Lessons in the Kitchen

Yesterday I embarked on a new adventure in the kitchen: homemade chocolate. Having lived and studied in Switzerland for a year, I will admit I've become quite the chocolate snob. I prefer my chocolate Cailler crémant 73% noir. It's that specific. However, since I am no longer living in the land of cheese and chocolate, I have had to accustom myself to the American standard of chocolate. That is, not my selected Cailler bar, but as good as you can get here (note: chocolate is one of my love languages, just as long as it's not Hershey's, thank you very much). Told you I'm a chocolate snob.

The procedure for Leigh's Grand Baking Adventures goes something like this: spend hours scouring the Internet for a good recipe to emulate, procure ingredients, spend an additional 3 hours making a mess in the kitchen, indulge in the treat, spend another hour cleaning up the atrocity that the kitchen became (so Mom and Dad don't get angry when they come home to all the baking dishes out on the counter and covered in whatever substances that have been used throughout the process...flashbacks to my first batch of macarons two summers ago). You could say that, if time equals love, I pour a heck of a lot of love into my baking.

But sometimes it doesn't turn out just right.

I'd found an irresistible recipe for dark chocolate coconut bites on Pinterest Monday night, and decided Tuesday morning after watching a couple episodes in the last season of Gossip Girl that I'd have to work a little to get to watch the series finale. These coconut bites are the equivalent of (health.....ier) Mounds. Which just happen to be one of my favorite candies (I say candies because I have quite the sweet tooth. Candy is also one of my love languages...among many other food-related ones. Fun fact: for loving sugar so much, I've never once had a cavity!). It only made sense to combine my favorite show with my favorite candy.

With the goal of a sweet, coconutty dessert to wrap up Gossip Girl, I headed into the kitchen and assembled my troops: all my ingredients, a million spoons, all our mixing bowls, half of the pans (I never said I was a tidy baker, did I?) and got to work. After proudly texting my sister and best friend that I was about to conquer the kitchen and make the coconut mounds. Not in so many words, of course. But the pride was obviously detectable.

The coconut filling was easy enough: coconut flakes, coconut oil, vanilla, homemade simple syrup. It was quite simple, pun intended. However, the recipe (obviously) called for chocolate. Instead of melting the bar of Swiss baking chocolate we've got somewhere in this kitchen (from Cailler, duh), I decided to make the dipping chocolate from scratch using a separate recipe I'd found a couple weeks ago when I was on a chocolate frenzy.

That's where it all went awry.

My sister has taken up this new method of communication called "randomly FaceTiming Leigh to catch up." Besides catching me off-guard each of the two times she's called me, it's a lovely way of staying in touch with Rachel, particularly when texting can only get us so far in one of our lengthy conversations. And lucky for her, she decided to call me just as I was starting the dipping chocolate. We discussed the normal sisterly things: how all of my childhood friends are now off and married/engaged, leading the Kolb sisters to appreciate friendship even deeper; how she has been working her tail off on transcribing interviews for her thesis (which is the British version of a dissertation...not the only thing the Brits are doing oppositely), needs to catch up on my blog (hey, sis!), and was rubbing it in my face that I cannot eat Indian food; how I've become the source of everyone's house sitting needs this summer (reconsidering my career goals...).

We had a nice conversation, and Rachel got to see a chaotic rendition of a chocolatier - and the chocolate-coated whisk - before she got back to her thesis work. In all the hubbub of our conversation, I got distracted from the steps in the recipe and somehow thought I was supposed to stir in the milk after taking the melted cacao/ghee off the double boiler. And was inevitably confused when the texture of the chocolate turned from luxuriously silky to congealed and grainy. But thankfully I had Rachel to blame for distracting me from the straight and narrow path to chocolatier success...or did I? (now you can see the influence of Gossip Girl on my writing...XOXO.)

Technically, I got the chocolate to homogenize, and there's no use wasting high-quality and high-priced cacao powder, so I scraped it all into a shallow ceramic dish and put it in the fridge. Maybe it'll turn to fudge, I hoped.

So here I was, back at the beginning. There was no way I was about to admit defeat and give up on covering these 21 mounds of coconut in chocolate. Plus, I'd made a rookie mistake that could easily be fixed. Just keep the chocolate mixture on the double boiler as I poured the milk and sugar in, and all my troubles would be whisked away. Plus, I'd started making a cherry syrup to flavor the chocolate, so that would make it even better.

I went back through the steps again (after thoroughly washing all the dishes I'd just dirtied and getting even more out to replace those too sticky with chocolate...see why my parents always have a headache when I bake?), this time looking five times at each step to make sure I wasn't missing anything. I even kept the chocolate on the burner. So far, so good. But once again, when I poured the almond milk in, the once-silky chocolate began to harden like it had half an hour before. I tried turning the heat up - maybe that was the issue. Nope. Not enough liquid? I added the cherry syrup, and still the same result. That wasn't it. So perhaps it was the almond milk (which does have a different texture and composition than milk). I have yet to investigate further, but I'd say that was the culprit.

Frustrated, I decided to just go with it and cover the coconut mounds with the grainy chocolate, literally using my hands to cement the chocolate to the coconut rather than dipping the mounds into a pool of perfectly thick and smooth dipping chocolate. I was disappointed. Not only because I had messed up twice, used the majority of my bag of cacao powder (grr), and spent the better part of three hours baking, but also because I had overestimated myself and taken pride in a skill I had yet to learn and hone.

Many of my friends and family see me as being a master in the kitchen. When it comes to cooking, I will accept their accolades (somehow I can cook well à la Parisienne, throwing together whatever is available in the kitchen, inventing new and unexpected combinations to make a dish I could eat for the rest of forever). Baking, however, is not my strongest suit. As much of a Type A personality as I am, needing everything to be put together and organized, when it comes to the kitchen, I much prefer ample room for experimentation. It's easy to conceal mistakes in cooking - using sweetened vanilla almond milk instead of plain almond milk for creamy roasted red pepper pasta sauce is forgivable and can sometimes go unnoticed (score for last night's dinner!). Unfortunately, there's not much of that room with baking, seeing as measurements must be precise, everything must be prepared in the right order, no mistakes, etc. Yes, I've succeeded in "mastering" the French macaron (which just so happened to be some of the best macarons I've ever had) and I make some killer Earl Grey lemon squares (caution: they're addicting), but baking necessitates a great deal of learning and patience.

Like so many kitchen experiences in the past, this one failed. Miserably. [insert bawling emoji here] If you know me at all, you know just how upset I get when something I've poured all my energy, time, and love into goes awry. But it's that passion to create that drives me to make mistakes for the sake of learning...and baked goods. Sure, I want to be successful in my baking endeavors. But there's more to it than just that. The kitchen is where I use a lot of my creativity and learn vital lessons in patience and self-forgiveness. In the past few years it's where I've discovered a lot about my personality.

For example, I've learned that the true test of my passion is failure. To explain it simply, if I'm not passionate about something, failure will be the end-all-be-all. Yeah, I "shouldn't" give up just because I've failed, and I could be good at almost anything if I put my time and effort into practicing, but if I don't love what it is I'm doing, why would I waste that energy? Where's the sense in that? I'm a woman of passion. And as George Burns says: "It is better to be a failure at something you love than to be a success at something you hate."

I used to do ballet when I was a youngin', but when I totally botched the routine at my spring recital and embarrassed myself in front of a crowd of who knows how many people, I decided I didn't want to do it anymore because I never enjoyed it to begin with (from what I remember, my recital reminds me of the Jingle Bell Rock scene in Mean Girls, only there were tutus, curled hair, rouged cheeks, and little Leigh dancing out of sync in the very front. Doing the complete opposite of the other little ballerinas. There might have been beach balls...or umbrellas, but the memory comes through like a distant dream. And there was no girl drama or fetch happening among those pink tutus).

But put me in a kitchen with a macaron recipe, and no matter how long it takes, how many times I mess up the recipe, or how many attempts I make in a single day (I once spent an entire day making two batches of macarons because I'd messed the first up. Let me just say, it takes about five hours on a good day to make macarons, start to finish), I will try time and again to perfect the French delicacy. Maybe this is because I'm convinced I'm a Parisienne at heart. Maybe it's due to my love of decadent foods. I do know for a fact that it's an attestation of my determination and passion in the face of failure.

Funnily enough, it turns out that my mom loved my coconut mounds. And when I reached in the fridge to try my fudge this morning, it was actually good. Not Swiss chocolate good. I'll never reach that level of perfection. But surprisingly rich and tasty for the failure it'd seemed to be at the moment. Perhaps this is a reminder that our failures aren't always what we chock them up to be. Just because things hadn't gone the way I'd planned didn't necessarily mean they'd gone wrong. It didn't mesh with my expectations, but gave me a result that was surprisingly just as good as I'd expected...in a different form.

So let my failure in the kitchen ignite a reconsideration of what your failure means. I'll leave you with a quote from Sophia Amoruso:

"There are secret opportunities in every failure."