Ah, expectations. They can be weasel-y little twerps, don’t you think? We organize our lives around them, constructing hope-castles, forts stabilized by plans that don’t pan out, two-story shambles resulting from too many taken-for-granted ideals. Expectations bolster us. And then they dissolve into crumbs, or explode, or sink, or flop around in directions we weren’t expecting.
In college, I had sky-straddling expectations. I expected to figure this life thing out in the first year or two. I would be at the top of my major. I would make decade-spanning friendships. I would collect acclaim, graduate with honors, make my parents proud, especially my dad. I expected to land a perfect career, garner financial success, all while also a perfect wife, mother, homemaker, lover, even though I didn’t know what that entailed yet. I expected to write a novel or two along the way.
I didn’t expect to fall in love with an older version of our language and want to study its literature forever, setting me up for a career path typically paved with loans and let-downs. I didn’t expect to struggle with roommates or friendships or classes. I didn’t expect to have my heart torn by the gentle trampling of a pair of shining sneakers, in snap-up track pants, driven by reasons that probably involved a raucous house full of boys, boredom, and possibly a brunette with glasses.
But after that, I tried to give up on expectations. I would stop thinking “everything would work out.” I would stop expecting him to realize he’d made a mistake. I would stop, oh please, I would stop, writing terrible mopey songs about this person who wasn’t even the same person anymore. I would just live. I would just try to be me. I wouldn’t ask someone else to repair the torn bits for me, because that would be expecting too much. And since I’ve never been much of a seamstress, my repairs were clumsy. I was patched, the stitches were irregular, and I felt worn and fragile but maybe whole, and maybe a little bit strong.
And then I met N. And because I was done with expectations, I didn’t expect anything at all. Not even a friendship. It would be a, well, a something. It might be fun, it might be sweet, but it would end. We were seniors. We were going somewhere. We didn’t know where yet, because we weren’t expecting anything, but we were sure of little, then. We spent phone calls trying to scare each other away by explaining our neuroses, and our cynicism, and what we considered our more unlovable attributes. I hate phone calls, but ours would last hours.
I’m not going to say, at this point, that because N. was worn and patched and had sewed his heart back together in an irregular shape too that these two odd shapes fit perfectly together and made one another complete – my ventricle, his aorta – because I don’t believe in that. We were both whole people before, and we are both whole people now. I’m not a half, and I wouldn’t want N. to be either. But because he was patched up too, and some of my stitches were snagged like his, he was better able to understand me. We weren’t what we expected. The thing about patches is, they hide but don’t erase the worn spot. Every stitch, meant to repair, could also re-harm. But when you are patched and stitched up, and you still feel raw from that needle of hope and trying and blistering
independence loneliness solitude you weren’t sure you wanted, you know how to see that in someone else, and you know how gently you have to reach out. Or how hard. We weren’t what we expected, no. But ten years into a relationship, and seven years into a marriage, he defies and surmounts and explodes any expectations I could have had. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This, oddly enough, brings me around to Valentine’s Day, and to ice cream. This is, you may notice, a bit heavy, a bit confessional, for me. I wasn’t expecting to tell you all this. But we’re approaching that holiday that is supposed to be about love, and I’ve always felt a little torn and patchy about it (the day, not the love), so here we are.
I had big plans for our Valentine’s Day celebration. I’m not talking about me and N. He’s always hated Valentine’s Day, probably thanks to that whole expectations thing. I’m talking about us. You and me. We were going to have soufflé. And not just any soufflé; chocolate soufflé. I wanted to teach you a quick, easy, all-but-fool-proof version of the dessert, one that I’ve now made for several big-deal-must-impress events with zero problems, so you could defy someone’s expectations this Valentine’s Day. Maybe even yours!
I had never thought about serving soufflés with ice cream. A lovely sweet drizzle, yes. A liqueur infused caramel or cream, completely. But when I saw Lindsay’s chestnut soufflé with matching ice cream a few weeks ago, and when I watched a recorded episode of Nigella Lawson making a coffee ice cream that required no eggs and no churning, I knew this would be our Valentine’s Day pairing: deep, dark, rich chocolate soufflé, and an ice cream so easy, so deep, silky as satin lingerie and toasty with espresso (because hey, you might need that shot of caffeine on the evening of Valentine’s Day!), it would be perfect. I would be perfect. I even half-bragged in a comment on Lindsay’s post about how easy soufflé-making is, once you get the hang of it.
And so, expectations. Because I don’t know what happened – maybe my eggs were too small (they were of the homegrown variety, given to N. by a student), maybe I didn’t whip the whites enough, maybe I scrambled the yolks a little or the chocolate seized or the oven was too hot – but my soufflés were a disaster. They rose only a few reluctant centimeters. They were dark and rich, but dense, thick, almost crumbly where they should have been flat-topped trembling pillows.
I despaired. But then I remembered me, and my patchwork, and that I had this ice cream that was so so creamy, and so thick, and so tasty and light and dangerously easy, that in fact the soufflé was hardly necessary. It may even have muddied things. And so, I put expectations aside again, the better to embrace what I had.
Nigella’s ice cream does not start with a custard. It combines unlikely and few ingredients: sweetened condensed milk, double cream (a British institution we would do well to adopt), espresso powder, and a few tablespoons of coffee liqueur. I made a few changes, inspired by my own insufficiencies and a suggestion from a commenter on the original recipe. For a slightly lighter result, I replaced some of the double cream with whipping cream. For want of coffee liqueur, I replaced it with Irish cream. The liqueur serves two purposes. First, it deepens and enhances the flavor of the ice cream. Second, it offers a textural benefit: since alcohol doesn’t freeze (or at least it freezes at lower temperatures than water), the ice cream maintains a soft, scoopable consistency indefinitely (not that you’ll have long to find out – I suspect you’ll eat all of it before conclusive data can be gathered).
And so, I send you into the week of that dubious, expectation-laden lovers’ holiday with this: I hope you are happy, and that your version of love, whether it is patched and fragile, or hearty and unblemished, is at least in part directed back toward you. Because no matter what your expectations have told you, you are lovely and perfection is overrated. And I think ice cream is a perfectly suitable Valentine to send yourself. I recommend this one.
No-churn, no-egg Coffee Ice Cream
Adapted from Nigella Lawson
Makes a generous 1 pint
2/3 cups sweetened condensed milk
1 cup heavy whipping cream
6 ounce jar double cream (I found mine at Whole Foods)
2 tablespoons Irish cream or coffee liqueur
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
- Dump all ingredients as unceremoniously as you like into the bowl of a stand mixer. You could do this in a regular mixing bowl with a hand-held mixer too.
- Using the whisk attachment (or regular beaters), whip on medium speed until soft peaks form. For me, this took only 3-4 minutes. It may take more or less time for you depending on the speed of your mixer.
- Using a rubber spatula, scrape the fluffy, coffee-scented clouds into a freezer friendly container – I used a clean empty Greek yogurt tub – and freeze for at least 6 hours to let the mixture harden up.
- Serve atop a soufflé, or with whipped cream, or in a cappuccino, or with fudge sauce, or just with you and a spoon and a spot against the refrigerator door.