Notebook

Softness

baked ricotta

After Christmas, in those quiet days before the new year, I decided to do something with the hole in my favourite cashmere sweater. I found the sweater in a bin at a thrift store and bought it for its creamy softness, despite the hole that could mean moths were lingering. To be safe, I put the sweater in the freezer for a few weeks, as instructed by Aunt Sandra, to kill anything that might be living within the fibres. Then I washed it by hand in my bathroom sink and laid it flat to dry. It worked. The sweater hangs from my body like a sophisticated cumulus garment. People lean in to touch the soft fuzz, they can’t help themselves. But that hole lingered, threatening to grow.

An elderly lady on youtube taught me to turn the sweater inside out, thread a sewing needle and catch a purl stitch on the edge of the hole. Then, she said, carefully pull the hole together with vertical stitches. Turn the sweater ninety degrees and run the needle through the knit stitches running in the other direction until a tidy grid covers the underside of the hole. A warp and weft of sorts, she explained, holding everything together, invisibly. The sweater is now a fuzzy, ephemeral cloud, strengthened by a thin, creamy thread. And I am strangely calm. Being thrifty, as it turns out, can be meditative.

I moved on from mending to a new knitting project – a turtle neck scarf of sorts that ends before it gets too difficult. I chose it for the materials – a ball of creamy white wool that is to be knitted alongside a fuzzy blend of alpaca and mulberry silk. Together they form a strong fibre softened by a cumulus haze.

I see soft textures often these days – in penicillium candidum, the bloom on the rind of a creamy Saint André. In low-lying cumulus clouds, the ones with cottony rims that glow against a blue sky. In a bowl as I whisk ricotta with eggs and an airy mound of grated parmesan before I bake it gently until it becomes a tender, sliceable loaf.* And now, in the fuzzy fibres in my hands, slowly taking shape as I twist them around the needles.

Softness isn’t always easy. Saint André is sold in a box larger than the size of the cheese. Just one touch can crush the delicate bloom on its surface.

I am a new knitter. I make mistakes and have to rip out stitches, crushing the soft fibres in the yarn as I go. I’ve started this turtleneck four times now.

But I carry on, because the effort of trying is soothing in itself. Why? I have no idea. Perhaps it’s what my future self would tell me to do.

———

We gathered ten years ago in my friend Victoria’s living room, squished on sofas and chairs, eyes closed, hands folded on our laps. She was training to be a life coach and wanted to practice self-visualizations. So there we were, a collection of friends sitting as instructed, imagining we were travelling into space, into the future. Once there, we would head back to earth, perhaps on a magical waterslide, and land in the presence of our future self. Where is she, asked Victoria. What is she wearing, what is she doing? Look carefully, and listen to what she is telling you.

I was still catching my breath. Earlier that day I had wrapped my toddler’s bottom in a shopping bag and carried him up the stairs to the bath, hoping the make-shift shorts would protect me, the walls and carpet from his exploding diaper. Sitting in Victoria’s living room, I could still smell chicken stock and baby shampoo on my hair, the perfume of motherhood and recipe testing. I inhaled and exhaled, again and again, until finally I found myself falling down from space into a bright kitchen where my future self stood, boiling a kettle.

The room was pale and soft, as if everything was coated in a fuzzy, cumulus cloud. She moved throughout the space slowly, pouring steaming water into a teapot and pulling mugs from a shelf. On the other side of the kitchen light poured through an open door and there were hints of a garden seeping through the glow. She didn’t speak, but I could feel her message wrap around me: do not worry about what you should do. Create what you love, take your time, come sit with me.

Others in the room had future selves who were triathletes, physicians, school principals, business owners, sky-divers. But there I was, drinking tea. I don’t know how far into the future I had travelled; I couldn’t see her face, her lines, the colour of her hair. Her form didn’t imply listlessness or lack of purpose. But she did want me to know that softness can be harnessed, if you move gently.

grated parmesan

*Dreamy Baked Ricotta
– adapted from A Year in My Kitchen by Skye Gyngell

2 eggs

500g ricotta (2 generous cups)

225g piece of parmesan cheese, grated (about airy 3 cups)

zest of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh soft herbs – I used thyme, dill and mint (just one is fine)

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Grease a small loaf/bread pan (I used a 8”x4”x2 ½” glass pan – cooking times will vary depending on size) and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 150C / 300F.

Whisk eggs with ricotta in a large bowl. Add parmesan, lemon zest, fresh herbs, salt and pepper and stir until smooth. Spoon mixture into greased pan and place in a roasting pan. Add enough hot water to reach halfway up the pan. Carefully place the pan in the preheated oven. Bake for 40 minutes, or until ricotta is firm. Serve warm, or leave to cool and serve at room temperature (ricotta will hold its shape better at room temperature.)

Slice ‘loaf’ and serve with greens, roasted tomatoes, basil oil and olives as Skye Gyngell would do. Or serve simply with a dollop of my friend John’s tomato marmalade and a tangle of dill, like I did this afternoon, while wearing my thrifted and mended cloud-like sweater.