It’s hard to put my mind around all that has happened in the last week.
I went to New York City.
My book was published.
The week was overwhelming. But also fantastic. It was week in which I often had to stop and ask myself: is this real?
A few moments stood out:
The chocolate cake with cream and cherries at Café Sabarsky, which I shared with Matt on a brief moment of calm.
A long walk through Central Park, taken alone and early, accompanied only by the scent of coffee from a takeout cup in my hands and the sound of Nick Drake humming in my ears.
The evening I attempted to cook dinner for my brother and his girlfriend, Ashley. Well, attempt is the wrong word. I did successfully pull off dinner: Salmon with a mango-jalapeño salsa, and asparagus, which I roasted with salt, pepper, and parmesan. The problem came later. His apartment, five days out, still smelled like fish. Ah, unventilated NYC apartments. (Sorry, Ben!)
The Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, which is light and airy with artfully arranged stacks of books. When I read there on Wednesday night, we filled the store with some of my favorite smells: rosemary and chocolate, garlic and cucumber. Laundry detergent, too. (Strange? Perhaps. But, hey, why not?)
And, of course, there was the moment when I stood in the center of a room in the back of a restaurant. The room was filled with family, friends, and colleagues. I had a glass of white wine in my hands. The book-launch party was in full swing. My mother AND my father were there, as well as their significant others. I looked to my right to see my brother, Ben, and my boyfriend, Matt, standing side by side. To my left were some of the scientists and anosmics I wrote about in my book. There were old friends, and new ones. My agent and my publicist. My editor, also named Matt, quieted the room to give a beautiful, moving toast. As he raised his glass—as all of these people who stood by me as I struggled, who watched me as I moved on, raised their glasses, too—I experienced the funniest sensation rising in the back of my throat. I couldn’t tell if it was the beginning of a laugh or a cry. But when it emerged as a smile, I thought my cheeks might burst.
There’s a lot more to write about. I’m going to write about it soon. But right now? I’m back in Cambridge. And I spent Saturday afternoon baking.
My original plan was to leave you with some food rather than further attempts to sort out the messy jumble that is my brain. Because that’s what it all comes down to, right? My love of cooking was the inspiration for my book, the way I got myself through the ups and downs of writing it, one of the many ways I can now celebrate with friends.
But, as often seems to happen, things did not go exactly as planned.
I baked Joanne Chang's Lemon Bars. I've made these intensely lemony lemon bars a few times now. They aren't quick. Nor especially easy. But I love them. There's nothing more calming, I think, than standing at the stove, stirring a slow-heating pot of lemon curd, watching it move from pale to deep yellow with each swish of my wooden spoon. The moment when it changes from a thin liquid to thick, pillowy curd is magic.
Fresh off the train from NYC, though, I believed that I could complete this recipe without all equipment needed. The last thing I wanted to do was make an emergency run to the market. But I've realized something very important for this recipe, something you shouldn't do without: parchment paper. Because yesterday I baked the shortbread; I made the curd. Together, they came out of the oven a perfect daffodil yellow, jiggly like a very firm Jell-O. But this morning, when I went to slice and serve them, I couldn't get the bars out of the pan. Without the layer of paper underneath, they were completely stuck. Even my sharpest knife would not save more than just a few. I had planned to bring these to a party tonight--looking perfect, of course--and in my frustration, I may or may not have slammed around a few pots and pans.
The carnage was delicious, though. You just need to eat it with a fork from the pan, rather than with your fingers from a cocktail napkin. And I guess it's fitting. The inspiration for my book was food, yes. But it was also failure, and loss, and what it takes to move on. A fork, a pen...whatever. I'm happy to be where I am.
Joanne Chang’s Lemon Bars
From her cookbook, Flour
2 sticks butter, unsalted, room temperature
6 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons confectioners sugar
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups lemon juice (about 14 lemons)
1 stick butter, unsalted
¼ cup heavy cream
4 egg yolks
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
First make the shortbread: In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or use a handheld mixer, or a wooden spoon) cream the butter, sugar, and confectioners sugar until light and fluffy. (This will take about 5 minutes in the standing mixer; 10 in the handheld, or with a spoon.) Beat in the egg yolk and vanilla until combined, another couple minutes. (Make sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as you go.)
Sift together the flours, baking powder and salt in a separate bowl. Slowly add this to the butter mixture, mixing on low speed until fully combined and evenly mixed. (About 15 seconds.) Wrap the dough in plastic, forming a disk, and then store it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes (and up to 5 days).
Now, make the lemon curd: In a nonreactive saucepan, mix the lemon juice, butter, and heavy cream and place over medium-high heat until just about ready to boil. Meanwhile, in another bowl, whisk the eggs and egg yolks until blended, and then whisk in the sugar. Take the lemon mixture off the heat. Add a tiny bit to the egg bowl, whisking away. Add a tiny bit more. Whisk. Keep doing this, slowly, until all of the lemon mixture is combined with the eggs. Now, pour the entire bowl back into the saucepan and place over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly with your wooden spoon, until the curd thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon (about 8 minutes). Make sure to regularly scrape the bottom of the pot as you make this so that the eggs don’t scramble.
Remove the lemon curd from the heat. (Chang suggests you strain it through a fine mesh strainer here. I don’t. But I’m sure the curd would be just a bit smoother and more uniform if I did…) Whisk in the salt and vanilla. (You can store this in the fridge for up to 4 days. Just add a few minutes of baking time if you do.)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. I highly suggest you follow Chang's directions to flour the dough disk and two large sheets of parchment paper. Place the dough between the sheets, and roll it out into a 9 x 11 inch rectangle, about 1/4 inch thick. Peel off the top sheet of parchment, and transfer the bottom sheet and the dough into a 9 x 11 inch baking pan. Press the shortbread out with your fingers to fit within. It’s okay if it’s not smooth, but the dough should evenly reach every corner of the pan. Bake for 20 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the oven and pour the lemon curd on top, spreading evenly across the top.
Bake for 15 – 20 minutes more, until the curd has set and jiggles, as Chang says, like firm Jell-O. Let cool to room temperature on a rack. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours before you cut. And then, of course, enjoy!