The last time I wrote I was readying myself for the trip from Thailand to Toronto, and my head was still full of Burma and the optimism about change that is growing there. Now here I am a long time later (almost two weeks), and we’ve got less than three full days of the old year left. I’ve been seeing friends and eating and drinking, and loving the winter light and crisp air - and the freedom of walking with no boots on, for we’ve no snow here yet.
All the cooking and baking I’ve been doing has given me time for reflection and wondering. I’ve been thinking about patterns and behaviours... obedience, flexibility. Here’s where it’s taken me:
I so rarely want to do what I’m told, and I certainly don’t look around for people to tell me what to do (though I often ask for advice about directions etc). It follows then that I don’t make fixed plans about menu or much else in fact. It’s part of why I like making bread, because it is so flexible and allows for all kinds of imprecision, in fact welcomes it often. My usual style with cooking, and with baking too, is to feel my way, decide as I go along, and then ride it all out adjusting and adjusting, until it’s done and there are no more tweaks and decisions to be made.
All in all, from menu to travel to cooking to household tasks, a set plan tends to feel to me like a strait-jacket, a command to do onerous and uninteresting (because already predictable) work.
So why is it that it feels so restful over this holiday to be following (simple, I grant you) recipes for various cookies and tarts etc? Partly it’s because they are my recipes, published in HomeBaking, so I have confidence in them and I know I love them. And partly I think it’s a moment’s ease, a rest from making decisions. I can just let the decisions be made by the recipe instructions. How many eggs? Ah yes, it says four. Fine. And in they go.
Of course there’s often still room for improvising, a little push-back to the predictability of a recipe-directed result. That was true on the weekend when I made pate sucree and then after chilling it overnight used half of my double recipe to make a custard tart topped with some fabulous cooked damsons, and some tartlets. The other half of the dough is still sitting in the frig, waiting for a decision about what to do with it. Should I make sablees to give to friends and eat in-house? Or another tart?
I also have in the frig a simple pastry dough made with butter and one egg, so I can make a tart with that. I am imagining a shallow apple tart, sort of Alsatian-style, with slices of apple open-faced, and a guelon (lightly shisked custard liquid - one egg and some cream, and perhaps a dash of cinnamon or vanilla if wanted, and sugar ditto) poured over part way through baking, to set and hold it together and add richness. It’s a technique I learned long ago from a Swiss friend from the Jura named Monique...
The time-travel that that reminder of Monique takes me on is a clue to why recipes are so comfortable at this time of year. They’re a way of repeating an experience, a way of getting back in touch with times past and people in the past. When I improvise and decide moment to moment, I am refusing repetition, wanting to work freshly and create in my own small way. But when I open HomeBaking to the page with Mandel Melbas (almond biscotti made only with eggs for liquid) or Greek paximadia with wine and olive oil, or Lime-Zest Macaroons, or Candied Peel, or any one of a hundred other sweet and savory pastry and cake and cookie options, I am re-engaging with past experiences of making and eating those same foods. And that link is precious, especially at this shortest-day fragile and vulnerable time of year.
In this part of the yearly cycle there are of course other links to past years: the repetition of the waning day-length, the arrival of thin winter light and hints of snow-flurries in the air. But those reminders are more instinctual and animal, rather than warmingly human and intimate. The scent of citrus peel simmering, or of spiced cookies baking, or the satisfying feel of fraisage (the wonderful method of blending butter and egg yolks into flour that is used for making pate sucree) as I smear the dough with the heel of my hand: all these are also sensory and sensual reminders and connections to the human warmth of feeding loved ones and layered memories of friends and family.
Am I going on and on about this?
I think it’s all too easy to be nostalgic or knee-jerk about Christmas (or other) holidays. But there is for sure something real, a real need and a real pleasure, to be had in making cross-connections back through time to people who are no longer with us, or places that have special resonance for us.
All of this capacity for specific memory, and also our ability to trigger memories at will (in my case by baking) is very human, something I cannot imagine animals having. We can relish our ability to create, and make new or different foods or events or environments, as I most often do with cooking; but we can also rejoice in the possibility of reconnecting with our earlier selves.
It’s the old interplay between the old and the new, the familiar and the exciting unknown, the comfortable and the uncomfortably scary, the calm of the inlet or the thrill of the open water. We need both, different things at different times, and I guess the trick is to remember that there is no magic single standard for conducting ourselves in this maze we call life and daily decision-making.
Now to get back to baking. It’s time to give the mandel melbas their second bake.
Happy new year to you all. May 2012 bring more open tolerant government in Syria and Egypt, for now so shaken by repressive acts against extraordinarily brave demonstrators, and to Yemen and Libya and Tunisia and Bahrain... It’s a long and open list. And I hope that the remarkable recent loosening of the oppressiveness of government in Burma continues, with the release of all political prisoners and a negotiated reasonable agreement with the people and opposition forces who live in the border areas. It’s time that all these populations, whether in Burma or in the so-called Middle East, have a chance to live without fear and with hope that tomorrow will be an improvement on today.
A long new year’s wish, but no less heartfelt for that.