My chocolate boxes arrived last week. The cardboard carton was heavy and huge and I ripped it open with rabid joy and laid the contents before me. The table was piled high with stacks of elegant black and white boxes, rolls of black ribbon, and brightly colored flattened cardboard more puzzling than a Rubik’s cube to assemble. After folding them every which way and managing to convince myself I wasn’t making candy boxes, I was failing a sinister psychiatric exam, I turned the task over to the cat. Another stack of small but classy little brown boxes were just perfect for that manly chocolate gift should a manly man (or woman) cross my path in need of nine perfectly presented chocolates. Now all I needed to do was fill them up.
And so as I cleaned and cooked and readied for a houseful of out of town friends to arrive, healed a sick child, applied for some jobs and tried to find affordable health insurance (which is more confusing than making sense of the Middle East), I made a couple of hundred chocolates.
They were coming out perfectly, first one batch, then the other. Until I got to the saffron fans. No box of my chocolates is complete without a few saffron fans, and by now I’ve made so many I can pretty much turn out a batch while I polish my nails, which is probably why there was every reason for them to turn out bad. You see, I grew so confident in my amateur skills that without even thinking, I started to break every rule. Just like dating.
After pouring the tempered chocolate into the fan mold, I set it aside for too long, while I got busy on other chocolates. When I went back to pipe the filling, the chocolate shells had bloomed, which is to say, they had been exposed to moisture somewhere along the line, and now looked as if I’d sneezed all over them. The saffron ganache, which I’d frozen a couple of weeks earlier pastry bag and all, had thawed for twenty-four hours. But it was so firm that I couldn’t pipe it, so I removed the metal tip from the pastry bag, stuck the bag in the microwave for twenty seconds, and started piping into the chocolate shells what appeared to be runny yellow pus.
The heat from the overly-nuked saffron ganache melted the blooming chocolate, leaving swirls of brown seeping through the yellow pus. I tried to convince myself they looked delicious, but I knew better. Still, it would be no use to toss them out, I’d have to cap them and see what popped out of the molds, assuming I didn’t have to dig them out with a paring knife. Meanwhile, the remaining tempered chocolate had cooled to around 80 degrees, so I re-tempered it with only half my attention, which makes about as much sense as taking cat naps while speeding down the freeway. Very stupid. My attention diverted, the chocolate shot up to 130 degrees, turning into cocoa-buttered napalm. But having nothing to lose, I cooled the scorched chocolate to 88 and poured it over the pus-filled shells, stuck them in the freezer and they plopped effortlessly from their molds fifteen minutes later.
They were perfect. I hollered for Mira to come witness the miracle.
“These were utter failures!” I joyfully proclaimed like some proud school teacher in charge of juvenile delinquents, “but look how they’ve turned out, they’re perfect!”
She took a bite, and her face lit up like she’d just found Jesus or a lost episode of Glee. “They’re your best ever!” she announced, and I beamed like the juvenile delinquents had just won a talent show and Simon Cowell’s approval.
“It’s amazing,” I said, “there’s no reason at all they should look this good, I did everything wrong.”
She smiled, said, “You did a great job, Mom,” and left the room.
I finished a couple more batches and cleaned up the kitchen. I’d made six batches, written some posts for Foodista, run to the grocery store, and now it was time to get busy. With a houseful coming to visit and a big gumbo dinner to put on, I’d done good and my chocolates looked absolutely perfect. I’d made cinnamon hazelnut milk chocolates, pear vanilla domes, mocha twirls, golden roses, anise-fig abstractions, and of course, the signature saffron fans. All with perfect temper, perfect shine. I tied bows on a couple of boxes for friends coming by, packed another couple of boxes to ship to my friend Sam, who I’ve known since we met at a cheese counter in Eugene, Oregon back in the day when Birkenstock sandals were the Jimmy Choos of west coast fashion and tasteless carob was actually considered a superior form of pseudo-chocolate, God knows why.
The boxes shipped, the carpet vacuumed and the guests spilling in, I scurried to set some chocolates out, alongside the melon and prosciutto. Earlier in the day while answering emails, writing my blogs and keeping up on Libya and the collapsing economy, I’d sat in front of the computer for so long my eyes had begun to melt. So I turned up the lights as I arranged the lovely designer chocolates on clean white plates.
Holy Chocolate Covered Saffron! The fans looked like they’d been run across a cheese grater, and the mocha twirls looked like they’d been smashed with a hammer. The sides of the cinnamon hazelnuts had waves of light brown running horizontally across their sides and the gold-dusted anise-fig abstractions were riddled with more holes than a Chinese dissident. How had it happened? It just wasn’t possible, but there was no time to lose. People were thirsty and the only thing that could possibly save my chocolates now was free-running alcohol. I turned down the lights and started pouring, then made a quick dash to the bathroom because in the midst of all the madness, I’d forgotten to become young and beautiful. The party, the chocolates and I were aging fast; in a few more minutes, we’d all be embalmed.
Alone in the bathroom, I grabbed the hairbrush for a quick fix of the exotic chicken feathers I’d had stapled to my scalp in a recent attempt to hide a bad haircut, but before the bristles hit my head I saw my eyes. Crazy lady eyes, I used to call them. When I saw them on other people’s faces. You know the kind. Smudged all over, like the eyeliner had been applied with a crayon and the mascara brushed on with a hairbrush dipped in thick black cake mix. After all those years of smiling at older women while thinking they were going senile, I suddenly realized they weren’t crazy at all, they were just going blind. And now, apparently, so was I, and before my time at that.
I quickly wiped off my face, put on a new one with the aid of a carpenter’s level and laser measuring tape, and joined the guests who’d never noticed a thing. Everyone was laughing and drinking and munching on chocolates. “These are so delicious,” I heard, “they’re so beautiful, how’d you do it?” The urge to blurt out my apologies for serving them such inadequate and poorly made chocolates nearly won out, but I knew better. To discredit their praise would bring attention to flaws otherwise unseen, at best, or insult their judgment, at worse. I kept my mouth shut and reveled in my momentary maturity as if I’d been enlightened.
Later that night, alone at the keyboard, I hammered out a quick warning to Sam. “Awful chocolates headed your way, beware!” or something to that effect. But it would prove to be pointless. Sam would receive the chocolates, love them, and insist they were exquisite. “Some of them even look like they’re still wet,” she gushed, and I realized the temper had been perfect. “And I’ve never had anything like that gold one with the anise-fig, I savored every bite.”
“I don’t understand,” I later said to Mira, “was it my imagination? Weren’t they awful?”
“Yes, they were your worst,” she agreed.
“But you told me they were my best ever,” I wailed.
“Because you were so proud of them,” she said, “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”
I was beginning to realize she was probably psychotic and wanted me to serve horrible chocolates to our guests just for a thrill. Like the time when my mother was a teenager and she scraped the meringue off the lemon meringue pie and replaced it with whipped up soap flakes. These things happen when teenagers are empowered.
On the other hand, Sam, who may have eyes older than mine but does fine beadwork that would make Stella McCartney drool, said they were beautiful. Could my evil teen be torturing me with cruel and gentle lies?
Yes, quite possibly. Her dimples are disarming.
I looked over the photos we’d taken; there were only a few pics of the chocolates, as Mira had been coughing too much to be allowed in the kitchen. But the evidence was there. They weren’t so perfect after all, and yet many were. And while the photos showed whole plates of perfectly turned out chocolates, and others looking like they’d survived a war zone, the few remaining ones that were scattered about the house on plates and in half-eaten boxes all looked like they’d taken a horrible beating. Some were bad from the start, just like people. Others were turned out beautifully, but something had happened to them once they came out of the mold. But what that something was, I couldn’t say. Just like raising kids. Yet the chocolates all tasted delicious and they were all gobbled up by the young and the old, no matter what my gracious guests thought the chocolates looked like.
Growing older changes our perceptions. What once looked clear now looks more blurred, and lines are not so visible. And things change with time, just as an exquisite mocha twirl can take a beating from thin air, or a holey fig abstraction become a delicious golden confection, nothing stays the same. And that’s just fine by me. After all, now I’ve got crazy woman’s eyes. What better way to see the world?