Writers have a million ways to avoid the one thing they love to do. Mine is cooking and teaching. Yesterday, I was feeling a bit under the weather. A sinus infection left me wiped out and coughing. My younger son had started complaining as well. The fiction/creative non-fiction workshop I taught in the city last semester and was supposed to start teaching again this week was cancelled. The journalism class I'm teaching out in New Jersey is going forward as planned---but I have seven students this semester, instead of the 19 I had last semester.
Some people would say this is fantastic: Fewer students, less work, more time to finish that novel/book of essays/short story collection I'm working on! But the truth is I like to teach and my dirty little secret is that teaching is always satisfying, whereas working on a novel and/or writing short stories and sending them out to publications and praying that they will be published and/or win contests isn't necessarily the most fun you can have during daylight hours (unless you are Alice Munro or Amy Bloom, in which case, OMG, thank you for reading my blog! I love you and some of the stories in your new collections are fantastic but other than the fact that all of our first names have "A's" in them and all of our last names have "O's" in them," I can't relate to you at all!)
Bottom line: The workload generated by teaching a lot of students at two different places distracts me from the fact that I spend more time teaching people how to write than I do actually writing. I don't think about opening my veins over this every day but it's a little painful to admit that even though I spent a small fortune chasing a graduate degree in fiction writing, I haven't come close to recouping that investment by um, writing a book. Instead, I am (a bit) overworked and (a tad) underpaid, busily teaching students how to also be overworked and underpaid in an industry that is going through a painful contraction. (Though there is some hope that the media business will be resuscitated and maybe even redefined by E-readers such as Apple's new Ipad tablet and Amazon's Kindle DX, gadgets that made my twentysomething journalism students smile this morning, and caused the middle-aged nurses in our pediatrician's office to shudder this afternoon.)
But I digress. With fewer students, and fewer papers to mark, I have more time to write. Which means I default to my back-up distraction: Cooking.
At 2 p.m. yesterday, I ran out of reading and writing assignments to give to my class. I had an hour and a half before my younger son arrived home, enough time to write a few pages or cook something. Naturally, I was overcome with an urge to make chocolate pudding. I had spent the weekend in the Berkshires with my friend T. My friend T. is one of these women who can eat dessert and stay slim. We ate almost all our meals together and at every lunch and dinner, she ordered dessert. T. is also a great cook and she was talking about all the chocolate pudding she had been making from scratch. (Now that I'm thinking about it, I think T. is slim because she talks about food more than she actually eats it.)
Anyway, I love chocolate pudding. I grew up eating chocolate mousse (my mother, before she went back to work full-time, spent several hours a day making elaborate dinners and desserts from scratch.) As an adult, I have not gone the extra pudding mile for my kids and instead, stock up on that ready-made packaged chocolate pudding in those wasteful plastic containers.
The time had come to be a greener, better mother. I took out Mark Bittman's book and checked out the chocolate pudding recipe. It looked straightforward enough. Even so, I made a few mistakes. The saucepan was dirty from the hot chocolate I'd made two hours earlier so instead of cleaning it, I melted the chocolate in a frying pan. It burned a bit and I was left with long sheets of blackened chocolate. I was missing an egg. I didn't have enough milk but I had a whole container of heavy cream so I used way more heavy cream than was called for. The pudding never really thickened on the stove. I'm not sure if this is because I was down one egg or what but to correct the situation, I added another tablespoon of corn starch. I was supposed to soften the butter before I added it to the milk/cornstarch mixture. The butter was softer than it had been in the refrigerator ten minutes earlier but it was not exactly softened. I stirred it into the pudding anyway.
Bad ideas, all. The pudding was lumpy and full of sheets of burned chocolate. A thin layer of butter congealed on top. The pudding was really soup. It never really thickened. That said, it was delicious. I would even call it divine. My older son and I ate cup after cup of it. (My younger son took one bite, and called it "too rich" and "ugly," sort of like a museum patron) I came home from teaching today and took it out of the refrigerator. It was a teeny tiny bit thicker than it had been last night. Globs of chocolate, fat and sugar dissolved onto my tongue. I ate three more cups, standing alone in the kitchen. My spirits started to soar. I was reminded of childhood, but in a good way. I ran upstairs to write.
The taste of this rich and creamy (albeit ugly) chocolate pudding put me in mind of a scene from Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder's book about her husband Almanzo's childhood on a farm in New York state. My younger son and I have been reading this book out loud for over a year now (We took time out so he could read The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and The Lightning Thief on his own). Here is an excerpt from the chapter, Early Harvest:
In the middle of the morning, Mother blew the dinner horn. Almanzo knew what that meant. He stuck his pitchfork in the ground, and went running and skipping down the meadows to the house. Mother met him on the back porch with the milk-pail, brimming full of cold egg-nog.
The egg-nog was made of milk and cream, with plenty of eggs and sugar. Its foamy top was freckled with spices, and pieces of ice floated in it. The sides of the pail were misty with cold.
Almanzo trudged slowly towards the hayfield with the heavy pail and a dipper. He thought to himself that the pail was too full, he might spill some of the egg nog. Mother said waste was sinful. He should do something to save it. So he set down the pail, he dipped the dipper full, and he drank. The cold egg-nod slid slowly down his throat, and it made him cool inside.
When he reached the hayfield, everyone stopped work. They stood in the shade of an oak and pushed back their hats, and passed the dipper from hand to hand til all the egg nog was gone. Almanzo drank his full share. The breeze seemed cool now and Lazy John said, wiping the foam from his mustache:
"Ah! That puts heart into a man!!"
I may not be ready to finish writing a short story collection but I might be ready to pitch hay.
T.'s "You Can't Miss With This" Chocolate Pudding
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup natural cocoa powder
4 teaspoons cornstarch
3 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
3/4 cup whipping cream
Put 1 1/2 cups of the milk, the sugar, and the cocoa in a nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a simmer, over medium-high heat. Remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, whisk the remaining 1/2 cup of the milk, cornstarch, salt, egg yolks, and vanilla in a bowl. Gradually whisk the hot milk into the egg mixture. Return to the saucepan and cook over medium-high heat whisking constantly, until the pudding comes to a full boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer, and continue whisking until thick, about 2 or 3 minutes more.
Pour the pudding into 6 small cups. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or ideally overnight until set.
Just before serving pour the cream into a chilled bowl. Whip the cream with a whisk or a hand held mixer, and continue beating until soft peaks form. Take care not to over-beat the cream or it will be grainy. Serve each pudding with a dollop of whipped cream on top.
Flawed Mom's Rich and Ugly Chocolate Pudding
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 1/2 cups half and half or whole milk, or 2 1/4 cups low-fat milk mixed with 1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
Take the butter out of the refrigerator.
Melt the chocolate in a saucepan or double boiler.
In a small saucepan, combine the sugar with the cornstarch and salt.
In a separate bowl, mix together the eggs and milk.
Stir the egg/milk mixture into the sugar/cornstarch mixture and cook over medium heat. Stir constantly for ten minutes.
Add melted chocolate to cornstarch/milk mixture and stir.
Stir in the softened butter and vanilla.
Pour the pudding into one large or four to six small bowls. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for as long as it takes.