“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” – Marcel Proust
Last week I shared my woes and anxieties with a fellow pastry school student. We are similar in our neurotic tendencies but hers are tempered slightly by the insight that comes with being 10 years or so my senior. We discussed the fear of losing our passion for something we love by studying it intensely, and I mentioned that I hadn’t baked a single thing for ‘fun’ since I’d started the course. She presented me with a dessert cookbook and told me that she would order in some food and that I was to get busy making dessert. I’d been armchair re-reading Deb Perelmans ´Smitten Kitchen` and had become temporarily obsessed with the idea of her Salted Brown Butter Crispy Treats. These are exactly what sprang to mind, if I was going to actively maintain my pleasure in baking there seemed nothing more apt than the childish, simplistic goo of rice crispy treats.
Heating the butter until it becomes nutty and brown is a sophisticated concept for adorning what is, essentially, junk food but it worked beautifully. I can’t deny my delight at stirring molten, foamy marshmallow into clattering cereal until strings of mallow pulled at my wooden spoon. It was already solidifying as I patted it into the tin. Cutting into this as a sticky, crunchy slab is enough of a sensory massage that it could compete with the eye-glazing effect of the likes of bubblewrap. I would make this again just for the joy of cutting it into firm, clean little stacks.
I was grateful that my friend had provided me with the seemingly simple motivation to make this, she had given me permission to do something that was both pointless and important. It made me think about the people around me and the myriad of ways I which I am supported; hugs from my loved ones, words of support from my peers and the attentive, patient ears of my friends. It occurred to me that it will be impossible to complete this thing alone (I could be talking here about pastry school or life in general, the lines are blurry) and, more aptly, I don‘t have to complete this thing alone. I will earnestly share the joy of my success with those who have helped make it happen; those who make me pancakes at weekends, those who help me wash and iron my uniform when time is tight, those who let me stay the night before early classes and those who offer me tea, toast and pep talks free of charge.
I was grateful too, to be reminded of the whole point of baking. I asked myself, and those around me, if they have any specific food memories of fancy patisserie. Does anyone really get misty eyed over the eclair they ate at that posh cafe in Paris five years ago? Does anyone suffer overwhelming cravings for Opera Cake? Is Creme Brûlée what you reach for when you need emotional sustenance? The general answer was ‘No’. It is the food our Mother’s (Fathers, Grandmothers, Aunts, significant parental figure…) make that we dream about, that we would choose, time and again, above all else. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that the kind of baking that is important to me is baking related to the soul, to my memories and to my childhood. Comfort food may appear inelegant but it is leagues ahead in terms of emotional impact and cultural significance. Fine patisserie technique is fascinating, but it does not drive me. My drive comes from something more significant, something deeper and far more embedded within each of us. That beautiful poetry between food and love cannot be beaten, no matter how pretty the chocolate piping.
If you‘ve never heard of Smitten Kitchen you should look it up, I came across her blog several years ago and waited eagerly for the book to come out. Deb Perelman was, in my opinion, one of the pioneers of food blogging who started sharing her love of food and baking from her tiny New York kitchen. Her sweet recipes are the kind of American comfort food I get excited about, she has an entire recipe section on her website dedicated to peanut butter. I need say no more.