Miniature Banana Cake

Baking

WITH NO ARTIFICIAL BANANA. ALSO LIKE BANANA BREAD EXCEPT BETTER BECAUSE IT’S CAKE.

This recipe is the first one I created entirely from scratch, so there’ll probably be some tweaks as time goes by. It’s a good thing.

Cake

Ingredients
  • 1 cup of sifted AP flour (130g)
  • 3/4 cup of sugar (150g)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda (4g)
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder (1g)
  • 1 large egg, room temp (~55g)
  • 1/4 cup, or 1/2 a stick of unsalted butter, room temp (~55g)
  • 1/4 cup of whole milk, room temperature (65 grams)
  • 1/4 cup of buttermilk, room temperature (65 grams)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt (1g)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (2g)
  • Half a ripe banana, mashed (50-60g)
  • Half a ripe banana, sliced (saved for assembly)
  • Banana chips (optional) for decorating
Equipment
  • Three 4 inch cake rounds
  • Parchment rounds/paper
  • Butter or baking spray
  • Offset spatula
  • Whisk/hand mixer/standing mixer

Preheat DAT OVEN to 350°F. Line your cake rounds with parchment paper and grease with butter or non-stick baking spray.

In a large mixing bowl, or the bowl of a standing mixer, cream together sugar and room temp butter until smooth, fluffy, and slightly lighter in color. Add in egg and beat until just combined, then mix in milk and vanilla extract. Add in mashed banana – the mixture may look slightly curdled – and beat until combined. Sift in flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder, and mix until combined. There may be some lumps from the banana, but don’t worry about those. Texture is fun.

Divvy your batter up into the three pans as equally as you can (if you have a scale, for the love of GOD USE IT but if you don’t it’s no big deal just try to be accurate thx) and bake for 30-32 minutes. There’s baking soda and powder in this sucker, and buttermilk, which triggers a chemical reaction in the baking soda, so it should go straight into the oven so that the lifting reaction doesn’t peter out before the bake actually kicks off in earnest. There are two raising agents in here because the bananas add weight, but if you’re seeing some major doming action, drop the temp down to 325 and let the cake bake for an additional 5-10 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick or skewer comes out clean. In my experience, it shouldn’t be necessary, but no two ovens are the same and nothing really goes the way you’d expect it to in baking, I’ve learned.

Take the cakes out and run an offset spatula around the edges to release them from the pan. Let cool in the pan for twenty minutes or so, then take out of the pans and chill in the freezer until solid.

Vanilla crème patisserie

I promise that I’m working on a blog post that explains wtf a crème patisserie is, but for now, just know that it’s custard and cornstarch.

Oh. Yeah, it’s that.

Ingredients
  • 3 egg yolks ( ≈ 55 grams)
  • 2/5 cup of sugar (55 grams)
  • 1 ¾ cups whole milk, heavy cream, or a combo of the two depending on how rich you want this sucker to be.(220 grams)
  • 1 teaspoon good vanilla extract ( ≈ 6 grams)
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch (17 grams)
  • (Optional) 2 tablespoons unsalted room temp butter
Equipment
  • Medium-sized saucepan
  • Medium-sized glass or metal bowl
  • Silicon balloon whisk
  • Rubber or silicon spatula
  • Clean empty bowl or container
  • Sieve

Add the milk to a medium-sized saucepan and heat over medium until just simmering – don’t allow it to boil, but you should at least see steam coming off of the surface. In a medium-sized metal or glass bowl, combine the eggs, sugar, and cornstarch and whisk until smooth and lighter in color. Once the milk is simmering, ladle it into the bowl with one hand, whisking the eggs mixture constantly with the other Cornstarch coagulates at 203° F, which is higher than the boiling point of water, so it is essential to for you to keep whisking. Cornstarch is also a drama queen in that it absolutely refuses to work, and then decides it’s going to work all at once, so once second you’ll be stirring a liquid, and then BAM. Thickening City, baby, population: You. So don’t panic and crank up the heat just because it isn’t thickening right away. Patience is a virtue.

Once the crème pat thickens up, take it off the heat and whisk in the vanilla extract and the butter if you choose to add it. It just adds more richness to the mix, which is never a bad thing. Sieve the mixture into a bowl while it’s still warm to catch any scrambled egg (it happens, don’t fret), using the spatula to help it along and scrape out anything in the corners of the pan, then cover with cling film pressed into the surface so it doesn’t form a skin, then chill in the fridge for at least two hours.

Cream cheese frosting

I mean, go for traditional buttercream if you want. IT’S YOUR LIFE.

Ingredients
  • 8 ounces room temp cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup of unsalted butter (1 stick), also room temp.*
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • Pinch of salt*

*If you only have salted butter, omit the pinch of salt. You may need to add extra sugar/vanilla, because the salt level in butter makes it harder to control the saltiness of the product.

Equipment
  • Medium-sized mixing bowl
  • Standing mixer OR handheld mixer
  • Spatula

Throw the cream cheese and butter in the mixing bowl and beat on medium-high until smooth, creamy, and pale. There should be no lumps. NONE. If there are lumps now before you add the other ingredients, you will not be able to get rid of them. Bet.

Make sure to scrape the bowl to ensure every ounce of the mixture has been beaten. Add in the vanilla and salt, if applicable, and mix to combine. Add the powdered sugar, one cup at a time, and beat on slow to medium after each addition so it doesn’t kersplode all over your kitchen/face. Fully incorporate each cup of sugar before adding the next.

After the sugar is added, beat on high for 30 seconds to get some air into the frosting and make it lighter and fluffier. Or, if you like it to be smoother and denser, stir by hand with the spatula to spread out and eliminate air bubbles.

Cover and chill in the fridge until ready for assembly.

Assembly

Take the frozen cakes out and level them with a bread knife or cake leveler while they’re still firm. On two of the cakes, pipe a ring of cream cheese frosting near the edge, then fill the space with chilled crème patisserie and banana slices. Stack and top with the last cake, then decorate with the remaining frosting, and crème pat and bananas if desired. Don’t put any sliced banana on the top of the cake because they’ll brown very quickly and that’s gross. Use banana chips instead, if you must.

There’s a lot of dairy in this sucker, so keep refrigerated until ready to serve. Goes great with coffee! Or a banana daquiri perhaps. Or straight rum. Whatever, I don’t judge.

THOUGHTS

I made this cake as a special request from a friend of mine for her husband’s 40th birthday. He loves banana cream pie and the original plan was for me to make cupcakes that captured the flavors of that dessert, but she wanted real banana in there if I could swing it. I like challenges, but every recipe I’ve ever found for banana cake calls for banana pudding mix or banana extract/essence, which is disgusting and that is a hill I will die on. Unfortunately, COVID-19 put a damper on her surprise birthday plans so she canceled the order, but I decided NO YOU’RE GETTING A CAKE. I also opted not to tell her what I was making so that if I screwed it up, I could just throw it away and make something else and NO ONE WOULD BE ANY THE WISER.

TL;DR banana cake should not use banana pudding powder or banana essence because that ish is N A S T Y and there’s no reason on earth we can make banana bread but not banana cake, thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

Choux Pastry

Baking

Choux pastry, or pâte à choux, is the pastry you need for cream puffs, profiteroles, and eclairs. Unlike conventional pastry, the dough is cooked in a pan before it’s baked, to allow the gluten in the flour to gelatinize and absorb more water.

My chocolate almond profiteroles

I’m still keeping the tradition of recipe first, blathering later, so that’s happening.

The recipe for pâte à choux is ridiculously simple, and comprises only four ingredients: butter, water, eggs, and flour, although most variations these days also add salt (including these because salt improves everything and that is a hill I will die on). When in doubt, just remember the choux ration of 2:1:1:2 – two parts liquid, one part flour, one part butter, two part eggs. You can add sugar for sweetness, or swap half of the water with whole milk for a more tender, richer pastry. I tend to keep my recipe to the basics because I like the crisp texture of a traditional profiterole, although I will occasionally add 1 to 2 teaspoons of white sugar if I’m not making a particularly sweet filling (in which case, I will omit the salt). As long as you have the basic four ingredients down, you can customize these tasty shells to your heart’s content.

But anyway, this recipe yields between 20 – 30 cream puffs, depending on how big you pipe them, and roughly 15-20 profiteroles/eclairs, again depending on size.

Before you start, preheat your oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or two if you’re making eclairs), and brush the paper with water. This will add more steam to the bake for sturdier, more well-risen shells. I also tend to use a silicon baking mat that I use for macarons underneath just as a guide for size, but it’s pretty easy to get consistent size once you get the hang of it.

The ingredients listed below are provided with both volume and weight, and although I almost always insist on weight when baking, since choux pastry is so simple and only has one ingredient whose weight can dramatically vary even if the volume is the same (flour) and the other is determinate on other factors that can affect how much or how little you use (eggs), it’s not really necessary to measure these by weight.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup water (or 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup whole milk) (8 ounces/200 grams)
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced (4 ounces/110 grams)
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted (4 ounces/110 grams)
  • 4 large eggs, room temperature, beaten in a separate bowl (8 ounces/200 grams)

Optional:

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract

Equipment:

  • Medium saucepan
  • Rubber spatula or wooden spoon
  • Silicone whisk or handheld beater or standing mixer
  • Medium bowl, preferably glass, if you’re not using a standing mixer
  • Piping bag with large open round piping nozzle (or just cut the tip off of the bag if you can’t be bothered), or a large open star nozzle for eclairs, if you like.

Optional:

  • Spray bottle filled with water
  • Kitchen scissors, for eclairs

Preheat oven to 425°F. Heat the milk and the butter in the saucepan over medium heat until it begins to simmer, stirring so that the butter melts completely. Once the mixture starts to simmer, turn the heat down to low and chuck in all the flour at once and stir with the rubber spatula. The dough should come together pretty quickly, but the point of cooking the mixture is to gelatinize the gluten in the flour, so cook for a few minutes more, pressing the dough against the sides of the pan and scraping it back together until it leaves a thin skin on the bottom of the pan.

Transfer the dough into the medium bowl or the bowl of your standing mixer, and press it against the sides. This will help cool the dough a bit faster, which you’ll need to do for at least a few minutes before you add the eggs, or they’ll scramble before you can mix them in, which is gross.

Once the dough has cooled, it’s time to add the eggs. This is where people tend to go wrong when making choux pastry, because how much egg you add is almost entirely dependent on factors you can’t control, including humidity, temperature of the room, or if you have slightly more or less flour (especially if you went by volume instead of weight, which is totally fine). So this is when it’s imperative to add a little at a time, and mix with either the standing mixer, handheld beater, or a whisk, until fully incorporated before adding more. The dough should take on a glossy, smooth appearance, and a pipeable consistency. If you scoop up some batter with a spatula and let some drop off and it leaves a triangle shape on the batter left on the spatula where it separated, you’re ready to go. Transfer to a piping bag and fix with an appropriate nozzle.

On your prepared baking sheet(s), pipe 1-1/2 inch circles, 3 inch rounds, or 4-5 inch long tubes (use the scissors to snip off the pieces of dough). If you’re making cream puffs or profiteroles, wet the tip of your finger and smooth out the inevitable little peak at the top of each bun left by the piping bag. If you have a spray bottle, lightly spritz the buns from a height to diffuse the water and let it mist over the tray. Otherwise, with a pastry brush, brush water in the spaces between the dough.

Bake in the oven for 20 minutes, then drop the temperature to 350°F and bake for a further 10. Make sure that you can see into your oven to check them without opening the oven door, or you’re playing with fire, because the thinness of the pastry means it can burn quickly if you don’t watch it. Do not, and I cannot stress this enough, open the oven door while they’re baking, or you will ruin them. Choux pastry does not have any rising agents – the only rising agent is the steam that’s released from the water absorbed in the dough. Opening the door will cause that steam to escape, and you’ll have lost it for good – the buns will collapse and you will be sad.

Once the buns are baked to a golden brown, take them out and pop them onto a cooling rack. CAREFULLY, while they’re still hot, flip them over and make a small incision with the tip of a knife at the bottom of each. This will allow your buns/profiteroles/eclairs to dry out on the inside and crisp up, plus the incision will make it easier for you to pipe in your filling. Let them cool all the way down before filling with custard, whipped cream, or créme diplomat (my personal favorite). If you want to fill the bigger treats with ice cream, cut them in half instead, fill as usual, and sandwich back together. Cover and store for up to three days. Like they’ll last that long, amirite?

Necessary backstory:

I love cream puffs. I know, cheesy clichés and what have you, but they’re absolutely a major staple of my childhood and were the pastry that made me want to become an amateur baker. There’s a bakery in my hometown of San Jose that is famous (to me) for their eclairs and cream puffs, and when my mother and I lived up the street, it was a tradition at least once a month to snag a pink box full of these whipped cream-filled delights. This bakery offered the more traditional pastry cream filling, but I preferred whipped cream, until I learned that you could combine the two and put that inside them instead. Game changer.

But far more importantly than a popular bakery, my Nonni used to make cream puffs every weekend when I came to spend them with her as a child. Even after she was diagnosed with cancer, she would still faithfully have a batch of these little treats, with some strawberries, ready for me when I arrived. She passed away when I was ten, but even now, 24 years later, I can’t eat a cream puff without thinking of my Nonni. I made my first homemade batch of these for my mom’s birthday last year as a tribute to her mother, my grandmother, with the Chantilly whipped cream filling and dark chocolate topping we’d both remembered so fondly of Nonni’s cream puffs.

I’ve learned a lot about baking since that first batch, and I’ve gotten a little bolder in my flavor combinations, but to me, a cream puff isn’t complete without a chocolate ganache topping, especially since the fillings tend to be sweet and caramel and powdered sugar just make them sweeter. But my favorite thing about cream puffs, profiteroles, and eclairs is they’re so versatile, it’s incredibly easy to customize them with whatever flavors you like, so if you’re looking for your own signature bake, this is a great place to start.

Lemon Cheesecake Macarons

Baking

Full disclaimer: I am not a professional baker. I’m not even a great baker. If I were on the Great British Bake Off, I’d be the one who got eliminated on Week 1 because I’d never heard of the technical challenge and basically everything I ever made would be chocolate cake, even during Biscuit Week.

That having been said, this is a baker’s journey blog. You’ll learn with me, you’ll laugh at my failures, and you’ll appreciate the fact that I don’t start recipes off with a detailed autobiography. Like, this is it. Check out this sexy picture of finished macarons, and then RIGHT AFTERWARDS, there’ll be instructions on how to make them.

I absolutely did not add filters and fancy effects to this picture at all.

You’ll be using 4 eggs and 3 lemons total across two recipes here, just as a heads up.

For the macaron shells:

  • 3 egg whites (brown egg whites froth up better, and it’s best to separate them the day before so they dry out a bit more. Save the yolks for curd) at room temp.
  • 1/4 cup white granulated sugar
  • 1 cup sifted almond flour, superfine
  • 1 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar, also sifted
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 3 drops yellow liquid food coloring, or 1 drop gel. Gel is often better because you don’t want to add extra moisture.

Beat the egg whites in a clean glass or metal bowl. Make sure there’s no oil or residue of any kind, because it can deflate your meringue. Beat on high until frothy, then start gradually incorporating the granulated sugar until it’s all dissolved, and your meringue makes stiff peaks, then beat in the zest and food coloring. Don’t worry about overbeating too much, because it’s really hard to do with meringue, but try to beat the meringue, zest, and food coloring until it’s all incorporated, and no longer than that. Sift in the flour and confectioner’s sugar together, and then mix with a clean rubber spatula, folding gently so you don’t deflate the egg whites. Best practice is to scrape up around the edge of the bowl and then down the center, alternating sides until your batter can make a figure 8 when it drips off the spoon in sandy ribbons without breaking.

Pipe the macarons in small circles on parchment paper, holding the nozzle fairly close to the surface so you can push the batter into a neater circle, or just blob it in the center so that it smooths itself out. Whichever’s easier. Blobbing means that it’s harder to get uniform size, but you usually get a better shape, and vice versa with piping the circles yourself. Once piped, lift and tap the baking tray firmly once or twice so any larger air bubbles pop, otherwise your macarons will puff. Pop any bubbles you see on the surface with a toothpick so you have a smoother finish.

Preheat oven to 285F. Let the tray sit somewhere dry for 30-60 minutes until the batter has formed a skin, so that when you touch the surface, none of the batter transfers to your finger. Bake the macarons for 15 minutes. After that, turn the oven off and let the cookies continue to dry out in the oven for about a half hour or so, watching them to make sure they don’t brown. After that, cool them thoroughly before removing them from your pan. If they’re still sticking, which I have a problem with more often than not, stick them back in the oven for a few minutes to dry them out more. The point of the oven isn’t so much to bake the cookies as it is to dry them out at low heat, and the zest from the lemon adds moisture that needs more time to dry out.

For the lemon curd:

  • 4 egg yolks (you’ll need an extra if you saved the ones leftover from the cookies)
  • 1/3 – 2/3 cup granulated sugar, depending on how sweet you like your curd
  • Zest and juice of 3 lemons
  • Pinch of salt
  • 6 tablespoons of room temp, unsalted butter

Use a double boiler, or place a glass bowl over a saucepan with a couple of inches of simmering (not boiling!) water. Add sugar to the bowl first, followed by the egg yolks to protect them from the direct heat of the bowl, and mix until well combined before adding the juice. Remember kids, sugar prevents premature coagulation (lol) and mixing it with yolks before adding the juice results in a smoother curd. Add the juice and whisk together, and then stir continuously for 10 minutes until the curd starts to thicken up. If it’s not thickening, turn up the heat a bit, but not too high, and make sure that you keep stirring so the eggs don’t scramble. The curd should coat the back of a spoon.

Once that’s done, take the curd off of the heat and add the butter, stirring until it’s dissolved. Cover the curd with clingwrap that touches the surface so that the curd doesn’t form a skin, then chill in the fridge. It’ll thicken up more as it cools, so don’t stress if it’s still somewhat runny. This will also give you more lemon curd than you need for this recipe, but I’m of the belief that lemon curd should be a staple in every household because it’s goddamned delicious and you can dip the cookies in it for EXTRA LEMONY GREATNESS.

For the cheesecake filling:

  • 8 oz room temp cream cheese
  • 2 tablespoons of milk
  • 1 cup confectioner’s sugar, plus whatever you need to make it pipeable

Combine all three ingredients in a bowl with a mixer on low until the sugar is dissolved, then beat at high speed to make it fluffy. If you need it to stiffen up, add more confectioner’s sugar a couple tablespoons at a time until you reach a pipeable consistency. Chill in the fridge to allow it to firm up.

ASSEMBLY!

Match up your cookies as best you can in pairs. Transfer the cheesecake filling to a piping bag with a star tip for some RAZZLE DAZZLE and pipe a circle of filling on half of the cookies. Fill in the empty space with a dollop of lemon curd, then sandwich with the other half of the cookies.

Stack and store in the fridge for at least a day before serving for EXTRA AWESOMENESS.

EXTRA!

So I promised that the biography bit wouldn’t be at the top before the recipe because that’s annoying as hell. It’s like signing up for a class and the teacher spends the hour romanticizing her Live Laugh Love tour in Italy where she learned to fall in love with the simplicity of a margherita pizza and also a panty-dropper named Ezio who wrote Italian sonnets and built shelters for homeless kittens with his bare masculine but still tender hands. This teacher is also just supposed to be teaching you business math, but the deposit on the class is non-refundable.

The story behind these macarons is that I like lemon-flavored dessert. I learned how to make macarons because my best friend is a lot fancier than I am and she asked me to do so one day, so I did. I started off with strawberry cheesecake ones because aforementioned bestie hates lemon-flavored dessert, but it’s basically her only flaw, so she gets away with it. They did not turn out great, but they didn’t suck, and that basically cemented the notion that I was no longer a terrible baker (she and I can tell you some stories. Well, no, I’d rather not because they’re terrible). Then my oldest niece got super into macarons thanks to that little adventure, so I had to get better at them. I’m not a great macaron baker by any stretch of the imagination – my chocolate ones need work because they always end up too soft, and my pistachio ones need better decorating. But the lemon ones were the first ones I made that turned out successfully, so I’m pretty proud of this recipe. I’ll tweak it in the future as I learn more about the not-so-subtle art of macaroning, but for now, if you try these, let me know if you have feedback or suggestions for improvement.

Lemon-flavored dessert is awesome, Hava.

COVID and Contemplation

life

There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you think, is there?

I mean, I assume. I wasn’t around during the Spanish flu.

I’m a constant thinker by nature – I’m going to assume that it’s in my genetic makeup, because I can promise that I have tried and failed since I was a small child to get my brain to shut the hell up for once. Over time, you just kind of accept that there’s never a break in your internal monologue, so you eventually just start trying to get some use out of it.

I already feel every moment of my life that I should be thinking about something – about my life, my future, my relationship, the ways of the world, the impermanence of life and power, the fragility of capitalism, and so on into deeper waters that I don’t really want to plunge into here, or I’ll never get a moment’s peace. So it’s only logical that when the pandemic hit and I was relegated into semi-permanent isolation in my apartment that I would do a lot of contemplating, particularly over what I wanted with my own life, because life for me since I was a kid has been figuring out how to achieve The Dream.

Oh, I know I’m not the first millennial to write about how The Dream is no longer achievable. Skyrocketing cost of living, stagnant wages, political apathy – the unholy trifecta that has created a new normal in which most millennials outside of the tech sphere cannot hope to achieve what most of our predecessors consider to be “normal.” Health insurance? Nah. A home you own, instead of rent? Nope. Retirement? Try again.

We are striving for normalcy in a world that is no longer (and probably never really was) normal.

Again, I’m not here to delve into how this is the new normal. What I’ve come to realize, in my six or so (I lost count) weeks of sheltering in place, is that I might be guilty of still trying to pursue The Dream, and I use “guilty” quite deliberately. I’ve long since accepted that my path to The Dream is far different than the path my parents and grandparents took. But I’m only now realizing that the destination has changed, too. The Dream no longer exists. The problem is we haven’t created anything to replace it.

We are in a steakhouse asking for the vegetarian options. Yeah, they’re probably there, but every single one of them is an afterthought, and none of them are very good. So why are we still trying to eat there?

We can get into the specifics about how the COVID-19 pandemic upended everything the privileged believed about capitalism, and revealed what the unprivileged already knew to be true, but it would be pointless. What COVID-19 did was sandblast away the last few layers of gilded plating to reveal a world made of lead and asbestos, and with it, any delusion that we could ever have of living on that world as we did before, including my own. Yes, I’ve already accepted that I will never be content holding a conventional 9-5 job and I managed to find happiness in my small bit of unconventionality, working as a writer. I assumed my determination to travel was going to be a weekend gig, something I could wedge in between drafts and final edits – furniture in my house, rather than the foundations. I figured that I was just taking a different path towards the same destination, something I desperately wanted to believe was still there, waiting for me.

It’s not. I’ve accepted it

When the pandemic ends, we’ll never be able to unlearn what we’ve learned from it. We can’t go back to the world that existed before it struck, because that world died drowning in its own fluids. It’s buried in a mass grave next to The Dream.

And where The Dream died, there is merely a void that very few of us have tried to build on. Maybe that’s our own fault, for living under the delusion that we could raise it from the dead like some benevolent zombie (Jesus?!). All I know is, I have no idea what to build there, and I suspect very few of us really do.

Perhaps that’s something I’ll have to contemplate for the next six or so weeks. My brain never shuts up anyway.

Simplify, Simplify

life, Tea Time Philosophy
It’s hard to figure out what you want from your life when you’re constantly comparing yourself to everyone else. It’s even harder when you don’t keep in mind that a lot of the people who portray themselves as having the perfect life on social media are just really good at hiding their shortcomings behind a few moments of success. I wear my heart and my subsequent failings on my sleeve, so for anyone to be able to do that sort of baffles me.
 
It’s taken me a long time to figure out who I am and what I want, and I had to find all of those missing pieces in the quagmire of Bay Area life, where the mixture of high living costs, low wages, and limited opportunities for non-techies comes together to form a quicksand that just drags you under no matter how hard you fight against it. It always means reaching for whatever possible rescue you can, whether that’s a low-hanging tree branch that threatens to snap under your weight, or a rope that ultimately isn’t tied to anything on the other end. But you learn when they fail how to recognize them, and how to find salvation that is strong and true, even if it takes longer than those who have already managed to escape the pit, or somehow avoided it entirely.
 
I guess I’m bringing this all up today because Father’s Day reminds me of the first big step I had to take towards happiness, and that was accepting that my father was never going to be what I needed, a decision that took me over twenty years to make and that I still have a difficult time accepting. It also coincides with the end of a week where I’ve finally managed to come to a conclusion, through years of trial and error, on how to balance the work life I want with what’s possible for someone with my education and experience who lives where I do. I’ve decided to go back to contract work, not because I have any love for the system, but because the kind of work I enjoyed the most is basically only available through contracting agencies in the Bay Area now. Freelancing is leaving me with fewer options than ever, and having yet another contract give me grief conveniently when it’s time to pay me is furthering my disillusionment with the industry as a whole. California doesn’t have the same sort of freelance protection laws that New York has, and frankly, the cons have finally completely outweighed the pros. Thankfully, I’ve gotten leads on some great opportunities, with better pay and benefits. Meanwhile, I’ll be keeping my job at Crazy Maple, just so that I can make extra money doing something creative, even if that something is transcribing YA romance to a game app, and it’ll be a solid backup between contracts if needed. But I’m swapping out four part-time jobs for one, and a full-time, if I can snag it.
 
Being largely unemployed for the last two months has put me extremely far behind in terms of finances and my long and short-term plans for this year. I think that’s why I jumped so quickly on the first set of available part-time jobs that came my way, because I needed to get out. I don’t advise it – it is not sustainable. Mentally, it’s taxing, and it leaves you completely dependent on the precarious balancing act that is multi-job income. It’s made harder on me now because in the past, I honestly would’ve just scrapped my apartment and moved into a rented room and figured out things from there from an easier position, or default to my backup plan – I’d get my ESL certification, hock all of my stuff, and go live abroad. But I can’t now because I have a partner who depends on me to bring in half the rent. Whatever path I’m on, I’m committed to, because I want to make this relationship work, and that means accepting that I have to try even harder, no matter how great a toll it is, because it’s not just me, it’s us. I’m not used to sacrificing for other people, and one of the biggest detriments to my mental health was accepting it because it would otherwise destroy my relationship. When I was single, I was barely scraping by on my own, but I had a way out. I can’t do that anymore if I want to keep the man I love, and that means coming up with a new plan, which, as I and I’m sure everyone else knows, is much easier said than done.
I kept waiting for the perfect opportunity to show up and open the door to the type of life that I wanted. It would be work that I found meaning in, that was solid and secure, and afforded me the opportunity to travel, which was always my dream. Now I have to accept that I have to be content with what’s available, even if it’s not everything I need. Contract work is terrible in many ways – it’s not permanent, it’s often uncertain, and more often times than not, it’s exploitative. But the work I had, I enjoyed, and I could stomach doing it forever, which was a quality I had yet to find elsewhere. I suppose just like in all aspects of life, it’s about finding the balance. I just needed to figure out how my scales worked.
Thoreau said “Simplify, simplify.” It’s an obvious solution with no real obvious process. It’s a simple statement. But it’s not a simple task. It took me years to figure out I could just tie the rope around the branch and pull.

A False Sense of Security, and Other Stories

life, Tea Time Philosophy

Being in my thirties in the Bay Area has taught me one irrefutable truth about the world.

There is no such thing as security.

Security is born of purpose, and purpose is the white rabbit that we’re expected to have snared by adulthood. I’ve long since learned that purpose is something that everyone strives for, but cannot be handed. Most people who seem to have figured it out are the ones who find their purpose in religion, marriage, and/or parenthood, with few finding it in their work, if they’re lucky enough to be born knowing what they want.

So where does that leave me? I’ve long since abandoned religion as little more than spoon-fed ideology espoused by those who can’t or won’t think for themselves, and vis-a-vis marriage/parenthood, frankly, I’ve never seen the appeal of such crushing ordinariness (she says as someone who is hoping to get married within the next two years). I don’t consider myself special, but I do consider myself unordinary, or at least marginally unconventional. Unfortunately, that’s still a broad and meandering path to purpose, one with many different crossroads, and I’m still stumbling along with no map to navigate it. And I’m approaching middle age with no more certainty of myself than I had when I was leaving my teens.

Well shit.

I’ve been pursuing purpose for as long as I can remember with no sense of certainty of where I’m going or what I’m capable of, and as a result, I have no sense of security. I live and work in an area that has no sense of loyalty, that costs more to live in than the average English major can reasonably earn, and loves contracts and not contract workers. I basically spent the first two-thirds of my life building my home and foundations, with my family, friends, and memories, only to have the major tech companies of the world swoop in and knock it all down to build a new campus on it. I hear the food is excellent, but the parking is garbage.

I remember growing up with the expectation of a job I could start out in and grow up with as part of a company for 30+ years, the parameters set by the claims of my parents and grandparents. Instead, I wound up in a world where job security is afforded to the privileged and employee loyalty is a rare commodity thanks in no small part to the fact that employers who actually care about their employees’ livelihoods have become mythological creatures that you read about and hear stories about, but never actually see. Sailor’s yarns only to be woven after a long day of drudgery washed away in the comfort of liquor, which we all seem pretty dependent on these days. I cannot build a foundation. I can only chase after purpose, but it keeps escaping down a hole I don’t have the wherewithal to keep going down, especially knowing how those stories often end.

I also do an awful lot of complaining. I just don’t know what else to do with myself.

I’m a Millennial in America. My Generation has Forgotten Me.

life

I know what the overarching perception of millennials is. It’s hard not to, considering there are daily news articles about whichever industry millennials are killing. We’re lazy, we can’t stop looking at our phones, we’re flighty in the job market, we demand free lunch at the office, and we’re snowflakes who can’t handle real life.

I’m going to conveniently forget that the group that has this particular set of beliefs about my ilk is the very same group that raised us. Moving on.

Apart from our glaringly obvious personal faults, we’re also responsible for the tech takeover of the modern world, building our kingdom of circuit boards and social media on the foundation laid down by Gates, Jobs, and Wozniak. We speak several programming languages, we can code operating systems, we can build artificial intelligence. We’ve transformed the world into something almost unrecognizable within a single generation, with all the instantaneous force of a meteor impacting the surface of the Earth.

Well, maybe you did. I, unfortunately, made the grievous error of choosing to be an artist in an increasingly tech-heavy world. I’m college-educated with a Master’s degree and over a decade’s professional experience. And I cannot afford to live in the kingdom that my generation has built.

I represent a curious middle ground in the millennial spectrum, in that I’m neither particularly tech-savvy, but I also don’t work in a so-called unionized trade. I’ve seen tech bros jet through Silicon Valley streets in ridiculously expensive cars while plumbers laugh as they go by because their unionized job pays them over $100k a year and they don’t have student loan debt. And I’m expected to laugh along with them while I’m taking home less than half of that at the job that tech bro has hired a contracting agency to hire a subcontracting agency to hire me for. With minimal pay, no benefits, and no long-term security.

In short, you’ve allowed the artists of the world to fall through the cracks. To be forgotten, until you realized you needed us as stilts to stand on so that your position in the world can be just a few feet higher, so that everyone else can see you better.

The plumbers need artists to design their logos and paint them on their trucks. The tech companies need writers to churn out user-facing content that non-tech bros can understand. They need musicians to compose jingles and songs for their soundbites and advertisements. They need catchy fonts and slogans for their advertisements. And meanwhile, the plumber is using a music app to stream the songs for less than what the song is worth to the musician, while everyone tries to pay their creators in “exposure.” Because we do this for fun, right?

You’ve recognized the need for people like me, but you won’t pay us enough to live in your world. You’re allowing us the crumbs you drop on the floor. You are forgetting us until you need us. You plant yourselves in our backyards and overrun it until we can no longer live there. And everywhere we run to hide, you follow, like a perverse game of cat and mouse.

Just stop. Enough is enough.

I am an artist in the Bay Area. I am a millennial. And I am not a consumable commodity. You need us to interface your business with the common man. We are as essential to your success. We are tradespeople deserving of respect and protection. We understand how your businesses work and how they appeal to the masses because as artists, we are more sensitive to the human condition. You need us just as much as you need a plumber when your golden toilet breaks, or tech support when your iPhone stops working. We are worthy citizens of the kingdom.

It’s time you started acting like it.

 

Ballestrasse: Begin Again

life, Tea Time Philosophy

I’ve done this before, but hey. I have a bad habit of coming back to the same crossroads I’d already traversed.

So let’s reintroduce:

My name is Michelle. I’m 32, and I’m stuck in a rut. It’s the oldest story on Earth.

Like so many before me, I meandered down the prefab path of public education, armed with only my wits and the belief that college and a career would lead to success, stability, and happiness. And, also like so many others, I fell into the trap of security, or, rather, the desire for it.

My twenties were by and large unpredictable, down to my job, my finances, and my excursions. I was poor and terrified of the future, but I was also brave and aloof, unafraid to take chances, and with the energy to make an adventure out of my life. Poverty was temporary, I was convinced. I earned a Master’s degree in an overseas program I spontaneously applied to, I taught English as one of my eleven consecutive jobs, I jumped out of planes and walked across bridges and decided to jump on another plane the moment the one that took me home touched the ground. I came back to the states armed with an expensive piece of paper, and the bravery to take on the world.

And then I got a full-time job.

The stability of long-term employment was the one thing in my life I was convinced that I needed, to pull me out of poverty and into a life where I didn’t have to be afraid. After all, in college, I supported myself through jobs that gave me unpredictable schedules and even more unpredictable wages, supplementing where I could with loans and whatever my parents or my grandmother were willing to give me. Apart from the fact that I had very little financial education to start off with, I always managed to get myself into some sort of financial problem right after I’d spent whatever I’d managed to scrape on whatever excursion I could take to keep myself from going off the deep end. I spent three hundred bucks for a weekend in Disneyland, only to have my phone crap out the second I got home. I bought the video from my skydive twenty-four hours before my transmission would blow. I had savings, but they were gone almost as fast as I could put the money away, because there was no way I could save money, handle the onslaught of life, and do any actual living, short of becoming a robot. And because I was borderline suicidal throughout my twenties, living turned into an act of survival, as I would fall into depression with every tiny misstep, and whatever distraction I could get to mitigate the crushing onslaught of my mental illness was painfully and often shamefully necessary.

My parents were not well-off and my grandmother was retired, and more importantly, shelling out her hard-earned savings on her extremely childish adult sons, who couldn’t hold a job or a life outside of jail if their masculinity depended on it. So needless to say, I walked away from both with a heavy dose of guilt along with the money, and an increasing determination and belief that full-time employment would save me from the guilt and the fear of not being able to scrape together enough to keep a roof over my head without asking my family to bail me out.

Well, I was wrong. I’m employed, but I’m poor, and worse than that, I’m bored. Now my fear is a slow death by apathy, wasting away the best years of my life behind a screen, with nothing to show for it but a stack of (barely) paid bills, just like everyone else. And of course, the looming shadow of my depression skulking in the recesses of my mind, quietly reminding me that in the silence of boredom, its voice is much louder and clearer.

This is certainly not what I signed up for. And I still need to ask my parents for money.

So now, my every day involves sitting in a chair, staring blankly at a screen, and wondering what life would be like if I could pack up my boyfriend, my cats, and a few meager belongings into my hatchback, and drive off into the horizon, seeking fulfillment in the mystical land of Somewhere Else.

I heard it’s something called destination addiction – the belief that happiness is in the next location, or the next, or the next. No matter how far you go or how hard you try, your princess is always in another castle.

Destination addiction, whether you believe it exists or not, is why I started this blog, because a blog is a journey that has no destination. Most addictions, in any case, need treatment, and since there is no practical rehabilitation program or even a pill to take to treat the sudden onset of wanderlust, needless to say, I’ve had to improvise.

So I can promise you this blog isn’t going to be a whirlwind of my self-deprecation, because I’ve already spent over a decade doing that. Rather, it’s the travel journal I’ve decided to keep as I navigate my way through both the world, and adulthood. In the case of the former, I’ve decided to keep it deliberately as unplanned as possible, picking only a direction and not a destination. In the case of the latter, well, let’s just say my roadmap is out of date. So I’m working on creating a new one.

Starting now.

 

Life, or Something Like It

Tea Time Philosophy

Once upon a time, I wrote about the difficulties of purpose, particularly if you don’t lead a religious life. Every day for me since I was 18, or probably even before that, has been an odyssey of figuring out what it is that I want to do with my life, and tragically, nearing the end of my twenties, I’m no more sure now of what I want to do as opposed to then. I’ve sort of jumped from one situation to the next with no real sense of permanence, and while I was one of the lucky few to snag a decent job after I returned from England, one with full-time pay and some benefits, I’m still not feeling particularly fulfilled. What the hell, world? Why does adulting suck so goddamned always?

So I got a job last month (hence the more or less radio silence) working as a copy editor at a small marketing firm in Belmont. It ticked off the list of criteria I was looking for – it’s a livable income, it pertains to my major, and it is actually the sort of job I knew I could be good at. So what the hell is the problem? The problem is, it’s soulless. I’m not doing anything that is even remotely meaningful on any scale. Hell, when I was making coffee at Peet’s, at least I was doing something creative, something that people enjoyed as well as got use out of. In even a tiny way, I was contributing something marginally meaningful. At this job, I do a gigantic heap of nothing important. I help millionaires sell big, gaudy homes to other millionaires. I don’t write. I don’t create. I check facts and spelling. I’m constantly insulted, stifled, and/or left with nothing to do at all because my boss refuses to teach me anything beyond that. I also get paid almost 10k less per year than what a copy editor makes on average in the Bay Area. So that’s cool!

My dear friend’s older brother is one of the brilliant writers behind The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, a webseries that has been critically acclaimed, and whose accolades include, you know, an Emmy or two. But the thing is, five years ago, he was stuck where I am now – working a job that didn’t give him any joy or satisfaction, so he took the risk, quit that job, and devoted himself to his passion, to great success. I know that that isn’t typical of most people who quit their jobs to become writers, but JFC, what do I have to do to push myself to take that kind of risk?

My best friend and I were discussing yesterday that one of the problems I have in my life is that I don’t do well with routine – having a predictable, day-to-day schedule doesn’t fit me particularly well, a side-effect, no doubt, of 9 years in the coffee industry, where no one day was the same as the day before. Today, I read the words “fabulous,” “contemporary,” “chic,” and “wonderful” so often that they’ve lost all goddamned meaning – you’d think every house in the Peninsula was a fabulous, chic, contemporary masterpiece with a wonderful master suite. And none of these are houses that I’ll ever see, let alone own. So what’s the friggin’ point?

It’s clear that I need to do more, or at least different. My biggest penis-envy inspiration are people like Ryan Sohmer, the guy behind Blind Ferret Entertainment and Least I Could Do, Bernie Su, the aforementioned writer of The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, and, of course, the incomparable and dearly missed Monty Oum, the brilliant writer behind RWBY, as well as the founders and contributors of Rooster Teeth Productions. Not just because they’re all monstrously creative people, but because they took risks and brought something great to the world. That’s the sort of life I want to live. That’s what I feel like my purpose is. It’s like the sun – bright, shining, and so close, but equally difficult to touch.

I guess step one is stop being afraid. Step two? Figure out how to make it happen.

Wish me luck.