Today’s book review is about not judging a book by its cover. I remember the first time I read about Jackie Kai Ellis and thinking “Wow, she has such a great life!”. Founder of the successful Beaucoup Bakery and The Paris Tours, Jackie seemed to have it all – living between Vancouver and Paris, a life that many of us might dream about. In fact, her life wasn’t so glamorous and great. In the years leading up to these successes, though (and even through them), Jackie suffered a great deal with self-esteem issues and depression and her recently-published memoir The Measure of My Powers gives us a glimpse inside the reality of the life behind the closed doors that went alongside all the glamour and glitz.
From the publisher:
On the surface, Jackie Kai Ellis’s life was the one that she and every woman wanted. She was in her late twenties and married to a handsome man, she had a successful career as a designer, and she had a beautiful home. But instead of feeling fulfilled, happy, and loved, each morning she’d wake up dreading the day ahead, searching for a way out. Depression clouded every moment, the feelings of inadequacy that had begun in childhood now consumed her, and her marriage was slowly transforming into one between strangers–unfamiliar, childless, and empty. In the darkness, she could only find one source of light: the kitchen. It was the place where Jackie escaped, finding peace, comfort, and acceptance.
This is the story of one woman’s journey to find herself. Armed with nothing but a love of food and the words of the 20th-century food writer M.F.K. Fisher, she travels from France to Italy, then the Congo, and back again. Along the way, she goes to pastry school in Paris, eats the most perfect apricots over the Tuscan hills, watches a family of gorillas grazing deep in the Congolese brush, has her heart broken one last time on a bridge in Lyon, and, ultimately, finds a path to life and joy.
So, yeah, all is never as it might seem… This book is a bit of a dark read – it’s not your usual “sad person travels to Paris, finds love/ a career and lives happily ever after” kind of memoir – the subtitle (A Memoir of Food, Misery and Paris) should be a bit of a hint there). It’s more a coming-of-age story of a woman struggling to come to terms with who she is and her place in the world.
Through the course of the book, we come to learn that Jackie’s seemingly perfect marriage is fraught with unhappiness (and I came to really, really dislike “G” her ex-husband) and reading about her marriage will make you squirm in your seat. It’s not a comfortable read. Your heart will go out to Jackie, though, as you can see it’s not just as simple as getting up and leaving. There is a myriad of issues that contribute to her failing marriage, even beyond “G”‘s treatment of her and the book is an exploration of those and Jackie’s journey to overcome her demons (many of which have been with her since childhood). A huge part of her recovery journey has to do with discovering her passion for food, something she starts to love as a child and growing up but which really starts to resonate and become more meaningful as her world falls apart.
The book travels back and forth in time so it’s a good book to read in one sitting because you get a feel for the whole timeline (so, a flight to Australia was the perfect time to read this!) but when I went back to re-read a second time, I found it a little challenging to follow the timeline because it jumps around in time so much. I guess this is a reflection of what Jackie’s journey was like, but as a reader, I found it unsettling (perhaps, this is the point?).
This is definitely not a “feel good” read in the traditional sense, though the end of the book is more hopeful. It’s uncomfortable (there are parts of the book you would turn away from the screen if it was a film), it’s raw, it’s downright sad in many parts. Jackie is an evocative writer, though and you find yourself drawn in by the need to see her work through the dark times learn to value herself for who she is. It is a book to make you think.
Each chapter in the book is accompanied by a recipe which was pivotal in the different parts of Jackie’s life described in the book. Some are super simple (scrambled eggs on toast) while others are not (the pork and chive dumpling recipe makes 300! and the croissant recipe is really a testament to Jackie’s perfectionist side – it’s the result of years of research and practice – but not one I imagine many home bakers might attempt – it’s 8 pages and 3 days’ worth of work!) but the recipe that resonated with me the most was the chocolate chip cookie. Jackie describes, very early on in the book that as she struggled with depression, she tried to find a few things every day that would make her smile and savouring a chocolate chip cookie after lunch was one of those things.
I was kindly sent some of the ingredients to make Jackie’s famous chocolate chip cookies and they did not disappoint… I’ve made some good chocolate chip cookies in my time and these are definitely up there in the top 10. Luckily I’m allowed to share (the recipe)!
Chocolate Chip Cookies
This recipe has been adapted from the well-known recipe from the New York Times. I had tried many recipes obsessively over the years and narrowed them down to three favorites: this is one I still make often when I want an ooey gooey cookie that is chewy in the center with crisp, caramelized edges.
Excerpted from The Measure of My Powers by Jackie Kai Ellis. Copyright © 2018 JKE Media Inc. Published by Appetite by Random House, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
For the vanilla Maldon salt:
1 vanilla bean
½ cup (125 ml) Maldon salt
For the cookies:
2½ sticks (10 oz/284 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup plus 2 tbsp (8 oz/227 g) granulated sugar
1¼ cups (10 oz/285 g) light brown sugar
2 tsp (10 ml) vanilla extract (I prefer Nielsen-Massey)
2 large eggs
3¾ cups (16.5 oz/468 g) all-purpose flour
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) fine sea salt
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) baking powder
1¼ tsp (6 ml) baking soda
10 oz (285 g) bittersweet chocolate fèves (I prefer Valrhona Alpaco; see note below)
10 oz (285 g) milk chocolate fèves (I prefer Valrhona Jivara)
Make the vanilla Maldon salt:
Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds in the center with the back of a small paring knife.
Place the husk and the seeds in a resealable container with the Maldon salt and mix gently with a fork to combine. Infuse for at least 36 hours at room temperature.
You can leave the husk in the salt indefinitely to continue infusing, storing at room temperature. The salt will just pick up more of the vanilla scent and flavors the longer it is left to mingle.
When the cookies are warm and just out of the oven, sprinkle a pinch onto the top of each one.
Make the cookies:
Cream the butter and sugars in a large bowl or in the bowl of a stand mixer, until lighter in color and texture.
Add the vanilla extract and eggs to the butter mixture and mix on medium speed until fully incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Slowly add the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda, mixing on low speed until just combined. There should be large streaks of flour still remain- ing.
Add the chocolate fèves and mix briefly until just incorporated.
Cover the dough with plastic wrap or place in an airtight container, and then refrigerate it for 48 hours. Aging the dough melds the flavors and creates nutty caramel notes that won’t develop otherwise.
When you are ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 350°F.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before scooping to soften it slightly.
Line 2 sheet trays with parchment paper. Scoop balls of dough about 2 inches in diameter and place them about 2 inches apart on the trays. You can use a heaping #30 (1 fluid ounce) scoop if you have one.
Bake for about 15 minutes or until the cookies are browned and caramelized along the edges and centers are just set.
Top each cookie with a sprinkling of the vanilla-infused Maldon salt, about
Cool on trays for 2 minutes and transfer to a rack to cool completely, or eat warm.
Repeat with remaining cookie dough.
Keep in an air- tight container for up to 3 days.
A note on the uses of the salt: This recipe makes more than you might need for the cookies, but I like to keep some on hand at all times. Vanilla salt is perfect for finishing dishes like seared scallops or on almost any kind of sweet such as brownies, cakes, cookies, and caramel ice cream.
A note on measurements: I have given measurements here in both volume and weight. However, I find I get the most consistent results using weight. A kitchen scale is reasonably affordable and you will find that it makes baking and cleanup much faster and easier.
A note on the chocolate: While it is harder to find fèves (discs of chocolate) than chocolate chips, there is a distinct difference in the resulting cookie— the chocolate layers in the cookie in a way that does not quite happen with regular chocolate chips.
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Disclosure: I received a copy of The Measure of my Powers from the publisher for review purposes. I was not asked to write about the book, nor am I being compensated for doing so. All opinions 100% my own.