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 fiancĂ© 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.