Encyclopedia of Cake

October 14, 2009 § Leave a comment


The Times has a review of a new book, “The encyclopedia of Pasta” by Oretta Zanini De Vita that sounds fascinating, perhaps not quite up there with six thousand years of bread, but in the same vein. She writes about the long history of pasta in Italy, and the many shapes—the result of the creativity and playfulness of Italian women. She notes that certain shapes can go by several names, even in the same town. “Four hundred meters away,” she cried. “As close as my house is from the bus stop down the block. Everywhere you go there are these envies, these stupid provincial arguments.”

This makes me think of my long-dreamed-of book about cake, which I put off writing for years because I thought I had more important things to do, and which I’m scared to write now because I’ve gained weight lately and desperately want to get rid of it. Investigating cake doesn’t seem like the answer. Research is all very well, but I can’t sustain interest without baking. I made an olive oil cake two days ago; it was good but flawed and I wanted to experiment. I made another, slightly different one yesterday but it had too much salt in it. I don’t know if I measured wrong or if it was the large kosher salt crystals that did the damage. In any case, it would be simple to try again—it’s an easy recipe—but I’m worried about my hips. Even the salt cake was significantly sampled: cake fresh from the oven is hard to resist.

Charles doesn’t want to waste the remainder. “Can’t you do something with it?” He says.
“Bread pudding.”
“How about pork bread pudding?”
“I’ll think about it.”

Cake holds a place in my heart corresponding to that moment in late childhood when you realize people can be played with like dolls. They are more dangerous, sure, but the creative spirit can do its experiments. I never actually did many, being afraid of my own insights and powers (fear of human or divine retribution), but thought about it.

Cake is like that. It’s more sophisticated than candy. More ambiguous. You make it yourself. You feed it to lovers and enemies. You use it to adorn your solitude.You put it under your pillow.

The Bride-Cake

This day, my Julia thou must make
For mistress bride the wedding cake
Knead but the dough and it will be
To paste of almonds turned by thee
Or kiss it thou but once or twice
And for the bride-cake there’ll be spice.

—Robert Herrick

Eyes like Ripening Fruit

September 6, 2009 § Leave a comment

We went to the Met today, early enough that the lines weren’t long, and wandered through Chinese decorative arts, American landscape painting, the Greek and Roman rooms, and the African rooms. I told Charles about Delilah’s friend Zach Hyman who’s been shooting nude women in various places in the city. He was doing it at the Met a week and a half ago, and the model, K.C. Neill, got arrested for public lewdness. That’s a little better than arresting a painting for lewdness, but not much.

It reminded me of the time Charles got busted by a Met guard for sketching. He wasn’t sketching, merely taking notes, and argued this, which the guard disputed, and when the guard grabbed him to take to the interrogation chambers, Charles resisted and ended up falling down the long staircase. They let him go after questioning, mostly because he showed them his MoMa ID, but I had to wait around, wondering if I’d need bail money. “We should have sued,” I said today. That’s a wicked staircase.

But it’s hard to stay mad at the Met. There’s so much beauty and it makes me happy. I like going on impulse, when there’s nothing I’m dying to see. I notice the building more. I’m aware of it as a palace I’m privileged to enter rather than as an endless, feet-punishing maze. Like everybody, I want to live in it.

Today, although I started out most interested in the cinnabar plates and boxes in the Chinese Decorative Arts exhibit—because I have cinnabar beads I use in jewelry-making*—it was John Coplans’ nude photographs of himself that I most loved. No beautiful young woman has anything on him  as a model. His creased, aging belly with its scattering of hair looked like a Japanese watercolor, a winter landscape with thin, bare-branched trees.

It made me think of my painter friend Camilla and her anxieties about nude self portraits and my own nude self portraits (photographs) from several years ago, which I felt joyful and excited about—my first foray into visual art in decades—until my friends reacted with everything but the idea that these might be, however imperfect, works of art. But I suppose I agree with them, in part, because I didn’t choose a torso shot for this post. Even considering it made me remember what porno movie theaters used to be like in the 1970’s. The huddled masses…the sticky floors.

After the museum we went for tea and pastries at Sant Ambroeus, on Madison Avenue and 78th. It was a perfect day, just slightly cool, the weather New York was made for, and I was having sweet and melancholy memories of the neighborhood. This was my first home in New York, when I was eleven, and my part-time home  for a couple of years before Philip moved back to Brooklyn. Today all the usual reasons for disliking the Upper East Side dropped away and I was intoxicated by art, cake, brownstones and Central Park. Of course, most of the residents were away for the long weekend. That provided exquisite psychic ventilation. The skins of the buildings were shimmering with relief.

* Take a look at my jewelry

Archaic Torso of Apollo
By Rainier Maria Rilke
Translated by Stephen Mitchell
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Apple Cake or Not?

November 19, 2008 § 1 Comment

For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been buying apples at the Greenmarket, preparing to make an apple cake. It’s true that there are better things to do with apples (pies, for example) and better kinds of cake (too many to list) but I love the word, thing, idea of apple, and worship cake in all its forms, so the prospect of baking an apple cake pleases me far out of proportion to any pleasure I may get from eating it.

I love the smoky blur on the skins of certain freshly picked apples, that color that’s like looking at autumn leaves through a car window in the rain. I love the names: Winesap, Macoun, Gala, Pippin, Northern Spy, Ida Red, Rome Beauty. I love that they were always around in childhood, unlike pomegranates, star-fruit or papayas.

For an apple cake you need apples, flour, butter, brown sugar, eggs and pecans. Rum, ginger, nutmeg, baking powder and salt. You can do half and half apples and plums, substitute cognac or calvados for the rum. You can eat the whole thing yourself over the course of a week, or serve it to your girlfriends for afternoon tea if you have any girlfriends you can convince to come for tea. Once, I had many girlfriends and a good number of them were self-employed, or worked freelance, or were artists with a little inherited money, or stayed home with children, and were thus free to join me after the morning’s work for psyche-laundering, spiritual maundering, and the mostly well-intentioned exposure of our significant other’s faults and peculiarities.

Now I have a boyfriend who will eat cake if I provide it—then immediately feel guilty for the calories. Since he lives in a perpetual state of guilt in regard to his many faults and peculiarities and I have wrung more righteous pleasure from this self-castigation than any woman could want, I hesitate to inspire more. A slice of apple cake is too lovely, too fragrant, too tempting and yet motherly—too redolent of childhood afternoons outdoors with a book—to be pushed into the maw of middle-aged male, raised Catholic, married-and-possessed-of-a-girlfriend self-hatred.

Forget all about that now, I say to him. You’re separated. I’m separated (and my husband has been reunited with his first love). But then I’m just playing my usual role—Eve holding the apple, naked, while Lilith paces outside the garden, inventing unpronounceable names for demons.

See? She has a good job. Who wouldn’t want that job?

I think of my cake and don’t bake it. The apples wait in the dark and I eat them one by one. I live alone. I would like a dog. I would get a dog—really I would—if it would sleep until afternoon and I could feed it cake.

5 tablespoons butter

2/3 cup brown sugar

1 ½ cups flour

2 eggs

3 tablespoons rum

I tablespoon fresh, finely chopped ginger

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon nutmeg

2 cups chopped raw apple

1 cups lightly toasted chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350. Grease and flour an 8 inch square pan or small bundt pan. Beat butter until creamy. Gradually add sugar and blend well. Add eggs, ginger and rum; blend. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg and sift into batter. Beat until smooth. Add chopped apple and nuts. Bake for 35 minutes, give or take.

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