Sunday April 7, 2013

Zeno's (Pastry) Paradox

I once read you should never apologize for not posting often enough on your blog, that it only calls attention to your own lazy disinterest. But having gone so long without any update, breezily jumping back in without even mentioning it seems like the bigger faux pas.

The problem isn’t that I’ve got writer’s block, it’s that I’ve got writer’s blog. Despite my infrequent updates, in the last few months I’ve done nothing but write. I’m just having a hard time figuring out how to balance writing a book with writing a blog. Hell, I’m having a hard time figuring out how to balance writing a book with holding down my day job.

dark chocolate pave

I love sweets, but between work and the book, I spend twenty hours a day in a sugar coma. I wake up thinking about desserts, spend my entire workday making and tasting desserts, come home to read, research and write about desserts, then fall asleep to dream about ‘em. It’s like a sugar marathon, and pouring that much energy into something makes it hard to think about anything else. (Except salt. I’m always thinking about salt…)

If I could talk about all the things I’ve learned and all the new recipes I’ve developed, I’d have a blog post two hundred pages long. I’m only halfway done, but I can’t mash out enough exclamation point to express how I feel about these desserts. Suffice it to say that when the book finally comes out, there won’t be any filler recipes padding out my page count. I’m not investing a year of my life to write a labor of like. I’ve got a serious crush on all the recipes involved.

It’s taken a lot of work for me (and the recipes) to get to a place where love can even enter the equation. I’d always considered recipes nothing more than snapshots in time, dynamic creatures that continued to evolve long after I’d written them down. I thought letting myself believe I’d perfected something meant giving up on making it better. I posted my recipes in the spirit of sharing, as a way to document my progress, safe in the knowledge I could always go back and edit them later. The idea of setting them in stone made me feel a little panicky.

Eventually, I decided to embrace that old saying about how an artist never really finishes his work, but merely abandons it. I didn’t have to perfect the recipes, I only had to let go of them. I let that thought reassure me long enough to sign a contract, but then the wishful thinking evaporated. I had twelve months to finalize over a hundred recipes, when I hadn’t perfected a single one in ten years.

flourless chocolate cake

Statistically speaking, it was an abysmal record. If you do anything for a decade you’ve gotta get it right at least once, just by accident. I had to realize that never getting it right was a choice. Somewhere along the way, I’d become more obsessed with the journey than the destination, refusing to acknowledge my own success. I’d resigned myself to Zeno’s Paradox, forever making infinitesimal progress yet never crossing the finish line.

For some of us, it’s easier to tear our work to shreds than actually stand by an accomplishment. At least, I’d always found it easier to give myself a perpetual B+ than to do the hard work of sorting out my failures and victories. I’d never really considered that constant critique doesn’t translate to constant improvement, or that judging honestly can do far more good than judging harshly.

I could try to pass it off as relentless perfectionism, but the truth is that I’d never been brave enough to own up to my work and say, “This is it. This is the best I can do.” I hid that insecurity behind the caveat of a work in progress. Suddenly that old saying sounded suspiciously like a cop out.

I didn’t want to abandon my recipes, I wanted to hand them over saying, “these are gonna blow your mind.” It’ll be a while before I can back up that claim, but you’d better believe I’m gonna.

chocolate pave

posted byStellaand filed under:  Chocolate  Sarah Jane

44 comments and counting

Apr 08, 2013 ·  4:16 AM

No doubt about it, you are an artist. And not just in desserts. Consider already one copy of your book sold, on the basis of the writing alone. (Of course I look forward to the recipes too.) Good luck with all you have to do, and don’t be too hard on yourself or your recipes!

 · Astrid ·

Apr 08, 2013 ·  4:40 AM

Stella, I know exactly how you feel! I got my start writing recipes for the web, and when it came time to write my book I was so nervous, because I had gotten used to being able to go back and edit and tweak things when I improved the recipe (or when I sometimes accidentally forgot an ingredient or measurement, whoops did I say that out loud…?) It’s a scary thought to be judged by your printed words, and I had some serious anxiety about terrible Amazon reviews and such. But all I can say is, you’re talented and I have no doubt your book will be awesome. My socks are ready to be rocked.

 · Elizabeth @ ·

Apr 08, 2013 ·  7:39 AM

This sounds exactly like my life, minus the prestigious pastry chef position and eager following awaiting your book release, of course. Could have practically been written about me.

Also struggling with the perfectionism issue when writing recipes and submitting them to be printed, it helps me to bear in mind the Japanese concept of “wabi-sabi”. That is based on three principles: Nothing is ever perfect, nothing is ever permanent, and nothing is ever fully complete. Just remembering that gives me enough peace to lay down a few more words and continue moving forward.

 · Hannah ·

Apr 08, 2013 ·  8:20 AM

you have the uncanny ability to put into words the way i feel about food and cooking. i feel the same way about my own recipes, even if they turn out delicious i feel that they are never quite right or finished. When i find a recipe that i like i can never leave it alone.
I can’t wait to get your cookbook. If your recipes are anything like what you post (and i’m sure they are) they will be fantastic. And hey, if you need a recipe tester in the meantime-i’m your gal.
thank you.

 · Heather · 

Apr 08, 2013 ·  8:21 AM

Bravo, Stella. One of the best things about your blog is the honesty and humility (combined with brilliance). As one with a food biz, I can relate to how hard it is to let go of the recipes. As for you, you’ve already blown minds, and I’m sure you’ll continue. I look forward to it!

 · Stanza · 

Apr 08, 2013 ·  9:14 AM

I’ve been cutting sheet cakes into triangles lately, too. O.o

I don’t consider my favorite recipes perfect, just “trusty.”

 · anna ·

Apr 08, 2013 ·  9:41 AM

Thanks, Astrid. I really do feel that by silencing my inner Simon Cowell, I’ve been able to channel this whole new level of enthusiasm. A little counter-intuitive to my old way of thinking, but I’m gonna run with it.

Elizabeth, omg, omg, Amazon reviews. How does anyone survive?! Yelp reviews can cut me down quicker than just about anything, ouch. It’s really encouraging to hear from someone who’s been down this road before, thank you!

Hannah, yes!!! That ethos is so beautiful. There is so much to be said for holding yourself back from over-engineering anything.

Heather, you’ll have to give “leaving them alone” a try sometime. Who knows, you may have tinkered a recipe to perfection, then pushed it right back out of that bullseye with the next change. Me from 6 months ago wouldn’t have ever said that, but now I think about it a lot! I wish there was a “Time Machine” on my recipe notebook.

Stanza, what is it about us restaurant types??! Thank you for the encouragement!

Anna, it’s so funny. I’ve always gone to great lengths to avoid “sliced” desserts, but that’s really been at odds with my production demands as of late. And somehow cutting into a rectangle into scalene triangles seems so much more attractive than cutting a round into isosceles wedges. What is wrong with us????


Apr 08, 2013 ·  9:43 AM

And think: just a couple of years ago, we were bored.

 · Rosco ·

Apr 08, 2013 · 10:38 AM

In April Bloomfield’s “A Girl and her Pig”, we learn that she had much the same conundrum, only ever viewing recipes as ok or decent, but never exceptional. Its difficult to accept that you’ve finished a recipe because there are so many way to tinker around with it and possibly make it better.

 · ElizaB ·

Apr 08, 2013 · 11:44 AM

This resonates. I’ve been struggling to get my work back out there after putting out a book that I knew wasn’t my best work back in 2007. I put on a suit of “too cool to try” for a long time, because it is gut-churning to think of truly doing my best work and it being measured as just not good enough. Thank you for the honest post.

And if you ever want a local recipe tester, I’d love to whip up any of your delightful creations.

 · Renee · 

Apr 08, 2013 · 12:35 PM

Yeah, count me in as a buyer also. I still remember the look on my kid’s face when she had her first homemade macaron. I owe you one.

 · Sarvi · 

Apr 08, 2013 ·  1:03 PM

Frequent reader, but first time commenter. Go, Stella! You’re in the thick of it now. Nothing to do but keep beating and eventually this particular cream will whip.

 · Emily ·

Apr 08, 2013 ·  1:36 PM

It’s usually within ourselves we find that last hurdle holding us back, can only go upwards from here on out. I’m already determined to ship the book out to little Belgium regardless the cost. It’ll be placed quite subtle on the coffee table to encourage the wandering eyes of visitors to pick it up and marvel in what will undoubtfedly be greatness overload.

 · Nvanspauwen · 

Apr 08, 2013 ·  2:42 PM

I am not fluffing you up at all, what I am about to say is gospel…I am a foodie, I love to cook and bake, mostly bake…I follow a lot of blogs and they all have cookbooks coming out (gosh i hope none of them are reading this right now) your book is the only one that I cannot wait to get my grubby little hands one…the others I will wait till I can get them on “the bay” for $1.99…<3 ya Stella

 · Maria in NJ ·

Apr 08, 2013 ·  5:09 PM

I second Maria’s comment – lots of food/baking blogs out there, but YOURS is the one I want. Now!

I’ve baked more from your blog than any other, and the items I’ve baked were a hit all around!

 · Bre · http://Idonthaveawebpage,Ijustlikeeveryoneelses

Apr 08, 2013 ·  5:53 PM

Oh, Rosco. How this dessert table has turned!

@ElizaB, so true! I haven’t read that book, I’ll have to check it out!

@Renee, always great to meet a local!!

@Sarvi, awwww! Wish I couldda seen it too.

@Emily, lololololol. Thanks for coming out of the woodwork with such a genius comment. xo!

@Nvanspauwen, oh geeze! You’ve got me tempted to come hand deliver it! I’ve always wanted to visit Belgium.

@Maria, oh no, the Food Wars are about to begin! Thank you so much for the vote of confidence and encouragement.

@Bre, I’m so happy to hear it! Thanks for cruisin’ through my recipe box.


Apr 08, 2013 ·  9:23 PM

I hope there will be a post and a link to advance orders, ‘cos I’ll be clicking! Someone very clever and famous had a quote which I can’t remember properly about our fear not really being one of failure, but of actually being really brilliant. I’m not sure I always agree with that (I definitely fear the failure part, myself), but I know that your book is going to be brilliant, and I look forward to getting a copy.

 · araikwao · 

Apr 09, 2013 ·  2:22 AM

If you need an inspiring 20min break, watch Elizabeth Gilbert’s TedTalk about writing and perfectionism – it’s just great!

 · Tunie · 

Apr 09, 2013 ·  9:02 AM

Love your blog – easy to read and FABULOUS recipes. Your piece about the macaron myths gave me courage to try and I had first time success with your recipe and method. Second time, not so much, but I recognized my error! Can’t wait for your book!!!!

 · Labrat ·

Apr 09, 2013 ·  8:03 PM

Aw, you’re a brave tart after all.

 · Mary Flowers · 

Apr 09, 2013 · 11:37 PM

Oh! This applies to so much more than just cooking and recipes. What great life advice

(And I agree about the macaron myths post – got me going making them too!)

 · Clare ·

Apr 10, 2013 ·  9:09 AM

@araikwao, that’s a great quote! You can bet that whenever the book is up for preorder, I will be shouting it from the rooftops.

@Tunie, thanks! I will look it up when I get a chance!

@Labrat, congratulations on your macaron success! PS- I can’t decide if you’re LABrat (from LA), laBrat (a Francophile) or LabRat.

@Mary, haha, I’m trying!

@Clare, desserts are pretty philosophical, huh?


Apr 11, 2013 ·  4:43 PM

So I do have a question. What pool of deliciousness is it sitting in? And where can I find the recipe for that too?

 · kingwell · 

Apr 11, 2013 ·  5:36 PM

“When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.” (Thomas Keller)

 · piszke ·

Apr 11, 2013 ·  9:33 PM

Dear Stella, I made your red (wine) velvet cake without the wine n substituting it with buttermilk. It’s the perfect red velvet cake for me n I’ve finally stopped my search (of over several years). I’m waiting for your book and I’m sure your recipes would be perfect. So stop worrying, your book will be great

 · ummi · 

Apr 12, 2013 · 12:16 PM

I like they way you think. You can just call your second book “Wait I can do better!”

 · Cliftola ·

Apr 12, 2013 · 11:37 PM

It doesn’t matter that you don’t post all of the time because you are “that good”. This place defiantly demonstrates quality over the quantity. I can’t wait to read your book.

 · Juliana Walters ·

Apr 13, 2013 · 11:26 AM

@kingwell, actually, I’ll be getting to that in my next post! It’s sort of a long story… (also, great to hear from you, lady!)

@piszke, TK hit that nail on the head!

@ummi, I’m so glad to know it turns out well even with buttermilk! That’s great news, thanks for the feedback.

@Cliftola, that actually had me laughing so hard. Hahahaha.

@Juliana, thank you so, so much. I’ve heard all sorts of advice about sticking to a “regular schedule” with a blog, but really, I just have to wait until I have something to say!


Apr 14, 2013 ·  4:44 PM

Stella your blog content is so informational we don’t mind waiting until you are able to write from the “heart” Sign me up for one of your books too. Can hardly wait.

 · Susan · 

Apr 17, 2013 · 10:45 PM

I just want to say that your recipes are already THE BOMB! haha so that your writing is also so personable and fun to read means that you’ve just sold another book. I’m amazed, quite frankly, that you find the time in a day to do all of this. Kudos to you!

 · Diana ·

Apr 18, 2013 ·  6:00 AM

yay stella!! keep at it! just visualize how beautiful and awesome the book is going to turn out! also, if you need any help testing recipes (or recipe variations) – we’re here for you!

 · maya ·

Apr 18, 2013 · 10:23 AM

@Susan, aw, thanks for hangin’ in there with me!

@Diana, hahaha, sometimes I am too. It feels like a lot right now. But it’s just for a season, then things will go back to normal, I hope!

@maya, thank you ma’am!!


Apr 22, 2013 · 12:08 PM

After buying several Macaron cookbooks, I discovered your blog. You gave me the courage to try and I have never looked back. Just found a recipe for cheetos macarons (?) that I might try using your methods. Love your writing, your insight, and your recipes. Consider another copy of your book sold.

 · Sherry · 

Apr 24, 2013 · 10:34 AM

I barely find time to keep it all together with just a bakery and blog. I can’t imagine how you are writing a book on top of it?!

 · Shannon ·

Apr 24, 2013 · 11:38 PM

Can’t wait to try this.

 · Heide M. ·

Apr 25, 2013 · 11:53 PM

Can’t wait to get my hands on your book. It’s hard to balance a day job + writing a book + writing a blog all at once. But you are doing a great job at it!

 · sweetlab ·

Apr 26, 2013 ·  9:31 AM

@Sherry, omg Cheetos macarons?! That’s insanity! Hahaha. Glad you’ve jumped into macaron world and that I could hold your hand a bit along the way, if only virtually.

@Shannon, I’m wondering the same thing myself. Was up til 3am last night, headed to work a little late now. When this is all over, I am going to need a nap.

@Heide, hope you like it!!

@sweetlab, thank you thank you!! Sometimes I feel like I’m neglecting all three…


Apr 29, 2013 ·  4:29 PM

this is the first time I’ve commented on your blog even though I’ve been following it for quite awhile. Your macaron recipe is my bible, by the way. But the reason I am writing today is that I really can empathize with your feelings of baking being relatable to art. I am an aspiring artist and not such a bad amateur baker. I definitely feel the affinity between these two passions. I will happily take your words to heart and apply them to my art as well as my baking. Can’t wait for the book!

 · erica · 

Jul 06, 2013 · 11:48 AM

Thanks, Stella, for answering my question about the sauce. I wanted to post this right under your answer, but there wasn’t an option for posting comments (?). So I’ll post it under this Pave recipe. I make hubby a dense chocolate torte (We call it Paradise Torte and he sings a ditty about it to the Winnie the Pooh song.) that would be great on top of your anglaise! Have a great weekend!

 · Harriet · 

Jul 06, 2013 · 12:07 PM

Hi Harriet, aw yeah, I know. I need to figure out how to get nested comments! I’m sure it would be very helpful in many comment-conversations. That sounds like quite the song, btw!!


Jul 17, 2013 ·  1:51 AM

I cant wait for your book to come out! I so excited!

 · Dinaz · 

Jul 17, 2013 · 10:50 PM

Hi Dinaz! Thanks again for the email.


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 · Augusto de Arruda Botelho ·


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