My junior year at boarding school, I took up making French macarons in a dorm kitchen used by 40 other girls. Macarons were wholly impractical: the pastel-colored cookies were too difficult to consume before they went stale, too demanding of time and attention, too tiny, too sweet, too finicky. The ingredients had to be folded into each other just so, or else the batter would be too sticky or too wet and they wouldn’t set how they were supposed to. The batter had to be piped uniformly onto cookie sheets and then had to rest for long enough that the cookies would keep their form once baked, but not so long that they’d become too heavy. The oven couldn’t be too hot, or else the tops would blister and crack, but it couldn’t be too cool, either, or they wouldn’t develop a hard-enough shell. They seemed to have minds of their own, and even when I got everything perfect, they were so delicate that there was always a chance I’d hold one with a little too much pressure and the shell would collapse, leaving behind a conspicuous crater.
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Macarons were difficult, but I was difficult, too. I had learned to bake the summer before I went away to boarding school. My mother had a new husband, a new baby and a new life that I didn’t quite fit into. I started having trouble sleeping and took to baking in the hours after midnight. I learned to make layer cakes and banana cream pies and chocolate puddings, all by myself in the dead of the night with my mother and my stepfather sleeping 15 feet above my head. In the morning, my mother would come down and stare confusedly at the sweets that had appeared overnight. Once, she complained that I used all the half-and-half she used in her coffee. I shrugged and apologized — but what else did she expect me to do when I needed heavy cream, and half-and-half was the closest I could get at 1 a.m.?
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I was used to making things work, and so when problems arose in my dorm kitchen, I was ready. I was unable to find almond meal at the Target in the nearby mall so I made my own by crushing almonds slivers with the edge of a sauce jar until they were no more than powder. I had no mixer so I whisked egg whites by hand, my wrists making tiny circles over and over again until the whites formed firm peaks. I had no sieve, no counter space, no perfectly calibrated oven. I used a spaghetti strainer to sift out too-large clumps of powdered sugar. I left trays of unbaked macarons, skins still setting, on pantry shelves, on kitchen chairs, on top of the refrigerator. I fiddled incessantly with the oven’s temperature gauge. I persisted.
The girls on my floor understood my obsession, but only in the way a child understands what it means to be an adult, which is to say: not completely, not really at all. Still, they would sit with me in the dorm kitchen, stooped over their study guides, half-reading, half-talking. Sometimes, they would sit on the floor when there were no available chairs, their backs against a wall and their books propped up on their knees. Elya would laugh and take pictures of me with flour in my hair and all over my jeans. Nunu would bring music, playing rap songs or alternative hits that I’d never heard of before. And Kirby would sometimes join me, making her own macarons with a grace and ease so unlike my frenzied fervor. Always, they would stay as long as they could, but always, they would eventually leave to do more important things.
I had chosen macarons mostly because I had heard how hard they were to make properly. I was 16 and positive that I was an excellent baker. But mostly, I was 16 and panicked. At home, I was surrounded by my parents’ unvoiced pressure to keep my grades up, to make smart choices, to figure out my life. At school, I was surrounded by people who were stressing out over SATs, who were making their college lists, who were planning their futures. I should have been doing the same, but I was oven-struck, hyper-focused on baking to keep the future at bay, just like that first time, when I was newly 14 and couldn’t sleep for fear that if I did, I would miss something in those last three months before I left home for school — the sound of my new baby brother crying, the glow of the sun coming in through the window on the stairwell, my mother telling me good morning, just the two of us in the kitchen, before the baby woke up or her new husband came downstairs. In that moment, all I wanted was to show those stupid, candy-colored cookies that I was in charge, that they would be delicious, that I wouldn’t give up, not until they were perfect.
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Now, I roast vegetables. I use a slow cooker and make white bean salad with whatever herbs I have lying around. I leave my lemon bars in the oven for 10 minutes too long. When a recipe calls for minced garlic, I use the stuff in the jar. I cook for only as long as I have to. I freeze leftovers. I buy paper towels. I think of practical ways to use my time — updating my calendar, getting a head start on next week’s reading, hanging up the clothes piled on my chair. I grow up. I do not panic.
Still, as my best friend complains about applying to medical school and the girls I live with talk about the upcoming summer and the coffee shops around me start to fill with pairs on informal interviews, I start to imagine thinly iced layer cakes, lemon bars that haven’t been overcooked and macarons with round, glossy tops.
Contact Jessica Blau at email@example.com .