I’m an average Jo(sephine) in many regards, but there are three things I do quite well:
- Fold fitted sheets
The first two talents aren’t significant to this story. However, keep your eye on #3. My mother has a theory that good cooks are not good bakers, and good bakers are not good cooks. Baking is science. Cooking is creativity. We’re dealing with two different skill-sets.
It’s just part of Nature’s Law.
It’s Christmas Day at 3:00PM. I’m completely relaxed because everything is exactly where it should be.
- On the counter: An antipasti with capicola, olives, feta, mushrooms, Havarti and black peppercorn cheddar
- In the oven: Pancetta-stuffed beef tenderloin, au gratin potatoes, cornbread casserole, roasted root vegetables
- On the stove: Maple-glazed Brussels sprouts with chestnuts
- In the refrigerator: A gorgeous New York cheesecake
Our guests have a 3:30 PM ETA. My fellas (1 big, 2 small) are building the Lego Hogwarts Castle in the family room. Upon my insistence, I am alone in the kitchen, working my way through 36×37 Assignment #23: Cook Christmas Dinner Totally Solo.
I cook a lot, but this is the first time I’ve tackled a feast all by myself. So far, this is easier than I thought it would be. I offer myself my most hearty congratulations: “How smart was I to prep everything early, right? The table is set…my timeline is working…why do people get so stressed about the holidays?” I pass the next 30 minutes feeling happily smug. It’s delightful.
And then, all Hell breaks loose.
The maple glaze won’t caramelize. The potatoes need 10 more (unexpected) minutes in the oven. I still need to shell the chestnuts and start the sauce for the tenderloin which, by the way, is decidedly too rare. In my gut I feel the hot sting of looming failure.
Meanwhile, my guests are in the family room. It’s 30 minutes past our expected dinner time, and SC’s sweetheart, Kelli, has kindly and very discretely called or texted her family to say she can’t make it to their place by 5:00. The boys are stir-crazy, so I buy some time by agreeing to let them open their remaining gifts. Everyone relaxes with the news, and in the steamy quiet of my kitchen, I try not to lose my composure.
I tell myself to calm down. Close my eyes, breathe deeply, open again. When I do, I look at the table:
People should already be sitting there, asking for seconds. Instead, they’re still waiting for me. Emily Post would be appalled.
I look around the table, and my guests nod politely. “Everything is delicious,” they say.
“I’m so sorry,” I spout. “Nothing came out right, and everything is cold.”
“Everything is fine! You did great!” my Aunt Kathy assures me.
“I’m having seconds!” my dad says.
“The beef is excellent!” my brother says.
“We’ll do Christmas dinner at our house next year. And New Year’s dinner next weekend, too.” my mom says. An honest thought, perhaps, but not the most ideal thing to say at the moment. I add hurt feelings to my rolling waves of embarrassment.
I’m out of sorts for the rest of the evening. I almost don’t serve the cheesecake, because what if it’s awful? That would be the Coup de Grace, wouldn’t it?
Still, I do. I serve it up.
And it’s perfect.
When our last guests head home, I wander back to the kitchen to start washing the dishes. People never believe me when I say this is my favorite part, but it is. I spend the next 30 minutes with my hands in lovely warm water, and I scrub and scrub and scour those pans until my scraps of disappointment twist down the drain.
Maybe my mom is right: Bakers do not make good cooks. Baking is science. Cooking is creativity.
I can at least say this: Bakers make good bakers. I could get rich with a cheesecake like that, I just know it.
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