Two Realizations and a Recipe

I had a realization this week that has totally thrown me for a loop: I am not a goal-oriented person.

God help me if I am ever driven to find a job in corporate America. I am also disorganized, an anti-people person, and do not own a skirt suit. I totally would not make the cut.

The eagerness with which I set goals for myself is a testament to how deeply I’ve internalized the idea that being goal-oriented is a key part of being a good, hard-working person. This was my to-do list for Saturday. I make lists like this all the freaking time. The text in the picture is backwards, but all that matters is that there are nine items on said list and only two of them are crossed off. One of those two items was to rid my inbox of this semester’s email clutter, and that task took all of ten minutes to complete, which is really the only reason it got done. At the beginning of this year, I wrote a post about my distaste for New Year’s resolutions and set five year-long goals for myself instead. Of the five, I’ve actually started on one–I’m half way through book two of ten in the Vampire Chronicles and pretty damn sure they won’t all get read before the year ends. And before that, I set a goal ten things I wanted to bake over winter break. I finished three.

These are just a couple of examples of years and years of setting and then failing to achieve goals. And every time I recycle one of those unfinished to-do lists, I feel a slight pang of guilt. But mostly I feel like it doesn’t matter. And then I feel a little guilty because I worry I should feel like it matters. But then I come back around to feeling like it really, truly doesn’t matter. It’s an exhausting cycle.

I recently recognized that external motivators–deadlines, rewards, expectations, etc.–simply don’t motivate me. External motivators make me feel like a cartoon dog chasing after a sausage dangling from a stick. I am ornery. I do not need to be given sausage, and I would rather just walk when and if I feel like it. For me, goals are a kind of external motivation. The point is to set milestones that mark some kind of progress or to establish an endpoint where you can feel like you’ve accomplished something. There is supposed to be satisfaction that comes from reaching the end, from achieving the goal. Except that I could give a shit about milestones and endpoints. (Case in point: I have a high school diploma and two higher ed degrees and I have never walked in a graduation ceremony. Sounds boring.) When I think about it, it’s really not surprising that the things I like to do–knitting, baking, writing–all involve an intense focus on the process of actually bringing something into form. There is never joy in the end product unless there was also joy in the process.

I’ve been thinking about all of this because the semester is over, and the summer is now laid out before me and waiting to be planned. But more than that, I’ve finished coursework–the most structured part of my degree program–and am now moving on to tasks that require that I work more independently. On the one hand, I am excited about the way that my time is becoming more my own since structure does not seem to suit me. But at the same time, I’m finding myself a little anxious about continuing to make progress and not just falling into the habit of waking up every morning and facebooking until my eyes bleed. Intellectually, I feel confident in my ability to the work that I need to do. But that nagging anxiety persists, and my first instinct is to try to quell it with goal-setting.

In the past week, I’ve set about a bazillion goals for myself: bake bread every weekend, knit a cardigan every month, teach myself to sew and then make 5 (or maybe 7? 10?) garments before the end of summer, practice yoga four times a week, figure out how to make the best possible iced tea yesterday. It all makes a girl feel a bit manic, you know? And the kicker is that none of these goals actually address the root of my anxiety.

Luckily, my second realization offered some calm. Writing, especially for school, stresses me out, and I’ve said over and over that I wish I could approach writing like I approach baking–with a general sense of fearlessness and appreciation for the process, no matter how tedious. I’m still working on getting there, but I’m also realizing that there may be a two-way relationship in which the way I approach writing might help me reign in the manic goal-making my crafting and baking efforts seem to spur on. When I write, I go through a drawn-out period of trying to think through things–you can call it invention, you can call it pre-writing, you can call it fucking around. Whatever. In this process I do some reading and some research. But more importantly, I find myself jotting down ideas and making lists of concepts or points on little slips of paper that I squirrel away and usually never dig up again. (See earlier comment about being disorganized.) Losing those little slips of paper doesn’t matter so much because I’m not actually capturing things that must go into whatever it is that I am working on. I’m not making a to-do list of writing tasks to accomplish and ideas to cover. What I’m doing is blowing the whole project up like a balloon, expanding it’s dimensions until it seems damn near impossible. The impossible, bloated version of the project is never meant to be the final vision–it’s really just an opportunity to recognize and capture the various dimensions and the various possibilities that a given project could take on. And that’s why just before it all explodes (and usually just as a deadline is whizzing by) I figure out what it is that I really want to talk about, what I really want to explore, what I really want to do. And then it’s on. So all of that list making I’ve been doing–the twelve cardigans I want to make, the bread recipes I want to give a run–aren’t meant to be a project in their own right, but rather a moment of trying to recognize the possibilities and figure out where I want to go from here.

I’m frankly not sure what these realizations amount to, although my sense is that they might be helpful in my ongoing struggle to cobble together a way of working that works (for lack of a better word) for me. Oh, and I should really stop setting goals and find some other way to use up those post-its.

In lieu of more definitive conclusions, I offer you this peanut butter fudge recipe, which was one of the three winter break recipes I managed to make and which has still not been blogged five months later. This recipe is ridiculously easy to make (no candy thermometer required!) and So. Damn. Good. You could make it without the ganache, but it’s hard to imagine turning down the peanut butter chocolate combo. Either way, it’s delicious and simple, unlike my relationship with goals.

Chocolate Glazed Peanut Butter Fudge (Adapted from Sweet Anna at Tasty Kitchen)

  • 1 c granulated sugar
  • 1 c brown sugar
  • 1/2 c milk
  • 5 large marshmallows
  • 1 1/2 c creamy peanut butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 c heavy cream
  • 1 c chocolate chips
  1. Line an 8×8 pan with tin foil and grease the foil.
  2. In a saucepan, stir together the sugars, milk, and marshmallows. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat and stir until sugars are dissolved and marshmallows are completely melted.
  3. Remove from heat and stir in the peanut butter and vanilla. Spread the mixture evenly into the prepared pan, and allow it to cool completely.
  4. For ganache, heat the heavy cream to a simmer in a small saucepan. Pour the cream over the chocolate chips in a small bowl and allow it to sit for a minute or two. Stir the mixture until smooth. Spread ganache evenly over cooled fudge.
  5. Refrigerate fudge for at least two hours. Using the edges of the foil, pull the fudge out of the pan and onto a cutting board and cut into 1″ pieces. Store fudge in an airtight container for up to a week (if it lasts that long).

Christmas Caramels

First off, let me say that these are really, seriously good.

That said, I’m not really sure I executed this recipe the right way. I have an excellent idea of what various kinds of batters and doughs are supposed to look like, but I really have no frame of reference for candy making. The one thing I know when it comes to candy is that you have to be vigilant about what “stage” your candy is supposed to be at when it’s finished, whether it’s soft ball or firm ball or hard ball or whatever other vaguely sports-related stages there are. Some people have a high level of candy knowledge that allows them to visually identify when they’ve achieved the appropriate stage. Bully for them. Most people use a candy thermometer. I struck a balance between using a candy thermometer and just winging it by holding a cheap meat thermometer (which I actually use for bread making) in the pan with one hand while I stirred with the other, even though I’m pretty sure the thermometer is at least 5 degrees off. Still, I think I did well pulling the caramel off the burner when it got to the firm ball stage given that the finished candy is pleasantly soft and creamy while still holding its shape at room temp.


The tricky part came with the first step of the recipe, in which you boil a mixture of sugar, corn syrup, and water until it is a “deep golden” color, at which point you add the cream and butter mixture. Except there’s no indication in terms of time as to when this otherwise translucent mixture will suddenly achieve deep golden-ness. My decision to incorporate the cream mixture was dictated largely by my anxiety about burning the sugar, which peaked after stirring the sugar mixture for the length of several Christmas songs, at which point I would have described it as “kinda” golden. (Maybe 10 minutes? Probably not more than 15?) It still bugs me to think that there might have been a better level of golden that I didn’t hold out for, which is probably why my caramels are lighter in color than some of the others I’ve seen. But like I said before: they are delicious. But really–we’re talking about sugar, cream, and butter. Short of burning, it seems pretty hard to screw up.

Caramels 2

Unlike Ina Garten, I do not have any fancy-pants flaked French sea salt, nor did I have any desire to purchase some just to make this recipe. I don’t have that kind of cash laying around. Instead, I used some humbler Morton’s sea salt in the caramel recipe and decided not to sprinkle any salt on the finished candy. All in all, I thought these were pretty easy–the trick is just to prepare everything in advanced and keep everything you need in reach so you can move from one step to the next without the risk of burning or overcooking the caramel.

Ultimately, these caramels made it on a goodie tray I made up with some leftover oatmeal cookies and some dark chocolate brownies that I took over to a delightful Christmas Eve dinner my office mate hosted at her house. Despite all the leftover sweet stuff I’ve got hanging around here, I just pulled some mini-cheesecakes out of the oven for Aidan and I to enjoy after our Christmas dinner this evening. I hope you’re all having a tasty holiday. Merry Christmas!

goodie tray

Fleur De Sel Caramels (from Ina Garten)

Note: I’ve linked to the recipe as its posted on the Food Network website, but the recipe posted there is wrong as many have noted in the comments. What I’ve posted here is based on the ingredient list given on her show. Also, I cut the caramels into 1 1/2″ rectangles and ended up with about 25 pieces.

  • 1 1/2 c sugar
  • 1/4 c light corn syrup
  • 1 c heavy cream
  • 5 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 tsp fleur de sel (or, for those of us who are broke, any kind of sea salt you can get your hands on)
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  1. Line the bottom of an 8×8 pan with parchment paper, letting the parchment hang over the edge of the pan, and grease the parchment. Set aside.
  2. In a medium sauce pan, combine the sugar and corn syrup with 1/2 c of water. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium high heat, and continue to boil until the caramel is golden in color. While boiling, gently swirl the pan to keep the caramel circulating in the pan. Watch it carefully because it can burn quickly.
  3. At the same time, bring the cream, butter, and salt to a simmer in a small sauce pan. Keep the cream mixture warm until you’re ready to add it to the sugar.
  4. When the sugar mixture is golden, slowly add the cream mixture to the sugar mixture. Cook and stir for 5 to 10 minutes over medium heat until the mixture reaches 248 degrees (firm ball stage). Pour the caramel in the pan and then refrigerate until its firm.
  5. When the caramel is cool, use the parchment to remove it from the pan and transfer the caramel to a cutting board. Cut the caramel into small pieces and, if desired, sprinkle additional salt over the top of the caramels. Wrap the caramel pieces in small squares of parchment, twisting the ends of the parchment to close. Store in the refrigerator or keep at room temperature.