I have an MFA in Writing & Poetics with a concentration in poetry from a Buddhist inspired university (Naropa). During my two years as a student, I ran from anything labeled contemplative. It wasn't until after I graduated that I realized contemplative practices are not the devil and they do not have to involve mediation. I began to view contemplative practices as activities we do to think, learn, and grow. The more time I spend in the kitchen, the more I recognize that, like writing and Japanese tea ceremony, baking is one of my contemplative practices. This weekend, I tried to perfect the ultimate contemplative cookie: French macarons. These cute, colorful cookies use simple ingredients: almond flour, sugar, powdered sugar, cream of tartar, and a number of different flavor enhancers and colors.
I taught myself how to make them a while back, but there was some technique I was missing.
I'm not saying that macarons are easy or difficult; they're mainly time consuming. You have to sift the flour four times, beat the egg whites, and sift the flour into the egg whites, folding it into the fluffy meringue. I followed the instructions (except for the insane amount of sifting--I think I only sifted my flour once) and couldn't wait to have these perfectly round cookies. They were not perfect. Many of them were lopsided. It seems I was so disheartened by my macron attempt that I didn't even take a photo! I wanted to know where I had gone wrong.
Almost two years later, my imperfect macarons still haunted me. I was flipping through the Sur La Table magazine when I saw an answer to my problem: a French Macron class. I signed up to make three types of macrons on a Saturday morning and could taste the sweet balance of meringue and filling.
The class was slated for three hours, 10 a.m. - 1 p.m., to allow enough time to sift the flour and let the cookies sit before baking. Both of these steps are necessary. We worked in teams of two to create flavor combinations. My teammate and I made raspberry with dark chocolate ganache while another team made pistachio with lemon butter cream and the third made chocolate with salted caramel. As the first baking class I've ever taken, I wasn't sure what to expect. I figured I would have to work with someone else, but I assumed we would each make our own batter. This, I learned, was not the way it would work. All of the cookie and filling ingredients were already measured before we arrived. We took turns sifting and then folding the flour into the meringue base. I waited to pipe a tray of cookies while she used the template to pipe her tray. Cooking classes, like macarons, are a test of patience. As a very impatient person, perhaps this is one of the reasons my macarons were a fail the first time. I didn't sift the flour enough, I didn't let my egg whites sit separated long enough (I learned in the class that you should really crack and separate your eggs the night before), and I didn't focus on my form when piping the cookies (you have to hold the bag vertically, otherwise you get those weird, lopsided cookies). In a classroom setting, I was forced to pay attention to all of the steps I didn't do. I was rewarded with nearly perfect macarons.
Baking is a contemplative practice. I look at the work--the patience it takes to make a simple cookie. Although I don't think you're supposed to strive for perfection in contemplative practices, I also don't think it hurts if your practice makes you proud; makes you feel complete. I will never consider anything I bake perfect because there is always something to learn. This weekend, I learned that my lack of patience was preventing me from making pretty macarons and that my contemplative practices generally involve food. It was a deliciously productive weekend.