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?