November 05, 2012

Not a Single Day

I’ve been thinking a lot about loss, what with the news of hurricane Sandy that’s been streaming in from the East Coast (my thoughts are with you New York, my beloved city).

I spent the duration of the storm living a sort of parallel reality, from my bed, stricken with the flu. In my feverish state, all sorts of things surfaced in my mind—there was a sort of psychic wreckage blowing around in there. And then, when I awoke, when I really awoke, when I was finally getting better, I began to see the images of overturned cars and uprooted oak trees, a blackened city skyline, and deserted streets.

There was only one other time that I remember this profound sense of emptiness that can be felt when the city’s buildings, its life force and visceral landscape, could be seen as darkened and unmoving. I hesitate to go back there in my mind.

When I was little, I used to look at the city skyline from my father’s moving car and think of how each light, in each square window, in every apartment building, represented an individual life—I remember feeling overwhelmed and comforted by this thought at the same time: that lives cross in these oblique yet profoundly intimate ways; that we are small; that moments in time can’t be counted; that things and people are constantly lapsing in and out of being.

I think of my sister whenever I think of loss—someone who I haven’t seen in six years. The story is—as they often are—a long one. I can’t go into all of it here, at least for the moment. But the sadness that pervades her loss is always with me. And though this has been said before, perhaps by many, there truly is not a single day when I don’t think of her. It’s been long enough now that I am beginning to remember her again as she once was—when she was a little girl. How we fought, and laughed, and fought again. She used to bribe me with food items: bits of butter coated in sugar and other weird childhood concoctions. I remember her chubby fingers reaching out to pass me some little morsel, and I, hungrily and greedily, leaning in to accept it. I emulated her sense of strength—the way she laughed heartily and threw passionate fits. She was always very convincing.

I will write about her more here in bits and pieces, as the memories come. She is in everything that I do and in most things that I think and feel. We suffer chronically around the loss of her.


To this parade of sadness and sickness today, though, I will also add some cake—because that’s what we do; that’s what I’ve always done. 

My mother and I would take to the kitchen armed with butter and sugar and a few more spare things and whip together something that could be relished and consumed. I hope that in the way that cake can be shared, so too can these thoughts—that perhaps they shore up some distant part of some other human, in their own small illuminated corner, whose life is occurring at this very moment, in parallel. There might be a little girl marveling at the light cast from your window as I type this, and you would never know it.


Now, the cake:

It’s from Nigel Slater’s beautiful book Ripe. It’s a pear cake. No—it’s an almond cake, scented with brown sugar; with a hearty, courageous crumb; topped with the most beautiful mess of pears: pears that have been simmered in butter and cinnamon, that have been doused in maple syrup, that have created—in this process—the most luscious, sticky syrup clinging to every bite.

It really is a lovely thing. And, perhaps most importantly, it is a perfect fall thing—it is cake that is also nourishing. It tastes like the season.

If you take care not to over-bake it, your crumb will be less firm, slightly more on the ethereal side, not as dry. That’s what you should do. But, if you forget about your cake for a moment while you are reading something—as I did, in my bedroom—you can also rest assured that your slightly over-baked cake will remain moist with maple syrup–drunk pears in every bite. And, in this state, you can also eat it out of hand.

New York friends, I wish I could share this with you. We could feel happy, at least, to have the taste of pear on our tongues, no matter the weather.

Until soon. 

Almond Cake with Pears, Maple Syrup, and Cinnamon
Adapted from Ripe by Nigel Slater

Nigel calls this "a cake of pears, muscovado, and maple syrup." I couldn't find muscovado sugar, so I dropped it both in recipe and name. But you can use it here instead of the brown sugar, if you are so inclined.  


6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup (scant) light brown sugar 
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup group almonds 
3 eggs
2 tablespoons milk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract


3 ripe pears (I used Concorde)
4 teaspoons unsalted butter
2 generous pinches cinnamon 
3 tablespoons maple syrup (plus more for serving)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch round cake pan and line with parchment; the parchment should extend over the edge of the pan on two sides to make the cake easy to remove. Butter the parchment and dust the pan with flour, tapping out the excess. 

Peel and core the pears, and chop them into 1/3-1/2 inch pieces. Place them in a shallow pan with the butter and cinnamon, and cook over medium heat for 10-12 minutes, or until just softened, stirring occasionally. Add the maple syrup to the pan—the juices will bubble up; stir the mixture once or twice, and remove the pears from the heat. 

Cream together the butter and sugars in a large bowl (I do this with a wooden spoon, but you could use an electric mixer too). In a separate bowl, combine the flour and baking powder. Add the ground almonds to the flour mixture. In a small bowl, beat the eggs and milk. Add about 1/3 of the eggs to the butter and stir to combine; then add 1/3 of the flour mixture and stir. Repeat this process until all of the ingredients are combined (do not over-mix). Stir in the vanilla extract. 

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth out the top. Pour the pears and all of their sticky syrup over the cake in an even layer. 

Begin checking the cake at 50 minutes. It should be golden all over, and a toothpick, when inserted into  the cake (avoiding the fruit, if possible), should come out clean. 

Nigel suggest serving this with a little cream and maple syrup. I forgot about this part when it came time for me to eat the cake—but I would try it next time. He also suggests that it can be consumed warm. It is also the sort of thing that you can grab a slice of and eat out of hand. And, as I can attest to at this very moment, it makes a very good breakfast. 

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