I’ve been experimenting with a couple of new ways to beat the winter blues—baking with such frenzy that I have to buy the 18 egg cartons and the person at the register asks me, “Big weekend plans?” every. single. time, and expanding my horizons with such gusto that I nearly got dropkicked by a jazz enthusiast.
Let me explain.
After watching a beautiful tombstone-grey sunset at 3:30 one October afternoon, I had the urge to bake because “You can’t stick your head in the oven if there’s other stuff in there.”
So I have been baking. Like, obsessively.
I’ve even gotten fancy. I made a povitica, the Aaron Burr of breads, with raspberry and then apricot jam (very sticky, but tasty). Then I wanted to try a savory challah, so I experimented with adding different amounts of cardamom and THEN za’atar.
I tried making challah with harissa because it seemed like a good idea at the time. It was super messy working the harissa into the dough and then braiding it before the whole loaf could fall apart, but the end result was delicious and made my kitchen smell like a spice market in the midst of somewhere warm that is not Michigan.
I made two Bienenstich, or bee sting cakes, which I hadn’t attempted since my brioche class. I managed not to overdo the topping this time! No almond-induced structural collapses here.
Then I made this gigantic cinnamon roll, which the recipe claimed was an Estonian Kringla, and since the best cinnamon roll I’ve ever had was in Estonia, I tried it out. And it was pretty good, but didn’t quite get me to pre-winter euphoria levels, aka enough energy to stay awake past mid-afternoon because it’s so dark outside.
My sister really wanted to make Halloween desserts together, which translated into me buying all the supplies and then baking everything myself while she lay on the floor.
She had just run a half-marathon . . . five days earlier.
I don’t like making Rice Krispie treats as they are a tactile nightmare. Everything you touch sticks to you forever and then continues to stick to you even after you die. I also gravely miscalculated how many marshmallows to buy (because weight and volume are different, apparently? School never covered that) and my mom will not let me live it down—anyone who stops by the house is asked, “Do you want something to drink? Or maybe some marshmallows? Elizabeth bought a thousand.”
Stella likes to say, “God knew you’d be too powerful if you were good at math.”
I don’t enjoy cooking as much as baking, but I made my yearly stab at sides for Thanksgiving. These harissa sweet potatoes looked beautiful but were a little too spicy for my weak-ass family.
(I also may have put in too much harissa. But it’s expensive and I wanted to use it all!).
A and I are officially in the throes of cabin fever, and when our beloved Midnight Madness rolled around, she decided that we needed to mix things up and elected to check out a jazz club downtown that we had never visited. Our friend Julia was with us and her mom was in town from the East Coast, so A thought we’d show them a sophisticated time . . . after visiting the holiday petting zoo, of course, and making a quick stop in the Himalayan Bazaar to see if the Yeti was around—he was not, because he never is, BUT I WILL SEE HIM NEXT YEAR SO HELP ME.
Stella did not join us for Midnight Madness, electing instead to stay in and watch The Crown, which in hindsight, was too much of a gamble to take without supervision.
We swept into the jazz club with our heavy coats and dorky beanies and I immediately felt way too square to chill with the jazz cats. Everyone had sleek scarves and trendy eyewear and even the gorgeous modern light fixtures seemed to judge us as we sat at our table.
There was a lady wearing sunglasses inside. At night. In winter.
It was below freezing out. I thought, “Is this an awards show?”
I had only eaten roasted almonds and hot chocolate for dinner so I needed something revitalizing . . . or barring that, mozzarella sticks.
This jazz club did not have mozzarella sticks. Mozzarella sticks aren’t cool. They had charcuterie plates, pate, foie gras PB&J (why?), and charred baby octopus (WHY?), and everything was super expensive, but there was a jazz quintet onstage that seemed really legit, so I was excited to get some culture, even at the expense of mozzarella sticks.
A stared down at the menu like she could intimidate it into submission. She will eat anything, but draws the line at baby animals that have been set on fire.
“I don’t know what to get,” she said. “I can’t eat an octopus, when they dream they change color!”
“What are you guys ordering?” I asked Julia and her mom.
And then, out of nowhere, SLAM, a hand smacked our table loud enough to make me jump. An older man glared at me and said, “I’m not paying to hear you talk.”
He looked a lot like Santa, which made it even more distressing. I don’t want to get in trouble with Santa!
A is from Chicago and doesn’t take anyone’s shit (which is good for me, because to quote John Mulaney, “You could pour soup into my lap and I’d apologize to you“), so she looked Santa right in the eye and said, very calmly, “You don’t need to take that tone. We’ve never been here before and we’re trying to figure out what to order.”
Santa scowled and said, “Just be quiet.” Like we were children, which we are not. We patronize jazz clubs!
Just so we’re clear, A was the most well-behaved child who ever childed and practically showed up to preschool with a briefcase. No one has ever told her, “Just be quiet.” And I was so hyperfocused on craft kits and Legos that no one ever told me that either. In fact, adults scolded me to be less quiet because “You’re like a little ninja.”
“That wasn’t very Midwestern,” said Julia. “Don’t get the wrong idea, Mom. People in Ann Arbor are usually very chill.”
“He’s probably a boomer,” said Julia’s mom, who is a boomer herself, and incredibly cool.
We ordered our drinks and tried to enjoy the jazz.
Here’s the thing about jazz. People think they’ll enjoy it, because music, right? Who doesn’t like music? Everyone loved La La Land, and there was jazz in that, right?
But what you don’t know about jazz, until you’re trapped in a jazz club with incinerated child octopi and furious boomers, is that the average jazz song is about fifteen minutes long. There’s the normal part, that sounds like a song and tells a story you can follow and enjoy, and then the improv starts. Every musician starts playing scales or hitting the drums in a way that should be exciting but really isn’t, and should build to something musically but really doesn’t, and then when they’re done the audience claps and the next person does the same thing, but it’s like listening to several minutes of joke set-ups with no punchlines. Over and over, until they just stop and then the next song starts.
“Are they going to do this for every song?” I thought about saying, but then did not, because I didn’t want to anger the man.
Instead, I checked my phone for a quick primer on jazz appreciation.
I still hadn’t eaten anything and A had declared that we wouldn’t be ordering any food so we could leave sooner . . . but not soon enough.
Other people were chatting and eating and enjoying the music, but I wasn’t doing any of those things.
A was glaring daggers into the back of Santa’s head.
Julia and her mom weren’t super into it either, to the point that Julia claimed that if she rushed the stage and pretended to be the next act by riffing on a triangle, no one would question it. Her mom was supportive of this, so it was time to go.
We said good-bye outside, relieved at finally being allowed to speak freely.
“That drum solo went on FOREVER,” said Julia.
“I thought the cymbal crash meant it was over but it just kept going!” said A.
“I really liked La La Land an hour ago and now I hate it,” I said.
So my journey to find something that will beat seasonal affective disorder back to whence it came continues. Will I go complicated and attempt to make my first panettone, which can take 24 HOURS to bake?
Or keep it simple and just get some mozzarella sticks?