Life Lessons in Baking
BY SUSAN ROSSER
I learned one of the most valuable lessons of my lifetime in ninth grade English class. One day as we sauntered into the classroom, our teacher, Mrs. Robbins, directed us to pull out pen and paper and commanded us to write.
Naturally, we asked, “Write what?”
“Write anything,” she declared, “just write.”
And so we did.
I have no recollection of what I wrote about that day. But from time to time, we would arrive in class ready to discuss “Macbeth” or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” only to be told to sit down and write something — anything.
Finally, we collectively asked Mrs. Robbins what the deal was with all of this aimless writing? To paraphrase her answer, she said something like this, “People are afraid to write. A blank page is intimidating. But if you sit down and just write something — anything — you realize it’s not scary after all. You can go back and change it. You can rewrite it. You can write about something completely different. But just write. Do not be afraid.”
She went on to say that no matter what path we choose in life, we would surely have to write something. The irony here is I remember thinking to myself “Ha, not me.”
The true value of Mrs. Robbins’s lesson transcended writing. It was the larger lesson about overcoming a fear of failure. As a risk averse person, I have found myself replaying her words “don’t be afraid,” many times over the years.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, one of my teenage daughter’s friends casually mentioned she wanted to make a croquembouche. For the uninitiated baker, a croquembouche is an inverted cone-shaped tower constructed of creme puffs and held together by caramel. I love to cook so I agreed to the challenge — after all, the three of them planned on using my kitchen. I sent them out to procure the ingredients and pastry bags.
We started with the pastry creme as it would need time to set in the refrigerator. We all tasted it and agreed that nine egg yolks, sugar, milk and a vanilla bean is a miraculous combination. We made pate au choux (the dough) and the girls piped the puffs-to-be onto the cookie sheets. Into the oven they went.
After two hours in the fridge, the pastry creme was not even close to thick. The girls valiantly tried to pipe the soupy creme into the puffs only to watch it leak out the bottoms. Failure was upon us. By this point, we were seven hours into “adventures in baking.” I suggested we build the tower using our unstuffed puffs and serve the heavenly, albeit soupy, creme on the side. The girls agreed.
The final step in croquembouche construction is to build a caramel “cage” around the structure of puffs. This didn’t work either. Perhaps BuzzFeed was not the best source for a complicated recipe.
I’d like to think that maybe the girls learned a lesson on that rainy Sunday. You want to bake a croquembouche? Bake a croquembouche. Our creme was too soupy, we couldn’t seem to engineer the tower to be the majestic confectionery structure we envisioned and the caramel cage was a flop. But in the end, when we dipped the hollow puffs into our homemade pastry creme and drizzled it with the warm caramel — the combination was extraordinary. So I decided to write about it. Mrs. Robbins would be proud.
Since this column was published in July 2018, I have really upped my baking game. In fact, since purchasing “Dessert Person” by Claire Saffitz, I can’t seem to stop baking. I think I owe it to humanity to master the croquembouche. Stay tuned.