Thursday, July 1, 2010

Blowing off steam

strawberry cake
Originally uploaded by norvegal

The most recent TNNA took place in Columbus a few weeks ago, and I decided it was time to bring a little gift for people. Not a clever button or pen or notepad with my logo emblazoned across the front, but something almost everybody at TNNA actually needs: sugar and caffeine. So I prepared a huge batch of my chocolate espresso caramels. Or "Claramels," as I called them.

It was fascinating to see people's reactions when I handed them out. Some were thrilled, or intrigued, others temporarily confused ("where's your logo?"), and two people were visibly horrified, as if I'd handed them individually wrapped cat turds.

But one person - a prominent knitwear designer - stared at me for a long time before saying, "You're very... domestic." Was that a sneer on her face? A confused smile? I couldn't quite catch it. Coming from a knitwear designer at a needlearts trade show, accusing someone of being "domestic" was laughable. But also telling.

My first reaction was total rejection of the concept, "Heck no, I just like making things, what's wrong with that? Hey, gimme back that caramel." Then I got angry about thinking "domestic" was a bad word. And it's true, I did slave over a pot of bubbling caramel, pouring it into a special pan, cutting it into 120 little squares, and then wrapping each caramel in individually cut pieces of parchment paper. I do this at home, so I guess that does, by some strange literal definition, make me "domestic." But I'm still noodling over what the hell she meant, and I'm annoyed that I'm still noodling over it.

For me, I bake or make candies to blow off steam when my mind simply cannot process one more serious work-related thought. When I can't decide which yarns to swatch for Twist Collective, or when someone has asked me a very difficult question for Knitter's Review, or when my publisher needs a definitive list of which yarns I'm going to use for my next book... when I smell smoke and feel the overwhelm take over, I know it's time to step away from the computer and do something with my hands.

Since most days' overwhelm usually involves yarn, you may understand why I don't reach for a skein when I need a break. No, I need to do something totally different yet equally satisfying. So I head to the kitchen.

You know the pleasure of casting on the first few stitches of a new project? I find similar bliss in leveling off the first cup (or two) of flour into an empty bowl. The bliss of a blank slate and new adventure.

Baking also offers far more instant gratification than knitting. Unless you're making croissants, you'll have something to show for your work within just a few hours - not a few days, weeks or months. But here's the perverse part of the deal: Food must be eaten. You spend all that time making a masterpiece, only to pull out a knife, hack it up, and make it disappear. How much more Zen can you get?

The most recently disappeared culinary adventure is shown up top, a golden lemon cake with fresh strawberry filling and a white meringue frosting. (And yes, that's an un-ironed tablecloth.) Two very dear friends were returning to town for the summer after spending their winter back home. They aren't getting any younger, and they matter a great deal to me.

After an admittedly splendid dinner of homemade chicken pot pie and salad from the garden, when they were expecting me to pull out a pint or two of ice cream from the freezer, I instead pulled out this cake from the fridge. Surprise, disbelief, delight. Suddenly we're all 8 years old again, staring at a birthday cake our mother produced as if by magic. We gazed, we sighed, we agreed it was too beautiful to eat... and then I cut each person a generous slice.

I love the sound of friends enjoying a really good cake. By the time you reach dessert, you've cut through the small talk, you've touched all the normal conversational bases, and now you're really talking about things. Your guard is down, you feel safe and comfortable, and then - what ho - cake!

Over the years I've discovered that people will actually hum while eating a really, really good slice of cake. (I'm serious, it's true. Try it sometime.) It's a perfect sound, rather like running your finger around the wet rim of a crystal glass. I loved bringing that experience to the tense and sterile TNNA show floor, and I loved bringing it to my kitchen last week. It's a sensory place that yarn - no matter how hard I've tried - cannot take us.

I bring this up now because July marks the beginning of an extremely busy and tense 10 weeks. My schedule is scary, but it's all part of the process and I know I can do it. If I continue to stay on track, at the end of those 10 weeks I will have finished birthing a new book.

But I'll have quite a bit of steam to blow off along the way. Which means more caramels and more cakes. Any favorite recipes I should try?


JaymeKnits said...

My caramel recipe is 1lb brown sugar, 1/2 lb butter 1 cup light corn syrup and 1 cup (not a whole can) sweetened condensed milk (I add a generous pinch of good salt).

Stir constantly until firm ball stage pour into buttered dish to cool. They are good as is or coat in dark chocolate and sprinkle with a great sea salt, I like the pink stuff.

Unknown said...

Sounds like your caramels unmasked a designer and revealed a fake! LOVE it! You have tempted me to bake a cake.... something I usually leave up to my sister, but perhaps it's time for me to hum a little!

Kristine said...


Your description of humming reminds me of my sweet husband who hums whenever he really likes something I've made in the kitchen. Its funny, he can't hear it at all, but it is like he is purring and it feels so good to know my domestic endeavors make him so happy.

There is nothing wrong with being domestic, and I think it is often construed as an insult because of the women's movement. Don't get me wrong, I believe in equal rights, but I don't like how often domesticity is construed as a "bad thing". I appreciate my skills, (many my dear departed Grandmother taught me) and the skills of other women who are continuing the traditions of home and family life. I for one am proud when someone tells me how domestic I am. How proud can you be of being really good at ordering dinner from a menu seven nights a week? The next time someone calls you domestic, you say, "damn right I am domestic" or "thank you", and be proud!

Thank you for taking Claramels to TNNA, I wasn't there, but I know what kind of love that really is and I for one applaud your efforts.

Your cake is absolutely gorgeous and I hope it was devoured with great stories of real life.

Your post made me teary eyed thinking about how true it is that once we get to dessert the real life "stuff" is on the table. Home cooking and domesticity is a gift we give our loved ones and there is no reason to be ashamed about that.

Good luck with your next ten weeks and know I am out here pulling for you.

With much admiration,


Unknown said...

Well, you're not all that domestic, because you didn't iron the tablecloth.

PghCathy said...

For me, the ultimate comfort food is oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. The recipe was on the Quaker Oats box at least 50 yrs ago. This is the only chocolate chip cookie my mom made. In fact, I was in jr high before I ever had a toll house cookie...& even then, I thought the baker just forgot the oatmeal.

Good luck wishes coming your way for the next 10 weeks. Your 'Book of Yarn' just arrived in today's mail so I'll be anxious to see your next endeavor.

Kate said...

Aw, man! Now I'm doubly bummed I missed TNNA. There are few things I like more than a good caramel.

Hope everything is well with you out there.

Phil Boncer said...

The Claramel I got was delightful, which is all the excuse that is needed.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with "domesticity" as long as it's voluntary. For so long it was one of a very limited number of options for women, which I think is why it's now looked down on by many women.

But now it's just one of many choices available, so it's time to be willing to openly value it again, I think.

Especially when it results in yummy things and good times with good friends.

Melissa Morgan-Oakes said...

Domestic, eh?
Cool. Come clean my house. And make me dinner.

Olivia said...

We all should feel sad for that person on the TNNA floor as she has clearly never experienced the joy of friends and great conversation around a home cooked meal.

I am glad that you have a special place to go that allows your mind to process all our difficult questions and demands that we your followers request of you.

Keep cooking and knitting and enjoying the garden and life of beautiful Maine.

WendyKnits said...

I didn't realize that you had made those candies yourself -- wow! That was extremely nice of you. The only reason I didn't take one is because I've stopped eating sugar entirely, but I did have several people tell me that they were delicious, so your efforts were certainly not in vain!

Clara said...

It wasn't Wendy, it wasn't Wendy! Just had to clarify - Wendy had a very legitimate and serious reason for politely declining the Caramels. And I admit I felt really lousy about offering her something that would have hurt her health. In fact, after that I started my offers with, "Do you do sugar?" Just to be sure.

Dana S. Whitney said...

Domestic doesn't have to mean domesticated.
I've learned to gracefully accept the labels "crafty" AND "goofball."
I'm sort of sad that the under 40 generation(s) don't have the same wide stripe of feminism that some of us more mature women have....
Bless you and your Claramels.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking the same thing Jane was ... if you were Really Domestic you would have ironed that tablecloth (and your underwear, too, while you were at it).

Love your posts.

And one of my favorite recipes, which I'm getting ready to make now for tomorrow's breakfast, is the Traditional Sticky Bun recipe from the King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook. With extra nuts :-D

Happy 4th!

Annette said...

I love baking cakes too and sharing it with family and friends. It just makes me happy, not to mention it's my favorite dessert!

I think women who snub their noses at homemade anything are doing so to make themselves feel better or superior, because they either don't have the skills or didn't come up with the idea themselves.

Your cake is beautiful! And I love a good homemade caramel! :)

Anonymous said...

I don't have any recipes for cakes or caramels but don't forgot the fresh fruit when it finally comes in season in Maine. For the 4th, I baked blackberry cobbler made with the wild berries that surround my property. Warm with a side of vanilla ice cream or heavy cream...pure comfort.

I garden when stressed. Each weed pulled and dead flower picked is quite satisfying to the soul.

Angie Archer

Serena said...

Oh, Clarita, what great news that you have another book coming out. Best of luck in the final weeks to turning in the manuscript. xoxo Serena

Erica said...

Hi Clara...I'm Erica. Was at the Winter Park Library yesterday (Central Florida) and happened upon your book. Your writing and how you approach your subject thoroughly captured me...right from the first sentence about yarn being the baker's flour, the jeweler's gold, etc.. Brava, brava! Thanks for your contribution. Well done. Your sister in yarn and books and writing. ~Erica

Margaret said...

I haven't read the rest of the comments, so I may be repeating what someone else said...but I'd look for a one-bowl-white-butter-cake-with-chocolate-frosting myself. (I have my mother's OBWC recipe if you need it).

The cake with which you surprised your frieds is fabulous -- and I'd have loved to see the looks on their faces. My mother used to do 'boiled' frosting for very special occasions, and this is what it reminded me of.

P.S. Whatever the **!!@@ woman said about 'being domestic' -- you just go right on doin' it, honey!


Jennifer said...

Ha - people say the strangest things! I would have kissed you or hugged you had you given me a caramel. I adore all things homemade and truly appreciate the love and effort that go into things. And the foods my "domestic" grandmothers made nearly 100 years ago are still family favorites. I don't have nearly as much nostalgia for things my grandfathers did (and I'm certain there were some wonderful things) - but those food memories live on and even my children love them, too. So here's to you and your claramels! Hip, hip hurray!