Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Emerging from the (Blueberry) Slump


Remember that you're doing this for yourself. It was helpful for me to think of my dissertation in these terms: I'm never going to climb Everest, or run a marathon. But the dissertation is an adventure and a feat of endurance that provides a sense of accomplishment proportional to the struggle that it requires. In that sense, Sir Edmund Hillary's comment, "It's not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves," is an apt description of writing a dissertation.
-Renata Kobetts Miller ("Finishing the Dissertation") 

 Each time I begin writing a new chapter of my dissertation, I inevitably find myself googling the process. I want, no, I need to know how all the people who have come before me managed to sit down on beautiful summer days and write lucid, engaging prose. I want to know their secret so that it can become my secret, too. Of course, there's a part of me that realizes that this is all silly and, worse yet, a waste of time. Reading these articles tells me nothing I don't already know. The trick to writing a dissertation is that there is no trick. You simply sit down and do it. You convince yourself that it's important, that it's what you want to do and that you have something important to say. Conquering yourself, not to mention your insecurities, really is key. And then, if you're lucky, some days you'll even have fun with it.

 I guess we might say that with this particular chapter--chapter 3--I'm not quite there yet. The fun part is still eluding me; it will just have to come later. My process (and everybody has his or her process) usually begins with a solid feeling of dread and dissatisfaction. What do I say? What does this mean? Will anybody (and do I) even care about this? But, gradually, if I keep at it, I write a sentence that makes me smile, a paragraph that I imagine is interesting and, perhaps one day, even quotable...Then I realize that I've gone somewhere with it that is satisfyingly good.

 Honestly, it's a bit how I feel about flying. Before even getting on a plane, I become notoriously cranky.  It doesn't matter if I'm excited about where I'm going (and I often am). It's the simple fact that, in a nutshell, I despise packing, long security lines, the occasional invasion into my carefully-packed bags and crowded flights with minimal legroom. And while I think babies are adorable, chubby-cheeked creatures, when they're on a plane and wailing their hearts out, they become infinitely less cute (forgive me, but this is a fact). But as much as I dislike everything flying entails, I find myself on planes rather frequently. Suffice it to say that some trips are certainly better than others.

An example of one of these golden flying moments occurred in June, when the Greek and I were waiting at JFK to board our flight to Ataturk. I wandered into one of the Hudson News shops and, as I was looking around, I came across a copy of the June issue of Saveur. While I knew I most likely wouldn't be doing a lot of cooking in Greece and that this would be a purely frivolous purchase, I still thought it might be a nice way to pass the long flight time ahead. So I bought it. And lo and behold, all the pictures of blueberries, carnival treats and lemon trees in southern France did wonders for my mood. While I certainly don't want to make a small act of consumerism into something bigger than it actually was, buying the magazine really was my way of taking a negative experience and turning it into something tolerable--and even pleasurable. To feel excited and inspired on a plane is a rare thing, right?

But I was. It was on the flight to Istanbul that I discovered the recipe for (and fell in love with the photo of) a Blueberry Slump. Before this fortuitous moment, I had never even heard of a slump; for those who might share my slump (also known as a grunt) ignorance, a slump is really no different from a cobbler: biscuit dough is dropped or spooned on top of both. The one major difference between the two is that slumps are usually cooked on top of the stove, whereas cobblers go in the oven. However, this recipe, calling for a cast-iron skillet, defies this tradition, requiring you first to bring the fruit to a soft boil and then, after topping the slightly stewed fruit with biscuit dough, to finish it off in the oven.

 I don't know if it's the name, which seems to symbolize where I'm at these days with my work, or the fact that I had waited long enough to bring this recipe to life, but this past Saturday morning there was no other option for breakfast. And if food really can be symbolic, I like to think that all of these recipes--these flavors and cooking methods to which I turn for comfort--are simply mini-adventures in my great dissertation adventure. In any case, they certainly make things more colorful and enjoyable. And to sate your curiosity about the burning question that this post invites: yes, eating a juicy slump, from its crispy biscuit-topping to its gently stewed fruity innards, is as good a way as any to emerge from a (mental) slump.

Truly, the path to greatness is often paved with (sugary) coping mechanisms.

Blueberry Slump

Adapted from Saveur
Yields 6-8 servings

As much as I liked the sound of this recipe upon first glance, I made a few modifications. Mainly, I used less blueberries than the original called for and significantly less sugar. Call me a bit of a traditionalist, but it's nice not to bury the taste of the fruit. On that note, I would also add that, next time around, I'd also make one major change. The original recipe calls that you simmer 1 1/2 pounds of blueberries with 1 cup of orange juice and 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice. Because I had cut back on the fruit by a third, I also cut back on the orange juice and used only the juice of one small lemon. Still, for me, this was too acidic and I felt that the berries, when they should have been the star of the show, were instead overshadowed by the orange juice. Perhaps if you're using freshly squeezed, slightly frothy orange juice, the flavors would be just right, but, if you're using any other kind of orange juice, the flavor balance will be slightly off. Keep in mind that I feel this way because blueberries are my favorite fruit.
    My recommendation is that, rather than use orange juice (the lemon juice is so minimal it can stay), use could just be basic and use 1/2-2/3 cups water. Then again, if you want something that is a little more vibrant tasting than that, maybe add 1/8-1/4 tsp. rose water; there's also the lovely combination of hibiscus and blueberries, so if you have some dried hibiscus flowers, you could also steep those and use it instead.

For the biscuits:
2 cups all-purpose flour 
1/4 cup sugar
4 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons butter, chilled and cubed
1 1/4 cups milk (I used 1% and the biscuits were fine)

For the fruit: 
1 pound blueberries
2/3 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
the juice of one lemon
2/3 cups orange juice

-Preheat oven to 400 F.
-Whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder and kosher salt in a medium-sized bowl.
-Add the butter, working it into the dough with your fingers until the texture changes and you feel that that butter has combined with the flour to create a mixture grainy to the touch and that clumps together. 
-Stir in the milk until a moist dough forms; without overmixing the dough, make sure that all of the flour at the bottom of the bowl has been incorporated into the mixture. 
-Cover and place the biscuit dough in the refrigerator until ready to use.
-Add the blueberries, sugar, salt and fruit juices to a 12-inch cast iron skillet. 
-Place the skillet on the stove and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
-Once the fruit mixture starts to bubble, remove it from the stove and begin adding the dough, forming thick dumplings with a tablespoon and dropping them onto the berries. 
-Lightly cover the biscuit dough with a sprinkling of sugar and then place the skillet in the oven to bake. 
-Remove from oven when the biscuits are cooked through and the blueberry-juice mixture has reduced (in my experience, it may be a bit thin when you take it out of the oven, but it will continue to thicken in the pan), about 25-30 minutes.

8 comments:

  1. Oh, how lovely! This post is so beautifully written, and I can so relate. The beginning of a chapter (well, when the reading is done and the writing must really begin) is always the hardest part. I think some amount of suffering is just non-negotiable there, and anything that can assuage it is more than welcome! This looks like a perfect summer treat...I may try it with strwaberries or peaches. I am so sad that the cherry crop was killed by frost this year. here's hoping for better weather next year!

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    1. Oh, Karina, thank you! And, yes, here's to hoping for better weather and for the dissertation-less life (for the most part, I've given up reading lots and lots of new material; not much has been written on certain things I'm working on and, more importantly, these days it seems better just to write and then go back and read. It keeps me from feeling bogged down)!

      And if/when you make this, I hope you enjoy it! I also think whole wheat biscuits would work really well here--and that ice cream or whipped, as always, can only improve things.

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  2. Oh, the creative process is excruciating -- which is why I think I like cooking (you chop, you stir, you eat -- no grey hair!). Here's to the blueberry slump lifting us out of our slumps!

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    1. Yes, Ann, yes it is! And I think it's also why I've turned to cooking in recent years; it really does improve my mood and, most probably, my writing.

      I still find grey hairs, though. I guess they're just an occupational hazard.

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  3. What an apt quote. For me, the initial writing stages are always the most grueling, probably because they take the most intellectual work. I enjoy revising/re-reading/clarifying/editing - well, maybe not enjoy....I don't hate those stages as much;). You will finish, and it will feel awesome. And you will be extremely proud of yourself. And, just so you don't feel so bad, I never do my best work in the Summer. Even though I have more time, I always find ways to waste it when the days are long and the streets are hot;). And the blueberry slump looks yummo!!

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    1. Jess, thanks for the vote of confidence and for sharing your own wisdom about working in the summer! It's always nice to hear a voice from the other side...

      I think I prefer revising, too; I simply feel more comfortable when I have something to work with. It's the blank page and the blinking cursor that make me feel the most doubt.

      And thanks! The slump, despite the name, has been good to me. :) I definitely feel more inspired now (blueberries and all their anti-oxidants).

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  4. This looks delicious, Katy -- and such a true spirit-lifter! I can relate to the inspiration from a cooking magazine, and I so commend you for managing to feel inspired on a long flight!
    And while we're on the topic of inspiration, you have inspired me to try the sour cherry slump recipe I've had for years, chuckling at the name, but have never gotten around to making.

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    1. Thanks, Moriah! Cooking magazines are now my go-to flying companion; if I can just dream of all the things I'll make when the flight is over, it really does become more bearable.

      And I hope that sour cherry slump has brightened up your weekend! :)

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