Things got easier when I turned to my pots de crème. After all, a dessert isn't a dessert unless it is unapologetically bad for you. (Otherwise, why not serve fruit?) Yes, there was an initial temptation to substitute skim milk for half of the heavy cream. But I was glad I didn't give in 15 minutes later, when I licked a dollop of chocolate custard from my fingers. I felt pretty sure I had never made anything this delicious in my life.
The moment I began fantasizing about presenting these yummy desserts to my astounded guests, however, I ran smack into another hang-up: my ever-looming dread of failure—public failure—in the kitchen. I've wrestled with it since I was 23 and decided that I was a grown-up and ready to cook like one, so I invited an older married couple I knew for dinner. Despite the fact that my entire prior culinary experience consisted of whipping up improvised backpacker-type concoctions for one, I attempted to prepare poached salmon with wild mushroom risotto. The fish was mushy, the rice was hard, and I wound up sending out for Thai. I remember thinking, "This can never happen again."
Full disclosure: A day before the dinner party, I logged on to Fresh Direct's Web site. The heat-and-serve hors d'oeuvres looked tempting—but I resisted. This, after all, was supposed to be a personal challenge. My version of skydiving. So I did what any responsible grown-up should do: I read through all my recipes 24 hours ahead of time. Then I drew up a timeline allowing what I thought was ample time to make each dish and take a shower long before my friends arrived.
I now know that four hours is nowhere near enough time to cook a meal of this magnitude, let alone screw it up. It's not enough time to clean flour off the floor, off the dog, off the refrigerator door, and off my face. It's not enough time to allow chopped potatoes to melt properly into a sauce. A wave of fear swept through me when I realized that I would not be showering before my guests arrived. But then it disappeared, replaced by a much more comforting thought: So what? I'm cooking for four good friends and one very sympathetic husband—all of whom, thank God, like me for things besides culinary prowess. They're coming here to eat dinner with me, not judge me.
Which brings me to my most vexing issue: Why was I making like Donna Reed in the first place? I grew up with a type-A, college-professor mother who made family dinners with a bottomless glass of scotch by her side and contagious resentment oozing from every pore. I remember the mindless detective shows that blared on the kitchen TV, the angry sound of her knife against the wood cutting board, the curses that shot from her mouth when she burned a pot of rice. Every so often, she would lug out her recipe for stuffed cabbage and torture herself by rolling each leaf around pouches of ground beef and raisins, not because we liked them (we didn't) but "because I want to prove to myself that I can," as she bitterly put it.