There’s a Tenacious D sketch from their old HBO special called “Inspirado” wherein the guys finally land a gig, but the catch is they have to write a new song. The songwriting process begins with “You can’t manufacture inspirado,” but ends with the band breaking up because the writing process is so very painful when writer’s block sets in.
I’ve wrestled with the demon “writer’s block” off and on through my life. I wrote the first short story that I remember when I was about five. It was a blatant Predator knock-off and involved killing a giant spider, but my mom was so very proud! I remember getting so much praise that I wanted to get back at it and do it again!
Cue several weeks of five year old me in footie pajamas agonizing over my piece of large ruled paper, interspersed with some Lego time to vent the frustration. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I recognize that occasionally the ole brain just doesn’t want to cough up any creativity.
I experienced this twice so far this week. The first was yesterday afternoon when I sat down to write this article and promptly wasted two hours staring at a blank Microsoft Word document while flipping over to Facebook just to break up the monotony. The second was in class today.
I was tasked with making “Zabaglione,” or “Sabayon” if you’re more familiar with the French term. It’s essentially a thick crème Anglaise that uses Marsala wine instead of milk or cream. It is absolutely delicious (if you’ve never had a glass of Marsala wine, head to your local liquor store and pick up a bottle. It’s pretty amazing), but it’s essentially a creamy sauce. At best it’s a pudding. And at Auguste Escoffier, we’re not looking to make ho hum food you can get anywhere, we strive for world-class. So what to do with this recipe?
As I prepared the ingredients to the zabaglione (and another dessert I had to prep for tomorrow), my mind was racing. What could I pair with the zabaglione? The recipe called for fresh fruit, but that would make for a somewhat ho hum offering, though for the record, zabaglione with strawberries, berries, mango, papaya, etc is delicious.
I didn’t want to do custard because zabaglione is essentially a custard itself, and because we’ve been doing custards all throughout the French foods section of Classical Cuisines. I didn’t want to do a sauce because it is also something of a sauce. The only thing I could think to do was to fill wine glasses with the zabaglione and then put a long thin cookie, maybe a biscotti, down inside it as an edible dipping utensil.
I didn’t care for that idea, but I did like the idea of the wine glasses. Eventually I settled for yellow butter cake cubes with chocolate chips, baked hazelnut meringue, zabaglione, and toasted almonds. You got through that process in two paragraphs, but it took me an hour of sweat and agony just to decide what I was going to make!
In a perfect world, artists (regardless of their medium) would never have to manufacture inspirado. They’d be able to sit around in their footie pajamas until the muses descend from the heaves to tap them on the forehead with a magic wand that gives them that spark which eventually leads to something amazing.
But the real world (and the end of the Tenacious D sketch) teaches artists really quickly that, sometimes, you have to manufacture inspirado. Sometimes the executive comes in and says “We need a special, figure something out. You have forty minutes.” Sometimes you get a customer that wants something for a paleo diet, and you have to temper chocolate in twenty minutes to put out chocolate-covered strawberries. (This actually happened to my wife at the Guard and Grace. She’s a rock star.)
Luckily, this ability to “manufacture inspirado” gets stronger over time. Part of this is accumulating experience, giving you a wider array of things you can pull from your bag of tricks when the need arises. Most of it, however, is gaining a serious tolerance for the agony of the kitchen’s equivalent of writer’s block.
When you can’t come up with an idea, it’s easy to panic. That puts your brain into fight/flight mode, and completely turns off the creative processes you need to complete the task. But the experienced chef follows Chef Dan’s mantra “Breathe and relax. Breathe and relax.” And eventually inspirado is just another tool you can summon pretty much whenever you like. I’m just not quite there yet.
5 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
½ cup marsala wine
- Beat sugar and salt into yolks until light and creamy, about 3 minutes.
- Slowly incorporate marsala into egg yolks while beating yolks with whisk (similar to how you do a hollandaise).
- Place bowl with yolks over a pot of simmering water and whip until thick, creamy, and about doubled in size, about five minutes. You’re done when you can see the bottom of the bowl while you’re whipping.
Photography by Alex McCall