11.05.2012

Just a feeling I get

People never believe me when I tell them, though I think Eli may finally be coming around. This latest event is highly convincing. Practically indisputable. It may, in fact, be the proof I've been waiting for. As for you, friends, you'll believe me, won't you?

I am a real-life conjurer.  

Some things I have heretofore conjured:

1. Friends on the street.
This can go down a couple of different ways. First, there's the run-of-the-mill, straightforward, and frankly rather boring conjure. For example, I might stop somewhere on campus and text you to see if you're around and if you'd like to grab a cup of tea or, if you're also headed home, join me for the walk. Mid-text, I'll look up, and who's that bounding down the stairs of Dudley Hall? You! Conjured. 

But typically my powers manifest in a far more convoluted way. I'll be walking down the street, thinking about that radio show on Lucy the chimpanzee, or what's for dinner, or my house keys, whether they're in my jacket pocket, or my pants pocket, or the little pocket with the snap stitched into my tote bag where I always put them, except for when I'm carrying my phone in there and I don't want the glass to get scratched so, yes, there they are, in my jacket pocket, as I suspected. What I'm not thinking about is you. But suddenly I round the bend where Mass Ave. becomes Garden Street, and there you are. I know it's you by the slight hunch in your shoulders, and the way your hair falls over the tops of your ears, and by your pea coat and wiry glasses, of course. I'm about to wave hello - sometimes I even do - when I realize that, wait, it's not you at all. So I abort the wave and scratch my chin instead and proceed another block or so, and now I am thinking about you, about how I haven't seen you for a while and how I wish that had been you, how maybe I'll shoot you an e-mail when I get home -- or actually, I won't, because now, for real this time, crossing Mason Street and coming right at me, is YOU. I am not kidding when I say that this happens all the time.   

2. Phone calls from my father.
I'm not sure this counts as a true conjure, but it feels somewhat related, and it's pretty cool. Also, Eli has witnessed this one in action: When my father calls on our house line, I know it's him before I pick up. The phone rings once, and I say out loud, "It's my dad." (This is without looking at the caller ID, of course.) I'm not talking about when I'm expecting to hear from him or have any logical reason to believe he should be calling. It's just a feeling I get, a feeling that should be very proud of itself because it is never wrong.       (Dad, did you about know this?)

3. My best friend from eighth grade's wedding.
I love this one. Jeremy and I did theatre together when we were kids. He was a few years ahead of me in school and we lost touch when he went off to college, which was almost certainly 100% my fault seeing as how I am the world's worst keep-in-toucher, especially - as incongruous and maddening as this sounds - with the people I care about most. I am working on this. Anyway, it's been a decade, at least, since we last spoke, but a few weeks ago I found myself thinking about him a lot. One Saturday night, I decided to type his name into The Google Machine, and his professional website was the first hit, complete with phone number and e-mail. I called the number immediately. He didn't pick up. I left a message. Then, I sent an e-mail, and a few hours later I got a reply. Jeremy was getting married. THE NEXT DAY. (To the luckiest of ducks, if you ask me.) He had gotten my message on his way up to his hotel room after the rehearsal dinner. It was a strange and wonderful surprise, he said, and yes, yes, we should definitely talk soon. 

A few days later, I conjured a recipe.


It was Tuesday, October 16th, and I was floating around somewhere in the swampy, swampy waters of my manuscript, touching a toe down into the muck every now and then, simultaneously recoiling and thrilling at the way it felt against my skin, daring myself to plunge in my fists and grab at it with bare hands. All in a day's work. One memory, one story, one thought led to another, as they do, and then to a morning bun I ate a couple of summers ago in Portland, Maine at a place called the Standard Baking Co. It was made of croissant dough, shiny from caramelized brown sugar and partially encrusted with walnuts. It was perfect. Portland is only a two-hour drive away and this bun is undoubtedly worth the trip, but it occurred to me that perhaps there was a recipe out there that might save me time and gas. I turned once again to The Google Machine and, wouldn't you know, the Standard Baking Co. had just released a cookbook. "Just," as in, that very day. I called the bakery at once, congratulated them on the book and asked if, perchance, the morning bun recipe might be included among its pages. Affirmative. 

I rest my case: I conjure.

My copy of the book arrived two days later.  It's called Standard Baking Co. Pastries and I fell for it immediately. There's more to say about that - about what's really going on when a cookbook moves us, or moves me, anyway - but the month is long, so I think I'll save that for another day. (Yes?) 

You're probably expecting a morning bun recipe right about now, but croissant dough takes time, and when the book arrived I didn't have much of it. So I tried a recipe for something that would come together in under an hour, something called French puffs. From the name I assumed they must be like cream puffs, probably pâte à choux filled with something light. But in fact, they're little cakes, less muffin-like (though you bake them in a mini muffin tin) and more doughnut-y in texture. They're simple and lovely, with brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and plenty of butter; no surprises, no sudden moves. I think you should make them right away, and since I bet you already have all of the ingredients on hand, you can.


I know this conjuring thing isn't real, by the way. ("You don't say!" the entire internet roars back.) But I do love those moments when it feels real, when I move across time and space in lockstep with my people, when coincidence feels like magic.

French Puffs
Adapted from Standard Baking Co. Pastries by Alison Pray and Tara Smith

For the batter:

2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for greasing pan
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup buttermilk, room temperature

For the topping:
4 tablespoons butter
¼ teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

Heat the oven to 425 degrees and butter a 24-cup mini-muffin tin.

Make the puffs:
Whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and nutmeg in a large bowl.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter, granulated sugar, and brown sugar on medium speed until smooth. Switch to low speed and beat in the eggs one at a time. Add the vanilla and about half of the buttermilk and mix well, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Don’t worry if the batter curdles at this point. Mine did, but it all worked out in the end.

Still on low speed, add half of the flour mixture and blend until just incorporated. Add the remaining buttermilk, then the rest of the dry ingredients, and mix until the batter is smooth.

Scoop the batter into the prepared muffin tins, about two heaping tablespoons per cup. (I used a 1½ tablespoon ice scream scoop, piled high.) As you can see in the above photo, the batter should mound up over the tops of the cups.

Bake for 12-14 minutes, rotating the tray half way through the baking time, until the tops of the cakes are firm to the touch.

Cool on a rack in the tin for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, make the topping:
Melt the 4 tablespoons butter, stir in the vanilla, dip the tops of the puffs, and set aside to let the butter absorb. Stir together the sugar and cinnamon and roll the puffs through it. You’re aiming for a thin layer of cinnamon sugar on each puff.

These are best eaten the day they are made, and especially good warm.

15 comments:

Goddess Findings said...

OH I just loved this post and how you shared your conjuring abilities which are indeed, admirable! But more admirable, is your discussing them so freely, and with relish. And of course I must add heartily, there are no coincidences and magic is absolutely real. Some would say, it's a whole lot easier to make magic than pâte à choux!

By the way, I love your round wire racks with the little legs, darn those are cute!

Hannah said...

Your recipe notes reminded me of Mation Cunningham writing about 'Cinnamon Butter Puffs' - she says "Recipes for puffs ... were popular at the beginning of this century [that being the 20th]. Although not neccesarily puffier than most muffins, they give the illusion of cake doughnuts." Which is almost as awesome and magical as the illusion of conjuring :)

Hannah said...

* Marion

Lisa said...

Jess. You are brilliant. And having been a very lucky recipient of your conjuring, I have to say that I certainly believe in magic. Also, you are not the only conjurer I know :)

Amy said...

Not quite sure where this fits into your conjuring business, but Grandma Louise would anticipate some entertaining/serving/kitchen item I would need and poof it would appear! Usually when i invited Grandma and Pop to dinner. Amazing.

jenny said...

I totally believe in conjuring! In fact, just last night I was gazing at the Standard Baking Co. cookbook on Amazon thinking, I wish one of my favorite food bloggers would make a recipe from this book so I could have a trial run before deciding on whether or not to purchase. And now here you are! Conjured!

Jess said...

Thanks for your note, Goddess Findings. I'll take the magic where I can get it, that's for sure. Oh, and you can find those footed round racks at Williams-Sonoma - at least you could back in 2005.

Hannah - Well look at that! (And look at you reading a sentence here and remembering a sentence there. Talk about powers!) Have you tried that recipe? I wonder how it compares with this one...

Oooooh Lisa, I'd like to conjure you right NOW. Miss you, friend. xo.

Amy - That is my kind of conjuring! Leave it to Grandma. xo.

Jenny - Ha ha! Conjured! You're so sweet. I have a feeling that I'll be saying more about this book in the coming days and weeks. For now, I will tell you that, yes, I think it's absolutely worth the purchase.

MichelleJ said...

Oooooh - we make these all the time, recipe handed down from my mother. Except, there is milk instead of buttermilk, and all white sugar instead of brown. They are my daughters favorite, although that may be because the entire muffin is rolled in butter and cinnamon. THAT part I may not be allowed to tamper with, but I will be trying the rest this weekend. mmm.

Jess said...

Michelle - Very bold of you to stray, however slightly, from your tried-and-true. I dare say that this recipe is worth the risk. I hope your daughters approve!

Kelsey said...

Isn't real? Don't sell yourself short, my friend. You're tuned in. Even the inconsequential coincidences, they mean something.

Jess said...

Ahhh, Kelsey. It does feel that way, sometimes. I hope you're right. xo.

Stephen Fechtor said...

Hi. It's dad. Did you know I was going to write this?

shari said...

was in boston/cambridge this weekend for a wedding. i tried conjuring you up but alas, it didn't work this time. can't wait to hear more about this book. xo

Jess said...

Hi, Dad. xo.

shari - Next time, next time. We'll make a plan of it, no conjuring required.

Kate said...

It is absolutely real. Its called synchronicity and you are indeed tuned in to it....isn't it wonderful?! So magical life can be.....