Outliers (a blog post about successful people and successful bakes)

The book: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

Outliers is Malcolm Gladwell’s collection of essays about our culture’s misunderstanding of success. The thesis of this book is that people don’t become outliers (superstars, success stories, etc) just because they are more hard-working or inherently more outstanding than others. Instead, he argues, success is the result of many different forces – including opportunity, coincidence, and cultural background – fortuitously coming together. Each essay features an outlier or group of outliers (including Canadian hockey stars, Bill Gates, and successful NYC lawyers), and demonstrates how their success is the product of much more than just their talents.

The best thing about Outliers is probably the compelling writing style of Malcolm Gladwell. Essays can be dry or pedantic, but the essays in Outliers are easy to digest, un-intimidating, and at times page-turning. This is because Gladwell uses accessible language, while also providing interesting backstories, dialogues, and personal anecdotes. The stories almost read like a podcast (especially if you’ve listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History). Even when Gladwell is being redundant (which he is when he really wants to drive home a point), the stories are engaging.

The only problem with Outliers is that, in 2019, Gladwell’s thesis (that success is more than just the product of talent and/or hard-work) is no longer groundbreaking. I can think of few people, especially people in my generation, who would need a 278-page book to tell them that opportunities afforded by class, race, or sheer chance play a huge role in who becomes successful and who doesn’t. That being said, Outliers is still an engaging and enjoyable read. (Edit, after thinking about a comment on this post: there probably are many Americans who would benefit from reading a book like Outliers – my idea that Gladwell’s message is common knowledge is naive at best, and ignorant at worst).

The bake: earl grey tea cake.

Although I enjoyed reading Outliers, it really didn’t inspire any bakes. Finally, I decided to just bake something that I’ve wanted to make for a while now. At some level, shouldn’t Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of outliers apply to baking something exceptional? I think that baking a show-stopping dessert takes more than just talent and hard work. It also takes time (which is a luxury not everybody has), money (or at least enough money to afford baking as a hobby), and of course…some baking magic.

With that in mind, I decided to bake this earl grey tea cake that’s been in my bookmarks for months now. I normally tend to modify recipes (with varying degrees of luck), but I followed this one strictly. With three components to make (the cake itself, a syrup, and Swiss buttercream frosting), this cake is pretty elaborate and time-consuming. But the work can be split into multiple days by making the cake ahead of time and freezing it until you’re ready to make the frosting (I did this and learned that it’s much easier to frost a frozen cake than a fresh one).

Earl grey tea cake…a story of success!

As for the taste of the cake…it’s phenomenal. I tip my (metaphorical) hat 6,834,798 times to Teresa Huff for constructing this piece of magic and sharing her story of success. The cake has the distinctive flavor of earl grey, which goes perfectly with the raspberry jam filling. The frosting is light and not excessively sweet, allowing the flavor of the cake and filling to shine. All in all…it is an outlier.

Sorry for the big shadow and low-resolution photo! My phone’s camera is not a story of success!

My Year of Rest and Relaxation (and coffee and kahlua)

The book: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.

I recently read My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. I had seen it on a bunch of lists at the end of 2018, but I wasn’t sure if it would be my cup of tea. I later saw it at my local bookshop, though, and I felt as though I couldn’t not check it out. The premise of the book is straightforward: the narrator, despite her many advantages, is unsatisfied with her life and herself. She decides that if she can sleep for a whole year, her cells will rejuvenate so much that she will essentially become a different person. With the help of a truly terrible psychiatrist and the outrageous drug cocktails she prescribes, our narrator embarks on a strange but oddly compelling journey toward sleep.

My first impression of My Year of Rest and Relaxation was that I wouldn’t be able to get into it, because the main character (whose name is never revealed) is so unlikable. She is highly critical, treats her most loyal friend incredibly coldly, and is kind of vain. Yet I couldn’t put the book down. I was exasperated by the narrator, but also genuinely rooting for her. I was curious to see how her mission to sleep the year away would play out. I wondered if it would work: would her “year of rest and relaxation” allow her to address her underlying issues and change for the better?

Something that surprised me about My Year of Rest and Relaxation were the moments of tenderness. Even though the narrator claims to find everyone annoying, she seeks out human connection during her Infermiterol-induced blackouts, going to parties with people that she formerly convinced herself she hated. She also shows love and warmth to her “best friend” in those drug-induced states – something that she certainly doesn’t do (perhaps is incapable of doing) when she’s conscious and sober. It’s almost as if the sleep-inducing-drugs help the narrator to access her better, kinder self.

I struggled with two things in My Year of Rest and Relaxation. The first was deciding whether or not I found it funny. When I bought this novel, a woman at the bookshop told me that it’s supposed to be very funny…and some of it is. I just can’t figure out how much of it is meant to be funny. I found many of the conversations between the narrator and her psychiatrist amusing, and the sheer absurdity of certain passages had me laughing out loud (“‘Your phone is in a Tupperware container floating in the tub’, Reva yelled from the bathroom. ‘I know’, I lied. ). But then there were really dark components of the story as well: the stereotype of the insane and incompetent spinster, the ice cold treatment the narrator gives her best friend for no real reason, and the narrator’s parental and romantic relationships that clearly stunted her emotional development. These things all add depth to the book, but surely these aren’t supposed to be funny?

My other struggle with this book was finding a take-home message from it. Don’t get me wrong: I loved the book . Once I got sucked into the narrator’s absurd world, I couldn’t stop reading. In fact, I think this is the only novel that I’ve ever finished in less than a day. When I put it down though, I kept trying figure out what to make of the ending, never really finding a conclusive answer. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: there is probably something to be said of a book so addictive that you can’t put it down (even though you don’t even like the main character!), and so fascinating and strange that you can’t stop thinking about it once you’ve finished it.

The bake: coffee kahlua cake.

In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the narrator spends a wild yet somewhat unremarkable year pursuing full-time sleep. Two of the major constants in her life that year are prescription drugs (downers), and the coffees that she routinely buys from the Bodega before taking more downers and going back to sleep. So I decided to bake something that incorporated coffee, as well as my favorite downer (alcohol).

What I ended up baking was (a one-layered version of) this coffee kahlua cake, and a modified (less sweet) version of this espresso frosting recipe. I chose not to make the frosting provided in the coffee kahlua cake recipe because I am not ready to attempt egg-white-based frostings yet. This cake turned out to be one of my favorite recipes: making the cake is straightforward, and it is delicious and indulgent without being excessively rich or sweet. It is truly a delightful treat, one that might even make you feel restful or relaxed after eating a slice.

A slice of the coffee kahlua cake!

Spineless (a book about jellyfish and blog post about jelly cookies)

The book: Spineless by Juli Berwald.

After a crazy two weeks of holiday festivities (and then another week of recovery from post-holiday fatigue), I finally finished reading Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. This non-fiction book follows author Juli Berwald’s quest to answer the question: how will global warming impact jellyfish populations? The book is a neat compilation of jellyfish research, but it’s also “part memoir, part travelogue,” (to quote NPR journalist Brian Castner), and ultimately a brilliantly written call to action to do something about our warming planet.

Spineless essentially starts out as a comprehensive summary of jellyfish science. After the introduction, each of the first ten chapters focuses on a different aspect of jellyfish biology, including the jellyfish life cycle, genetics, and senses. If you get turned off by overcomplicated, jargon-filled science writing – fear not! – Juli Berwald’s writing style is concise and accessible. Each chapter on the biology of jellyfish is so clearly and gorgeously written that I constantly found myself gushing and awing over how fascinating jellyfish are.

In addition to being nicely written, Spineless is also easy to follow as a story (which is especially impressive given that it’s science non-fiction). The book is easy to follow because Juli Berwald frames the entire story from her perspective: an outsider to the world of jellyfish, on a journey to learn as much as she can about these mysterious animals. And she takes us (the readers) on that journey with her: we go on plane rides and road trips, take tours of aquaria and marine laboratories, learn how to prepare jellyfish as food, and even dive beneath the seas with her. It’s seriously compelling.

As a book about jellyfish, Spineless is fascinating. But the most impressive thing about the book is that it gradually shifts to tell a different story: that of our rapidly changing planet. It’s hard to write an interesting global warming book; many Americans are desensitized to the issue, even among those who agree that global warming is real and a major threat to our existence. But Berwald skillfully eases her readers into that big picture. By first getting us to care about jellyfish, Juli Berwald is able to slowly shift the story to one of how global warming is affecting jellyfish, and then – how it is affecting humanity.

To summarize, Spineless was amazing. It is intellectually stimulating (yet still accessible to readers of any background), narratively compelling, and it ultimately has an inspirational message. I was surprised at how much I loved this book.

The bake: jelly box cookies.

To celebrate reading Spineless, I wanted to bake something that incorporated jelly. When I was thinking about jelly desserts, hamantaschen (triangle shaped cookies with a sweet filling in the center) immediately came to mind.

Two of my modified hamantaschen (the two most visually pleasing of the batch)! I chose to shape the cookies into “boxes” and pinwheels instead of triangles.

For the hamantaschen dough, I followed this recipe by Tori Avey and added store-bought raspberry jelly. I found the dough incredibly sticky, and had to add at least a quarter cup of flour before it become workable. I also changed the shape of the cookies, because the triangle shaped hamantaschen are associated with the Jewish holiday of Purim (which will not occur until late March this year). Instead of triangles, I made pinwheels and squares. I thought the squares were an especially cute idea, because Berwald frequently references a type of jellyfish called “box jellies” in her book; my square shaped cookies were jelly boxes!

BUT a cute idea does not automatically translate into a good bake! From the sticky dough, to then rolling the dough evenly, to adding the right amount of jam to each cookie, to shaping the damn things – this bake was really tough. Many of the cookies ended up either: overbaked, irregularly shaped, oozing with jam, or more than one of the above. Maybe it’s because I haven’t baked in a while, or maybe this recipe is just tricky? I don’t know. Despite all of that, the cookies do taste very nice, so I’ll still count this as somewhat of a win.

More jelly cookies. As you can see, there is a lot of variation in their doneness and shape. All tasty, though!