It occurred to me recently that this period of my life, though I experience it now as complicated, and somewhat overwhelming, struggling to find balance, to find time, constantly juggling, dealing with uncertainty, learning to be more grateful, more in the moment… this period of my life might just be the one I will remember the most fondly when I’m 80 (if I get that far.)
This has happened to me before: to look back on certain times of my life with great fondness, when I know I didn’t consider myself “happy” or “satisfied” at the time. Conversely, times I do remember thinking were fairly happy, sometimes escape me completely, as if meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Youth is relative, and youth is blind to itself.
So I try to capture this thought and stay with it: what if this time of my life, right now, turns out to be one of the happiest, when all is said and done? That could potentially be depressing, as I could think, “This is it?” “That’s as good as it’s going to get?” “That’s not the picture I had in mind”.
And there’s the rub.
That freakin’ picture we have in our minds of what life, and people in our life, are supposed to be like.
Or… I can hang on to that image of myself as an 80-year-old woman, smiling back at this time of my life with great fondness. And I can actually listen to her.
She’s telling me this time is rich, with all its ups and downs, joys and sorrows, its wonders as a new parent, a new blogger. This time is complex, a bit stormy, definitely no flat sea around here. But I think 80-year-old me would smile and say, “Who wants a flat sea of a life anyway?”
Sometimes my expectations, my stresses, the whirlwind of life, make me forget her, and her wisdom. But if I can just reach out to her in those moments, she will teach me to be grateful for this time. The good thing is, I’m starting to really hear her voice now. Instead of hearing the voice of 10-year-old me telling me what my life was supposed to be, I am starting to hear the voice of 80-year-old me, telling me there’s no “supposed to”, telling me life is so much more than that. Setting me free to actually live my life and know myself as I evolve and grow.
There’s a sentence at the end of A life, by Guy de Maupassant, translated here from French by yours truly:
“Life, you see, is never as great nor as bad as we think.”
There’s a way to understand that sentence that is not as depressing as one might first believe. Life is just not what we think it’s going to be. And that doesn’t make it a failure. It’s okay. I wish I’d known that earlier. But I know it now.
So what brought on this philosophical debate in my brain, this Ghost of Helene Past, Present and Future of sorts? A recipe for an apple goat cheese millefeuilles. Of course it is.
(Millefeuilles is just a fancy name that means ‘a thousand leaves’, typically a dessert, a Napoleon, but also used for anything with multiple layers.)
See, when I saw this recipe in a tiny French recipe book called “Papillotes” (a series of recipes, savory and sweet, all cooked in parcels in the oven), I looked at the picture, and set out to make it, because frankly, apple and goat cheese, how could I go wrong? In my head, it looked just perfect.
I am learning that I’ve been getting the meaning of “perfection” all wrong. We say perfection can’t be reached when we can’t make life fit in with the picture we have in our head. When that picture is in fact much too narrow and simplistic to do real life justice. Perfection is everywhere. Life is perfect, by its very existence. Our expectations, ever so limited, narrow-minded, blind-sided, one-dimensional, are what is imperfect, though they may serve a purpose for us, like dealing with our issues.
So, making this millefeuilles, I certainly was reminded things never go the way you think. The apple wasn’t perfectly shaped. The goat cheese was a pain to slice thin, it got chalky in the middle and fell apart. But determined, I moved forward. Sometimes a “what the heck” attitude gets you through stuff where you head might not.
And the result was… delicious. Not like the picture, in the book or in my head. Not “picture perfect”. But “life perfect”. Because I made it. Because I shared it. Because the contrast of semi-crunchy apple and half-melted goat cheese is scrumptious. It was a highly satisfying three-in-one salad/cheese/dessert course (in the framework of the typical four course French family meal).
What can I say, another life lesson in the kitchen…
A quick note about cooking “in a parcel” in general, called “en papillote” in French (i.e. cooking a hermetically wrapped preparation in the oven). It’s a great and easy way to cook a whole range of foods. Not only does it protect natural foods from too much heat, but it also cooks à l’étouffée, meaning the foods cook in their own steam, infused with all the flavors and scents from the spices and condiments used. It’s both a quick and gentle way to cook, which helps preserve a lot of vitamins. On top of it, it is so much fun. Pablo was just delighted when I presented it like a “surprise package” or a “gift-wrapped treat on a plate”. We opened it, and he went “wooow” when peeking at its contents and inhaling the delicious scents. I have been quite obsessed with this method of cooking recently, and will be sharing many more recipes in the near future.
Apple & goat cheese millefeuilles (napoleons) with honey and walnuts
Inspired from Papillotes by Martine Lizambard
Prep time: 20 min
Cook time: 15-20 min
Age for babies: It’s just baked apple and goat cheese basically, no reason why a 10 month old can’t try this, if you think he/she can handle the apple, as it is softened but still a bit crunchy. Do skip the honey if you give before 12 months.
1 apple, washed and dried
6 slices of aged goat cheese*
1 tbsp soft butter
2 handfuls of lamb’s lettuce (or other lettuce), washed and spun dry
A few walnuts
2 tbsp honey
2 tbps vinaigrette
Oven-safe parchment paper
*Note about the goat cheese: I recommend using an aged goat cheese for this (though not very old, it should still be soft in texture), as opposed to fresh goat cheese. I used “bûche” here (found at Whole Foods in the US). Otherwise, I have fallen in love with the cheeses made by Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery, you could use any of their aged goat cheeses. (I have found some of their products in Whole Foods, though not consistently). I hear Laura Chenel also has a “Cabécou”, which you might be able to find and would work for this.
Slice the goat cheese (make 6 slices, ideally the slices are slightly larger than the circumference of the apple).
Slice off the top of the apple (where the stem is), then core the apple. Slice the apple into six pieces.
Preheat the oven at 350°F. Cut 2 square pieces of parchment paper, and butter the center of each one.
In the center of each parchment paper square, place three slices of apple, and three slices of goat cheese, alternating. Gather the corners of the parchment paper, and close the parcel hermetically with kitchen string.
Place in a baking dish in the oven for about 15-20 minutes. (The apple will soften but remain somewhat crunchy).
Meanwhile, in a salad bowl, toss the lettuce, walnuts and vinaigrette. Put the salad in two serving plates.
Remove the parcels from the oven and let cool for about 5 minutes before opening.
Deposit them delicately on top of the lettuce. Drizzle with honey.