Thursday, December 16, 2010

Souffle Meditations on Perfectionism and Transitions


This past Saturday, Little Locathor, my husband, and I shared an intimate family celebration. An exceptional wine (and a little blood orange soda for Thor) accompanied Niman Ranch rib chops fit for a king (and a queen and a few other royal members). I hand cut and fried potatoes to dip into a chive flavored béarnaise sauce. We opened a few Christmas presents since we’ll be travelling this holiday and finished up with a chocolate soufflé. It was a special evening, not due to the deliciousness of the wine or the richness of the food, but instead because of the dramatic contrast to how I’d spent this particular evening in years past.

Over the last five years, I had a standing date on December’s second Saturday: cooking for 150 mostly Republican guests out of a suburban garage. You see, since 2005, in addition to running Purple Asparagus I’ve owned a boutique catering company. While the previously mentioned party was the company’s most lucrative event, it was also the most stressful. Money is no object for these clients and their values, well, they don’t hew closely to mine, not in food, nor in many things. So the news of their decision to hire a new caterer was not unwelcome. The sadness of the story, however, is that these weren’t just clients. The wife was also my former business partner, one of my husband’s closest college friends, and my son's godmother.

A rift in the relationship had been growing over several years, precipitated by miscommunications and perceived and actual slights. But, ultimately, the relationship was sunk by the chasm created by divergent world views. Unfortunately, all the adages about money applied here – money can change you but it cannot buy you happiness.

Saturday’s dinner was thus a sort of goodbye to a relationship soured. It was also a way to honor transitions and life that doesn’t stand still.

I once read that career counselors suggest reevaluating your professional circumstances every five years to determine whether they continue to meet your values. A little over five years ago, I left the law. While my big firm partner income helped with our temporal needs, the work left me unfulfilled. Now, I’ve reached a similar point of transition.

Over the past year, I’ve been moving further away from catering. With the burgeoning demand for Purple Asparagus’ services, I had little choice. For the first few years, I could deftly balance the needs of Purple Asparagus with whatever suitable catering gigs came my way. That’s no longer the case. Managing volunteers, teaching classes, developing partnerships, and seeking out funding is how I now spend my days. And those days are more than full.

Transitions are exhilarating, cleansing, heart wrenching, and enlightening. They also help you see things clearly, especially yourself. I’m a perfectionist, always have been. I married a perfectionist, and worst of all, between the two of us, we’ve birthed one. Like Mike and I, Little Locathor has a bad habit. While many things come naturally to him, the things that don’t he’s very cautious about. So cautious that, until he feels completely confident, he’s hesitant to try them. It feels painfully familiar to me.

My first two careers demanded that perfectionist trait. Typos are a sort moral failing at my former law firm. Catering was even worse for me. I demanded that everything be perfect – in appearance, in timing, and in taste. December, the month that brings to most tidings of joy, was a grim march of checklists and schlepping. It was a month to survive, not enjoy.

Ultimately, I think my problem is that I’m a deeply imperfect perfectionist. I don’t deal well with the stress of it. It makes me fight with my husband, it gives me nightmares, and it makes me literally pull my hair out.

This December is much better. While I’m working damn near as hard giving cooking classes, meeting with potential new schools and partners, and fundraising, I’m not nearly as stressed out. The thing is, perfectionism isn’t expected or even welcome when cooking with kids. It’s not about creating the most beautiful plate or making every cookie exactly the same shape and size as the others. The process is more important than the product. Just this morning, I made Christmas fruit salad with 2 kindergarten classes. A class of 24 divided into 6 teams cut their red and green fruits, pulled apart their pomegranates, and whisked their honey-lime dressing. Not one looked or tasted identical to the others. More importantly, the kids had a blast and devoured every bite of ingredients familiar and not.

I think perfectionism is a little like a soufflé. So many factors, both within and without your control, can interfere with the pursuit of perfection. For example, the soufflé picture above (about to be devoured by the soufflé shark) almost didn’t happen when my oven began a sputtering death – shutting itself off. And even if you can achieve perfection, it fleeting. The second you remove the soufflé from the oven, it begins to deflate. Just between the time I removed it from my malfunctioning oven and took this picture, it was at least an inch shorter. But fully inflated or fallen, it’s tastes just as good.

Chocolate Souffle
Serves 8
Adapted from Julia Child's The Way to Cook

7 ounces semisweet chocolate melted with 1/3 cup espresso or very strong coffee
2 cups 2% milk
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 large egg yolks
6 large egg whites
1/2 cup granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Butter a 2 quart round baking dish. Wrap and tie a piece of parchment around the dish so that it reaches at least 3-inches above the dish.

Whisk the flour and milk in a medium saucepan. Set the pan over medium heat and bring to a boil slowly. Cook for 2 minutes, whisking all the while. Remove from the heat, whisk in the salt, vanilla, egg yolks, and the melted chocolate.

Pour the whites into the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat the whites with the whisk attachment on medium speed to soft peaks. Increase the speed, sprinkle in the sugar and beat to stiff peaks.

Fold the chocolate mixture into the egg whites carefully but thoroughly. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and set it on the lower rack in the oven. Immediately turn the temperature down to 375 F. Bake for 50-60 minutes. Remove the paper and serve.


  1. Oh no, not the Souffle Shark!

  2. Bravo! This is a perfect time of year to re-visit career situations.
    I, too, have been through many transitions. Just keep telling yourself: its all good. It really is.

    Although I am an idealist, and an impatient one at that, I am no where near being perfectionist.

    But that souffle looks good, perhaps I'll give it a go!

  3. Thanks Susan. I figure one of these I'll find out what I want to be when I grow up!

  4. First time visiting, but just wanted to say fantastic souffle and great insight on December, in general. . . I think the pursuit of perfection is too easy to do these days, whether in parenting, food, work . . . it was refreshing to read your journey!


  5. Sarah,

    Thanks for stopping by and for your observation. It's so true. We all expect so much of ourselves and struggle when we don't meet our own expectations. Hope you have a wonderful holiday. Please stop by again soon.



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