Sunday, April 12, 2015

Adventure and Failure

Adventure and Failure

I got this idea--who knows why—to make a polka dot cake for Easter. I saw instructions in a magazine that directed the cook to make up some cake batter and bury donut holes of a contrasting color in the batter. Then bake. When the layers are assembled, frosted and cut—voila! Polka dots!

So that was exciting, but my husband wanted a chocolate cake, and I wanted to put the whole project over the top with an Easter theme.

I found a recipe in White Trash Cooking for Resurrection Cake, which calls for dousing the finished cake of your choice with a bourbon  and butter syrup.
This seemed like a good idea.
 The first red flag came when I noticed the 10 purchased donut holes seemed a bit hard as I was burying them in batter. I wondered if they'd resist the diner’s fork. Actually, they would resist most cutlery, bandsaws included.

And as I was assembling the baked cake, I had to admit that indeed these puppies were like rocks. I stabbed the cake multiple times with a toothpick and poured on the syrup. Hoping everything would  soften up.

I put raspberry jam between the two layers and piled them up. More syrup, which soaked in, then I used the mocha frosting from wonderful Dorie Greenspan’s Baking.

To maintain the Easter theme I dyed coconut green for grass, and put colored eggs on top along with a ceramic bunny.

It was one odd cake. The donut holes were still tough, and there weren’t enough of them to give the full polka dot effect when it was cut. Probably they should have been soaked in the bourbon sauce before baking—treated like very big raisins.

The cake was not light and spring-like, green coconut notwithstanding. It was lugubrious and European without the class. It was the kind of cake you serve captives—well intentioned perhaps, but both of you just wanting to get away. 

I write about this because it’s easier to figure out what went wrong in a cake than in a novel chapter or an art installation. Easier because there are not so many steps to analyze and also because there is less self recrimination involved. It's just a cake, soon to be a mere memory. I take the failure less personally. And yet a botched recipe affords a good opportunity to think about failure.

Truly, I wish I had this attitude about other creative projects, a good number of which bomb. An artist needs to be calm in the face of failure, because art is usually new territory. There are going to be false starts, wrong turns, offhanded dismissals by people you longed to impress.

I am much more unrepentant about recipes. I figure that if people want my adventurous cooking (which  they seem to), they have to face the fact that sometimes I fall off the edge.  That’s what adventure is—there’s some danger of some kind involved.

Where we got the idea that everything has to work all the time, I don’t know. Maybe that has more to do with business and product. And we've come to expect that our soap should be wrapped, that things be predictable.

But in the context of creativity, it’s nonsense. You cannot be creative and live in some blandly perfect, no-surprises bubble. Making, doing, and enjoying art is about taking a conscious risk.

I’ll soak the donut holes next year, and maybe make the cake mint chocolate. But then there’s the green coconut….

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Do the Thing You Love

            We are all challenged to use our time well. We have so many options offline and on, that deciding what is the best use of time can be overwhelming.
I find this is particularly true of people who have something creative on the agenda, something close to their hearts that no one else is clamoring for them to finish: the book, the quilt, the sculpture. When it’s just you wanting to create something, it can be very challenging to make time for that project. This goes both for people who try to squeeze their art projects in around the edges of work and family, without calling themselves artists, and for those trying to grow artistic careers. It’s hard making time for our passion.
            Maybe it’s exacerbated living in New England. I sometimes think we’re especially haunted by the self-denial of uptight forebears.  My mother always counseled doing the scut-work first to get it out of the way before rewarding oneself with some pleasurable activity. But that work had a way of never being finished. There was always something more she could do to: if she’d cleaned the kitchen, she could get dinner started, or suddenly it seemed imperative to clean out the fridge.
            It’s not so unusual to come to the end of your life without having attended to that one elusive thing your soul called out for you to do.
            My mother’s daughter, I’ve also tried to use my creative pursuits as a reward. Do your taxes, then you can work on the novel or on designing that blouse, or on writing that short story. But somehow that reward always stayed slightly out of reach. I’d slog through my chores--which seemed to take forever-- and then it would be time to pick up kids, or make dinner or collapse into bed, exhausted.
            On the way into town to do errands today, I opened the topic up with my husband.
His answer was immediate and emphatic: pay yourself first. Do the thing you want to do. The resulting joy will give you energy to power through the chores in 1/3 the time you’d otherwise take. You’ll have made progress on something important, which will give you confidence.
What’s more, he said, following the Pay Yourself First plan simplifies all the other decision making you have to do. Things become clearer to you because you have not lied to yourself about what really needs attention. You also save yourself and those around you a lot of frustration. You are, in short, a happy camper.
This feels so weird and new, it’s going to take a leap of faith, then some practice, to achieve. But I think it’s worth a shot.
A Buddhist saying pops into mind: There is no path to happiness. Happiness is the path.
Could this be what they meant?