Resolutions? Or refinements?

For a few moments on December 31, 2013, I flirted with resolving I would not get sick over the 2014 holiday season. And during those few moments of the old year, as I sat surrounded by tissue box and bags of cough drops and various and sundry blister packs of medicines, I thought maybe such a broad resolution was attainable. I could take control of this aspect of my health and well-being, do something proactive, and avoid the new year viruses altogether. I would not get sick after the next Christmas, it simply wouldn’t happen.

I think that was the flu delirium talking. Or the medicinal fog. Several days and one clearer head later, I see things a bit differently. I started wondering where I might have picked up the respiratory virus – was it from a grocery cart handle, a piece of gym equipment, or one of the many embraces I shared with friends and family? – and had to ask myself this: Would I have to avoid everything, every routine and every healthful, wonderful thing I love doing (I mean, who doesn’t love a hug at any time during the year?) in order to keep away from germs if I held firmly to my resolution? Likely yes. And equally likely that none of the avoidance would help much. I live with three other people, all with very busy lives. Would they have to hermit themselves away as well, in order for my personal resolution to work?

Such is the way of resolutions. We make them, we go bold, we have every intention, we can’t make them stick.

People with much more experience in understanding the human psyche than I have often counsel that the effective resolutions are those ones that start small and grow by increments. Rather than say I am going to lose 50 pounds, say I will remove one can of soda from my daily diet. Then a second can. Then maybe that mid-afternoon candy bar from the vending machine. Don’t declare you’ll do a complete about face and attend the gym every day to work out until you drop; instead, first invest in a pedometer and try to increase the number of steps you take. Work your way up to the kickboxing class one step at a time. Ease your body into those big life changes.

After my flu epiphany, I scrapped the idea of hard and fast resolutions altogether and instead refocused on exploring some ideas that have been kicking around my head for a while, all with an eye toward establishing some new work and life goals, enhancing others, and deleting some things that haven’t been working. I’m calling what I do “refining” rather than resolving. There’s an editorial aspect about refinement that the writer in me likes, but it also seems a much more fluid and adaptable practice. Tweak some, carve a little here, pad a little there, and before I know it I’m sculpting a new year.

This year I will be saying goodbye to some things that don’t fit into the Food and Fiction big picture anymore. The occasional packing up and leaving the house for a day of taping cooking videos was first to go. I had loved it once, the novelty of it, and also the reach those videos had, how they would enter someone’s home and help a home cook through a thorny recipe. But more recently that work felt like a pull away from work I enjoyed more and fit me better. I feel less stressed already.

Fiction writing got a big boost before the holidays with the advent of my virtual writing group, and a new year means more of the same with deeper commitment. Ann Marie and I are putting our noses back to the grindstone now that January has arrived and the parties have waned, and I am setting daily incremental goals for completing the newest novel. I’d like to be able to say I want the book done by June, but I am learning to feel comfortable saying instead that my goal is 600 words a day until finished, and then revisions. Baby steps rather than grand pronouncements.

So I have carved away at my daily life and I have tweaked it. I will also be padding it sometime later this year.

A conversation with a friend at another friend’s Christmas party sent me home with a head full of thoughts about career direction and meaning. Rob was talking about the occasional work he does coaching others on their career paths, and he said something like this: when I talk to people who are starting over and looking for a direction for their future, I ask them what they can do in the world that contributes and matters.

For some reason those words stayed with me for days. Why? I wondered. Was I not already contributing? What about this blog, the food columns I write, the fiction? Didn’t these matter? Why all of a sudden should there be something more to do? Moreover, why did I feel as if there was more for me to do? Less than a week later, the answer to that last question was plain: because there is something more for me to do, to contribute, and I also knew exactly what, for me, that something needs to be. More on the specifics as the venture develops. And it is developing.

For the past few weeks I have been working with another friend, Erica Holthausen, to make the business dream a business reality. Erica is no stranger to striking out on her own to create her own business, and she excels at handing out homework assignments to people like me, helping us take the big ideas and parse them up into manageable and accomplishable pieces. Step by step we’ll get from idea to reality, in just the same way all the best resolutions are accomplished and sustained.

Life, though, is not all work and no play, and I promise I am padding life with a little pleasure this year too. Pleasure in the form of more fresh food, cooking with friends and family, experiencing other cultures’ foods and traditions, and maybe even another slice of the chocolate-hazelnut truffle-like cake I offer you below, one of the most delicious additions to our holiday buffet.

Readers, do you make resolutions? Or do you refine, adding and subtracting until you find what works for a best life? How do you measure the success of your efforts?

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Chocolate Hazelnut Cake (adapted from Gourmet, April 2008)

For crust:

  •  1/4 pound wholemeal biscuits (McVitie’s) finely crushed (about 1 cup)
  • 1 ounce fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (60% ), grated
  • 1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted

For filling:

  • 1/2 pound fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (60%), chopped
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 1 pound 2 ounce cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup superfine granulated sugar
  • 1 cup hazelnuts, toasted, loose skins rubbed off in a kitchen towel while still warm, and nuts chopped

For the crust, combine all ingredients, then press onto bottom of springform pan (lining with a piece of parchment is optional).

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Wrap the bottom and sides of the pan in a large sheet of aluminum foil and place the prepared pan on a baking sheet. These steps ensure that any butter that leaks from the pan during baking will not drip into your oven and burn.

Preheat oven to 325°F.

Melt chocolate with butter in a large bowl set over a small amount of simmering water. When melted, remove the bowl from the heat and add to it the cream cheese. Beat with a hand held mixer set at medium-high speed until the mixture is smooth. Beat in the sour cream and vanilla until well blended and then set this bowl aside.

In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk together the eggs and sugar in a until mixture begins to get fluffy looking and increases in volume. Switch the whisk attachment for the paddle attachment and blend in the chocolate mixture and nuts at medium low speed.

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Spoon filling into crust, level the top, and bake the cake for 1¼  – 1½  hours.

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Cake tester inserted in the center should come out clean, and the top of the cake will be slightly cracked.

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Cool to room temperature in pan on a rack, about 1 hour, then chill at least 1 hour. (Cake will sink slightly as it chills.) The chocolate hazelnut cake can be chilled up to 1 day but remember to bring it to room temperature before serving.

 

©2014  Jane A. Ward