Sunday, 4 January 2015

Kim Addonizio | New Year's Walnut Spice Cake

A time comes when, in the expression of our dearest wishes, we shall say not that we want to wage wars against what is ugly, or that we want to judge the actions of others or even those of our own, but that we shall affirm everything, say 'Yes to life as a total economy of the whole', as Nietzsche wrote.

It is a common sentiment to make resolutions on New Year's Day even though we secretly know we will hear 'the clean crack of our promises breaking'. Kim Addonizio's poem 'New Year's Day' is refreshing in that it refuses to be sucked into an emotional fantasy of self-pitying reflection and grand schemes of resolving the past or weaving the future, even if at times it cannot resist images of redemption.

The rain this morning falls
on the last of the snow

and will wash it away. I can smell
the grass again, and the torn leaves

being eased down into the mud.
The few loves I’ve been allowed

to keep are still sleeping
on the West Coast. Here in Virginia

I walk across the fields with only
a few young cows for company.

Big-boned and shy, they are like girls I remember

from junior high, who never
spoke, who kept their heads

lowered and their arms crossed against
their new breasts. Those girls

are nearly forty now. Like me,
they must sometimes stand

at a window late at night, looking out
on a silent backyard, at one

rusting lawn chair and the sheer walls
of other people’s houses.

They must lie down some afternoons
and cry hard for whoever used

to make them happiest,
and wonder how their lives

have carried them
this far without ever once

explaining anything. I don’t know
why I’m walking out here

with my coat darkening
and my boots sinking in, coming up

with a mild sucking sound
I like to hear. I don’t care

where those girls are now.
Whatever they’ve made of it

they can have. Today I want
to resolve nothing.

I only want to walk
a little longer in the cold

blessing of the rain,
and lift my face to it.

Kim Addonizio, 'New Year's Day'

It is perhaps the image of the old schoolgirls, now nearing forty, preserved in memory as cow-like, big-boned and shy, that's the most successful part of the poem. Those girls, who silently look out of a window to rest their gaze on fleeting moments and the sheer impenetrability of human proximity. There are no grand designs! No resolutions! Stories are just stories we tell ourselves in consolation of the one reality - everything passes! And yet, this is the life we must affirm - not despite its reality but for all its reality!

~ New Year's Walnut Spice Cake ~

This is no ordinary cake. Traditionally, it is served in Greece on New Year's Day. A small coin is inserted through the base, signifying good luck to whoever finds it.

The story of the cake and the celebrations around the New Year goes back to the ancient Athenian harvest festival held in honour of the Greek god Kronos. This was in the first month of the Attic calendar, which was roughly equivalent to the latter part of July and the first part of August.

But in popular Greek tradition, the cake and the inserted coin are associated with a legend of St. Basil. According to one version, St. Basil asked the citizens of Caesarea to raise a ransom payment to stop the siege of the city. Everyone gave what they had in gold and jewellery. When the ransom was raised, the enemy was so embarrassed by this act of collective generosity that they called off the siege without collecting payment. St. Basil then had to return all the jewellery but as he didn't know which items belonged to which family, he baked everything into loaves of bread and distributed them to the city. As the story goes, by a miracle each citizen received their own valuables.

There are many variations of the New Year's Cake - some made with yeast, others sponge-like - and for years I have been searching for a recipe; one that would bring back some of the happiest moments of my childhood through the warm aroma of spices and orange peel mixed with the familiar sounds of cracking open walnut shells and grinding their wrinkled flesh with a wooden mortar and pestle. 

And then, I happened to come across a recipe that intrigued me. I tried. I made some changes. I tried again. More changes. Better. This, I think, is as close as I'll ever get! It's a rich, dense but moist cake that smells and tastes like winter - with a warm blend of spices and the earthy notes of walnuts.


195 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
200 g caster sugar
zest of 1 big orange (or 2 small ones) and of 1 lemon
3 large eggs
300 g self-raising flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
100 g finely ground walnuts
50 g finely ground almonds
50 g coarsely ground walnuts
120 ml buttermilk
65 ml (4 1/2 tbsp) blood orange juice
25 ml (5 tsp) brandy
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 level tsp (4.5 g) cinnamon
1 level tsp (3 g) mixed spice
1/4 level tsp ground cloves
1/8 level tsp ground nutmeg

icing sugar
pomegranate seeds (optional)

Heat the oven to 180 degrees C and place rack in the lower middle position.

Line a 23cm springform pan with greaseproof paper, then butter and flour it. Tap off any excess flour.

In a large bowl, sift the flour with the salt and baking powder. Mix in the finely ground almonds using  a whisk and set aside.

For the ground walnuts, I use shelled ones with their skin on as this gives the cake its characteristic dark colour and rich flavour. Put the walnuts in a mini food-processor and pulse them a few times until they are finely ground. Don't pulse for too long, otherwise the nuts will release too much of their oils and you'll end up with a paste. Once the walnuts are ground, you can pass them through a sieve. If there are any larger pieces left behind, you can put them back into the processor for additional grinding. For the coarsely ground walnuts, follow the same method but give them only o a couple of pulses.

Mix both the finely and the coarse ground walnuts with the spices and put aside.

Rub the orange and lemon zest into the sugar using the blade of a small knife until the sugar becomes sandy. With a hand-held electric mixer, cream the butter for about a minute. Scrape the butter down the sides into the centre of the bowl. Gradually add the caster sugar with the zest and beat together on medium–high speed until the mixture turns pale and fluffy, about 6 minutes. With speed on medium-low, beat in the eggs one at a time, making sure they are fully incorporated after each addition. Add a spoonful of flour with each egg to avoid curdling. Beat in the vanilla essence and the brandy. 

Mix the buttermilk and orange juice together.

Using a rubber spatula, fold 1/2 flour mixture into the egg mixture, followed by 1/2 buttermilk mixture, then the rest of the flour mixture, and the remaining 1/2 buttermilk mixture. Finally, fold in the ground walnut mixture until all dry ingredients are just combined and no flour can be seen. Do not over-mix.

Spoon the cake batter into the prepared tin and bake for about 55-65 minutes. After 45 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 175 C. Check the cake periodically to see if it's done.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 15 minutes before placing it on a wire rack to cool completely. Then carefully lift the cake onto a serving dish or platter.

Once the cake has cooled, dust with icing sugar to cover the top entirely and decorate with pomegranate seeds or whatever takes your fancy.

Enjoy the New Year!

Monday, 15 December 2014

Of Mince Pies and Other Stories

I am currently updating my blog. The last few months have been rather difficult (and hectic) and although I've been baking a lot, I haven't been able to blog as much as I would have liked to. But I'm hoping to complete the update by the end of March very soon.

In the meantime, wishing everyone an interesting and creative New Year!

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Henry Thoreau | Life in the Woods + Rustic Country Bread

I am grateful for civilisation. Nor do I entertain any romantic illusions about the ennobling quality of primitive existence and its innocent communion with nature. Life in the woods, it seems, is a constant battle against the encroachment of nature - harsh, unrelenting, indifferent and so too are its people. It is not always a welcoming feeling; often one of enclosure, of being crushed under the weight of centuries gone by. But I wonder if solitude is incompatible with civilised life and what it is that each year pulls me back, to the mountains, to confront only the bare facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it is to live and to die.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
Henry Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods

Thoreau had a profound effect on me during my formative years, an effect so deep I have not been able to shake off even when I could no longer share his transcendental views or his championship of provincialism.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Andy Warhol | Roasted Tomato and Pepper Soup

As the story goes, it was American art expert, gallery owner and erotic author Muriel Latow who gave Andy Warhol the original idea to paint Campbell's Soup Cans by suggesting 'something you see everyday and something that everybody would recognize. Something like a can of Campbell's Soup.'

Warhol's artwork, consisting of thirty-two canvas paintings each depicting a particular tinned soup variety offered by the company at the time, was shown for the first time in July 1962 in Los Angeles, California. The exhibition marked the debut of pop art as a significant art movement. The semi-mechanised process of production, the non-painterly style and the commercial subject were in contrast to the fine art values but also the mystical idealism towards which abstract expressionism was veering.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Queen of Hearts | Strawberry Tart

What I like about nursery rhymes, and this goes for folk tales as well, is their outwardly innocent simplicity and their unassuming tone. I also like them for their palpably raw sense of reality, often shocking and taking unexpected turns. Many nursery rhymes used to parody the politics and leaders of the time or spread scandalous or rebellious messages. I find it ironic that what was once an instrument of communication of dissenting opinion about current events has now become an unsuspecting source of delight for children. I remember fondly those silent nights when my father would read to me little rhymes from my Mother Goose book and the characters and stories would leap out of the pages -  tumbling down hills, falling off walls, jumping over the moon. 'The Queen of Hearts' was one of my favourites, perhaps because of its promise for a tart, perhaps because of its evocation of a summer's day.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Eugenio Montale | Lemon Bundt Cake with Lemon Curd

My search for a lemon poem took me, via the as yet unexplored Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee, an evidently captivating travelogue through the citrus groves of Italy, to twentieth century Italian poet  Eugenio Montale. Any writer who proclaims to have 'wanted to wring the neck of the eloquence of our old aulic language, even at the risk of a counter-eloquence,' is bound to attract my attention. In his poem 'The Lemon Trees', written in 1925, Montale offers a less than sensual poeticized image of lemon gardens.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Marcel Proust | Cream of Asparagus Soup + Roasted Asparagus

Some books you just never get to read - despite best intentions! Some books change with us and so does our appreciation of them when we realise they no longer hold the same appeal. And then, there are those long-forgotten books that still echo in our mind in fragments of thought, in scattered words, and we read with new eyes.

I started Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust years ago when I was studying European Literature but put it down 100 pages later; it seemed too long and I too impatient. I picked it up again recently, partly to check out a quote and partly out of nostalgia for my own lost time, and found myself entangled in a weave of surging memories, melancholic episodes and philosophic reflections.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Nathaniel Hawthorne | Redcurrant and Poppy Seed Mini Cakes

What is so interesting about American literature is not only the fact that American writers are always experimenting with style and ideas but also that many of their works continue to remain relevant today. One of my great favourites is The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The book was published in 1850. It became an instant best-seller but (unsurprisingly) met with wide protest from religious leaders who disapproved of the book's unsavoury depiction of the people of New England during the period in which it was set, almost two centuries earlier in Puritan Boston, Massachusetts.

Ironically for a book that explores the idea of freedom from religious bounds and moral idealism, The Scarlet Letter opens outside a prison door. Hawthorne wryly observes that the founders of any new colony, 'whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project', are soon obliged to realise that it is 'among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison'.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Laura Esquivel | Caramelised Onion, Red Pepper and Goat's Cheese Tart

There is a unique relationship between literature and film, a tentative symbiosis between the written word and the cinematic image that allows the latter to adapt, appropriate or negotiate the former. Many films are based on novels, short stories and plays but what determines the dynamic of this relationship is a different matter. Sometimes the film rises to the challenge of the book: Coppola's Apocalypse Now is as brilliant as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Sometimes, it's a disastrous affair: think of the adaptation of The Scarlet Letter or of Vanity Fair. And then there are times when the film surpasses its literary origin, so much so that we have no idea it's even based on a book, as with J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear or Hitchcock's Psycho.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Basic Recipe | Shortcrust pastry

This is a flaky kind of pastry for savoury tarts, very much like pâte brisée, and was the result of considerable experimentation. I had long been dissatisfied with pastry that had a ratio of half butter to flour as I found it hard to roll and not very tender, so I have slightly increased the amount of butter. The pastry is not particularly rich as I find that this enhances the taste of the filling. I also use the fraiser technique for blending the dough without overworking it.

~ Shortcrust Pastry ~

110 g unsalted butter, very cold and diced
200 g plain flour
pinch of salt
3-4 tbsp icy cold water
1 small egg yolk, for the glaze

This makes enough pastry for a 23cm tart tin or a 36cm x 12cm rectangular flan tin.

Dice the butter and put it in the fridge, together with the flour, for 30 minutes prior to making the pastry. I don't normally put it in the freezer as it hardens the butter considerably and makes it difficult to handle.

To make the pastry, sift the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl, add the diced butter and, using your fingertips or a pastry cutter, lightly rub the butter into the flour until it forms course breadcrumbs. Add the icy cold water, a tablespoon at a time, and using a knife or fork stir it in until the dough just comes together. The quantity of water will vary with different brands of flour.

Turn out the dough onto a clean surface and form into a rough ball.  Using the heel of your hand, push a small amount of the dough away from you flattening it. Gather the dough together and repeat as above 3-4 times until you get a round, soft ball - this will give it a flaky texture. You should not overwork the dough. Shape the ball into a flat disc or rectangle, wrap in clingfilm and chill in the fridge ideally for a couple of hours or at least for 30 minutes.

Take the pastry out of the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature for about 5-8 minutes. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry. If it starts getting sticky, sprinkle more flour on the surface and the rolling pin. Transfer the pastry into a lightly greased loose-bottom tin. If it breaks, just patch it up. Prick the base with a fork, cover with clingfilm and chill for about an hour.

To bake blind, half an hour before taking the pastry out of the fridge, heat the oven to 185 C.

Remove the pastry from the fridge, cover the sides with foil and place a large piece of crinkled baking parchment on top. Fill this with baking beans and bake in the middle of the oven for 20 minutes. Then remove the foil, baking paper and beans, patch any cracks with left-over pastry and glaze with egg yolk beaten with a little water or milk. Bake for another 10 minutes or so until dry and lightly golden.

Use as directed by recipe.