Redemption in Baking

CW: suicide

At the end of the summer of 2017, I was so broken. My time from the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) had run out. I couldn’t go back to my job as a nonprofit manager. I could barely perform the household duties my spouse and I split between us.

My friend came to have lunch with me one day after my kids had returned to school. It was September, I had no job, I now had no church, and I had lost more than a few family members and friends during my most recent bout of severe depression.

She brought me a blueberry pina colada pie with her secret recipe for an extra-flakey, perfectly beautiful crust. We had known each other for years, casually, through our book group. She left Mormonism as a college student, and I had heard snippets of her life during our meetings that made me think we had more in common than we had time to explore at book group.

She told me about her family’s battles with mental illness. She knew I had been suicidal, and she told me how devastated she was after her brother killed himself. She also gave me a powerful gift of telling me how angry she was with him, too. Anger was/is an emotion I have a hard time experiencing…I don’t feel like it fits with the woman I was raised to be, and yet, so many times in our life, how can we react with anything but a righteous and firey anger at the trials in our lives?

A couple weeks later, she said she had a part-time opening in her bakery. The storefront was covered, and the bakery was off-site…no need to talk to customers. I told my psychiatrist. I talked to my psychologist. I talked to my spouse. We all agreed, there was something that sounded so healing about baking pies all day.

I had a lot of days of self-loathing at the bakery at first, when I was so angry at myself because I was too slow, too talkative, too crazy, for these co-workers. How could they stand being around me?! I couldn’t really stand being around me…

But, they didn’t just tolerate me. They accepted me, just for who I was. They gently reminded me out that yes, I was slow at peeling the crisp Granny Smith apples because they had been peeling apples for 10 years, and I had done it for two hours.

As fall came, things were getting busier. I needed to make two lemon cheesecakes for the store. I had only made one cheesecake before at home, and it didn’t turn out very well. My homemade cheesecake tasted fine, but the texture was heavy and unappealing because it hadn’t been whipped enough. There was that dumb crack in the middle, which a sure sign that this baker did not know what she was doing.

I was panicking. Apple, razzleberry, key lime and pecan pies didn’t scare me. I made them at home before. They were fine.

But, I knew I was going to waste three pounds of cream cheese as I felt my self-loathing and anxiety creep in. This sounds strange, but in the midst of a major depressive episode, I felt my self worth was not even close to the price of three pounds of cream cheese that I could potentially waste. My ability to find the right words was getting worse as I worked on those cheesecakes. I felt cold and clammy. I could feel my brain being unable to comprehend some of the directions in the recipe. I read and re-read that recipe. I tried so hard to get it just right. I kept asking questions to my co-workers, having them look at my work. My boss would check in. Everything looked okay by the time the cheesecakes went into the oven.

So, I went home, cried a little, and took a two-hour nap after making those two darn cheesecakes.

Traci texted me later and said that the cheesecakes weren’t quite right…the texture was good, smooth and light. But, something about the lemon flavor wasn’t quite there, and it wasn’t very sweet.

She said it in the most kind way, with no hint of reproach. I was sure I should quit. I was sure she was hiding how bugged she was. It confirmed that the stupor of this depressive episode was never going to go away. I was never going to learn anything new. Why did I think I could get this right?

One of the more experienced bakers squeezed in time to remake those cheesecakes the next day. Over time, I learned to trust Traci; she really didn’t care. She was always upfront and honest in what she asked of me and gave me frank and helpful feedback. For the first time in over a decade, I had a boss who I could trust to evaluate my work fairly and help me succeed.

I had forgotten to add some lemon juice to the cheesecake filling, and I misread the recipe and added a quarter of the sugar that was supposed to be in there.

No one complained. My bakery friends were all understanding, although maybe they rolled their eyes a bit at how often I apologized about messing up.

I shyly asked Traci for the recipe so I could go home and master it. I had friends come over to help eat this attempt, and I messed it up again. I kept putting off making it because I was so worried about trying. It didn’t have time to cool, and it just kind of melted into a puddle when it was released from the springform pan. Again, I was embarrassed. 

It wasn’t perfect, but I had tried again. I was better able to see when my self-loathing was creeping in. I did better at shutting it out. I served this imperfect cheesecake. It was sweet, silky, and lemony puddle, and I knew I was more than someone who couldn’t get the shape of my cheesecake just right.

And, almost a year after that first attempt, it was my mother-in-law’s birthday 78th birthday. She wanted a lemon cheesecake.  My sisters-in-law and spouse all assumed I could do it (their family has heaps of confidence to share).  This time around I am feeling much better.  I recruited my spouse and walked him through the lemon curd, I showed my sister-in-law the little tricks I had learned in prior attempts.  It still was not easy, but what came out was as close to a perfect cheesecake as any of us had ever seen outside of Pie Snob.  As the last of the slices disappeared after birthday dinner, I couldn’t help but notice that the success was not as meaningful to me as all of the failures and what they had taught me.

It seems so silly that that is how I have lived most of my life. Being afraid to fail and either procrastinating or not even bothering to try.

Why have I lived so much of my life only being able to see all the ways I am not perfect, all the ways I don’t measure up? Why do I still struggle with judging my work as never good enough when often the results are lovely and worthy of good report?

I messed up often at that bakery, but I usually got things right. We all always mess up, but we still have inherent value. Perhaps that value becomes greater when we go back and try again…and again because we are not the sum of our failures or successes. We are beloved children of God, and we have all the time to grow and improve. We are always enough.

 

Pie Snob’s Lemon Cheesecake
Traci Wilbur

Graham Crust
1 ½ cups crushed graham crackers
3 tablespoons white granulated sugar
4 tablespoons salted butter, melted

Filling
1 ½ pounds (3 8-ounce packages) cream cheese, cut into rough 1-inch chunks, at room temperature
1 ¼ cup sugar
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest
¼ cup + 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice (1 to 2 lemons)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
pinch of salt
½ cup heavy cream
4 eggs

Lemon Curd
⅓ cup fresh lemon juice (2 lemons)
2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter cut into half-inch cubes
1 tablespoon heavy cream
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt

Crust
1. Mix graham cracker crumbs and sugar. Then, add melted butter and stir until well combined.

2. Use a 9-inch springform pan and place a square of parchment paper on the bottom of the pan before placing the spring mold on top.

3. Press the graham mixture into the pan and set aside.

Filling
1. Preheat your oven to 200 degrees.

2. Put cream cheese chunks in a standing mixer bowl with paddle attachment and beat. Then, beat it some more, and then, some more. In fact, keep stopping the mixer, pulling the cream cheese from the sides and bottom of the bowl, and then, beat it some more. Beat the hell out of it. (Pro tip: if you forgot to soften the cream cheese, you can just keep beating it until it gets soft…it usually takes about 10 solid minutes.)

3. Add sugar and lemon zest. Beat again.

4. Add vanilla, salt and heavy cream. Beat some more.

5. When your mixture looks smooth, creamy, and well-incorporated, add the eggs. Beat the eggs in JUST until everything looks smooth again. This will keep your cheesecake texture light and silky.

6. Pour into the springform pan and bake at 200 degrees for at least 2 hours. Take the cheesecake out and wiggle it. It should wiggle but not roll (and that’s the best explanation I can give you…I made my boss and co-workers show me the right consistency so many times). This helps you avoid the dreaded cheesecake crack that often appears when cooling.

Lemon Curd
1. While the cream cheese bakes, heat the lemon juice in a non-reactive saucepan over medium heat until hot but not boiling.

2. Whisk the eggs and yolk as well as the sugar and salt into the hot lemon juice with a non-reactive whisk. Don’t stop whisking!

3. When thick bubbles of lemon curd (kind of like a simmer) start in your curd, keep whisking for an additional minute.

4. Take lemon curd off heat and add butter, vanilla extract and cream.

5. Pour curd through a fine mesh seive into a glass bowl. Cover the surface of the curd directly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed. (We make the cheesecake the day before it is needed, and then, have both the cheesecake and curd sit in the fridge overnight before assembly.

Assembly
1. Run a butter knife cleanly and close to the inside of the springform pan holding the cheesecake. (If you saw with the knife up and down, you’ll get a funky pattern. Ask me how I know…)

2. Using parchment paper, lift the cheesecake from the bottom pan and quickly place it on a cake stand.

3. Spread lemon curd evenly over the top.

Enjoy!

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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4 Responses

  1. Emily, this is the most beautiful thing I have read in a while. Your feelings of hopelessness as you tried to improve your baking really resonated with me. I hope that you can feel (at least sometimes) that your whole self (the good, the bad) is worthy of love and belonging *continually.* I hate that so many Mormon women (myself included) have been raised to believe otherwise and that sometimes our mental health undermines that also. I’m tempted to make this cheesecake as a spiritual exercise in failure.

  2. Thank you for this lovely post. I am so glad you have returned as a perma blogger. Your posts always make me feel inspired.

  3. Violadiva says:

    I read this and got very teary at how well I related to your feelings of self-loathing for failing, and how tempting it is to just give up when it looks like things aren’t going well. I’m about to give an “audition prep” recital and am feeling the failure shame hard core. I think I should make this cheesecake to serve my recital guests….. Thanks for writing and keeping it real.

  4. Ziff says:

    I love this, Emily. I’m so sorry that feeling your own worth is a struggle; I hope things continue to improve for you. I’m also so happy to see you here blogging again!

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