I’m asking my students to answer an amended version of the Proust Questionnaire this week. And I swear I can hear their brains working as they write.
Used by Vanity Fair magazine since 1993 as a “back page” feature, the Proust Questionnaire is so named because the famous French author believed that answering this set of questions revealed one’s true nature.
My eighth graders are at a particularly pointed place in their development and understanding of themselves; not kids anymore but not quite adults, they strain against the limits of what they know and what they want, what they are allowed to have versus what they feel, deeply. Everything is changing for them all of the time, and there’s little they can control.
Hence the questionnaire. This deep and difficult set of questions forces the respondent to become very clear about who they are and what they want. While it seems like it should be easy—I should be an expert on the topic of myself, right?—for me and my students, these questions have forced us to think about who we are and who we want to be.
In answering these questions along with my kids, I’m disturbed a bit by how easy it is to forget that there is no one fixed way for me, Nishta Jaya Mehra, to be in the world. I act as if “this is how I am” but my being wasn’t set by my birth; it’s constantly in flux, and I am in the one in control of that, even though it often feels like the circumstances are.
At once empowering and totally scary, this week in my class we are taking on the idea that we get to say who we are. We get to change ourselves, experiment with our expression, make mistakes and clean them up. We put ourselves out there in the world and hope for the best.
If the best hasn’t come your way this week, might I suggest a poundcake? Because while who I am is changing all of the time, my love for butter will never, ever die.
This recipe makes a LOT of batter; it filled not only my mom’s big ole bundt pan but also a few little mini-loaf pans on the side. I’ll be you could halve this pretty easily, but the thing is—this cake is delicious. You could freeze it, give it away, or just, you know, eat it. I think it would be especially darling baked into wee little cupcakes or muffins!)
I made a very simple glaze of powdered sugar, milk, & vanilla, but the recipe came with a fancier glaze idea, which I’ve included below. Haven’t tried it yet, so please let me know if ya’ll do.
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup milk
1 ½ cups (3 sticks) butter, softened
1 one-pound box dark brown sugar (about 2 ¾ cups)
½ cup white sugar
pan: original recipe calls for greasing & flouring a 10-inch tube pan or two 9 X 5-inch loaf pans, but I’m skeptical that all of this batter would fit into those configurations. I recommend having some extra pans on hand!
Whisk the dry ingredients with a fork. Combine the vanilla & milk in a separate bowl & set aside.
Beat the butter on its own until light and fluffy. Add the brown sugar in three batches, then the white sugar all at once. Scrape down the bowl & continue to beat well, adding the eggs one at a time.
You know what’s coming! Alternately add the dry mixture (flour, etc.) and the wet ingredients (milk & vanilla) in several batches, starting & ending with the dry.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pans and bake. Time will vary widely depending on the shape/size of your pans. Cupcakes/muffins will take between 25-30 minutes, the loaf pans, 45-50. My bundt baked for over an hour, until the cake tester revealed nice, moist crumbs on the inside.
Cool the cakes on a wire rack, giving larger cakes a generous amount of time. Turn the cakes out and eat/glaze/wrap up.
QUICK CARAMEL GLAZE
½ cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup light-brown sugar
½ cup evaporated milk
4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 tsp. vanilla
Melt the butter and brown sugar in a saucepan. Cook for 2-3 minutes, then add the evaporated milk and let the icing come to a gentle boil. Stir well.
Remove from heat, then add the confectioner’s sugar and vanilla. Beat well, by hand or with a mixer, for a few minutes until the glaze thickens and looses some sheen.
Pour immediately over the cake or the glaze will harden.