The times I checked Ella Enchanted out of my middle school library surely numbers in the dozens, and I mean three-four-five dozens. I half wonder if there is a prize for that kind of mania. Even now, I remember the way that book felt in my hands, heavy enough to be taken seriously but still small enough to carry everywhere, clutched tightly to my chest like the prize it was. There was something about way the plastic cover audibly crinkled when I cracked open the pages, and the smell of the leaves remains one of the singular smells of my life (along with Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue, because everyone was basic in the mid-aughts and no one cared). I never bought the book because the library's copy was not for sale and no other version had the same allure. Instead, I would check it back in, then immediately check it back out to make sure I was never without it.
As much as I loved the feel of that copy itself, the content held the other half of my book heart. I have always been a sucker for a strong-willed girl longing to hold up her middle fingers to a world that constantly undermines her, and meeting Ella was a lesson in learning to persevere in the face of seventh grade adversity.
I was raised by parents who said (and still say) whatever they feel like saying, whenever and to whomever they feel like saying it. It's why I identified so strongly with Harriet the Spy; like Harriet, I did not yet know the difference between honesty and cruelty, and met that difference in some very hard ways. By the time I read Ella, it was becoming apparent to me that there are very real consequences for living your life that way; the inevitable resulting conflicts gnawed at me, with friends I loved preferring to hang out with people who didn't constantly hurt their feelings or yell at them or make them feel stupid. Though I never intended to be hurtful, the truth was that I never thought about how my words made other people feel. I simply wasn't raised that way. I didn't realize other people thought about their words before they said them, and sometimes even held things back. And if you've never read Ella...her whole life centers around her obeying others and keeping her mouth shut whether she wants to or not, thanks to a curse by a fairy godmother, intended to make her an obedient child.
Even though Ella and I found ourselves seemingly diametrically opposed, she never saying what she felt and me saying nothing except what I felt, I understood that we were actually fighting the same battle. The source and circumstances of our problems differed, but ultimately we were both hamstrung by people with the best of intentions who could not have foreseen the problems caused by those intentions. After long journeys spent battling our respective curses, Ella's courage to finally throw down the gauntlet and fight back against hers helped me understand that there was another way to do business. It slowly dawned on me that there was another, kinder, way to live, if only I had the courage to make the change. So I did.
The road here has been long and arduous, with many potholes and busted radiators and piles of roadkill (kidding), and worth every step. I am still powerless to stop the occasional word vomit moments that make me cringe in horror when I remember them later. The sting and hot shame of my best friend's mother saying, "you are so rude!" to my seventh grade sass-mouth self will never go away. The girl I lovingly called "duckie" for the way her feet turned out as she walked still hates me (that one is actually no loss, but I hurt her nonetheless). But in the intervening years these missteps have taken on different, vitally important meanings. After a youth spent fervently praying for event-specific amnesia to alleviate my guilt, adulthood has made me glad that they've stuck around. They taught me how to apologize. They taught me that I am not the center of the universe. They humbled me. They remind me to use my voice for things that matter, and to be kind to everyone, even myself.
When Ella is at a very low point--her stepsisters have spent the day ordering her to give them all of her food, she has been denied two meals as punishment at her new finishing school, and she is about to go to bed desperately hungry--someone steals a dinner roll and gives it to her. Despite the roll being "more air than sustenance", Ella is so grateful for that small act of kindness. As a testament to the power of small gestures and good intentions, you could do a lot worse than these delightful little gougeres. They're easy and quick to make, fun to eat, and remind you that even small measures can be mighty.
choux buns with prosciutto and gruyere
recipe adapted from Donald Link
- 6 slices of chopped prosciutto or 4 pieces cooked chopped bacon
- 1/2 c whole milk
- 1/2 c water
- 6 T unsalted butter
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 1/2 tsp sugar
- 1/2 tsp cayenne
- 1 1/4 c all purpose flour
- 3 large eggs
- 1 c grated gruyere (cheddar or parmesan would be tasty as well)
Heat oven to 425'F and line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment. (If you're using parchment, my tip is to crumple it up with your hands before laying it down--it helps keep it in place instead of fighting its urge to continually roll itself back up.)
Bring the milk, water, and butter to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the salt, onion powder, sugar, and cayenne. Add the flour all at once, and using a wooden spoon, stir quickly in one direction. The flour will quickly absorb the liquid and form a dough. Continue stirring to cook the flour until most of the liquid has absorbed, until the dough pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 3 minutes.
Take the pan off the heat and add the eggs one at a time, beating well to incorporate each egg. The dough will be slimy and shiny at first, but hold your nerve, as the dough will become stickier as the eggs are absorbed. When the eggs are fully incorporated, add the crumbled bacon or chopped prosciutto and 3/4 of the cheese, reserving the rest to sprinkle on top.
Using a small scoop (I prefer 1 Tbsp or 1.5 Tbsp sizes), scoop the dough onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving 1/2 inch in between each dough ball. Top each dough ball with the remaining cheese.
Bake until puffed and golden, 20-25 minutes depending on size. Serve warm, preferably with dry champagne.