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!

Welcome to Night Vale (mostly void, partially stars) (yes this post is also about cake)

The book: Welcome to Night Vale.

Last week I read Welcome to Night Vale, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s fiction/mystery/fantasy novel inspired by their hit podcast of the same name. The book follows the independent lives of two Night Vale women: Jackie Fierro, a 19-year-old owner of the town’s pawnshop who has been stuck at age 19 for what feels like centuries and cannot remember her childhood, and Diane Creyton, a working single mother of a 15-year-old shape shifter. Eventually, their stories intersect and the two join together on an adventure to the mysterious town of King City. 

Welcome to Night Vale is certainly weird – creepy, even. Night Vale is a world in which children get piñatas full of bees on their birthdays, angels named Erika are part of the community (though you mustn’t acknowledge that they are, in fact, angels), there is a 24-hour diner where a tree serves invisible coffee to customers, and – oh yeah – time just doesn’t work there. These things (and more) all set Night Vale apart as a weird and mystical place, but other aspects of Night Vale felt unnervingly familiar: there is a general mistrust of science, the government forces citizens to acknowledge facts that are contrary to reality, and there are police officers who “instead of looking after our interests, work under arbitrary authority to unfairly target and extort those who are least able, societally, to fight back.” I found it fascinating that since the novel’s publication (in 2015), America has become a lot more like Night Vale (or maybe these similarities were always here, and I just didn’t notice until recently). In this way, Welcome to Night Vale struck me as surprisingly profound.

Other, less dark, descriptions of life in Night Vale were also profoundly relatable. Take, for example, this description of the Moonlite All-Nite, a 24-hour diner that appeals to individuals dining solo: There is nothing more lonely than an action taken quietly on your own, and nothing more comforting than doing that same quiet action in parallel with fellow humans doing the same action. This simple description of solo-dining is so deep and instantly relatable! Perhaps this is what makes Welcome to Night Vale so compelling: despite taking place in a dark and creepy fantasy world, the authors describe mundanity and humanity in profound and poetic ways that immediately resonate, and make us feel connected to the odd land of Night Vale.

There were only two things that I didn’t like about Welcome to Night Vale. The first was the interweaving of “the voice of Night Vale” passages. These are chapters that are written as radio broadcasts from Night Vale Community Radio station. I understood the idea behind this – the Welcome to Night Vale podcast is presented entirely as a radio broadcast to its citizens (for those who haven’t listened: think Prairie Home Companion but creepier)  – but in the novel, these passages just weren’t very effective. In my opinion, they did not illustrate anything that the 3rd-person narrative chapters couldn’t. 

The other issue I had with Welcome to Night Vale was the ending of the story. A couple components of the mystery just weren’t resolved satisfyingly (and there’s one thing that wasn’t really resolved at all). For the first 350 pages, Welcome to Night Vale was a compelling and addictive page-turner that I couldn’t put down. Then, near the end of the book, the mystery is explained to the protagonists who have gone through so much (including sprinting through a hellish horror-library and somewhat losing their minds) to solve it…and I just found myself thinking “that’s it?” I was a bit underwhelmed, but maybe that was the point, because the protagonists seemed pretty miffed about the explanation too. As I type this, I feel pretty sure that the underwhelming explanation of the mystery was probably intentional. 

So Welcome to Night Vale is mysterious, weird, intriguing, and moving. Would you believe me if I told you that, on top of all of that, it’s also funny? Well, it is. This passage, for example, had me laughing out loud at midnight while my fiancé tried to sleep: …attacking a person with a hatchet…is technically a crime. But Leann made it work by engaging in semiotic arguments with law enforcement about what is assault and what is a business plan. Also this gem: Ralph’s…offering fresh food and low, low prices, although never at the same time. 

All in all, Welcome to Night Vale is a great read. As a mystery novel, it is compelling and nearly impossible to put down. Night Vale is simultaneously strange and relatable, making the fictional fantasy world surprisingly endearing. And, of course, the writing is beautiful, moving, and oftentimes funny. 

The bake: “Mostly void, partially stars” cake.

For Welcome to Night Vale, I decided to bake a cake based on the phrase used to describe the Night Vale sky in chapter 1 of the novel: “Mostly void, partially stars.” It seems that “mostly void, partially stars” has become emblematic of Welcome to Night Vale fandom. You can find clothing, fan-art, and even tattoos inspired by this quote. 

Because it’s the holiday season here in the U.S., I also wanted this cake to be seasonally festive. I chose a white chocolate cake with cranberry curd filling and cream cheese frosting. I colored the frosting purple using gel food coloring because I associate Night Vale with purple (probably since the podcast logo and novel’s cover are both this color). I also decorated the top of the cake with silver and gold sprinkles to look like stars. But not too many sprinkles because it should be mostly void, only partially stars. 

The finished cake: purple and starry.

This was the hardest cake I have ever made, and I am happy with how it turned out. As you can probably tell from the picture below, I had difficulty cutting the cake horizontally and filling it. But that is fine. Every component of the cake worked, and that in itself was an accomplishment (I had never successfully made a curd before, I was so worried that it wouldn’t set). And the cake as a whole is delicious: the sponge is rich and buttery, the frosting is sweet, and the curd is wonderfully tangy. Taken together, each component of the cake blends to create a delightfully satisfying dessert. Also, an added bonus: when you cut into the cake, a bit of curd spills out from the center; a bleeding cake seems very Night Vale. 

This is what it looks like sliced: slightly uneven and bleeding curd. Still delicious.

MWF seeking BFF (to take to cookie parties)

The book: MWF seeking BFF by Rachel Bertsche.

My second Books and Bakes project was MWF seeking BFF, Rachel Bertsche’s true account of her experience trying to find a new best friend in a new city. As someone who lives on the opposite coast from my oldest and closest friends, I was intrigued by the idea of this book. Specifically, I wondered: could Bertsche’s story give me the perspective needed to make new best friends as an adult? 

I have to admit that I was skeptical of Rachel Bertsche at first. To start, her attitude at the beginning of the book struck me as excessively judgmental: she had so many qualifications about who she did and didn’t consider to be “friend material.” Also, she admits at the beginning of the book that she does already have friends in Chicago, just not best friends. I wondered why she was aggressively pursuing new friends instead of attempting to deepen the relationships she already had – were her current friends not “best friend material?” There was also an insensitive joke about Alzheimer’s disease that rubbed me the wrong way. 

Despite my initial reservations, this book turned out to be a pleasant and eye-opening read. Bertsche becomes aware of her judgmental attitude early on and resolves to be more open-minded about making friends. By the middle of the book, she develops meaningful friendships with women that she initially would have written off, and even reconsiders her notion of what a “BFF” should be. Toward the end of the journey, Bertsche stops fixating on what other women bring to the table and instead focuses on her own tendencies, acknowledging and improving on her shortcomings as a friend.

One of my favorite things about MWF seeking BFF was the juxtaposition of Bertsche’s journal-like reflections of her friend-dates with scientific studies on friendships and relationships. The presentation of research findings added depth to this book: Bertsche’s conversation with an authority on loneliness and the importance of relationships, for example, elevates the story from a journal about going on friend-dates to a reflection on how to find meaningful connection with others. It was these well-summarized snippets of social science research that had me deeply considering my own relationships: do my friends and I generally share similar values?, how can I become a better conversationalist and “click” with people more easily?who are my “fossil friends?” 

Overall, I enjoyed this book. My initial skepticism was occasionally re-sparked by insensitive or problematic comments like Bertsche’s proclamation that she would love it if her one of her new best friends happened to be black, or her use of the phrase “separate but equal” to describe keeping her marriage separate from her friendships. That being said, I still learned a lot from this book (in general, I think you can learn from most people, even people who are in some ways problematic). I realized how much I appreciate my long-distance friends and initiated conversations with people I hadn’t talked to for a while, and I also reflected on how I can become a better friend. I guess you could say that MWF seeking BFF took me on two journeys: Bertsche’s and my own. 

The bake: macarons with raspberry jam filling.

Early on in MWF seeking BFF, Bertsche attends a “cookie exchange” with a new friend: the premise of the event is that each attendee brings 3 dozen cookies, then at the party people socialize and eat and take home a variety of cookies. While Bertsche has to actively talk herself into attending this type of event (overcoming her biases toward moms in the suburbs and “Suzy Homemakers”), I would greet an invitation to a cookie-exchange with a loud and whole-hearted “YES!” I absolutely love baking, especially for others, and I am also a fan of bonding over food. 

So my bake for MWF seeking BFF is the 3 dozen cookies that I would bring to a hypothetical cookie exchange (note to self: host a cookie exchange). I went with macarons, because they are something that I’ve wanted to attempt for over a year now. I followed this comprehensive macaron recipe from Tasty and filled them with store-bought raspberry jam. 

This is how the macarons came out! I think they are definitely cookie-exchange-worthy.

When I say that I followed the recipe, I mean that I followed it to a T. I separated my egg-whites by hand, processed and sifted my dry ingredients, and did the “figure 8 test” to determine if my batter was ready to pipe. It was so much work, but y’all, it was worth it. Although some of my cookies cracked a bit on top (my oven runs a bit hot, and too-high temperature will crack macarons), these came out amazingly well for my first attempt at macarons! I will certainly make these cookies again, maybe to take to a cookie-exchange with a friend. 

Sour (orange and mango) Heart (cake)

The book: Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang.

This is my first Books and Bakes post and I am so excited to dive into this. I’m starting the project off with Sour Heart, Jenny Zhang’s fictional collection of short stories about the experiences of 1st generation Chinese American girls growing up in New York City. Each story takes place through the lens of a different girl (actually one girl narrates two of the stories) grappling with identity, culture shock, family, and simply being a teenager. The stories are dark, but also funny and heartwarming.

One of the things that I love most about this book is that it evokes so much compassion. Children lash out at their parents without guilt, parents are overbearing, and kids are mean to each other for the sake of being mean – but Jenny Zhang does such a brilliant job of painting these characters that you, the reader, understand where they’re coming from and feel empathetic rather than judgmental.

I also like how all the characters in Sour Heart are connected. This isn’t a necessity in a collection of short stories, but there’s something really comforting about encountering at least one familiar character in each new story. The intersection of characters also contributes to the compassion that I mentioned earlier. In the first story, for example, Christina perceives Lucy as self-absorbed and vain. But in the second story, the narrative flips and we hear Lucy’s perspective – she is just a child who feels helplessly lost and anxious, and her inability to express these feelings magnifies her need to overcompensate with excessive confidence.

Finally, I love the beautiful portrayal of contrasting perspectives throughout the book: young vs. old, past vs. present, sweet vs. sour. Especially sweet vs. sour. The book is titled Sour Heart, but there is definitely tenderness, love, and compassion throughout these stories. In “We Love You Crispina”, Christina’s father routinely brings home mistresses, but he also loves his family and makes Christina feel comforted throughout her unstable childhood. In “Our Mothers Before Them,” Annie’s mother is overbearing and self-absorbed, but also shows moments of wholehearted compassion for her family. Even in “The Empty the Empty the Empty,” as Lucy and Francine’s after-school experiments turn from innocent to cruel, Lucy attempts to extend kindness to the victim of her cruelty.

To summarize: Sour Heart is a beautifully written collection of short stories that will evoke shock, sadness, laughter, and so much compassion.

The bake: mango cake with tart orange buttercream frosting.

My inspiration for this bake came from the title of the book, which comes from Christina (the narrator of the first story, ‘We Love You Crispina’) and her love of sour fruits. Originally, I had hoped to make a cake with passionfruit in it, because passionfruit is my favorite sour fruit. Unfortunately, passionfruit is not in season right now! Even the international farmer’s market that I go to for unconventional produce (and also Polish candies) didn’t have them. So I had to find a different ode to delightfully sour fruit.

I ended up making a modified version of this mango cake from Natasha’s Kitchen. Though nowhere near as tart as passionfruit, mango is my favorite fruit. I thought the sweetness of the mango would pair well with a tart orange buttercream frosting (as opposed to the cream cheese frosting from the original recipe). I followed this recipe for orange buttercream frosting, but used a homemade sour orange juice instead of regular orange juice (in an attempt to add sourness) and Aperol instead of vanilla extract.

A slice of the finished orange mango cake. 

So how did this cake turn out? It was good…but it wasn’t the right bake to celebrate Sour Heart. My experimental tart orange frosting just wasn’t tart enough, and the mango that I used for the filling was slightly overripe (meaning very sweet)…so overall this cake was sweet with very little sourness. It’s tasty, but it lacks that beautiful contrast of sweet vs. sour. Christina probably wouldn’t have liked this cake (but my fiancé and I do).

What the cake looked like before cutting into it. I decorated the top with a candy heart to incorporate the Heart from the book title.