Getting ready for work one morning, I casually inquired about a math midterm test. Anya equally casually answered that she expected a bad grade because she was bad at math. Insert the sound of squealing brakes here to illustrate my WTF moment and the switch to “Excuse me???” mode accompanied by seriously raised eyebrows.
As I was under the impression that “math was really easy”, the nonchalant statement hit me like a super-fast European bullet train. Silly me, I did not have a clue that my seventh grader does not really “get” fractions even though they have been studying and repeating the lessons ad nauseam since fourth grade. And just the day before, I gave her the authority to explain the dreaded fractions to Zoe, who confessed to “not getting them” (after a semester of her teacher stopping us at the pick-up line at the school to praise her for being in the top of the class in math, this came as a shock).
A dramatic episode ensued, accompanied by inevitable tears and ended with the never too popular, but predictable ban on watching The Simpsons and Degrassi Junior High, until we exorcised the Boogie-man out of fractions. I went to work pretty perturbed, torturing myself and feeling guilty for allowing my bright girls to be “bad at math”.
Besides the obvious benefits of having enough greenbacks to ensure that we get to eat on a regular basis and live in relative comfort, work accomplishes one thing beautifully: it temporarily distracts me from domestic problems and allows me to concentrate on the highly inane tasks of taking care of my customers. But as soon as the car rolls off the restaurant’s parking lot, the distraction ends and and everything I left at home, usually the bad and the ugly, resurfaces with that annoying na-nana-na-na.
Luckily, I do not hold grudges. Enough time elapsed since the morning and the Drama Queen was enthusiastic, full of love for me, and completely out of the OMG-roll-the-eyes attitude. I gathered both girls in the kitchen and asked them to help me make dinner. While neither volunteered to chop the onions and garlic, they were fighting over every other task. I played the mediator, the instructor, and the clown. We stepped over each other’s feet, banged heads, and laughed over every little incident. Anya pretty much single-handedly made cream of cauliflower soup while Zoe handled mashed potatoes (she was especially impressed by the potato ricer). Together they formed the seasoned ground meat patties, rolled them in bread crumbs and pan-fried them, conquering their fear of hot grease. Dinner was a happy affair with the girls excited and their Momma teary-eyed and proud.
Afterwards, instead of retreating to the bedroom with my laptop, I sat on the couch and watched several videos on linear equations with Anya for extra credit in her math class. She was exuberant and full of energy, impatient for the next test where she intended to prove that she was not that bad at math. Our hug before bed was longer than usual. I just melted when I went to their room several minutes later and heard her reading a Harry Potter book to her sister. I silently closed the door trying not to break the spell of sisterly love.
I watched some recorded episodes of my cooking shows, answered some emails, caught up on my Google reader and planned meals for the next couple of days. Husband was already blissfully asleep, and even though I should have joined him, I felt awake and full of energy. I could have ironed a pile of dish towels I rescued from grunginess. I could have finally applied Super-Glue to several broken objects patiently waiting to become whole again. I could have sewn buttons and patched the holes in socks the girls assembled after the last room-cleaning. But instead, I decided to bake.
The house was peaceful when I started gathering the ingredients necessary for the Orange-Walnut Tart. I proceeded quietly, enjoying these rare moments of utter silence and stillness, feeling like the only wakeful citizen on the planet. The shortbread crust came together easily. I pressed it onto the bottom and sides of the lightly buttered quiche pan and placed it into the freezer for half an hour. In the meantime I ground walnuts and mixed them with butter, sugar, rum, and tiny amounts of flour and cornstarch to form the cream. Husband bought beautiful blood oranges the day previous for no apparent reason (he does that) which I peeled and cut into segments between the skin that separates them, and they glistened like jewels in various hues of red. I left them to drain while the crust baked and cooled. I poured the cream inside the crust, smoothed it evenly, and laid the orange segments around in concentric circles.
I looked at it reverently, wishing that I did not have to bake it, wanting only to look at the lovely pattern on top until my eyes started hurting. I knew it would be a success because I had licked all the utensils and bowls earlier, usurping the job that belonged to my children since before they could talk. I placed the tart in the hot oven and cleaned the kitchen, feeling the first signs of fatigue. The kitchen was filled with the smell of toasted nuts, warm rum, and browned butter when I took the pan out to cool. Those aromas came with me to bed and tucked me in.
I could not wait to fall asleep and wake up the next morning. I knew that the gloomy cloud would vanish taking away my self-doubts and guilt. Even though I knew that I was far from being done with histrionics and exaggeration, I was armed with new strength that would help me tackle the make-believe monsters hiding in my girls’ math books. They were going to learn all about fractions as the tart was sliced into halves, quarters, and eighths.
The Orange-Almond Tart was this week’s challenge for our French Fridays with Dorie group. For several months we have been making recipes from Dorie Greenspan’s book Around My French Table and writing about our experiences, successes, and failures. Since my schedule at work changed, I have missed several tasks, not having the time to write a post before the deadline, although I cooked almost everything that was assigned.
I used walnuts because Husband is severely allergic to almonds. Blood oranges are in season and their vibrant color contrasted well with the neutral beige of the walnut cream and crust. As I predicted, the flavors of the ingredients in the tart complemented each other very well. I was a little disappointed because the upper parts of the crust browned a bit too much and became harder than I expected (my oven is older and I am convinced that the temperature is not calibrated properly). But in the end I was satisfied with the results.
For more stories and different approaches to this dish, visit our discussion group, and for the original recipe, buy the book – it is truly beautiful.