Oftentimes, the best way to distract yourself from something annoying is to engage in a task that’s frustrating in an entirely different way. That’s why for the culinarily inclined, the past few months of COVID and fracturing democratic norms have been rife with stress-baking and cooking. But today is the crescendo: a historically significant Election Day during a potentially worsening pandemic. Those cathartic cookies you’ve been churning out? They’re not going to cut it.
Indeed, this is not a day to experience the joy of cooking; it’s the time to peel and stir and poach like your sanity depends on it, to make a dish so involved and distracting that even if you burn it, the sight would still somehow be more welcoming than gazing into the panic attack—inducing info-voids of cable news coverage.
Let’s start with something simple but totally not simple: How about a cassoulet? Little says “keep those early exit polls away from me” like making this icon of French cuisine that takes up as much time as helping a friend move. Originating in the southern French town of Castelnaudary, cassoulets are a hearty slow-simmered stew of sausage, duck confit, pork, and white beans that require hours of cooking and attention. There’s a reason we tend to only eat this dish in restaurants.
Instead of watching the returns of random Pennsylvania counties with bated breath, you’ll be soaking, draining, and cooking beans, you’ll be curing and deboning duck legs, slicing up pork belly, and layering all that and everything else I haven’t mentioned into a Dutch oven, making sure to repeatedly break the crust as it bakes. And it will break, but you won’t. Your entire day will be spent inside that pot where there’s no maelstrom of delayed results and lawsuits, just a velvety, reassuring stew that—bonus!—promises a prompt food coma upon consumption.
Presidential elections are often replete with a feeling of collapse for half the country, so reassurance may not be enough: You may need to make something that has the potential to literally collapse before your eyes. Enter croquembouche, the French conical dessert composed of a soaring heap of cream puffs that’s often served at weddings, baptisms, and communions, though an election will do just fine. People don’t like showing up to those either.
After making and filling a few dozen profiteroles, you’ll need to delicately arrange them in a cone shape, dipping and gluing each one in caramel to make sure it stays in place. If making a small (weak) croquembouche with only around 12 puffs, basic engineering familiar to any Lego builder should apply. But anything bigger may require a greased metal cone to keep the shape, and when you remove that mold, watch out. One faulty Jenga piece and that pylon puff thingy will shatter. If it doesn’t, you’ll probably throw it against the wall anyway when your candidate loses.
This may be the point in the article in which you’re thinking: “But I already made cassoulet and croquembouche at 4 a.m. the night before when I couldn’t sleep.” Fair enough. There’s no better time to get an early start on your Thanksgiving cooking with a recipe that could take you until Thanksgiving to assemble. Some remember Morton Thompson as the author of the bestselling novel Not as a Stranger, others may know him for his cult turkey recipe said to be life-changing.
The two key components are the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink stuffing and a thick smear of paste that gradually gives the turkey a black—not to be mistaken with burnt—appearance.
The stuffing has 32 ingredients that include veal, pork, oranges, pineapples, garlic, and water chestnuts, and the paste involves egg yolks, mustard, onion, lemon juice, garlic, ground red pepper, and flour, which you slather on every five minutes while turning the bird. Regarding the stuffing, Thompson advises: “Mix it with your hands. Mix it until your forearms and wrists ache. Then mix it some more.”
If those five-minute intervals offer too much temptation for a Twitter doom-scroll, consider making strawberry ice cream for dessert—a simple dish, unless it’s the recipe from Japanese chef Seiji Yamamoto, who holds three Michelin stars at his restaurant Nihonryori RyuGin. It’s difficult to tell if Yamamoto loves strawberries or hates them. His process tortures the poor things with the Bond villain—like toolkit of molecular gastronomy, leaving the strawberries as candies that are filled with powdered ice cream.
Some strawberries must be cooked sous vide, mixed with cream and gelatin, strained, whipped, and blasted with liquid nitrogen, while other strawberries are freeze-dried, boiled, candied, and blown like glass into the resurrected shape of a strawberry. You may need to borrow your kid’s chemistry set for this one.
OK, OK, state results are coming in, there’s already talk of recounts and court challenges, and you can hear your neighbor cheering and have no idea why. Let’s stop screwing around, it’s time to make something your spouse would leave you for. Do you trap an ortolan? Do you rent an air compressor? No. You book a flight.
That’s because the only way to make su filindeu —which means “threads of God”—is to head to the Barbagia region of Sardinia, where a single family has been making this incalculably precise pasta for hundreds of years. Just eating it requires a 20-mile pilgrimage from Nuoro to the village of Lula, where it’s served biannually at the Feast of San Francesco. Ingredients aren’t the issue: It’s pasta made of semolina wheat, water, and salt, served in mutton broth with pecorino cheese. The issue is that making that pasta may shatter your mind more completely even than pondering endlessly shifting electoral map outcomes.
If a shattered mind sounds like just the thing today, begin by pulling and folding dough into 256 identical strands, then stretch the wiry pasta across a circular frame in multiple layers. Many have attempted the feat, including a team of engineers from Barilla who tried to mechanize the process (and didn’t mechanize anything), as well as celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who wisely gave up after a few hours.
It’s arguably the rarest pasta in the world and is under threat of going extinct. So if you’re up for making the job-quitting trek to Sardinia, and manage to convince the Abraini family to adopt you and teach the labyrinthine technique, forget that “I voted” button and wear one that says “I made su filindeu.” It will get you through this election and all that follow, and you’ll have dedicated your life to a process that actually works.