Gentleman Scholar

What Kind of Dessert Does a “Real” Man Make for His In-Laws?

Culinary advice for gentlemen-in-training.

Please send your questions for publication to (Questions may be edited.)

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson.

Photo by Christina Paige

I am a gentleman-in-training preparing to cook for my parents and in-laws—our first fancy dinner in our first home. I’m all set for the main course with a lobster–and–New York strip steak combination that pretty effectively signals “king of the castle.” However, being a man, my only measuring device is a keen eye, which basically means all baking is a train wreck. Not to mention the stigma against “real” men and baking. Should I seek out a dessert that is both gentlemanly and easy on the baking prowess? Or should I give in to the stigma and take a trip to the local bakery?

Thank you for your question. Best of luck with your surf-and-turf repast.

Confident that any number of pastry chefs would give you a thorough kneading for suggesting that baking is less than masculine, I will sidestep the gender-stereotyping element of your letter—except to caution you against whipping up any dessert touted for its virile virtues. Bourbon marshmallow bacon s’mores strike me as an insult to the intelligence of everyone involved, foremost the pig.

Although picking something up at the bakery is completely legit, you might consider planning a simple fruit dessert such as poached pears or baked apples. These dishes are so delicious that your guests will never care that a child could make them. Like, literally, children do make them; the instructions for that apple recipe begin, “Ask a grown-up to turn the oven on.”

If feeling slightly more ambitious, you could do up a custard or a pudding—no flour, no baking soda, no great precision required. The world’s most popular custard dessert is also its awesomest—crème brûlée. How to caramelize the sugar atop this? Its inventor, François Massialot, preferred to use a red-hot fire shovel—but that was 300 years ago. Some contemporary cooks put their ramekins under the broiler—but that lacks theatrical flair. It would be great fun for all involved (and even less work for you) to pass a blowtorch around the table so that each guest can scorch her own sugar. To do so turns the sweet course into performance art, interactive and pyrotechnic. Just remember this simple truth of home appliances: A man in possession of a blowtorch must be in want of a fire extinguisher.

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I have recently moved from the West Coast to A Decidedly Colder Coast. I walk to the train every morning. I need a hat.

My job is the sort where traditional dressing is de rigueur, and my closet has a high proportion of tweed, loden, and waxed cotton. Even so, as a 30-year-old man, I feel self-conscious wearing any hat other than a stocking cap or baseball hat. These seem too casual to wear with my gray flannels. What to do? Are there any warm dress hats that won’t seem like something best worn only by members of ’90s swing revival bands or aging Eastern Bloc diplomats?

Thank you for your question.

Here is the National Weather Service’s wind chill calculator, a tool enabling a citizen to input the temperature and the wind speed and thereby determine exactly how miserable things are outside. For instance, if it is 28 degrees Fahrenheit and winds are blowing 8 miles per hour, the wind chill temperature will be 20 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the point at which concerns of style go out the window, or would, were the window not frozen shut.

If, in these conditions, you match a flannel suit with a watch cap, no one will give it a second look (unless the cap is of a handsome cashmere and the look is jealous or admiring). You want to pair a Cubs hat with an overcoat? No problem. You prefer the integrity of your auricles to the indignity of earmuffs? I promise to try not to laugh.

A brimmed hat is more formal than any of the above solutions, true, but you, dear sir, are resisting that option for fear of being confused with the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ touring trombonist—a reasonable concern. Perhaps you should shop for a felt hat with a brim narrower than that of the iconic and overplayed fedora? A trilby or homburg or something?

But, to repeat: Who cares? When the wind chill reaches 20 degrees, the only hat that will make you look like a fool is an actual fool’s cap, I decree, off the top of my head, which these days I am covering with a rabbit-fur ushanka. And because you say that such an accessory would weigh as heavily as an iron curtain atop your person, I further suggest the astrakhan, also known as the karakul, as a spiffy Asian solution for withstanding Zemblan temperatures. It has famously covered both British heads of government and Zamundan heads of state.

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Dear Sir,

Regarding your column of Feb. 5: I am afraid I must protest! A gentleman, when facing the quandary of what gauzy undergarment to buy a paramour, must come to only one honest conclusion: Said undergarment is not for the paramour, but for the gentleman himself.

This is not to necessarily discourage a man from buying lingerie; rather, I encourage them not to make it the entirety of the gift. A home-cooked meal and a bouquet of her favorite flowers, a piece of art or jewelry that complements her wardrobe or décor; these are the things to purchase that will make her want to wear an ephemeral and oftentimes faintly ridiculous piece of lingerie for you.

Thanks for sharing your cogent notes on this ritual.

And, hey, my man, I’ve got a fun fact for you: This is the 100th anniversary of a lacy red-letter day. On Feb. 12, 1914, a very social 22-year-old named Polly Jacob applied for a patent relating to “new and useful Improvements in Brassieres.” A few years earlier, slipping into a low-cut evening gown in advance of yet another debutante ball, Miss Jacob ditched the monobosom-making whalebone of her traditional corset cover and instead sewed two silk handkerchiefs together with a pink ribbon and the assistance of her maid, Marie.

From the patent application:

It is among the objects of the present invention to provide a garment in which a number of features of novelty and utility are combined, among which are the provision of a garment which has no back and therefore does not interfere with any design of evening gown that may be chosen; one which is capable of universal fit to such an extent that for commercial handling it need be made in but few sizes, with reasonable certainty that the size and shape of a single garment will be suitable for a considerable variety of different customers; and to provide a garment which is characterized by extreme simplicity by freedom from bones so that it may be finished with laces or embroideries for wear beneath a sheer waist or diaphanous gown, and which when worn is both comfortable and cool and so efficient that it may be worn even by persons engaged in violent exercise such as tennis; and which has other advantages that are characteristic of the invention herein set forth, some of which may be summarized by saying that it does not confine the person anywhere except where it is needed.

That’s good reading. For more good reading about Polly Jacob, see anything written about Polly Jacob. The story of her life is too riveting to screw up. A proper biopic of this person would run six pulse-pounding hours and devote a full act to the story of how she became America’s first Girl Scout.

Jacob is best known to history as Caresse Crosby: After the collapse of her first marriage—to a drunk whose best-selling recovery memoir was an inspiration to Alcoholics Anonymous’ Bill W.—she married one Harry Crosby, who believed Polly needed an alliterative name; though they considered Clytoris, they rejected that as rather de trop, reserving it instead for one of their pet dogs. After her moment as an innovator of intimates, she wrote decent poetry; threw decadent parties; ran a press that published Joyce, Eliot, Pound, and Hemingway; rode a baby elephant to the Beaux Arts Ball, sidesaddle and Lady Godiva–style; dated Henri Cartier-Bresson, Canada Lee, and Buckminster Fuller; ghostwrote smut on behalf of Henry Miller; established the first modern art gallery in Washington, D.C.; and earned Anaïs Nin’s admiration as “a pollen carrier” who “mixed, stirred, brewed, concocted her friendships by a constant flux and reflux of activity, by curiosity, avidity, amorousness.”