The past few weeks, my creativity, something I’d never given much thought to, demanded attention. Truthfully, it didn’t demand attention so much as seemingly vanish from existence: why couldn’t I think of a single thing to bake? Why did none of my attempts at writing result in anything other than a blank page? How come any painting or sculpture I undertook ended up in a twisted, crumpled heap beside me? All of my usual endeavors to inspire- paging through cookbooks, scrolling through blogs, reading good writing- failed. It was as if my creativity had run out, as if my brain had sparked and dimmed.
“I’m having an off couple of weeks,” I reassured myself, but the truth was, it felt foreign and strange. Why was it suddenly so hard? For someone who creates, the need to create isn’t merely a means to an end; the very act of creating itself is as important as the end result. Personally, creating is as much a method of self-expression as talking and thinking. Being creatively hindered feels very much like needing to say something but being incapable of getting the words out. In effect, I was creatively mute.
In the process of attempting to reawaken my creative forces, I took a long, hard look at creativity. Looking back at previous work I’d put out, I began to realize that often, the creating wasn’t as painless as I remembered it to be. I’d spent hours agonizing over word choices, plate placements, lighting setups, color schemes. I’d glossed over all the trouble in my memory but in hindsight, it was clear: I put in work. And so, for that matter, do all other creatives.
There is a myth about creativity that I think we have come to believe and that is that creativity is effortless, innate, a gift bestowed upon a lucky few at birth who need never toil. We praise writers, photographers and painters, not for their work and artistic conceptions but for their “talent”, easily dismissing the hundreds of hours spent honing their craft. We consume art- culinary, visual, dramatic- without paying homage to the arduous work put in to create and maintain that art. “She’s born with it” becomes at once adulatory and derisive, a cheap compliment. In some way, it as if our cultural appreciation for art and creativity has led to our irreverence for it.
Here is the hard truth: creating is never easy. It is like rolling out a pie dough that sticks and melts all over the counter. It is like squeezing juice from a dry, spent rind of lemon. It is like pouring lazy, viscous honey from a bottle that refuses to concede its yield. It is late nights, furious last minute revisions, frustrated sighs and headaches. It is personal and public, it is frustrating and satisfying, but it is never, ever easy.
This is what I have learned: that sometimes creativity is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration and sometimes, rarely, it is a lightning strike of 100% inspiration and other times there is no inspiration whatsoever and so you must grit your teeth and give it your all, one hundred percent of pure hard work, inspiration be damned.
I work, I create, I edit and I work some more. Sometimes it is easier, sometimes it is harder, but no one is born with it. The artists we admire are talented, yes, but also best friends with hard work.
My creativity often doesn’t come as easy as I wish it would, or look exactly how I expect it to. But I am learning to honor the process regardless, and just in time for the holiday of Passover, I am learning how to free myself of my own expectations.
Why I love this recipe: cream of tartar helps the egg whites whip up and vinegar stabilizes the meringue, both of which yield a perfectly crisp-on-the-outside, marshmallow-y on the inside pavlova. The leftover egg yolks are used to make a simple, tangy lemon curd, which contrasts perfectly with the sweet meringues and, when topped with colorful fresh citrus, yields a dessert that is both beautiful and refreshing.
Notes: make sure your bowl and beaters are perfectly clean, as any dirt could impede the whipping of the meringue. Also, full disclosure: I used regular sugar, not superfine, when making these, and you can tell in the way they look; their surface is not completely smooth. They will taste the same, but using superfine sugar is important for nice texture. When making the curd, make sure you keep whisking, so the eggs in the curd don’t seize from uneven exposure to heat and start curdling.
Variation: shape the pavlova into one big 10-12″ circle instead of making 8 small ones. Top with any other fruit, jam or whipped cream.
For the pavlovas:
- 4 large egg whites, room temperature
- 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 cup superfine sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon white vinegar
For the lemon curd:
- 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 4 large egg yolks, leftover from the pavlova
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 stick unsalted butter, cubed
For the citrus:
- 1 grapefruit, supremed
- 1 blood orange, supremed
- 1 orange, supremed
- crushed pistachios, for sprinkling
- First, make the lemon curd: over a double boiler, whisk together juice, sugar, and egg yolks. The water should be simmering, not boiling. Whisk frequently, until the yolks thicken and the mixture forms ribbons when the whisk is lifted from the curd, 5-7 minutes.
- Remove thickened curd from stove top, stir in the butter and cook over moderately low heat, over the double boiler, whisking frequently, for another minute. Remove from heat. Stir in salt.
- Strain the lemon curd to remove any pieces of egg that might have cooked.
- Transfer lemon curd to a bowl and chill, its surface covered with plastic wrap, until cold, at least 1 hour. Once cooled, blend with an immersion blender to ensure perfect smoothness. Chill until needed.
- Make the pavlovas: preheat oven to 225º and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Whip the egg whites and the cream of tartar on medium speed until the egg whites are quite foamy. Turn the mixer up to high and very slowly add the sugar, about 1 tablespoon at a time.
- Whip the egg whites until they are stiff and glossy. Add the vanilla extract and the vinegar to the bowl and mix on high speed for 30 more seconds.
- Divide the meringue into 8 even dollops at least 2 inches apart and with the back of a spoon gently shape them into circles with indentations in the center.
- Bake the meringues until they are crisp on the outside and set, around 1 1/2 hours.
- Turn off the oven and prop the door open, then cool the pavlovas in the oven completely.
To serve: stir the lemon curd to loosen. Fill each pavlova with a few generous spoonfuls of curd and then top with the citrus segments and crushed pistachio. Garnish with reserved whipped cream if desired. Enjoy immediately.