Jessie Raymond: Taking the plunge — on puff pastry

They say you’re never too old to try new things. Maybe that’s why Australian grandmother Irene O’Shea, 102, recently went skydiving to raise money for charity.
While I’m not likely to jump out of a plane — I have to drop to a crouch on tall escalators — O’Shea and I have something in common. I know the sort of thrill she must have felt falling 14,000 feet toward the earth, because this year I too (figuratively at least) have stretched my wings.
Right around the time O’Shea was signing a waiver and getting strapped to her tandem instructor’s chest, I was taking a deep breath and embracing a challenge I’d contemplated for years.
I made puff pastry from scratch.
What a feeling.
Sure, O’Shea’s challenge carried more risk to life and limb than mine, and I was able to do my baking without having to be strapped to a master pastry chef. But the principle was the same: We both pushed ourselves beyond our normal limits. That’s where the thrill is.
Puff pastry, I had always assumed, couldn’t be made by amateur bakers. But I dreamed of the sense of accomplishment I’d get from producing a flaky, buttery pastry with my own hands. Could it be done?
Um, yes.
Turns out, there’s no big secret to making puff pastry, other than tedium; you just roll out the dough, fold it, chill it and repeat until you understand why people get their puff pastry from the freezer aisle. Still, I created a delicious product that looked like it had come from a high-end bakery, and that made me proud.
But it’s not just puff pastry. This month I also finished knitting a particularly complicated sweater with maddening short-row sleeve caps that nearly drove me to set my entire yarn stash on fire.
You don’t need to know what short-row sleeve caps are; I didn’t know until I found this pattern. And at first I considered going with something easier. Instead, I acknowledged my fear and dove in anyway.
I spent many nights in November with knitting in hand, taking notes, counting, muttering to myself and screaming, “Shut up, I’m concentrating!” whenever Mark had the temerity to interrupt me with dumb distractions (“But the IRS is on the phone and they want to talk to you”).
Most of the time, he watched me from his recliner, smirking as I repeatedly ripped out and reknit miles of yarn, cursed loud enough to make the dog hide and, at least once a night, flung the whole project across the room.
“It’s so nice that you have a relaxing hobby,” he’d say as I growled and tried to bite my needles in half.
It wasn’t the easiest or most enjoyable project. But I did it. And now I have a lovely sweater with the most butt-kicking sleeve caps you’ll ever see.
So clearly, O’Shea and I are a lot alike. The main difference is that I dislike anything that puts my body in danger.
I was reminded of this on Sunday. While carrying a sight-obscuring stack of Christmas presents down the stairs and musing on things other than my feet, I missed the bottom step. I was too busy reviewing my life as it flashed before my eyes to consciously register what was happening, but for a split second I was in free fall — without a parachute.
While the adrenalin rush did, for a few minutes, make me feel more alive, I could have gotten the same jolt with less risk of injury by, for instance, taking a pottery class.
Maybe that’s just me.
But the way I see it, anything big or small you do to expand your horizons, test your mettle, push the envelope or insert any similar cliché here makes you a happier, more confident person.
And if, like me, you’re starting to feel that age is taking away things you once took for granted — your eyesight, word recall, the distinction between your chin and neck — taking on new challenges has a remarkable way of making you feel younger.
It doesn’t matter what you do. Jump out of a plane, swim with sharks, climb Everest. Or, if you’re like me, stick to milder pursuits.
Maybe by the time I’m 102 I’ll have a different perspective, but for now I believe the best things in life don’t require you to sign a waiver.

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