“As both a seeker and a writer, I find it helpful to hang on to the beads as much as possible, the better to keep my attention focused on what it is I’m trying to accomplish.” Elizabeth Gilbert, on the usefulness of prayer beads, Eat, Pray, Love
It is Sunday morning, and my sink is still filled with dirty dishes from last night’s dinner party. I am ignoring the dishes right now—although I’m sure I’ll wash them before lunch—and pausing my reading of the new book that my friend Elizabeth gave me so that I may indulge in the pleasure of writing. I’m hoping to figure out exactly what my beads are.
Last night was two months to the day from my 27th birthday. I did something I haven’t done since I was nine: I threw myself a birthday party. And it was wonderful. I do believe it was one of the happiest nights of my life, and I say that knowing full well I still have more dishes to wash! It was a pretty simple affair: five friends, me, and a spread of magnificently homey food. I invited people whose company I adore and whose friendships inspire me to be the best person I can be. I was especially excited to gather them all in one room since there were introductions to be made, and there’s nothing more wonderful than letting your friends meet each other. I’m always very confident that my friends will like each other. They tend to have a certain honest straightforwardness that makes them quite endearing. They are funny and genuine, skeptical and caring, and above all, whip-smart and not afraid of heavy conversations. They are deeply empathetic and with that deep empathy, they dole out the best advice I’ve heard yet. Their advice might be the best birthday gift I received.
Every single one of them, in their own unique ways, contributed to the dinner itself. Ammie, who is slow and steady and whose company is as refreshing as a whispering forest stream, came over early to help prepare dinner with me before the others arrived. Together, we made a giant batch of roasted potatoes in a tahini-parmesan-lemon-garlic sauce—a riff on this recipe—and she worked some sort of onion-garlic magic on the big pot of beans that was simmering on the stove. Ammie is fast becoming one of my favorite people, and I can only thank my lucky stars that she’s willing to put up with me. Cooking with Ammie is really lovely. We’re both incredibly enthusisatic about cooking, but we’re also amateurs, so we have no illusions about our skills. Ammie is a thoughtful and talented cook. We’re a good team in the kitchen; both of us are able to give and follow directions, so it makes the cooking very relaxing and enjoyable.
After Ammie arrived, Elizabeth and her husband Michael were next. When I grow up, I want to be Elizabeth. She just blows me away with her intellect, curiosity, wry sense of humor, and deep compassion. Elizabeth and I met long ago, right when we started grad school together in the same neuroscience program. She impressed me back then, and she continues to inspire me. Elizabeth and Michael brought a roasted red pepper hummus, little pita breads, and this intoxicatingly fragrant spice mixture that Michael made himself—his own personal za'atar blend. There was just enough olive oil left for him to dab pita wedges with the oil before sprinkling on the spices and throwing them in the oven. By this time, Daphna and Ian had arrived, and as the pitas were toasting, Ian exclaimed, “It smells like Dave’s in here!” Which is about the highest compliment Ian can give because we all love Dave’s Italian Kitchen, one of the best restaurants in Evanston.
As soon as Ian arrived, he parked himself in front of the sink and lathered up a sponge. Ian’s not much of a cook, but he sure knows how to make himself useful in the kitchen. Daphna, in true Daphna fashion, became my kitchen consult and dessert guru for the night. She offered her opinion on the roastiness of the potatoes and gently pointed out that I wasn’t really following instructions if the recipe said 450 degrees F and my oven was set to 400 degrees F. Um, yes, I suppose technically that’s true. But what I really needed her advice for was the dessert. This whole party may have been secretly inspired by a recipe for Orange Pudding Cake published in the December 2008 issue of Gourmet. I spotted the recipe while standing in line at the grocery store, and I was immediately entranced by the idea. A pudding cake? How strange and exotic and totally delicious-sounding! I just needed an excuse to make it, and what better reason to cook than for people you love?
In the days leading up to my party, I studied up on the details for this cake. I read a section in The Cornbread Gospels on Beating Egg Whites, and I asked Daphna if she might let me borrow a big metal bowl, since plastic bowls are not ideal for beating egg whites. I figured out that my glass 8x8 pan was the perfect volume for baking the cake, and it fit snugly in my 9x13 pan, which would be used as a hot water bath during baking. That night, surrounded by friends in the kitchen, I knocked on wood before I started separating eggs, secretly thrilled by the physical challenge. I measured and mixed. I sniffed. The batter was thin and fragrant with fresh orange, more like a smoothie than cake. And when it came time to beat the egg whites, I asked D for her expert opinion, and she coached me happily. When the egg whites were thick and white and still a tiny bit floppy, I folded them into the orange smoothie batter and poured the whole thing into the waiting 8x8 pan. The 9x13 pan was transformed into a hot water bath with the boiling contents of the tea kettle, and the whole thing was tucked into the oven just in time for us to eat dinner.
As should happen during every meal, I totally forgot about dessert while I tucked into the crispy-creamy roasted potatoes and beans that were worthy of second helpings. I served the potatoes on a bed of fresh spinach (a little salad makes every meal better), and we ate the beans out of deep bowls. I had intended to serve everything on one plate, but the beans were soupier than I imagined—all the better to eat with spoons and handfuls of grated cheddar melted into them. There were tortilla chips to eat with salsa and/or beans—no party of mine is complete without tortilla chips. There was wine to drink, and I was glad Matt wasn’t there to watch me make a fool of myself. “What kind of wine is this?” I asked. “Should I put it in the fridge?” (Um, no, it’s a red wine.) Then I massacred the cork with my wine opener (one of those corkscrew thingamabobs) and handed it over to Michael so he could open the wine. It was embarrassing. Ian announced we should make an emergency phone call to Matt, STAT!, for our wine needs. It wouldn’t have been the first time I called him with a wine question, but between the six of us, one would hope that SOMEone could figure out how to serve a bottle of wine. Yeesh. Apparently that someone is not me.
But that’s the beauty of having friends: one doesn’t need to figure everything out on her own. I’m happy to let others show me the way. I let them call the shots because really, who wants to be in charge all the time, even at her own party? After dinner was eaten, Daphna asked innocently about the Orange Pudding Cake, so I fished a serving spoon out of the cupboard and let her be the first to dig into it. As she sunk a spoon into the cake, she exclaimed, “It worked! It really worked!” Indeed, there were actual layers: a creamy pudding on the bottom, a slightly firmer soufflé-like layer in the middle, and a thin cakey-crepey layer on top. We scooped our pudding cake into bowls and retreated to the living room, which was marvelously free of dirty dishes. The cake was ethereally delicious: infused throughout with orange and lemon, it was still warm from the oven, creamy and light and rich all at the same time. Had I not been so full from dinner, I would have gone back for a second scoop, but I was totally and completely satisfied—one more bite would have pushed me into a food coma.
The whole evening was perfect. It was just what I needed, including the serious conversation that emerged as we were winding down. I am, in a word, distressed. My happiness at work has taken a precipitous drop in recent months, and I’ve been blaming myself for it: maybe I’m just lazy or dumb, or I don’t care any more, or it’s so boring that my eyeballs are going to fall out one of these days while I’m staring down a microscope. All of those things may be true, but what I haven’t been owning up to is that I have outgrown my advisor’s management style and it’s seriously impeding my ability to thrive as a scientist. I am not engaged in the work because he is doing too much of the intellectual work for me. This is a delicate situation: how does one tell her advisor, who holds her future in the palm of his hand, that his way of doing things is not working? In order to soar, I must be able to spread my wings, which means I need more space. It means I have to stop responding to his e-mails with panicked, eager-to-please responses. I have to honor my own list of priorities, or else nothing will get done. It isn’t that I don’t want his input or his opinions—I just want to have a chance to work through things on my own. I need time to dig around in the data, get messy with the experiments, imagine alternative outcomes. I need time to think. Most of all, I need the courage to have this conversation with my advisor, and I need the faith that things will be better as a result.
So we talked about my distress. It was a sober and unfestive topic, but I needed it. Elizabeth made a pretty convincing argument that I am not as powerless as I feel. She’s right, of course, in that practical Elizabeth way of hers. It’s hard to imagine a more unbalanced power relationship than that between science professors and their graduate students. There are no rules about expectations—no contracts, no protection against abuse of power. Grad students work for five, six, seven years, all that time hoping to leave with three little letters after their name, a powerful symbol that tells the world, Hey, I SURVIVED graduate school. I’m no different—I want my letters! And I’m terribly afraid that even at this late stage in the game, with multiple papers and a grant behind me, that my advisor will deny me the one thing I have left to complete. The fear is paralyzing; I feel tears springing to my eyes now just thinking about how afraid I am. I don’t necessarily need a PhD to do what I want to do (teach science, in case you are wondering), but I want to reach the finish line of this race. I feel like I’m barely limping along right now. I want to believe there’s a better way to do this. I’m just not sure my advisor will be willing to give up some of his control so that I may learn and grow and finally spread my wings and leave the nest.
Elizabeth’s pep talk and Michael’s words of wisdom have convinced a tiny part of me that it’s time to face this problem with some maturity. I am mentally rehearsing what I will say, and I’m clutching my beads in between my fingers so that I might find some comfort in this difficult situation. My beads are honesty and truth, goodwill and compassion, knowledge and wisdom. The beads, although metaphorical in nature, will keep me focused on the task at hand, which is perhaps all I really want in any given moment.
But before I go, I have one last thing to share with you: the recipe for Orange Pudding Cake! I do believe it’s the first cake I’ve ever shared on this site, but I know I’ll be filing it away for safe keeping. It is such a cool recipe—fun to make and eat. It might become my signature January Dinner Party cake; I’m thinking I should do this belated birthday celebration every January. That way, I always have something nice to anticipate in the depths of winter.
Orange Pudding Cake
From Gourmet (December 2008), with additional notes from me
Makes one 8x8 pan of cake—six very greedy servings or up to twelve dainty servings
This cake requires a small leap of faith. As I said above, the batter will seem more like an orange smoothie than cake batter, and it won’t seem like enough for six party guests. But it will bake into something magical, and it’s rich enough that you should have no problem feeding your small crowd. I did, however, serve these Apricot Butter Cookies alongside*, mostly for the sake of having something sweet to munch on. I’d say it was one of my most successful dessert courses.
Nonstick cooking spray
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
Rounded 1/4 tsp. salt
Juice and zest from 1 large navel orange, or 3/4 cup fresh orange juice and ~2 heaping tsp. orange zest
3 large eggs, warmed to room temperature and separated (place the egg whites in a large metal mixing bowl)
1 cup whole milk
4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) butter, melted and cooled
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F with a rack in the middle. Spray a glass 8x8 pan with cooking spray and set it inside a 9x13 pan. Fill a tea kettle with water and set it on high heat in order to bring the water to a boil while you prep the cake batter.
2) Whisk together the sugar, flour, and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.
3) Whisk together the orange juice, orange zest, egg yolks, milk, butter, and lemon juice in a large bowl. Whisk the flour mixture into this wet mixture, mixing just until blended.
4) Now it’s time for the fun part: beating the egg whites. In a large metal mixing bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until they hold soft peaks. This will take a while. First the egg whites will become foamy and then they will turn white and start holding a shape. I stopped beating them when they were soft and a little floppy but able to hold a peak when I lifted the beaters out of the egg whites.
5) Gently stir about one-fourth of the egg whites into the batter, then fold the rest into the batter thoroughly such that there are no big pockets of egg white.
6) Pour the batter into the baking dish. Pour the now-boiling water into the 9x13 pan to create a water bath. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until puffed and golden brown on top. Remove the 8x8 pan to a cooling rack to let the cake cool for a bit. I thought this cake was delicious served warm.
*Special thanks to ttfn (Shannon) and her blog Tri to Cook. She inspired Ammie and me to make these cookies with their improbable sounding combination of apricots, fresh thyme, and pine nuts. They are quite unusual and quite delicious. Foodies are nothing if not ravenous in their search for new and interesting flavors. Thank you, ttfn! We definitely got a kick out of those cookies.
**Another thank you, this time to Matt, who wrote me an e-mail last fall entitled, “Fall, perfected.” He’s such a poet. He’s my muse. I just steal all of his good stuff and repackage it, hence the title of this post.