One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” — Virginia Woolf
“…instead of studying Locke, for instance, or writing — I go make an apple pie, or study The Joy of Cooking, reading it like a rare novel. Whoa, I said to myself. You will escape into domesticity & stifle yourself by falling headfirst into a bowl of cookie batter.” – Sylvia Plath
I ended my graduate school career (at last) a few weeks ago, and took the week before my graduation off from work. I had final assignments to complete, and I had to clean up my neglected house before weekend guests and well-wishers showed up at my door. Between juggling my April work deadline (see my previous post) and 3 nights of grad school per week, I was becoming a bit overwhelmed and cranky.
It wasn’t much of a vacation. I focused on final papers and a final presentation that was due the Thursday before graduation, and I was attempting to get some housework done between completing my assignments and leaving for class every evening. And to make matters worse, my car chose that week to break down, so I had to catch the bus to the subway in order to get to class, which took a larger chunk out of my already packed “week off”.
I was cleaning my kitchen and inspecting my pantry and refrigerator one morning after staying up until after 3 a.m. in order to finish a final class project that was due that evening, and I pulled a half-used bag of almond flour out of my cupboard, a plastic container of egg whites out of my refrigerator (left over from a week-long brownie-making orgy two weeks earlier), and then I became inspired and I checked for some heavy cream. Yes! — organic, free range Family Farms heavy cream on the shelf behind the buttermilk. Then I looked for and found an unopened jar of seedless, all-natural raspberry preserves in the pantry.
My final class presentation was eight hours away. I had been up until 3:30 in the morning putting the finishing touches on my presentation on a fake publishing house, complete with fake imprints, fake titles, and a fake business and marketing plan that would result in a very real final grade. I was exhausted and nervous about my presentation. I found it absolutely necessary, therefore, to make French macarons. Specifically, raspberry macarons.
As I was pulsing almond flour with sugar in my food processor, considering that I really should be focusing on my final class project instead of making raspberry macarons, I remembered a journal article that I recently read in Gastronomica about Sylvia Plath and how she would procrastinate on her writing deadlines by baking. Instead of writing, she said in her journals, she would “fall headfirst into a bowl of cookie batter.” I understand. There is something about baking when the rest of your life seems out of control that brings a sense of calmness and organization. A broken down car, a presentation that would determine my graduate school success or failure, a home that would never look like a page out of Martha Stewart Living magazine by the time my guests arrived – all of this was out of my control. But what I could do was whip egg whites into the perfect peak for the perfect macaron.
And as I was gently folding my perfectly peaked egg whites into my pink-tinted batter, I thought of Virginia Woolf. I was never a big Virginia Woolf fan. Despite the fact that I was an English major at a women’s liberal arts college, my curriculum was curiously devoid of both Plath and Woolf. I read Jane Austen, the Brontes, Margaret Atwood, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty, but I wouldn’t really discover Sylvia or Virginia until after I graduated.
Maybe it’s because they both committed suicide, and as such were not the best literary role models for young, female English majors. I read The Hours (no, I have not seen the movie) a few years ago, and it sparked a renewed interest in Virginia Woolf for me. In The Hours, the pregnant Laura is reading Mrs. Dalloway in bed before she begins the process of baking and decorating her husband’s birthday cake. Unsatisfied with the less-than-perfect results, she dumps it into her trashcan, which exacerbates her feelings of failure as the perfect mid-century housewife to her perfect World War II veteran husband in their perfect subdivision with their perfect neighbors.
Virginia Woolf baked bread, very good bread according to her friend Louie Mayer in Recollections of Virginia Woolf,
“I was surprised how complicated the process was and how accurately Mrs Woolf carried it out. She showed me how to make the dough with the right quantities of yeast and flour, and then how to knead it. She returned three or four times during the morning to knead it again. Finally, she made the dough into the shape of a cottage loaf and baked it at just the right temperature.”
I piped perfect – absolutely perfect – circles of macarons onto silpat-lined half sheet pans. I learned how to pipe perfect circles from Chef Mark Ramsdell when I was his pastry student at L’Academie de Cuisine. The secret is counting as you pipe, and lots of practice. I counted out loud, 1-2-3, for each pink blob before lifting the pastry bag for the next one. It was easy to lose myself in the counting and piping as the silpat sheets filled up. (In a way, the ability to pipe perfect circles gives me as much feeling of accomplishment as getting a master’s degree.) I let my beautiful little pink orbs rest for an hour while I preheated my oven and mixed chocolate and cream and seedless raspberry jam into a perfectly-emulsified ganache.
I don’t know why I felt a compulsion to make French macarons on the morning of my last graduate school class when I should have been focusing on Powerpoint slides and Excel spreadsheets for my made-up publishing house. Why did Sylvia Plath bake when she had a writing deadline? Why do I come home from work at 4 a.m. and choose to read a recipe and bake cookies after reading the same page proofs for hours over and over again? Why did Laura Brown throw her husband’s birthday cake in the trash, and why did Virginia Woolf spend her mornings baking bread? Maybe because no matter what happened that day, even if I embarrassed myself with a substandard publishing project and froze in front of my Powerpoint slides after missing my bus and showing up late for my last class, and my friends came down from New York for my graduation and my guest room carpets hadn’t been steam-cleaned, and the comforters hadn’t been dry cleaned, and my bathroom tile wasn’t pristine, and my sofa cushions smelled like wet terrier… even if all of that happened, at least I had made perfect raspberry macarons. At that was something.
I packed up my macarons and brought them to class, and passed them among my fellow students and my professor as I gave my presentation. And I got an A- on my project, and in the class, and my professor sent me an e-mail to tell me my grade and to let me know how wonderful she found my raspberry macarons (a great compliment, I thought, considering she works for a French publishing company and spends a great deal of time in Paris) and wished me luck in my publishing career. I might have gotten an A or an A+ had I spent that morning fine-tuning my presentation instead of making raspberry macarons, but I didn’t care. The following day I put on a cap and gown and a master’s hood, and I graduated.
But I must get back into the world of my creative mind: otherwise, in the world of pies & shin beef, I die. The great vampire cook extracts the nourishment & I grow fat on the corruption of matter, mere mindless matter. I must be lean & write & make worlds besides this to live in.” – Sylvia Plath
Who said Sylvia Plath had to make a choice between her pies and her creative mind? Personally, I think that maybe if she had baked more apple pies — free from feelings of guilt or inferiority — maybe her head would not have been the last thing she stuck in her oven.
Maybe there’s a Ph.D. dissertation in there somewhere. Maybe for someone who has more interest in writing such a dissertation than in baking French macarons. Because one thing’s for sure. I’m not going to kill myself over it!