I’ve had a difficult relationship with “perfect” ever since I witnessed a measuring tape belonging to Mary Poppins refer to her as practically so in every way. We have the same initials, Mary and I, so the self-imposed pressure to emulate her was intense.
The vanity, pompousness, and willingness to abandon young children at the next good gust of wind were easy achieved. The subtleties of becoming airborne with an umbrella, sliding up bannisters, and drinking tea on the ceiling, however, were not. Knowing that I am unable to elevate myself by means of magic has been an endless source of frustration.
So when I hear people toss off phrases like “the perfect dessert for the Holidays” or “the perfect cocktail for Summer” I cringe and think to myself, “Oh, God. There’s that word again.”
I’m not sure I know what it means. Or what it looks like. And if I were a smart person, I would have given up on the word a long time ago. But I’m not and I didn’t.
Several months ago, I was asked to write a story for another website. One that belongs to someone I admire and adore and who has done so much for me. Someone who believes in my ability to tell a story. I wanted it to be the best thing I’ve ever written. I wanted it to be– you guessed it– perfect.
And, of course, it wasn’t and it still isn’t.
I’d examine the re-write notes, rip the whole thing apart and try to piece it back together. I sat with it every day, finding a phrase to polish here, a paragraph to tighten there. But it wouldn’t gel. There were days when all I could do was stare at it, cry in frustration, and walk away from it before I threw my laptop across the room.
I imagined my friend to be profoundly disappointed in me. I imagined his editor wringing her hands over my non-progress. But he isn’t and she doesn’t. In fact, she’s been tremendously kind and patient.
All the bad things are the product of my own, fertile imagination.
And this frustration and non-progress has infected every other part of my life for the past several months. I’ve pulled back from the world. I’ve lost endless nights of sleep. And when I sleep, I dream that I can’t move. I fell into a wide, dark, depressive hole.
It’s been driving me batty. Or, to put it into proper food terms, nuts.
I’ve been good about seeing friends, who always put me back into a happy mood, but when I return home and come face to face with my computer screen, I sink back down again. I have a long list of stories to tell and recipes to make, but nothing’s been coming out. It’s one thing to be brimming with ideas, it’s another to be able to string them together into coherent paragraphs.
There are bigger problems in the world than writer’s block. I am in good health. I have excellent friends and a supportive family. But there are few things more terrifying to a writer than the sensation that he or she cannot write.
In my case, it all stemmed from wanting to write one, simple, perfect little story that would make someone proud of me and compounded by all the marvelous hype I’ve received over the past several months that have made me afraid to write anything less than wonderful.
And it’s all in my own, complicated little head.
It’s a fire-breathing dragon of my own creation. No, strike that. It’s more like a dragon that sneezes a cold, paralyzing mist. And the only way to slay it is to warm up enough to step out of its way and slit its throat.
The best way I can think of to warm up again is to give up on this idea of perfect because it’s never done me or anyone I know the least bit of good. And, of course, to keep writing (or painting or composing or skiing or whatever it is you love and want to be good at doing). More importantly, to keep writing and not be afraid to write something that isn’t great (like this post, for example). It’s important for me to remember that one must sharpen one’s skills sufficiently if one hopes to do any productive throat-slitting.
Because it clearly isn’t done through Mary Poppins magic.
So I’m letting go of perfect, not that I’ve ever attained it in the first place. I’m not even certain what it looks like. “The perfect dessert for the Holidays”? Something deemed perfect by one person is always going to be found imperfect by another. I have the feeling that perfection is merely the product of the imagination. And, perhaps, excellent marketing.
Is there anything in this world that is absolutely, objectively perfect? If there is, I would like to see it. And perhaps kick a little dent in it.
The only thing I can come up with is the Perfect Manhattan. What makes it “perfect”, however is isn’t so much that it has reached a sublime state, but rather, a vermouth-related compromise.
Now that’s the kind of perfect I’m comfortable with.
Happy Holidays from me and my dragon. Miss Poppins, however sends you no such greeting. She’s never been good with sentiment.
Poached Pears with Pistachio and Ricotta
Fruity, nutty, poached in wine, a little cheesy, and none-too-sweet. If there existed a dessert that suited me, this would be the one. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s the “perfect dish for the Holidays”, but it’s practically perfect, as far as I’m concerned.
Granted, there are three different components, but I like that about this recipe. It’s a pleasant exercise in “pulling it together”, you might say. And, fortunately, all of them are easy, elastic, and extremely forgiving, which is precisely the sort of thing I need to make these days.
For the pears:
4 Bosc pears: firm and not at all what one might think of as perfectly ripe.
3 cups water
3 cups (essentially, it’s one 750ml bottle minus three or four good swigs for the cook) of decent white wine. I used an Oregon Riesling.
1 cup of sugar
1/4 cup honey
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
4 or 5 cloves
For the pistachio paste:
1 pound pistachios, shelled
1/4 cup simple syrup
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
A heavy pinch of salt
For the ricotta:
1 pound ricotta
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon of sugar
The zest of 1 orange
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. In a large, deep pan (I’ve used an 11-incher), add all the ingredients listed under “For the pears”. Except the pears. Bring to a simmer and stir well enough to ensure that the honey and sugar have melted into the water and wine.
2. Wash, peel, halve, and core your pears. Slip them gently into the simmering liquid. Cut a round of parchment paper to fit neatly and loosely over your now-simmering pears. Cut a hole in the center to allow the inevitable steam to escape*. The letting off of steam is nearly as important in certain cooking methods as it is in certain life situations, or so people tell me. In fact, I hear that there are actually people in this world who cook to let off steam. As crazy as that sounds, every word of it, I think, is true.
Let the poor, gasping pears poach for about 15 to 20 minutes. The goal is tender, liquid-permeated fruit, not stewed to the point of easy gummability.
3. Transfer pears, cinnamon stick, cloves, and star anise to a clean bowl and reserve. Reduce the poaching liquid until there is a little more than one cup remaining, which should present itself to you as a lovely but light syrup. And when I say “lovely but light syrup”, I mean that it is both subtly flaxen in color and only mildly viscous. Pour over the awaiting pears, cover, and set aside until ready to use.
These pears will be just fine refrigerated for the next five or so days. In fact, they get more delicious the longer they stay in the syrup. Until they start to rot. But the window of eating opportunity is a wide one.
4. Drop your nuts and salt in a food processor and give them a few quick pulses. Drizzle in your simple syrup and pulse a bit more. You should be able to gather up the nut mixture and, with little effort, be able to shape it into loose balls. It should look essentially like the guts of a piece of baklava, except green.
This precious little nut job is best consumed the day you make it, for texture’s sake. Its decline and fall from goodness is rapid. You have been warned.
5. In a clean bowl, combine ricotta, sugar, honey , orange zest, and vanilla. Stir well, taste for desired sweetness, adjust accordingly, cover, and set aside in the refrigerator until read to use.
The ricotta mixture is at its peak after it’s been mixed up for a few hours. Left for two days in the refrigerator, you might notice that it’s been weeping uncontrollably. The best remedy is beat the hell out of it until there are no more tears, then act as if there has been no crying and no beating, and continue.
6. To serve, place a heavy dollop of ricotta in the center of a much-loved but slightly flawed plate or bowl. Allow one half of a poached pear to casually rest upon the ricotta as if it were some sort of dairy body pillow. Do not, however, let it rest upon its side. Form a loose ball of pistachio paste and place it in the pear’s hollowed out core like so much nutty belly button lint. Lightly drizzle your recumbent nude with syrup, get out of your own way, and actually try to enjoy something you’ve created for once in your life without tearing it to shreds. Metaphorically speaking, of course. You’re going to have to tear the pear to shreds if you’re planning on eating it.
* This trick I learned from a man by the name of David Lebovitz. It’s alarming how many tricks I’ve learned from that man– most of which I would not be embarrassed to perform in front of my mother.