The Four Agreements (and a blood orange upside down cake that sort of encompasses them)

The book: The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.

If you’re reading this post, it means that I finally finished reading The Four Agreements, a philosophy and self-help book by Don Miguel Ruiz. Ruiz believes that due to the pressures of society, we have blindly agreed to negative beliefs and perspectives that are not really our own, and in doing so we have made ourselves unhappy. Ruiz offers four alternative agreements, and promises that if we can stick to these four basic principles, we will become happier and healthier.

Ruiz’s four agreements are: 1) be impeccable with your word, 2) don’t take things personally, 3) don’t make assumptions, and 4) always try your best. Even though The Four Agreements is about these four principles, the book actually has seven chapters, plus an introduction. The first chapter is used to outline why we need the four agreements in the first place…but it actually had the opposite effect on me.

Ruiz spends the first chapter convincing us that because we have blindly agreed to the demands of society, we are living in a personal hell. While it is true that societal expectations can and do constrain us in various ways…I think it is going a bit far to say that we are living in a personal hell. Ruiz’s use of that phrase struck me as fear-mongering, as though convincing us that we are suffering in the worst imaginable way might make us more receptive to the advice he has to offer.

The fear-mongering introduction is unfortunate, because the agreements themselves are actually…well…agreeable. Being impeccable with your word, or having integrity and treating others as you would want to be treated, is a core tenet of many cultures and religions. Not taking things personally and not making assumptions are also great practices: living by these two agreements would almost certainly alleviate unnecessary stress over minor events. The final agreement – to always try your best, whatever your “best” may be in any given circumstance – is simple, yet exceptional advice.

But…even though the agreements themselves are generally good messages, Ruiz’s elaborations on the agreements sometimes seem misguided. An example of this: Ruiz defends not taking things personally so strongly that it almost seems like he is saying “be immune to any criticism.” But I think there is value in taking certain things personally. Well-intentioned, constructive criticism makes us better, so long as we are receptive to the advice and willing to change. To me, Ruiz crossed a line between not taking things personally and not holding yourself accountable for problematic actions.

Some other things that rubbed me the wrong way in The Four Agreements were: Ruiz’s victim-blaming and defense of abusive behavior (he says “If you have the need to be abused, you will find it easy to be abused by others. Likewise, if you are with people who need to suffer, something in you makes you abuse them”); his ignorantly idealistic claims that we should only do things that we enjoy, and do so without expecting any type of compensation in return; and – of course – his misunderstanding of how cancer works (he says that if you listen to somebody tell you “I see that color in your face in people who are going to get cancer,” then you will get cancer in one year).

If I had to summarize my thoughts on The Four Agreements, I would say: there is some good advice in there, but the book should be taken with a grain of salt. I personally felt that there were more harmful messages than helpful ones in this book, but I also understand that the messages that are helpful vs. harmful will vary from person to person. Read at your own risk.

The bake: blood orange upside down cake.

My original idea for a Four Agreements-inspired bake was to create four different things, one for each of the agreements. Unfortunately, time and finances both prohibit me from doing such an elaborate baking project right now. As an alternative, I decided to bake something that I hoped would be really good, and then share it with others. The action of sharing love and camaraderie with others through the sharing of baked goods seemed to encapsulate the good messages in the Four Agreements, especially “be impeccable with your [actions, not just] word” and “always try your best.”

I ended up baking something that I have wanted to make for a long time now: a citrus upside-down cake. Specifically, I made this buttermilk blood orange upside-down cake from Bon Appetit. Funnily enough, I forgot to buy buttermilk, so I substituted coconut creamer spiked with 1.5 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar.

Substitutions and all, this cake is awesome! I actually like the base of the cake more than the caramelized blood orange topping. Not that the topping is bad – it’s just that the cake shines on its own. It’s buttery, soft, and ever-so-slightly tangy from the buttermilk (or in my case, the apple cider vinegar). I will definitely remake the base cake recipe again.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (and passionfruit cupcakes as bold as Evelyn’s love)

The book: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Reid Jenkins.

I recently binge-read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Reid Jenkins. The novel is about the (fictional) former Hollywood icon Evelyn Hugo who, after several decades out of the limelight, sits down with journalist Monique Grant for a tell-all interview. Through the stories that Evelyn tells Monique – about her rise to stardom, her impressive career, her many lovers, and her biggest secrets – we see Evelyn’s complexity and humanity.

One of the best things about The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is the character of Evelyn herself, not because she is necessarily likable, but because she is realistically complex. She is calculating and business-minded, and also makes morally questionable decisions with zero qualms. At the same time, though, she can be soft: she loves whole-heartedly and optimistically despite having been hurt, and she will go to extraordinary lengths to protect the people she loves.

The story-telling and underlying messages in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo are also exceptional. A lot of online reviews have described the novel as a gossipy beach read. That description isn’t wrong…but it’s also not complete. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is scandalous and dramatic, for sure, but it also touches on deeper issues including what it means to love and forgive, the sacrifices people make for love and fame, and how people deal with regret.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo also includes a lot of social commentary, especially surrounding sexism and harassment in Hollywood. Evelyn matter-of-factly describes having to use her body to advance in the male-dominated industry, as well as male superiors controlling personal aspects of her life (such as what she eats and who she dates). Evelyn’s stories also demonstrate how many events in Hollywood – like romantic relationships between celebrities – are actually staged.

Ultimately, though, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a story about love in various forms: romantic love, platonic love, familial love, sexual love, and practical love. I would definitely recommend this book: it is light and fun, yet at the same time surprisingly deep. If you like romance, drama, and complex, well-developed characters – I think you will love The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.

The bake: passionfruit cupcakes.

To celebrate The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, I baked cupcakes inspired by the character of Evelyn. To represent her, I needed to use a flavor that was simultaneously bold, surprising, and delightful. Passionfruit seemed like a good fit: its flavor is punch-you-in-the-face bold, yet still so enjoyable. Plus, the name itself – passionfruit – is perfectly fitting for a character as passionate as Evelyn.

I adapted this recipe from The Great British Baking Show to make my passionfruit cake batter. I mixed the following ingredients together using the all-in-one method, poured them into a standard-size cupcake tin, and baked at 350 F for 18 minutes:

  • 50 grams all-purpose flour (approx. 1/2 cup)
  • 50 grams granulated sugar (approx. 1/4 cup)
  • 1.5 tablespoons almond flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 3.5 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 egg
  • Pulp, juice, and seeds of 2 passionfruit

If you are planning on making this recipe, note that the portions listed above will only yield about 4 standard sized cupcakes!

This cupcake clearly lacks decoration and looks a bit plain…but its taste is rich and bold!

These cupcakes were simultaneously sweet, tart, and buttery. I didn’t frost them, but I think they would go well with a whipped cream or mascarpone frosting. The flavor of the cake itself holds its own, though, so if you don’t want to frost them – you don’t need to! Like Evelyn Hugo, these cupcakes are bold and full of substance.

The Dreamers (plus, a dreamy chocolate-cherry-almond bread)

The book: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker.

As my personal life gets busier, I find myself wanting to read only binge-worthy fiction novels that offer me the chance to stop thinking about stressful realities and escape into a different universe. The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker was the perfect book for that. The premise of the novel is that a small town in California is confronted with an outbreak of a mysterious sleeping sickness. As the disease spreads through the town, scientists and government authorities try to manage the epidemic, and the threat of the illness affects various residents’ lifestyles and relationships.

Something that I appreciated about The Dreamers was its thoroughness: the novel offers glimpses into many facets of a major epidemic including the disease symptoms, the attempts to quarantine the infected and prevent further spread of the disease, the politicization of the epidemic, and the general chaos that follows the outbreak. The book also shows how fear spreads with the epidemic, and how the threat of becoming infected affects people in different ways. Mei, a shy college student, becomes bolder and more sure of herself. A young couple with a newborn baby is forced to confront marital issues they had intentionally repressed. Two young sisters gain the opportunity to think for themselves after the quarantine separates them from their controlling, paranoid father.

The Dreamers also subtly nods to other issues. Climate change – and the willful ignorance of those who continue living in precarious environments – is a major theme. The book also demonstrates (and I mean demonstrates, this issue is never explicitly discussed) how parents’ own biases and fears can negatively impact their children. These themes aren’t major foci in the novel – a book cannot responsibly cover every issue in under 300 pages – but they are there, and they add depth to the story.

The biggest weakness of The Dreamers might be that it attempts too much. There are too many characters, too many things going on, and too many themes. If you are someone who likes getting to know one or a few characters in all of their complexity, The Dreamers might disappoint you in that respect.

And speaking of disappointments, the ending of the novel was kind of underwhelming! That’s just my subjective opinion though, and sometimes an “underwhelming” ending is the most realistic one, as life isn’t always so dramatic. Overall, The Dreamers is an interesting and addictive novel that explores many aspects of humanity through the lens of a disease epidemic.

The bake: chocolate-cherry-almond challah.

During the week that I read The Dreamers – a novel about a town plagued by sleeping sickness – I barely slept at all. I was fatigued during the day and sleepy at night, yet still somehow unable to sleep! Because of the ironic timing of this insomnia spell, I decided to bake something inspired by sleep. I did some investigative research (i.e. a google search) into foods that help promote sleep, and among the results were cherries, almonds, and dark chocolate. Three flavors that I love and that taste great together: perfect for a bake!

I combined my favorite three sleep-promoting flavors together in a challah bread, following this recipe from King Arthur Flour. Instead of adding apples and raisins, though, I added the trifecta of chocolate, cherries, and almonds. And since I wasn’t using apples (which add moisture to the bread), I added an extra 1/4 cup of water. Also, I omitted the cinnamon sugar topping because I didn’t think it would go well with my flavors.

This challah recipe was awesome! I proved my dough (i.e. let it sit and rise) for the minimum recommended amount of time, and the loaf still got huge! The taste and texture of the bread were also great, and I think that many different fillings could work with the base challah recipe. Despite containing a trifecta of allegedly-sleep-promoting-fillings, I doubt this bread will actually put you to sleep…so you can enjoy it whenever you want! What a dream!