The world is supposed to end today and I have no idea what to fix for supper, much less who to invite. The prospect of having to prepare my last meal on earth is entirely too overwhelming. All I can say is, just about the time Doomsday hits, no matter how grand the plans or big the roast I’ve marinated, I just know I’m going to decide that we’d might as well order pizza. Making chocolates is pretty much like that. I sketch out half a dozen varieties in my head that I know I can whip out in an afternoon, and by the time the ganaches are made and the first couple of pounds of chocolate are tempered, I realize I need a bigger kitchen and another day to get it all done.
That’s how it was a couple of weeks ago when Mira and I had just concluded our weekly spa night and wiped the frosting off our faces. We were both sparkling clean and decked out in terrycloth robes and clown-sized slippers, when there was a knock at the door. Assuming it was destiny and my life was about to change, I opened it. No, strike that. I was reading the newsflash about the death of Osama Bin Laden, twisted news junkie that I am and unable to enjoy a spa night without checking in on the New York Times to see which latest politician or nuclear-powered nation has dropped their pants to show off what they’re made of. So Mira opened the door, assuming it was Avon calling and she could score some door to door makeup.
It was our friends, Ken and Seiko. Now I’ve known Ken for about a quarter of a century, which is just about as long as Seiko’s been alive, but you know how it is with men, as they grow older their pool of potential mates expands, while us women grow older and our pool shrinks to a mere puddle and about all we have to choose from are widowed derelicts in need of hip replacements (and throw in a gastric bypass while you’re at it). This reality sunk in the other day when I was squandering time (unaware that Doomsday was approaching) in a psychedelic coffee house where all the coffee drinks had names that had to be translated. In walks this guy and I’m thinking, “Oh, he’s kind of cute, I wonder . . .” and then an elderly woman walks in after him and takes his hand and gives him a little kiss that made it clear she wasn’t his mother. So that’s what it’s come down to. My competition lives in nursing homes and they still win out over me.
Well, I digress. At any rate, I like to think that Ken and Seiko are to blame for this new chocolate making obsession. You recall how Mira and I had that first trip to the chocolate factory and we became addicted to good chocolate? It wasn’t long after that that Ken and Seiko got married. Seiko is a marvelous cook so I was hoping she’d throw an apron over her bridal kimono and fix the wedding dinner, but we had to settle for second best when they had a culinary school cater the affair (probably best not to use the word “wedding” and “affair” in the same sentence, so let’s just say “reception”).
It was somewhere in between the Buddhist Catholic vows and Benny Goodman music that the wedding cake was brought out with an enormous platter of chocolate truffles. I’d never seen so many free truffles in all my life and sent Mira to sneak them over to me by the plateful. By the time we went home I was so infused with bittersweet and whipping cream that you could have rolled me in cocoa and served me to France. And that’s what made me realize a) I wanted more and b) I could do that.
So fast forward to a few months later when I’m up to my neck in truffle troubles and Ken and Seiko come knocking on the door to find me and Mira in bathrobes before the sun has even set (except for Osama bin Laden). It seems there was an auction coming up to benefit women who’d been beaten (which pretty much describes us all, at least after five p.m.). Seiko wondered if I’d like to donate some chocolates, which she assured me, were likely to be bought by VRP’s (Very Rich People). I wondered if I could top my last auction score of $200, so I pulled out my packaging to show off my potential product selection, babbled about endless possibilities of this assortment and that, and promised her I’d have a box of assorted chocolates ready to sell to the highest bidder by the end of the eve of auction, coming up in no time.
Of course, with artisanal chocolates, you can’t just make one batch, throw it in the freezer, and make the next batch another day, like you can with holiday cookies. With chocolates, you have to eat them fresh, and sell them even fresher, so I would have to make a box of assorted chocolates as close to sell (or auction) day as possible. No prob! I told myself, I’ll spend the week working on my blog, find a job, organize the closets, hang out on the beach, enter a chocolate contest, and make a box of chocolates worth more than two hundred dollars. I knew I could handle all these things because I have an iPhone. All I needed to do was find the right app and it would do it for me.
But when the time actually came and I started cranking them out, I realized I was in way over my head. First, I decided to try a guava milk chocolate, something just like my Pear Vanilla, which was super easy and so delicious. It would just be melted milk chocolate mixed with guava butter, but for some reason, unlike the Pear Vanilla, this time it curdled something awful, just like the Lavender-Chamomile had done not so long ago. After making the first batch, I decided to try a basic ganache, including the cream and butter (to give the mixture some fat which would prevent any curdling), but it made no difference. It curdled and clumped and looked like something the cat threw up. But it tasted delicious so I piped it into some shells and served it to the neighbors.
Then I tried making some Saffron Fans, and they were nearly perfect.
I say nearly, because by the time I capped them, I was so frustrated with the dismal guavas that I slapped the final coat onto the mold like I was spanking it with chocolate. Slap, slap, take that! And naturally, they came out of the molds weeping. The bottoms were thick and uneven and filled with tiny holes and the yellow ganache oozed from them like pus seeping out of a fan-shaped chocolate boil. Not exactly something anyone would bid on, not even to save battered women.
And I still had at least four more varieties to crank out and only twenty-four hours left to go. Which is not really a problem if you are as poised and confident as a princess bride showing off the royal kitchen. But my hair was falling out of my head and into my tempering chocolate, my eyes were glowing red and spinning in their sockets like malfunctioning fireworks, and I was breaking everything I touched and screaming at Mira to please just stop being so damned happy or I’d ship her off to Syria with no return address.
I finally realized I couldn’t do it. Accepting we can’t all be super people is not something we are supposed to say out loud and really mean it, at least not in the land of the Free and the Brave where our religious leaders promise us McMansions if we visualize and pray for them, and talk show evangelists assure us that positive thinking (and the purchase of beautiful products) is all it takes to go from homeless to CEO in the time it takes to grow a gladiola. And ever since J.K. Rowling showed the world that a single mother on welfare can become a billionaire without even using a computer, well, admitting there are just so many chocolates you can crank out before your chocolate covered kitchen turns into your chocolate covered nightmare is just the mark of a mediocre human not destined or deserving of much more than a bit of crust from our American Pie.
Or so went my thinking as I was scraping up the chocolate.
“I can’t do it!” I wailed to Mira, the perky personal trainer.
“No, you can’t, you really can’t,” she said agreeably. I guess it’s not like jogging, where she has faith I can run away.
“I have to tell Seiko something, maybe tell her I got sick or have to attend Bin Laden’s funeral.”
“Why don’t you tell her the truth?” she suggested, like it was no big deal.
“The truth?” I asked incredulously, “You mean tell her I tried but couldn’t do it?”
“Yeah,” Mira said. (Who’d raised her?)
I thought about it. If I told Seiko that I’d reached my limit, that I had failed and couldn’t do it, she might feel sorry for me. She might understand that making a box of sixteen chocolates was too much for me to handle, what with a blog to write about chocolate making at all. Yes, I began to realize, I could admit defeat and achieve victory, I could confess my failure and get out of making any chocolates! But was there another possibility, perhaps, another way I could deliver?
I surveyed the kitchen. I had about six good Saffron Fans, and a lot of saffron ganache leftover. One thing all this chocolate making was helping me to realize was that I am good at making chocolates, but I make a lot of mistakes in the process. I almost always can crank out a batch of Saffron Fans and usually something else, but when I try to take on an entire box of assorted chocolates, which means assorted molds and several hundred chocolates later, I end up overwhelmed.
“What if I make another batch of Saffron Fans and just offer an unassorted box of those?” I asked Mira, my trusted teenaged advisor.
“Yeah,” that’s a good idea she said, as she rummaged around the refrigerator for something to eat for dinner.
I thought about it. Yes, I could do that. But what if I couldn’t? I was exhausted. I was starving. I was as grumpy as a troll. If I used the stove at all the kitchen would be too hot to temper any chocolate, and Seiko was picking them up in the morning. And after dinner I’d have to wash the dishes, and that would steam up the kitchen and chocolate couldn’t be tempered. It was a lose-lose situation, as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t make anymore chocolates before dawn and still be alive.
I finally did what any sensible woman would do and I wrote Seiko an email telling her how I’d botched the chocolates and if I could have another day’s grace I could probably get her a box of Saffron Fans but I had so much work to do I couldn’t promise they’d even be edible. I hit “Send” and sent my confession of failure through the cyber system confident she’d understand and tell me not to bother.
But I should have known better. Seiko was raised in Hiroshima. There’s no point telling her you can’t start over just because you had a bad day.
She sent back a cheerful and understanding reply letting me know it would be no problem to take another day and if I botched those, they’d auction off a gift certificate. I had no choice but to get back in the kitchen.
So the next morning, that’s just what I did. I whipped out a batch of Saffron Fans and another batch of the Rhubarb-Pomegranate that I would enter in the Serious Chocolate Contest, killing two chocolates with one stone so to speak. I wrapped them up beautifully, took them to Seiko and came home to a new realization.
The world only overwhelms us when we want it to, when we want to sneak out the backdoor and run for our lives as if Doomsday were approaching. When my chocolates failed, as they have again and again and will again and again, it was not the end of the world or even the end of the day. It was just all a part of learning my own pace, my own potential, and the reminder that my own promises are not to be broken. And my own pace has told me that making eight kinds of chocolate is too much in my small kitchen with so many other things I must do. But a box or plate of Saffron Fans, a couple of different types of chocolate to share with neighbors and friends, or even a small platter of hand-rolled truffles to serve at the end of a meal, are all I need to do to learn about chocolate making, one kitchen caper at a time.
And if the world should end today, at least it will end with a good taste in my mouth. After all, that’s really all it ever comes down to at the end of every day, no matter what we bite into. But just to be on the safe side, tonight we’re having pizza. Some days I just don’t feel safe in the kitchen . . .
photo credits: “Atomic Romance” from research archives of Janice Harper, origin unknown; “Cheap Ring” painting by Vancouver Artist, Dene Croft, lifted off Ken and Seiko’s wedding website; all other photos by Janice Harper