Yesterday marked eight years of this site. One year ago, there was cake, and I was thinking a lot about writing.
When I brought up the same subject recently, it wasn't intentional. In fact, I didn't make the connection. Maybe it is that the time around anniversaries encourage the taking of stock. I'm thankful for the tendency, as I am thankful for the generous comments and letters from many of you that followed that mention, sharing personal experiences of trying to put thoughts into words, or your own processes from a variety of creative disciplines.
I feel lucky to have been part of the dialogue. If you don't mind, it's a thread I'd like to continue.
It begins with a reoccurring analogy: on the road.
(In next the twelve months, I'll work on some new analogies.)
Right around this time two years ago, a windstorm hit where we live.
That morning I had a meeting out of town. I planned to leave early, and because I would be away for the day, my boys were going to spend it with my parents at their house. I remember standing in the driveway, waiting to kiss Sean goodbye while he buckled in the lads to take them there, when I heard the wind blowing high in the trees. It was a sustained howl. I looked up and saw clouds moving with such speed that I said something to Sean about it; for whatever reason, neither of us were concerned, and neither of us checked the weather report. At the time, nobody seemed to grasp how bad the day would become. Even when I did turn on the radio, there was a warning to take things slow, but no real sense of urgency.
Traffic was heavy. Street signs and billboards bowed and rattled. My hand cramped from keeping a firm grip on the wheel. I made it to my meeting on time. I turned off my phone.
I wasn't aware of it then, but I'd driven out of the path of the storm. What seemed only gloomy, but not wholly memorable where I was, brought 100-kilometre-per-hour gusts at home. It knocked out power, knocked off siding, and blew roofs clean away. It could have been much worse that in was. We were fortunate.
By the time I tried to head back, the storm was over. The winds had stopped and the once-troubled sky was now a clear, bright, and almost surreal blue. Nonetheless, the bridge that arches over the bay was still closed. There was a lineup of cars inching forward, jostling for position, as four lanes were reduced to three, then two, then one. Police cars with flashing lights directed us through the supports of that bridge, to cross the water on a much smaller one. Past that place, the highway itself was barricaded.
The service roads and side roads were packed. There were detours marked, but with all the scattered debris, it wasn't long before you were redirected by a downed power line, or a tree snapped like a twig or, in one case, an overturned, life-sized, ornamental elephant.
There is a landmark near our house that's visible from quite far away. Three-and-a-half hours into a drive that usually takes 90 minutes, I caught sight of it for the first time. As I made my progress in lurching zigzags across the backroads in between me and that beacon, it would blink in and out of my view. I'd get a glimpse as I crested a hill, only to lose it again as I dipped into a valley or the road turned away. There was no specific logic or wisdom to the route I chose; with no insights into which course was clear, I simply did my best to keep myself aimed at where I knew I wanted to end up.
It took more than five hours to get there.
For me, writing is often that drive. You see, I'm not a great planner. I can't lay out a itinerary of introduction, thesis, support and conclusion, and hit all the points, neat and tidy with time to spare. I will have an idea of where I need to finish, and there are occasions when I'll take the scenic route. Usually, however, the distance from the beginning and end is a winding one. There are false starts. And misdirection. And turning back. I stretch, wander, and push the boundaries of the map. I get another map because the old one was covered in scribbles and ripped in places, and I couldn't seem to fold it right. Then I'll fill that map with so many scribbles that I'll need a new pen.
It's good to keep a stack of maps.
I'm not above asking for directions; there's wisdom to be learned from who have travelled here before and from those who are still part of the caravan. They'll give you a lift when your tank runs dry. What's more, a travelling companion can calm the nerves caused by a motor that clatters and sputters with every jolting mile, or the stomach-churning feeling that you're in a neighbourhood you don't recognize. It's nauseous mix of terror tinged with exhilarating curiousity. You might want to sip some ginger ale.
Guides and company can only get you so far. Much of the mechanics of writing is hidden, isolating work. That's when the sun is gone and darkness sets in. Bring snacks.
Scour the landscape for sign posts — those points upon which the whole adventure pivots, the phrases that stick out of the scenery like an upside-down cement pachyderm. I'm telling you, keep an eye out for those markers. They get you through. With them, you might find a different approach. Follow their directions, even when the passage seems too narrow, when you're filled with paralyzing doubt and can't remember why you wanted to take this trip in the first place, and it's quite certain that the pavement will crumble under your wheels. Don't stop. Keep moving.
It's the only way you'll get anywhere.
In the end, you'll be hunched and achy from sitting too long and your mind will want to hurtle ever forward, not ready to relinquish its hard won inertia. Take a lap. It will take even more effort to realize when you arrive. You'll feel a mess, most likely.
Wear the miles like a trophy.
BROWN BUTTER PISTACHIO FINANCIERS
Recipe from Kristin Kish, as published in Food and Wine magazine, June 2013.
These tea cakes were one of the recipes Kish came up with when challenged to create three simple desserts. The batter comes together in minutes, and is fairly straightforward; the only caveats are to make sure that the brown butter and toasted pistachios are cooled before proceeding. If the butter is too warm you might scramble the egg whites, and if the nuts are still hot when processed, they will turn to paste.
The financiers are moist and toothsome, somehow suited better for being held between two fingers rather than eaten with a fork. They remind me of everything I like about a butter-rich coffee cake, and they are best used in very much the same manner. That is to say with tea or a glass of cold milk or a thermos of coffee. Good at home, they're happy travellers too, sturdy and packable. They don't require hullabaloo.
I baked most of the batter in mini muffin tins as directed, and some in 1/3-cup tins. The latter were meant for a homecoming, and if you're in need of some fanciness, they were quite pretty after a roll in granulated sugar. The muffin-tinned version could also be given a similar treatment, as well. The sugar crusts the outside, giving gritty crunch to the soft density of the interior. The brown butter and the almond extract suit the pistachios for all their waxy greenness, emphasizing the nut's richness and fragrance respectively. Almond extract always tickles my nose.
Kish suggests the financiers be served with whipped crème fraîche and fresh berries. I'll be trying that. We're not yet at berry season, but we're pointed in the right direction.
Makes 36 small cakes.
- 7 ounces unsalted butter, plus more for coating
- 1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for coating
- 3/4 cup light brown sugar
- 4 large egg whites
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
- 1 cup toasted unsalted pistachios, finely ground
- 1/2 cup cake flour
- Pinch of salt
- Sweetened whipped crème fraîche and fresh berries, for serving
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Butter and flour 36 mini muffin cups. In a saucepan, cook the 7 ounces of butter over moderate heat, shaking the pan, until the milk solids begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Scrape the butter and browned solids into a bowl and let cool. Whisk in the brown sugar, egg whites, granulated sugar and almond extract.
In another bowl, whisk the pistachios with the 1 cup of all-purpose flour, the cake flour and the salt. Fold the dry ingredients into the brown butter mixture until combined.
Spoon the batter into the muffin cups and bake for about 15 minutes, until risen but still slightly soft in the center. Let cool slightly, then invert onto a rack to cool. Serve the financiers with crème fraîche and berries.
- A heaped tablespoon is about what you need for each well of the mini muffin tin. I started checking my financiers at 12 minutes.
- I've got it in my head that these would be tasty with some vanilla bean in the batter, or crushed up cocoa nibs, but neither is necessary.