at room temperature

3/4 cup sour cream or Greek yogurt

1/2 cup milk

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 cup hot coffee

 Mole Ganache

2 heaping tablespoons (or to taste) prepared mole negro (see Recipe Notes)

1 cup chocolate chips

1/2 cup + 2 teaspoons heavy cream

Cinnamon Buttercream

2 sticks butter, softened

3 – 4 cups powdered sugar, sifted

2 teaspoon cinnamon (sifted with the powdered sugar)

3 teaspoons vanilla extract

4 (ish) tablespoons heavy cream or whole milk

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place cupcake liners in a muffin tin. Set aside.

For the cupcakes: In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl), mix together both sugars, flour, sifted cocoa flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

In a medium bowl, combine eggs, sour cream, milk, vegetable oil, and vanilla extract and mix well to combine.

Add wet ingredients to dry and mix until just wet. Add hot coffee and mix until thoroughly combined, about one minute.

Fill cupcake liners 2/3 of the way full and bake for 15 – 17 minutes. Remove from oven and cool completely before filling and frosting.

For the ganache: Place mole, chocolate chips, and heavy cream in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat and stir constantly until chocolate and mole are completely melted and mixture is smooth. Let cool slightly, then place in refrigerator.

For the frosting: Place softened butter in a large bowl and sift in powdered sugar and cinnamon. Add vanilla and one table of heavy cream to start. Use a hand mixer to beat until creamy and smooth and the consistency of frosting. If it is too thick, add more heavy cream; add more powdered sugar if it’s too thin.

Assembly: Use a demitasse spoon or sharp knife to remove a divot of chocolate cupcake (set that aside to freeze and then mix into ice cream). Scoop or pipe chocolate mole ganache into that divot, then pipe frosting in a swirl to cover (you can use a star tip and a pastry bag to make rosettes or a fancy swirl.

Eat a million of these. Recipe makes (annoyingly) 32 cupcakes.

Recipe Notes

I used mole negro from Guelaguetza, a specialty food company in California. Their mole is complex and spicy and earthy and delicious; I found it at the Emporiyum in Baltimore back in April. Previously, my go-to mole was Dona Maria’s, which had the bonus of coming in a lovely juice glass and is easily located in the Hispanic food section of most grocery stores. You can use whichever mole you wish.

 

Fail Forward: Pistachio Macarons With Rosewater Filling

These were an abject failure.

I was born to write.

I certainly have the temperament for it – I am an introvert, and I over think everything. At a minimum I think writers need to be comfortable alone, stuck in their head for substantial periods of time.

#Check

But for as long as I can remember I have been jotting words down on scraps of paper and hoarding them. Sometimes these words come together with periods and commas and semicolons (my favorite form of punctuation. #TotalDork), sometimes they are occasionally formed together on the wings of a poem, and sometimes they remain just fluttering scraps of thought that I save, maybe waiting for their chance.

I have always loved journals and pens and the accoutrement of writers, but bar napkins, receipts, and matchbooks (from back when there were such things readily available) are all a part of the flotsam of my writerly (if not always writer’s) life.

I even remember my first typewriter: an IBM Selectric. I didn’t write much on that beige beast except for papers and other undergraduate work, but I lugged it around with me for years before finally donating it to Goodwill where I am sure it languished on a dusty shelf until someone decided to recycle it.

My behaviors are those of a writer – seclusion, procrastination, and moment- and memory-hoarding.

That writing is tragically hard for me is an unfortunate irony of my chosen profession. Writers complaining of the pain of writing is not unusual and indeed seems to be part of the job description. Every word you put on the page is a reflection of yourself shining glaringly back at yourself, like a mirror that doesn’t really allow for whitewashing of flaws or highlighting of assets. Writing is radical honesty, only self-inflicted.

If I am honest with myself, which I always try to be, writing is the most painful and precious and cutting place I have ever visited because, as a writer, even if I don’t write it down it stays humming around in my brain, and even if I do write it down and never read it, I know it’s there. There are blogs from the early days of Dane’s death that I simply cannot read now. They are raw streams of emotion poured on the page, the very essence of grief distilled in  a paragraph or two when keeping it inside was not a viable option.

So there’s that physical pain of writing the truth as I see it.

And then there’s the intellectual pain. Not the mental struggle to choose the right word or really be honest with what I mean to say and not give in to the urge to have some sort of flourish that is not me. Although this can be excruciating, in many cases time, work, and careful attention to words and the craft of assembling them can help with this, as can copious amounts of reading and patience and careful editing.

I am talking about that odious bitch, the Anti-Cheerleader. The constant mental struggle against feelings of inadequacy and doubt.

The clear knowledge that millions of people are writing AT THIS VERY MOMENT, and most of them are doing it better than me. That someone has already said what I am saying, and way better. That somehow, everyone’s thoughts are better than mine, and I am foolish to believe that anyone gives a rat’s ass about what I have to say.

Do you see the trend? The Anti-Cheerleader assures me that I am unworthy, that my work is not worth the price of the ink used to print it out, and that I will never be able to find any value – monetary or otherwise – as a writer. And, finally, that I should not even be calling myself “writer.”

It seems masochistic to willfully  undertake something that continually reminds you how bad you are at that thing. And then to tangle your identity (“I am a writer”) all up in that thing? Well, that is certainly madness.

As it is a well-known fact that many artists are batshit crazy, I suppose a tinge of madness comes with the territory. But still.

Every time I sit down to write or I avoid sitting down to write or I read about someone who has sat down to write I am forced to confront all of these feelings over and over again.

But I was born to write.

I was born to the struggle of shaving words onto the page. I was born to turn the things I experience into sentences that mean something, even if they only ever really mean something to me.

I love words. I love the way they look on the page. I love the way they sound when they are spoken. I love the way they connect to each other and disconnect from each other and connect the people who read them with an invisible thread.

I love trying to figure out which word is exactly the right one, even if the word is simple and small and not flowery and worth 50 cents on the SAT.

Language matters, and it happens to be the currency in which I traffic.

For me, food is like this, too.

Food connects people in ways that even language cannot. I have been fascinated by food since I was young, especially the ways in which it brings people together. Aside from having to eat to sustain life, special moments are marked with food, and that food becomes the shared experience upon which lives are built.

But, as with writing, there are millions of people cooking better than I am. And developing better recipes. And just in general knowing more that I do, latecomer as I am to the whole business of cooking and eating, and with no formal training or work in the back of the house.

Writing + Food = Food Writing, which also = Nearly Paralyzing Feelings Of Inadequacy

And then there is this:

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Hell, YEAH, it is.

Because there is ALWAYS someone who is better. Who knows more. Is funnier. Has tighter abs. Better hair. Whatever. Name it. Someone is better.

Which can be, I suppose, a bit of relief. There is no such thing as “the best.” Maybe it might be “the best right at this moment..whoops…not anymore,” or “the best for you with what you had at the time.”

I say this “can be” a bit of relief because most days, if I am being honest (which I always try to be), that doesn’t really help. I still feel like a huckster and a fraud selling skills which, if I actually possess them, are ephemeral and difficult to regulate and duplicate.

Then some days, quite accidentally, there is a shining bit of joy, when the Sunshiney Rays Of Competence dart through the Clouds of Self-Doubt And Despair with a crepuscular golden light.

Today is not that day.

My particular friend Khristian works with a lovely woman, Linar, who you all just WISH would teach your kids someday. Seriously. Her classroom (and her manner with the children and pretty much every person who crosses her path) is so lovely and loving and supportive that every time I see her, even my introverted self leans a little closer. Linar gave Khristian a bottle of rosewater, and he turned it over to me. I promised her a recipe using that, so here it is. Pistachios and rosewater is a classic combination, and macarons have been my archnemesis.

Turns out, they remain my archnemesis.

While the macaron flavor was delicious, they did not rise on glorious feet. The filling tasted like a mouthful of flowers, even though I was very sparing. Some might like it; for me, it was overly perfumed and not pleasant.

This is not the end that I expected to have, but there it is. It is important, I think, to discuss the hard parts, the failure, in cooking. It’s easy enough to make something look delicious; that’s only so much smoke, mirrors, and microwaved tampons.

Failure isn’t pretty, but it’s necessary. If you must fail – and rest assured, you must – fail forward.

For the curious, here’s the recipe. I would advise you make these at your own risk, and if you do, let me know how it goes.

Pistachio Macarons With Rosewater Filling

Ingredients

Macarons

1/2 cup finely ground pistachios

1/2 cup finely ground almond meal

1 cup powdered sugar

3 egg whites

1/2 cup sugar

Filling

2 egg whites

1/2 cup sugar

5 tablespoons butter, softened

1-2 teaspoons rosewater (less or more, to taste)

Method

Line two baking sheets with silpat mat or parchment paper. Set aside.

In a large bowl, sift ground pistachios, almond flour, and powdered sugar. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whip attachment, whip egg whites until they begin to gain volume and become bubbly. When this happens, slowly add sugar until fully incorporated and egg whites are thick and holding soft peaks.

Add egg white mixture to nuts mixture and fold in vigorously with a spatula until thoroughly incorporated.

Place macaron batter in a piping bag fitted with a round tip (or use a large freezer bag with the end snipped off) and pipe into circles onto silpat (which may have guides on them already). Bang cookie sheet on the counter to settle the batter (just a couple good whacks) then let macarons sit for 30 minutes to an hour. The macarons need to dry and form a skin, of sorts, in order to get a good lift while baking and have visible “feet” (the frilly part on the bottom of the cookie).

When the top of the macarons are dry to the touch, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Bake for nine to 12 minutes or until they are crisp outside. Cool completely before removing from silpat and filling.

To make the filling, combine egg whites and sugar in a metal bowl and set over a pan of simmering water, beating with a hand mixer until it thickens and is hot to the touch. Remove bowl from water and, still mixing, add butter one tablespoon at a time, mixing until incorporated.

Continue to beat this mixture until it thickens and has the texture of light frosting. Add rosewater to taste and stir to combine.

Pipe a circle of frosting on the flat part of one macaron, and top with another.

Recipe Notes

I do not use food coloring, but if you do, the macarons can be colored with two drops of green, and the filling can be colored with one or two drops of red.

Macarons should be stored at room temperature and eaten within a day or two. They also freeze well.

World’s Best Brownies

I can eat, and have eaten, my weight in these.

The past six months have felt like one of those days, haven’t they?

It seems like the world has gone utterly mad, leaving many of us standing around, clutching at our chests in shock and wondering what exactly the hell just happened.

Every day, things seem to get more intense. It’s a looming sense of dread, an unidentifiable malaise so that even if things are going okay in most ways, you still feel anxious and crazy and on edge.

If you are a follower of astrology, you might blame Mercury, which seems to always be in retrograde these days.

If you are a follower of psychotherapy, you might blame your parents.

Or maybe it’s the jerk in front of who Doesn’t. Know how. To drive.

Maybe you have turned the fucker off and then back on and it still doesn’t work.

Maybe your kids are assholes, or your spouse.

Or maybe it’s just you.

No matter.

Some days, for the love of all things (un)holy, you just want something to work, every day, all the time, without thinking about it.

For you, JUST FOR YOU, I present you with the world’s best brownies.

Don’t get me wrong: there are other plenty delicious brownies out there. But these brownies are utterly impossible to ruin. You can’t cook them too long. You can’t undercook them. You can add pretty much anything you want, and they will still be delicious. And they are done in 30 minutes, start to finish.

Two summers ago we had family in town, and I would make a pan of these every night. We are lucky enough to have a soft-serve ice cream man in the neighborhood; we would buy ice cream and eat it with these brownies every. Single. Night. Some nights the ice cream man was late and the brownies cooked longer; others he came a bit earlier and we were forced to eat them still warm and slightly oozy. All agreed that there was no one good way to make that magic happen – all ways were equally delightful.

Chances are good that you have everything you need in your pantry to make them RIGHT NOW.

If your day sucked, if you just need ONE THING TO GO RIGHT, here you go.

You’re welcome, and I love you.

World’s Best Brownies

Note: See recipe notes for adaptations.

Ingredients

½ cup gluten-free all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp salt
½ cup vegetable oil
¾ cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs

Method
Preheat the oven to 350⁰. Grease an 8”x8” glass baking dish.

In a small bowl, mix together the dry ingredients.

In a medium bowl, mix together the wet ingredients, whisking until the egg and oil are both completely incorporated.

SIDE NOTE: There are those who would argue that the eggs should be beaten separately until they become pale yellow and drizzle off the whisk in a smooth yellow ribbon before adding the dry ingredients. If you have the patience for this, this beating results in a lighter brownie. If not, simply whisk until egg and oil are smoothly incorporated and proceed.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix completely until there are no lumps. Stir in any additions you choose, then pour into prepared baking dish. Bake at 350⁰ for 22-25 minutes. The center will still be fairly wet, but the edges may begin to pull away from the sides of the pan. Let cool completely before serving.

Recipe notes

  • You can also use regular AP flour. If you are GF and use other GF flour, I cannot guarantee the same results. For best results, please click the link for all-purpose gluten-free flour and check out my very easy recipe. Alternately, if you are in Baltimore city, you can order food from me and add on five pounds of my gluten-free flour, which I will then come deliver to you. I’m just saying.
  • Vegan? Sub 1/2 cup pumpkin or one mashed banana or 1/2 cup applesauce for the egg. Or get rid of the oil altogether and sub a similar amount of pumpkin, banana, or applesauce. Seriously. It’s really that easy.
  • Optional add-ins: ½ cup chopped nuts or ½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips or ½ cup peanut butter or butterscotch or mint chips (or any combination). Dried fruit is also delicious, like ½ cup dried cherries or blueberries.
  • Cutting back on sugar? Use 1/2 cup of sugar instead of 3/4 cup. Seriously.
  • I haven’t tried this yet because it seems a bit like gilding the lily, but the next time I make these I am going to throw in some toasted coconut and then frost the cooled brownies with vegan coconut frosting. That frosting, too, is easier than it ought to be: Chill a can of full-fat coconut milk overnight, then remove the solids (save the water for smoothies, or freeze it in cubes and use it to chill juice). Add a wee bit of powdered sugar and whip the hell out of the it with a hand mixer. Frost. #Boom