I Earned That Cliché.
This was supposed to be a post about choux pastry. I was going to talk about how this
difficult but satisfying pastry made on the stove is worth a try. It builds arm muscles. It requires a
wooden spoon and a rubber spatula. It is best when filled with crème patisserie. I was going to talk
about how I cried the first time I made crème patisserie because it didn’t set, but now feel like I can
do it in my sleep. I was going to describe the thrill of watching my choux buns rise and brown, the
flashlight on my cell phone pressed against the door of my oven because the light burnt out and I
don’t know where to buy a new one.
I was going to do all of that. But I realized something this morning. I will be 29 in less than a
month and I have spent my entire twenties being heartbroken. That sounds dramatic. I don’t mean
it to be. Heartbreak has become a fact of my day to day existence, like brushing my teeth or driving
to work or knitting and watching Game of Thrones in the evening. It is something that has grown
around me, not exactly comforting, but something I’ve accepted. Something that each time I meet a
new man I feel I am only waiting for.
Last summer, fresh off of another heartbreak I went to Norway to visit a friend and meet her fiancé. While there I also happened to meet a man from the town next to mine who lives and works in Oslo. We spent an amazing, romantic night walking around the city, the summer sun low in the sky but still visible at two in the morning. He was smart and handsome and worldly, and different from anyone I’d met in the states. We discovered we’d been in the same place but at different schools for college, and then in very close proximity for grad school. We laughed about how funny life is, that you can meet someone halfway around the world, when you didn’t meet them despite living in the same small southern city.
He held my hand as we walked through a community garden near the oldest church in Oslo, and told me about the neighborhood. At his apartment we took turns choosing songs on youtube (I played Ryan Adams and Fleet Foxes and The Tallest Man on Earth, he chose Thelonious Monk and Scriabin and Debussy) and kissed in front of his bedroom window.
I’m hesitant to say we started dating. How do you date someone that is a literal ocean away? But we started something and this something continued and he came to the US a couple of times and last month I went back to Norway to see him, for what would be the longest amount of time we’d spent together. I tried my best to be optimistic and at the same time have no expectations. Although I have come a long way, I still hold deep inside me a fear of men, and of their opinions of me. I still try very hard to appear effortless, convenient, and unassuming. To ask for very little. To prove I can slide easily in and out, can fit into their lives with minimal adjustment on their part. I don’t want to be this way. I don’t want male approval to be so important to me. But you can’t unlearn the thing the society has spent 28 years teaching you just because you want to.
My trip was beautiful and romantic and lonely and complicated. We went to a town called Alesund and hiked a fjord. We chopped tomatoes in his kitchen, had intimate dinners in little Oslo restaurants, bought Christmas presents for his nieces and nephews. We watched all of The People Vs. OJ Simpson and I was afraid for him to see me cry during the scene where everyone is so cruel about Marcia Clark’s hair and only Chris Darden tells her she looks fantastic. While he was at work I walked most of the city by myself. I went to museums and went shopping, learned to use the bus, and never seemed to be able to get warm. In short: it was wonderful. I knew we should have talked about what we both wanted, but I wasn’t brave enough to ask. I didn’t want my trip to end that way. So instead we spent our last morning together at the Oslo airport, each heading to different parts of the US, pretending that wasn’t the case.
And since then we’ve talked and not talked. He’s grown distant. I know the signs of someone pulling away. I’ve been ghosted before. It makes you feel small and invisible, while the other person looms large in the landscape of your heartbreak. But I refused to be ghosted again. He and I, I knew we were better that than. That if our story was going to end here, it needed to end with words not silence. And so I asked. I asked what he wanted. And he asked what I wanted. I wanted to try. But I knew he was right when he said the distance was too far, that without an endpoint in sight it was almost impossible. Maybe a different version of myself would have tried to convince him. But I’ve known for a long time that you cannot convince someone to want you or love you. It doesn’t work that way. So I told him that I appreciated every moment we spent together. That I wasn't sorry we met or that I went there. I told him that without him I don’t think I would have realized how much is possible, how much I am allowed to want, to have. He told me he wasn’t sorry either. That he wanted good things for me. Normally I don’t believe men when they say that. But I believe him.
Though if I am being honest, being heartbroken again, for what feels like the at least the fiftieth time in the past few years (but realistically is probably only the third or fourth) made me question so much about myself and my worth. I felt like maybe if I’d been different I could have convinced him I was worth trying this impossible thing. If I was a more exciting sort of woman or just a little more beautiful or a little thinner, or if I laughed more or laughed less, he would have changed his mind. It made me feel like I was missing something. Like everyone else knew something, some rule or trick that I never learned and never would. But if I want to be a different sort of woman I have to remind myself that the only person’s approval that matters is my own.
I knew the risk. I knew this was the likely outcome. I did it anyway. I did it because I want to be someone brave. Because every movie and tv show and novel and piece of advice tells me that the risk is worth it, no guts no glory, lay it all on the line for love. Was is worth it? Ask me tomorrow. Heartache is an exhausting thing. But I know I don’t regret it. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about the future. Hoping things will turn out one way, realizing they almost never do. And I can hope for all my days that I will find love. My friends can tell me not to give up, can reassure that I’m beautiful and smart and worthwhile. But the thing is, no one can tell me for sure that it will happen for me. No one can tell me for sure that it won’t either. But I can no longer plan my life around something so uncertain. I have to prepare myself for the eventuality of being alone. And that’s okay. Being alone is okay. Some days I’m better at knowing this than others.
I want to be brave but I don’t often feel brave. And in my cowardly heart is a picture of my life when I’m old and alone. And I really don’t like it. Maybe I can’t control whether or not another person will be part of that picture. But there are some things about it I can change. I don’t have to see myself in some sad apartment, anonymous among strangers in a dark city. Instead I try to picture myself somewhere exciting. With a view that looks over water and a closet full of great outfits. I think about walking down cobblestone streets somewhere foreign. Smiling for no reason the way women do in old movies. Just because something occurs to them, because the moment is wonderful and will never happen again. I think about the ways you meet people when you travel alone, and how it’s different than when you travel with someone else. I think about how I’ve learned so much more about how the world may be big but doesn’t have to be scary when I’ve been on my own.
I haven’t given up. But I’m trying to rearrange my life a little. I’m trying to ask myself why relationships are important to me. What is it I’m hoping to gain? Love? Acceptance? Intimacy? Sex? Passion? Security? Don’t I already have a lot of those things in my life? One thing I know for sure is that I would rather be alone than with the wrong person, in a bad relationship, or even a relationship that felt safe but lacking. I’d rather be alone than have to convince someone I’m worth the effort. I don’t want to make myself smaller. I don’t want to be afraid.
I guess it’s a little fanciful, or maybe just naive, but I want someone who, like all my closest friends, makes the world seem bigger. And most of the men I’ve dated have made my world seem really small. I don’t want to live in the smallest version of the world anymore. With him the world felt bigger. That doesn’t change because it’s over or because it was brief. It’s strange that in this moment where I feel so sad I could also feel almost deliriously happy. Like even though this thing I wanted to work didn’t I saw what was possible. I had a glimpse of a different life, a different version of myself. But I realize now that I don’t need another person for her to exist. I can be her if I decide to. I am beholden to nothing, and that kind of freedom doesn’t come around very often. I can accept that something is over and still appreciate it for what it was.
I went to Norway in the middle of winter. I walked around all of Oslo. I spent a weekend in a beautiful town with someone I really like. I hiked a fjord in a wool dress. That all of those things were wonderful does not change because I got my heart broken. Again.
When I was in Norway I lay on his bed one night. He sat on the edge and smiled at me and then turned to play the keyboard that sat against his wall. I don’t know how long he played. I don’t remember what time it was. Late. I was in pajamas with a heart embroidered on the hip and my mouth tasted like toothpaste and I ran my tongue over my teeth and closed my eyes. He played classical and jazz and I don’t know enough about music to guess which pieces. And it felt perfect. A perfect small moment, made all the more lovely because it lasted only so briefly. The fact of my leaving hung over everything, though neither of us brought it up. I knew in my fragile heart that this might be all I got. So I lived in those moments so deeply that for weeks I have dreamt so vividly about walking down a snow covered street in Oslo at 3pm and watching the sunset that I wake shocked to find I am in America. Is that cliché? Maybe. But I earned that cliché.
Worrying about things I can’t control hasn’t ever gotten me anywhere. But finally letting go of that worry gave me something that no one can take from me, that no heartbreak can ruin. Nothing is ever perfect, but most things, even the hard and sad things, hold some small beauty inside them, and most things (though not all things) are okay, in the end.
I won’t pretend choux pastry is quite as complicated or requires quite as much bravery. But the only thing that has ever helped me when I am sad or heartbroken or lonely is making things, and choux pastry happens to be one of my favorite things to make. It is a brief process, unlike croissants, taking only an afternoon. Choux pastry contains no rising agent. It all depends on how it is mixed and how it is baked. High risk, high reward. Get extra ingredients, because you may have to try again.
Vanilla Blackberry Eclairs
350 ml Whole Milk
1 tsp vanilla bean paste (or one vanilla pod, split and seeded)
4 egg yolks
30 grams corn flour
75 grams granulated sugar
200 ml heavy whipping cream
Bring the milk and vanilla to the boil in a saucepan then remove from the heat
Mix the sugar, egg yolks and flours together until thoroughly incorporated (I recommend using a hand mixer, the mixture will turn slightly lighter in color when ready)
Pour the warmed milk over the egg mixture a little bit at a time and whisk vigorously. Be careful not to incorporate too quickly as you risk curdling the egg.
Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and continue to whisk over a medium heat
Cook until the mixture boils and thickens being careful not to let it burn on the bottom of the pan
Remove from the heat cover with cling film to prevent a skin forming. Allow to cool and place in the fridge until needed
Using a stand mixer, whisk the heavy cream until thick, then fold into the cooled crème patisserie
75 grams butter, cubed
1 tsp granulated sugar
125 ml water
50 grams all purpose flour
50 grams bread flour
(I used Martha Collison’s recipe, with a couple substitutions, listed above)
Preheat the oven to 355 degrees Fahrenheit and line a large baking tray with baking parchment. (I like to draw roughly 3 inch lines on the parchment paper to guide where and how long to pipe the éclairs.)
Place the butter, sugar and water into a small saucepan over a medium heat. Bring the mixture to a rolling boil and, when all the butter has melted, add both flours and vigorously beat the mixture with a wooden spoon until a smooth ball of dough forms. Keep the pan on the heat and stir rapidly for a further minute. Tip the dough into a bowl and leave until it has stopped steaming.
Add the eggs in 3 separate additions, beating well in between each one. You might not need to add all the eggs – you need just enough so the dough falls off the spoon and leaves a ‘v’ shape.
Spoon into a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle. Pipe onto the prepared tray then bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes until golden and well risen. Turn the oven off and allow the pastry to cool completely in the oven. Once cooled and removed from oven, cut in half to be filled.
While the choux is baking make the blackberry curd (jar the extra, using the jar sterilizing steps from this post)
200 grams of Blackberries
Zest and juice of two large unwaxed lemons
100g unsalted butter
140 grams granulated sugar
Whiz the berries in a food processor and strain to remove seeds from juice (reserve approx. 50 grams for icing below)
In medium saucepan combine the juice and other ingredients, whisking together before adding the cubed butter.
Heat on low until all of the butter has melted, stirring all the while
Turn heat up to medium and continue to whisk for 5-6 minutes until the mixture has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and ladle into jars or a bowl to cool. Tightly fasten lids. The curd will keep in a sterilized jar in the fridge for two weeks.
Combine extra fruit juice with powdered sugar (approx. 1.5 cups) adding a little at a time until thick and smooth. Set aside.
Once the éclairs have cooled cut them in half as you would a hot dog bun. Spread a layer of curd on the bottom half, and then pipe with crème patisserie.
Before placing the top back on your éclairs spread an even layer of blackberry icing. Decorated with sprinkles or edible hearts (as seen here) if you’d like. Gently set the top on the layer of crème pat.