PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE

… which it’s possible I don’t have enough of. I’m more than halfway through this month of trying to learn calligraphy, and I am not sure I’m improving. I think I’m getting a little better at a couple of the styles (like the Uncials, or the Hobbit one, as I call it), but when I approach a new style in my book, like the dreaded Flourished Italics, it’s like I’m back at square one.

The book’s version

My first attempts

This clearly does not come easily to me! It might help to have a teacher, to watch me and point out what I’m doing wrong (which I’m sure is a lot). I do run out of patience quickly when I practice. If it’s not going well, I can feel the tension creeping up the back of my neck and shoulders, and before long I have a headache and want to stop. Sometimes I can practice for nearly a half hour. Other times it’s about ten minutes before I feel those telltale signs of frustration building up in my muscles. The swearing is always a good tipoff. I tell myself I’ll try again for a short period later in the day, but somehow I never get around to doing more than one session.

I’ve filled several pages of this notebook as well as numerous loose pages. Lotsa practice!

So how do I get through this frustration and continue to make progress? Not entirely sure there’s an easy answer. I know that when I’ve tried to learn difficult things on the drums and on piano, I take a number of approaches – sometimes I consult a teacher, or someone who knows more than I do; I watch YouTube videos; I slow down; I break the hard things into smaller bits to isolate the trouble spots and master one little piece at a time.

Aha! That’s what I have not been doing much with the calligraphy. I write each letter in its entirety (stroke by stroke, though), rather than just practicing each stroke several times first. In the book there are a few “homework” exercises like that, but not nearly enough of them. And the exercises offered do not necessarily focus on the ones troubling ME in particular; I need to figure that out for myself.

Warm-up exercises — some more useful than others. “U” is the easiest letter in every style.

The other thing that helps when I’m learning a piece of music is that I have a specific GOAL: I have X amount of time to learn X number of songs in time for rehearsal, and ultimately a performance. I know what I’m working towards.

A goal is what I haven’t sorted out for this particular effort. I’m just plowing through the book that I bought, occasionally going back and reviewing bits at random s well as in the booklet that came with my kit. Sometimes I try the different sized nibs and colored inks, again at random. Originally, I thought I’d get through the entire book, but I’m not sure I can succeed at that. It’s called “Calligraphy in 24 Hours,” so I thought that 24 days (or more) would do the trick, but I’m not completing a chapter a day – far from it. I do require more review than that. And I frankly HATE some of the styles, such as Gothic – which looks bad to my eyes, plus I’m terrible at it – and I’m not sure Flourished Italic is much better.

Gothic Cursive

So I will allow myself to skip a few styles and focus at improving on the ones I like better.

But I DO need a goal of some sort. My boyfriend suggested coming up with a poem or something to write out nicely and perhaps frame, which is a good idea. I DO need something to work towards, and maybe narrow down the few styles I will concentrate on for the final two weeks of my effort.

Suggestions?

Miriam

Why are the simplest things the hardest?

Calligraphy includes a number of different styles, I am learning. From Roman Capitals, Miniscules, Italics and Gothic to Chancery, Uncials and Spencerian lettering, I am just beginning to scratch the surface of the different types. And some are definitely more difficult than others. I am discovering quickly which types of writing and which letters are the hardest, and it is not what you would think.

In my quest to learn about calligraphic writing this month, I am using a book called Calligraphy in 24 Hours by Veiko Kespersaks to practice the different styles. It includes lots of examples of each type of writing, and exercises to work on each stroke, with good illustrations. 

I have filled many pages with practice letters and numbers from just a few of the different styles thus far. When I get tired of writing separate letters over and over again, it’s sometimes more fun to write the practice words provided in my book, or my name, or the names of people I know. That makes calligraphy seem more useful and interesting.

This is Gothic style

The Gothic style of writing is very difficult for me, and seems less attractive overall.

I was delighted to find the chapter on Uncials, which is the kind of writing you see in the Lord of the Rings.

That gave me the opportunity to pretend I was Bilbo Baggins (thought clearly I need to add more dots).

The rounded shape of the Uncial letters are very pleasing to my eye, thought it led me to realize what I was beginning to suspect: the simplest letters are the hardest to make.

When practicing calligraphy, I’ll often stop when I’ve made one or two letters that approximate the model I’m following. I’m least happy with most of my attempts at the letter O, and also C and E. I found pages and pages of similar letters (Q also) written repeatedly, when I reviewed my practice from the last couple of weeks.

Getting that simple curve just right the first time, and then again on the opposite side, is harder than you might think. I was rarely happy with my results, and I often did not stop because I was satisfied with my attempts, but because I just got tired of trying and not succeeding.

Why is it so hard to make the most simple, clear shape like the letter “o”?

I thought about this a lot. Reflecting on music, I recalled that it was sometimes hardest to play the slow, simple drum beats accompanying a slow rock ballad. When I used to play piano, making a straightforward Mozart melody in a sonata sound good was frequently more of a challenge than a complicated run or arpeggio. In my month of learning about baking, making a plain white baguette was actually one of the hardest things I attempted. Why?

Because there’s no place to hide.

Just like the clear, pure line of a melody that needs to be phrased just right to sound beautiful to the ears, a basic circle needs to curve around with an elegance that makes it look like a shape originating in nature — the moon, perhaps, or the inside of a flower.  We all know what a circle should look like.

We do not have as clear a preconceived notion of shapes like this:

So what is the secret to making something beautifully simple, or simply beautiful? I haven’t found it yet. I do know that my better attempts at these letters were made slowly, but not so slowly that I labored over them. There was a sense of movement to my hand, to the pen, that helped me to follow through the curve of the letter’s shape. I had to breathe, and not think too hard, but just DO.

What simple thing is hard for you to do? Is it something artful? Or something emotional, like telling someone that you love them?

I vow to do a simple thing each day.

Miriam

Practice makes not quite as bad

People who get to know me eventually find out that I have terrible handwriting. My children have mocked me for it. My boyfriend can’t read my grocery lists unless I text them. This is not a recent problem that I can blame on middle age. My parents asked me to stop writing home from college because they couldn’t read my letters.

I could blame it on the hippie free school I attended for third grade; I was busy learning all of the words to the Yellow Submarine album while other kids my age were learning to write cursive. When I got to a somewhat more “normal” school for 4th grade, I had to play catch-up and learn handwriting in a big hurry.

I could blame all those college classes where I took super fast notes, my handwriting getting worse and worse each semester, so that now I can’t even read some of my own notes to myself.

What does this SAY??

Or maybe I’m just a bit sloppy and lazy.

Regardless of where the fault lies, it’s the truth. When I had to learn to write with my left hand after I broke my wrist a year ago last January, I was surprised to find that I could actually read my plodding, careful left-handed writing BETTER than my usual scribbles!

So now I will attempt something I have never tried before: calligraphy. (The Western kind.) I studied a little Japanese and Chinese language in school, but I was never terribly good at writing those characters clearly either.

Thanks to Michaels craft stores, I now have a set of calligraphy pens with ink cartridges and nibs, with a little instruction book.

My first attempts were painful. I kept getting the angle of the pen to the paper wrong, and the ink would stop flowing. There was a lot of cursing. It’s slow going, each letter. I began by tracing over the examples in the booklet the first few days. There was even more cursing the further I got into the curves and shapes for different letters. I developed a headache.

I could see that I was going to have to take this just a little bit at a time, for fear of getting overly frustrated. I began to figure out, after a few days of the cursing and tapping my nib (ok, hitting it) on the paper to get the ink going, how the angle should look. Some letters were definitely easier than others.

gs are hard

But on the whole, calligraphy requires more precision than I have asked of myself in my creativity blog adventures thus far. Yes, pastry baking did require a certain level of precision (measuring, kneading, folding, temperatures, times, etc.), or the results could be unsightly, or even inedible.

With collaging I allowed myself to be very imprecise, and I liberally used big globs of paint to cover a multitude of sins.

But this is different. You can see all your mistakes. (And I make a lot of them.) Technically, you’re supposed to get a certain kind of paper and razors so you can “scrape out” your errors, but that seems too hard for me at this point. For right now I’m just going to plug away at the different shapes and forms until it stops seeming so awfully foreign to me.

One thing that is actually helping is that fact that I learned something about stroke order writing Chinese/Japanese characters – you have to write them in a certain way, in the correct order. You can’t go from down, up when you’re supposed to go from up, down. So following the instructions in the book with those kinds of directions makes sense to my brain.

Once, just once each, I made a couple of letters that seemed really beautiful.

I especially liked the j because my daughter’s name is Julianne. And guess what! When I told her I was trying to learn calligraphy, she said that she is doing that too! She is using brush markers and learning more modern styles than I am working on, but it’s still cool that we are accidentally doing something so similar at the same time.

I will keep working away. Practice, as I have learned studying music, is everything.

Juxtaposition of Elements

Collage making is really fun.  I hate to see this month’s project come to an end. I hope to continue making paper collages on a regular basis, whether I’m blogging about it or not. I would like to learn more about drawing, painting, and using other materials. I would also like to improve my cutting skills and any other abilities that would help me make more interesting and artful collages, rather than just indulging my crazy, sloppy self-expression.

One result that really surprised me was the positive response from many people to some of my collages. After my friend Laurie so artfully used one of my creations to enhance her poster design for our band gig (see last week’s blog), my friend Colleen Koll remarked on Facebook, “I want a collage!” So I decided to take the commission.

The assignment was fun, and the process was somewhat less random than my previous attempts. I asked Colleen about things she liked, symbols, colors, shapes, etc., and she had lots of suggestions for me to work with! I sorted through my boxes and piles of collage materials for ideas and pulled out anything that reminded me of Colleen or that was on her list of things she liked.

Colleen Collage (say that 5 times fast)

The result was as colorful as Colleen herself, and she liked it! I really enjoyed making something with more of a purpose in mind, as well as a particular recipient. Instead of just making a picture to please myself, I was trying to make somebody else happy, and that felt really good.

My other collages this week were more self-indulgent, and mostly in direct response to the materials I pretty much randomly chose, as previous collages had been. Sometimes I painted first, before doing any gluing, sometimes I painted afterwards, and sometimes both.

Materials include watercolor and acrylic paint, pages including maps from an old atlas, pictures from coloring books, and cut up art reproductions, as well as some craft paper.

One of them, weirdly, ended up reminding me a lot of a book I just finished reading, The Patriots by Sana Krasikov, about a young Jewish woman from Brooklyn who ventures to Soviet Russia in 1934 to seek out what she idealistically views as a brave new world. The story explores her journey and personal fight against disillusionment despite tons of hardship.

The collage started with a picture from my oddball photo collection of a lady from the 1930s, and I added some paper that looks like old-fashioned handwriting (in French), and since it was looking like waves, I wanted to add a boat or ship. I looked through an old world atlas that’s been a treasure trove of maps and pictures to cut up. The ship picture I found has Russian writing on the side which reads “Lenin.”

It was a happy coincidence, or maybe my eye was deliberately looking for things that reminded me of the book that had just been on my mind.

The other collages I made had no relation to anything. I used pictures from an old set about children’s art and play that I found at Goodwill and mercilessly cut up. One of the collages is downright creepy, and another is more whimsical.

This creepy one has a Blair Witchy vibe

This one is just fun and silly

I’ve really had a great time making these creations and even the mess that seems to go along with it. I hope to have a “collaging party,” to invite friends over to make things with me. Truthfully, though, in most cases I like to work on my own, focusing with a strange, haphazard process that is as mystifying to me as it probably would be to anyone watching me.

The upshot is that I like the visual and tactile experience, the juxtaposition of elements that you would not necessarily think go together, and what that creates. Whether or not it’s beautiful or interesting or even art at all, I’m not sure if it matters to me. I like the process. Sometimes I like the result even more. Sometimes I don’t. Different colors and textures and shapes interest me. Sometimes I want the pictures to look like real things; other times I don’t care about that. Sifting through various materials and cutting and gluing engages me completely, and I lose track of time and logical thought. I just do it.

What’s up next month, and will I enjoy it as much as collage? Stay tuned . . .

Miriam

Best Laid Plans

After I wrote about mess and looked at the art supplies taking over the dining room table, I cleaned up. I sorted out, put away, neatened up. Started over. It looked much better, more organized.

It occurred to me that I had no real structure for my collage projects, no goal beyond just sitting with the materials and doing stuff.  So I took out a book that I’d picked up somewhere ages ago, The Collage Workbook by Randel Plowman. He even has a class you can take to make a collage a day.

The Collage Workbook, by Randel Plowman

The pictures in the book are cool, and there are great tips about useful materials and supplies for collaging. Some of them I actually purchased when I first bought the book, and I am glad that I have them.

Then I decided that I was going to try some of the suggested projects/ideas. I read a few. No inspiration whatsoever.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s a great book. I love the ideas (or at least the idea of the ideas), and the collages look interesting. But it just didn’t do anything for me. For example, the idea of “going monochromatic” – maybe taking one color to focus on for a collage – sounded good, but I couldn’t get myself to do it.

My approach, my process, is random and chaotic. I randomly choose a few different items – papers, cut-out photos, books I’m planning to cut up cause they’re old, or photocopy if I’m not ready to cut them up. I look at them. I randomly choose a format – bigger or smaller, square or rectangle, this book or that piece of cardboard. Then I just start coloring the background with paint or crayon, or maybe I start gluing first.  Sometimes I change the format if I can tell that I’ll need more space, or if I want a surface that’s more horizontal than vertical. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. I couldn’t explain why I made my choices if you asked me.

I’ll show you my process through a few of the things I made this week:

First I just scribbled with a pastel crayon and then glued on pieces of brownish craft paper that reminded me of rocks. Then I glued on a cut-out piece of photograph of a lady from ca. 1915. My web designer friend Margaret Bossen gave me a bunch of old photos that I’ve used in some collages. It’s mounted on cardboard so it sticks out from the paper quite a bit.

Used pastel crayons, then some crafty art paper, then an old photograph

 

 

I wanted something to grow out of the rocks, so I cut the curvy strips from the brown craft paper. I liked when it overlapped and grew up over the photo, so I did that a couple more times. Then I cut larger wavy strips from the purple patterned paper to have that grow also, from the “ground,” and added the flowery looking blobs that I cut out from different paper.

I just kept adding stuff

I cut the sky out of a desert photo from an old world atlas and used that for the top of the frame.

At this point my boyfriend Jacques came over and said that it looked like the lady was in a bubble under the water. It did! That inspired me further. I thought of calling it “Titanic,” though perhaps “Lusitania” would be less cliche. The time period of the clothing looked about right. Then I added blue and greenish paint to tie it all together.

Finished “Titanic”

Another day I made a piece that used mostly pictures from a women’s art calendar book that my poet friend Suzette Bishop gave me back in 2009, but I couldn’t bear to throw away because it had so many great pictures in it. I felt ready to cut it up. I also used photocopied Hiroshige prints and a piece of origami paper, along with paint.

Here’s an early stage. I’m not sure what made me cut out the parts of the paintings/prints that I did, except that I liked the way they looked.

Here I got the idea to cut ducks out of the Mary Cassatt painting and made them swim in the Hiroshige print. There’s also pieces of work by Grandma Moses, Elizabeth Murray, Kay Sage and Laura Johnson Knight.

For some reason I started on the left side, then the right side, leaving the middle blank. Probably not the way you’re supposed to do collage (or lay floor tiles).

I decided I was done gluing here

Added paint before I decided I was finished

This is one where I kept cutting so many pictures that I knew I needed a slightly bigger surface to work with.

I’m not making order out of chaos, or even chaos out of order. I’m making chaos out of chaos. Different chaos, anyway. Maybe that’s all art is?

But a cool thing came out of my collages this week. My friend Laurie Etchen, who is a great designer as well as singer/keyboard player in many of my bands, decided to use one of my collages as background for an event poster! This was the original art:

She manipulated it digitally to create great art for our upcoming Santana tribute gig (I’m playing extra percussion for it). She did two versions, one using mostly the original orange, and another using blue hues:

It made me feel great, knowing someone liked my work enough to incorporate it into a design of her own! It does feel good when others also find something interesting, intriguing or even beautiful in what I’m doing.

However, ultimately, I’m not creating any of this art for a purpose beyond my own satisfaction. When I make something I really like, I find myself staring at it a lot. Is that weird?

And by the way, the dining room table is a mess again.

Miriam

 

Enough is Enough

After visiting my friend Paula Cisewski’s place last week and looking at her wonderful Brie-box collages to start this month’s blog project, I was so inspired. I really admired how she used minimal images – sometimes just one, or a couple of related images – and a short phrase or couple of words to get her point across. That kind of minimalism always impresses me – I like its brevity, its wit, its purity.

Then I went home to make collages of my own, thinking to emulate something of that minimalist spirit. Hah!

It’s like when I go to a friend’s house, a friend who keeps a very neat and tidy space. I feel so relaxed and free in a nice empty space like that. I think how great it must be to look around at this restful, calm atmosphere. You can see where everything is. One, maybe two at most, colors dominate the space. A few carefully chosen objects are artfully placed just so. I marvel at it.

Then I go home.

I do not live like that. And apparently, I do not art like that either (if art is a verb).

I grew up in a house with lots of stuff. Eccentric, erratic, eclectic stuff. I thought that was normal. Not exactly Hoarders territory, but verging on it. My house as an adult is not exactly like that, though it tends much more in that direction, despite my best efforts (which, granted, I don’t often make). Minimalism is not my thing.

Art needs stuff

And minimalist art is not my thing either. In many of the collages I’ve made, I just didn’t seem to know when to stop. I was enjoying myself immensely, and I just wanted to keep putting stuff on the page, or adding more paint. If a little was good, more must be better!

I kept adding triangles cut mostly from origami paper (sacrilege I’m sure)

Maybe I just need to get it out of my system, to let myself enjoy the sumptuousness of all the colors, all the textures I can slap on a canvas (or book, or page).

Maybe I need a bigger page.

First I glued cut outs from cool art paper.

I just kept gluing then painting, and painting and painting. So very orange.

The other thing I admired about Paula’s collages was that they all seemed to be part of a collection. They all went together. You could tell that one artist made all of them.

All these things look like part of a set

Not so with mine. Here are some other things I made over the last couple of weeks:

Inspired by July 4 though I didn’t attend fireworks. I could hear them.

I photocopied a Hiroshige print (2 copies on different paper), cut them in strips, then somewhat randomly reassembled them

 

 

No idea what this is. Just cut shapes from each paper that the patterns on the paper made me think of.

I made this from cut-up old coloring book pages to add to a 2012 art journal I’d stopped writing in

Can you tell that one person made them all? I can’t. Maybe it means I’m not really an artist; after all, I’m just playing around. I don’t have a clear artistic vision.

I used to think you HAD to have a clear picture in your mind of what you wanted to create before you could make anything — which was perhaps why I rarely made anything. But now I’m just playing around with the materials, sometimes in a completely random way. Sometimes I let the materials “talk” to me. Sometimes I don’t listen to them. I don’t know what I’m doing at all, and I’m certainly not emulating anybody else’s style.

But the truth is, it’s really fun. I’m enjoying just making pictures out of stuff, even if afterwards I don’t think the results are meaningful, or pretty, or even interesting. I’m just enjoying the process.

For now that’s enough for me.

Miriam

A Bird by Any Other Name

Did you have a teacher you always remember, and not in a good way? I don’t mean a traumatic way, but just – a memory that’s perplexing. You can’t imagine, now that you’re an adult, acting or talking that way to a child.

My kindergarten teacher’s name was Miss DeSchmitt. I didn’t like her for a number of reasons. She chided me for not shutting my eyes during nap time. We had to lie down on mats for half an hour (an eternity, really), presumably to sleep. Or to give our teachers a brief respite. I could never sleep on those hard mats, surrounded by other children, and I knew it. I would lie there quietly, eyes open, looking at the light in the room, the ceiling, the dust motes; I was daydreaming. Miss DeSchmitt wanted us all to close our eyes. Why? I wasn’t doing anything bad. I wasn’t making noises. I was always one of the good students.

One day we were doing art. I liked art, though I often found it frustrating. I had pictures in my head that I wanted to translate onto the page, and it was impossible. I was staring at the paper, crayon in hand. I don’t know if I made a noise, or raised my hand, or what – but Miss DeSchmitt came over to find out what was wrong. I told her that I didn’t know how to draw a bird.

She sounded exasperated. “Just draw a V,” she said.

I had no idea what she meant. I must have looked confused.

“You know, the letter V,” she explained.

Again, I was flummoxed. I knew what a letter V was. I was good at alphabet letters. But I couldn’t understand the connection between a V and a bird. I must have said as much.

“It’s the shape when they’re flying,” she said. “Here, I’ll show you.”

She drew one on my picture. I was appalled. It didn’t look like a bird to me. It looked like a V. She had ruined my picture.

This story was lost in the recesses of my memory. It came back to me tonight, when for some reason my paintbrush started making little v shapes on my paper.

First I made tiny Vs in very dark blue paint over squiggly pastel and watercolor marks

The idea of birds as Vs flooded into my head, and before I knew it I was cutting out weird V-like shapes from paper and gluing them onto the page.

This is my finished picture of flying Vs

I love birds. They are one thing I’ve tried to learn how to draw during my very few forays into visual art. Perhaps it’s because of that incident in kindergarten; who knows? But I do not feel it necessary to make things look real in art. In fact, I’m trying hard to get away from that in my next creative endeavor: collage.

Although I’ve dabbled a little in paper collage before, I haven’t given it my full attention for any length of time. I occasionally pick up interesting paper, or buy a collage book, or look at a collage website. I feel drawn to art that uses collage or mixed media.

It may have started when reading great story books using collage, such as the work of Ezra Jack Keats or Elisa Kleven.

I really enjoy pictures of things made from scraps of a lot of other things. I find it very intriguing.

So I do find that I want to make representational art, but then I get frustrated because, like kindergarten me, I still am not very good at making things look like real things. The purpose of this month’s experiment is to try to make a collage at least every other day, and to allow myself to play with different materials and just see what happens. I like looking at abstract art, so I’m going to allow myself to be abstract if I want.

I was partly inspired by a project started by a friend of mine in Oregon. Deb asked a group of friends around the country to participate. We were each mailed a small handmade book with blank pages and instructed to decorate 4-5 pages of the book any way we wanted, and then mail it to the next person on the list. At the end of the project, we’ll all have our own keepsake book with 8 different people’s creations inside. We had to choose a theme word for our book. I chose “Beginner.”

I like being a beginner.

It would be against the rules for me to post any of my photos of the pages I made for the first book I received until after the project is over. But I’m really enjoying the project so far.

My first act in the hunt for tips and further inspiration was to visit my friend Paula Cisewski, an acclaimed poet with two new poetry books out, her fourth poetry collection, quitter, which won Diode Editions’ 2016 Book Prize, and her third, The Threatened Everything, which was selected for publication in the 2014 Burnside Review Book Contest.

Poet Paula Cisewski

Paula also makes really cool collages, which she fashions on the lids of (and sometimes inside) Brie cheese boxes.

It’s a great canvas, really – a nice limited round space, which she first paints, and then uses cut-out pictures from magazines and books from thrift stores. Since she’s a poet, Paula likes to include words or phrases. She also has a cool set of drawers that I covet with things like stickers, googly eyes, etc. inside. She showed me a lot of her collages, which she has also been posting on facebook. They are hung around her house.

That visit was very inspiring, so I made this picture that very day.

First I used pastel crayons, then I cut up some paper

I glued paper “grass” first, then added “ground”

I just kept adding stuff. I didn’t know when to quit.

I found that I kept wanting to put lots and lots of things on the page, but the page was too small. I either need to use bigger surfaces, or learn how to edit. Or both.

Turns out I have a lot of stuff I can use

I made a couple other pictures during the week. I’m letting myself use paints, pastel crayons, etc. to color the background of the paper, and then I rummage through my collection of pictures and papers to see what grabs me. I’ve been just free cutting shapes to glue on with Mod Podge glue.

Who knows where this will take me? I may try to draw or cut out a real bird or two. Maybe. But maybe not.

Miriam

If at First You DO Succeed . . .

Don’t assume it means that you know what you’re doing! It could be beginner’s luck.

My daughter once said that she wanted to skip the part where she had to practice something and jump to the part where she’s awesome at it. She somehow manages to do that with most things.

In reality, with most things you DO need practice. I blithely wandered into baking macarons (not to be confused with macaroons), not realizing they’re notoriously tricky to make. Macarons are French melt-in-your-mouth concoctions made from sugar, beaten egg whites, air, and magic. Or perhaps chemistry (same thing).

They’re so cute!

They had no added food coloring nor flavored filling (I forgot the food coloring, then decided to keep the filling simple). I used a recipe from TheSpruce.com. They turned out remarkably well. They were small, as I’ve no experience piping and just made random blobs of different sizes, not using a template.

I got to use my beater’s whisk attachment

 

Yes, that’s my popcorn ceiling – I’m holding it upside down!

 

But they baked right, and the texture was amazing. I went easy on the butter cream filling, since I prefer less of that sort of thing. They were delicious. I’d beaten the egg whites like crazy, even trying the hold-the-bowl-upside-down trick to be sure they were beaten enough. Then I realized I hadn’t added sugar, so I beat them a bunch more. Maybe that’s why they turned out so good.

I jumped to the conclusion that I was some kind of Star Baker (see Great British Baking Show) and made more the next day. This time I tried a chocolate macaron recipe which adds a little cocoa powder. I created my own filling using leftover butter cream from the previous day. I added a little cocoa powder and some extra strong coffee to create a mocha butter cream. It was absolutely delicious.

Ok these look gross

Determined to make uniform sizes, I used a small glass to draw circles on the parchment paper. I think the circles were too big. And I probably shouldn’t have done a spiral design with the piping instead of a blob. They turned out weird. The texture wasn’t right. I don’t think they baked long enough. During the previous day’s bake I had lowered my oven temp a bit, since I’d been learning that it tended to run hot.

But I shouldn’t have messed with the temperature, and the macarons were too big – they did not have that light, airy, melt-in-your-mouth texture. I also made a batch of green ones, adding a few drops of food coloring (the liquid; I didn’t want to spend yet more money on food color paste since the almond flour was so darned expensive!). I made my own lime butter cream filling, with a little lime zest and fresh squeezed lime juice. It tasted good, though not as good as the mocha.

Edible but not great lime and mocha macarons

Overall, I learned not to be so darned cocky just because I succeeded from pure dumb luck the previous day! I am still impatient with long processes, and baking is largely about precision; one small change in the procedure can ruin the result.

I was still stewing about my disappointing bake when I came down with a cold. While home sick, I saw a segment of the Barefoot Contessa on TV; she was making salted caramel nuts. It looked fantastic! I had leftover nuts from previous projects, and I decided to use up leftover dates from last week’s Sticky Toffee Pudding.

The whole point of this Barefoot Contessa episode was making things that are notoriously tricky. I knew this going in, as I had tried to make my own caramel a couple times before, from white sugar, for flan (the flan turned out great; the caramel not so much), and the brown sugar caramel sauce that had been disappointing for my Sticky Toffee Pudding.

I watched her explain how to swirl the pan, not stir, as the sugar and water turned into caramel. It looked so easy! When I tried it, I had the same problem I’d had during my flan making. The sugar crystallized, entirely skipping the step where it turns nice and brown and looks like caramel! I was really frustrated. I was swirling my heart out. I kept adding water. I was swearing at the saucepan enough that my boyfriend came to the kitchen to see what was going on. Begging for help, I showed him the recipe from the Barefoot Contessa website and explained what I’d seen on TV. The short video online entirely skipped the swirling step. He seemed skeptical.

This is not working

After lots of heating, stirring, wrangling, swirling, more swearing (mine), he came to a number of conclusions about why it wasn’t working. Firstly, my boyfriend suggested that the pan might be at fault. It was a stainless steel saucepan with high sides, and the sugar kept climbing up the sides and crystallizing. He also thought I needed more water than was in the recipe. And he suggested that I wasn’t letting it boil long enough before I started swirling it around.

He was right on all three counts. I abandoned my crystallized sugar and used a non-stick flatter sauté pan. I added a lot more water. I put the flame to medium high heat as before and let it cook a good long time, watching carefully. The recipe had NOT indicated how long to boil before it would turn brown, nor do I recall the TV segment showing a long process (damn those editors!). I resisted the temptation to swirl it and waited. And waited.  It took a really long time, but by gum it worked! It actually turned brown. I was delighted.

That’s more like it!

I added the vanilla and swirled some more, plus kosher salt, then mixed in the pre-toasted nuts and dates. Then I spread it on a parchment-paper covered pan to cool, with a little final sprinkle of salt. It looked and smelled delicious. It is really good, though something you can only eat in small doses, for fear of breaking your teeth.

My final baking project for the month seemed the most daunting: croissants. I used a recipe by the Great British Baking Show’s Mary Berry for Raspberry and Almond Croissants. I’d never made pastry before. I recalled watching the bakers on the show pounding and rolling out the rectangles of butter to lay on the dough, folding, rolling, folding, chilling, etc. in several steps to create the flaky pastry you expect of a croissant. I was ready.

Wow did it take a long time. But it was fun. I enjoyed beating the butter with my rolling pin to flatten it into a rectangle. I tried to measure to the recipe’s specifications, but I wasn’t terribly precise about it (I’m a bit lazy and impatient). But overall I followed the directions pretty well. Until nearly the end.

Turns out it’s REALLY hard to roll out butter and dough that’s been in the freezer for 10-15 minutes. It takes a LOT of elbow grease to turn that into a large, thin rectangle. I was very tired by the time I’d gotten it about right, so tired that I wasn’t reading the directions carefully. I cut the rectangle the wrong way (what’s the opposite of “lengthwise”?). My triangles were clumsy and not uniform.

The raspberry and almond paste, I knew, would not be quite right. You needed to use raspberry powder, which I learned rather late was hard to find. I should’ve ordered it online weeks ago. It’s made from freeze-dried raspberries, which I might have been able to find at Trader Joe’s but didn’t bother. I looked online for substitutions and learned that raspberry jello powder might work, so I tried that. It mixed with the almond flour, almond extract, sugar and egg yolk to make a paste, which then had to be rolled into sausages (don’t have a picture of those; may have skipped because my hands were so sticky) and then put in the triangles to roll up into croissants. I’m not good at rolling, and too tired to take much care. It’s so much easier to pop open those tubes you get at the grocery store!

The croissants had to prove again before baking. I didn’t notice much growth this time, so I worried they wouldn’t turn out. When baking, the egg wash brushed on top of the croissants turned brown quickly, so I was concerned about them burning. I turned the temp down a bit and watched carefully. They were only supposed to bake for 8-10 minutes but now I worried that they were not baked inside. I let them bake a couple minutes extra before taking them out.

They actually looked okay, though not uniform. Some had puffed out more than others. Once they’d cooled enough to eat, I was pleasantly surprised. Some were not cooked enough in the middle or bottom, but others were better. There was a lot of really good flakiness created by all those layers of folding, rolling, folding … which made it worthwhile! The paste inside was less successful. Its texture was grainy. Next time I’ll just try plain croissants and take a bit more care. The taste of the pastry was actually good, and they were even better the next day, nice and buttery.

What did I learn from all this? You need precision, patience and care to make something really good. There’s also an element of luck. You can’t always control the level of heat or humidity or other factors. You can hedge your bets by paying attention to what you’re doing. And it helps to follow your instinct sometimes, instead of slavishly following directions. The trouble with something like baking is that if you don’t do something well, it can render your product inedible, or at least a lot less satisfying. I noticed the hosts of the Great British Baking Show using the word “perfection” quite a lot.

After all of this worry about precision and perfection, I’m going to shift gears for July. I’m going to try to get myself to play more, and NOT worry about perfection at all. Join me for my next arty creative endeavor!

Miriam

Things Are Not Always What They Seem

This week I made two desserts with very deceptive names. The first was something I’d heard mentioned on the Great British Baking Show: “Sticky Toffee Pudding.” It is neither pudding, nor does it contain any toffee. The Brits call all desserts “pudding,” which is confusing. This is actually a cake, made with chopped dates, made sticky by pouring caramel sauce on it, and served with whipped cream.

One of the weirder elements of the recipe I used (on the Epicurious website, by Sandy Lerner from Bon Appetit), was that after you boil the water and chopped dates and remove from heat – you stir in baking soda, which makes the mixture foamy!

This was like some weird science experiment

My pudding (or CAKE) was baked in a Bundt pan, which seemed to work just fine. I’m beginning to learn that my oven tends to run hot, however, as most things are baking too quickly. I’ll have to adjust temperatures and baking times in future. Desserts made in pans or vessels with non-stick coatings (as opposed to, say, plain aluminum) also end up baking faster. That was true with this dessert as well. It had not baked for nearly the time allotted before it was clearly overbaked and looked darker than it should.

A bit of the cake stuck to the inside of the Bundt pan despite buttering and flouring

While letting the cake cool, I made the caramel sauce with light brown sugar and heavy cream. I don’t think I let it boil long enough, as it was too grainy when I ate it served on the cake, despite the good sugary flavor. The next day I tried boiling it again a bit longer, which helped somewhat, though it still did not have a smooth texture. I’m not sure if that was my fault or not. (Maybe it would have been better if I’d used the optional brandy instead of vanilla?)

The Sticky Toffee Pudding did taste pretty good with the sugary sauce and fresh homemade whipped cream on it, but then again, what wouldn’t? However it did seem a bit disappointing, especially considering its misleadingly enticing name. I’m not sure I would make it again.

My next project was to try to recreate the excellent Russian Tea Cakes that my neighbor Alice (from my first baking blog, Alice’s Loaf Pan) always made at Christmastime when I was little.

Alice Anderson

The association is so strong for me that it actually seemed WRONG to be making them in June.

Again, the name of this dessert is deceptive. These are actually cookies and not cakes.  It turns out that they have several names, including Snowball Cookies, Mexican Wedding Cakes, Italian Wedding Cookies, Butterballs and Snowballs. The “Snowball” names make sense, as they are little balls covered in powdered sugar. But I have always known them as Russian Tea Cakes.

My recollection of the texture of the finished cookies is that they should be crumbly, a mess to eat, and almost melt in your mouth, despite the fact that there are nuts in them. The recipe I used was “Mom’s Russian Tea Cakes” by Dorothy Kern on the Crazy for Crust website.

The various recipes I looked at recommended different kinds of nuts, from almonds to walnuts or pecans, or a mix. I wish I knew what kind of nuts Alice used. I tried to imagine what the cookies tasted like to make my decision, but I don’t eat nuts that often. I opted for walnuts, which I thought would have the right texture and flavor. I bought them already in pieces but chopped them a bit finer, abusing my pastry blender a bit. The recipe I used recommended pecans, and in retrospect that may have been a better choice. But I thought the walnuts worked fine, and the taste seemed pretty good.

This dough is very floury

Mixed dough with added nuts

 

 

 

 

 

 

This dough has lots of flour in it and not as much butter as you might have in a typical cookie. That meant that the dough was pretty crumbly, so it was not possible to roll the dough in my hands to make a perfect sphere – it kept crumbling. So I just shaped them, which meant they were not the nice perfect balls I remembered from Alice’s cookies.

I thought of adding more butter than the recipe called for, but then worried that the cookies would spread too much and not keep their shape, which would ruin the whole effect.

 

 

 

Again, the cookies on my different types of pans baked unevenly. Some were overbaked. You have to roll the cookies in powdered sugar a minute after taking them out of the oven, when they’re still warm. It’s recommended to roll them in sugar again after they’re cool, which I did.

They were pretty good overall. Most of them had the right texture, though some seemed too dense (possibly underbaked?), and they were messy to eat, just like I remembered them. The texture improved after they’d been sitting for a day. I’ll have to try them again at Christmastime!

Thinking about these misnamed desserts, I pondered how easy it is to make assumptions about things based on their names. Or to make assumptions about people. I remember when I was raising my kids, struggling to figure out what to make to eat, with my very limited skills and even more limited confidence. I was angry that it was assumed by everyone (Society? My family? Myself?) that I would automatically know how to cook, just because I was now a “mother”. I felt inadequate to the task. In retrospect I understand how I was shortchanged even by my anger, which was not very productive. These things have to be learned! It does not come with the territory through osmosis or some kind of magical transference.

I am finally learning how to do some of the things which are considered by many to be basic life skills. If I had raised my children in a place or time without convenience foods and cooking shortcuts like microwaves, I would have been forced to learn more of these skills. Again, I feel disappointed in myself to be learning things so late in life. But I guess the good news is that I haven’t stopped learning.

Miriam

 

Let Them Eat Cake (or Not)

What I haven’t made clear in my previous blogs about trying to bake new things is that I have no idea what I’m doing. I have not baked much in my life besides my yearly attempt at pie (with mixed results). In the pictures I’ve included, everything has looked reasonably good, and of course you’re not able to taste the results.

What I have not included are descriptions of the many times I drop things, spill things, swear out loud, measure things wrong, and forget to read the recipe through.

Despite same cooking same, different results. Different pans – one aluminum, one not, might account for it?

In the Red Velvet Cake I forgot that I was supposed to sift the flour mixture until I’d dumped half of it into the wet ingredients. So I sifted half of it. Did that affect the texture? Maybe. I forgot to put foil on top of the halves of the carrot cake 20 minutes into baking to prevent burning the tops. One half did brown too much. And I make an incredible mess. I really should wear an apron.

I end up doing 3 loads of dishes each time I bake

Despite errors, my “Cake Week” was actually better than expected.

Red Velvet was first, which my son declared a “gimmick” – and he’s right. (Didn’t stop him from eating some.) It uses a huge amount of red food coloring (not having read the recipe carefully, I had to send my boyfriend out to get another bottle).

Looks like blood

Lots of red stain on my fingers

There’s not much cacao powder, so it’s not very chocolatey. It tasted good, but could’ve been moister.

 

The frosting was weird – you first make roux using flour, butter and milk, before adding confectioner’s sugar. The color was a bit off-putting, like dingy old glue. And I really don’t know how to ice a cake.

 

But it turned out better than I expected, and it did not collapse in the middle like previous attempts! I was disciplined about letting it bake the proper time without poking at it or opening the oven door too much (my light bulb is out and we haven’t figured out how to replace it). The rising is from mixing baking soda and vinegar! You know, just like the volcanoes you make for grade school. The recipe was from allrecipes.com.

My next attempt was a reduced-sugar carrot cake by Mary Berry from the Great British Baking Show. The only sources of sweetness was carrots, golden raisins (which Brits call, weirdly, sultanas), and agave nectar, which I’ve never used before. And of course the cream cheese and maple syrup icing, which was also a bit odd tasting.

Overall it turned out okay, reasonably moist; I liked the mild orange flavor from the orange zest. (I even bought a brand spiffy new zester!)

However, the overall flavor was not sweet enough for me. It also used vegetable oil instead of butter or shortening, which I felt left a weird taste. I would maybe try the recipe again using butter. I ate one piece that night, and it felt more like a meal than dessert (with all the healthy walnuts). I tried a piece the next day, and it tasted better after a night in the fridge, though that may have been because my expectations were lowered.

 

Although it looked nice, I did not feel good enough about it to share with others.

My third cake was an Orange Savarin recipe from the contestant Chetna on the Great British Baking Show. This is a yeast cake, and is supposed to bake in a “savarin tin,” which I’d never heard of. I used a Bundt pan, which seemed to be the closest thing.

It’s a yeast cake. After the first mixing of ingredients, you’re supposed to let it prove for a short time. I didn’t feel like it rose at all. I’m not sure if the milk I added was too cool or what, but I was worried.

This is how is looks before you whisk it into shape. Not promising!

I had plans for later in the day, and I didn’t want to wait too long or try again, so I decided to leave it up to the second rise to see what happened.

I let it rise an extra several minutes in the pan, but it was hard to tell if that was enough. The instructions said to let it rise almost to the top of the pan, but I wasn’t using a proper savarin pan. So …

The savarin did rise more in the oven, but it looked overbaked, despite following the directions. (It said “about 40 minutes,” which I hate – tell me exact numbers!) My son and I tasted a bit before I put the syrup on top, and it was pretty plain. We could taste the orange zest in the cake.

Yes, this was after we snuck out a slice to taste it

I was worried that the browned crust of the cake would not absorb the syrup of orange juice, Grand Marnier and sugar. I spooned it on top carefully and let it soak in for a while.

While not mathematically correct, still looked kinda pretty

I whipped the heavy cream with the cinnamon and sugar, iced it into the center and on top of the cake (somewhat clumsily as I’ve not done this before). I added more decoration than the pictures on the Great British Baking Show/PBS web page, such as orange slices. I skipped the pistachios in the recipe as both my son and I are not that keen on nuts.

It tasted good! Definitely an “adult” dessert, not too sweet, but quite delicious with the syrup soaked into the cake. The cinnamon whipped cream was great – I thought it would taste fantastic on the next Thanksgiving pumpkin pie!

And I had one of these little airplane-sized bottles left over for a treat!

So here’s the upshot:

  • Despite all your careful (or sometimes not so careful) preparations, things don’t always turn out. Live with it or try again.
  • Things almost always take longer than you think. Allow for that.
  • Be patient. Sometimes the best things really do come to those who wait.
  • Be prepared to clean up your messes. You will make them.
  • Enjoy the process and the fun discoveries you make. Sometimes the unexpected ones are the best ones.
  • If you can, share with others! Life is sweeter when shared.

Miriam