Chocolate chip cake with almond-hazelnut toffee topping

chocolate chip cake with almond-hazelnut toffee topping

chocolate chip cake with almond-hazelnut toffee topping

In defense of meandering

The nicest rejection I got for my novel (also, strangely, the most disappointing) said all sorts of kind things about my writing but concluded that the pace was too meandering. Well! I’ve thought about this a lot, since. I understand their objection, of course, but I like meandering! I like books that meander and movies that meander, and I like the act of meandering about in the world. In point of fact, this rejection has made me look back upon my life to realize that I have lived in an entirely meandering fashion. (In fact, too close an examination of my “career” might turn this into a cautionary tale about meandering, rather than a defense of it.) There’s so much I want to do, but I don’t have firm goals and plans of attack, I don’t have schedules and itineraries. I have been most fortunate in finding good traveling companions, and now I’m perfectly happy to meander about with them and see where we all end up.

There are places I’d like to go, things I’d like to achieve, but I feel like I’ll take a strange and winding path and be surprised and delighted when I get there. Of course, with this attitude I may never get there at all. That’s the danger. Or I’ll get there and find myself unprepared; I’ll discover that I haven’t packed all of the equipment that I need, because I always forget something. But then we’ll make do with what we have and what we find, and maybe we’ll come up with a better way of doing things than we ever would have if we’d packed more carefully. That’s the beauty of meandering…you never know where you’ll end up! As long as you keep turning down the most likely paths, as long as you’re happy to turn around if you find yourself somewhere that doesn’t work out, and start out again on a new path.
And probably as I’m meandering to a specific destination, someone else will be headed there with great purpose and focus. But maybe by the time I got close I would have decided to go somewhere else any way, somewhere better for me.
I was very happy to discover that the word “meander” comes from the name of a river in present day Turkey, know to the ancient Greeks as Maiandros, whose “course is so exceedingly winding that everything winding is called meandering.”  And a meander, as a noun, is a bend in a sinuous river. “Meandering” used in a disparaging manner, implies weakness, it implies vagueness and mildness that lead to inefficiency and failure. But surely there’s nothing stronger than a river! We might not always understand the pattern or the plan, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one! A river might not rush in a straightforward and obvious fashion to the sea, but it gets there nonetheless, making a beautiful design as it does so. And in Greek mythology, Meander is actually a river god, a god, son of the god of the sea, no doubt behaving in the strange and inexplicable manner of all gods, but powerful nonetheless.
 
I like to walk by the river, in an aimless and directionless fashion. I like to go for a meander. I have some of my best ideas this way, and my stories often take shape in my head while I’m adrift in this fashion. I believe that always knowing where you’re going, and always taking the quickest route to get there, and always checking your map or your phone’s map till that’s all you have in your head–all of that can be the death of the imagination, it doesn’t leave space for thoughts to grow and bloom. I think maybe as a society we’ve forgotten how to meander. We’re always so plugged in we’ve forgotten what it’s like to not know: to not be sure where we’re going or how many minutes it takes to get there and what the weather will be like when we do and the exact specific answer to every little question that should arise in our heads. We’ve forgotten what it’s like to wonder, we’re uncomfortable in those little pockets of uncertainty, which is sad, because this is where new ideas thrive and grow. And we have no time to wander,  to let our feet and thoughts fly where they will.
This is a typical Claire cake! Quite easy to put together, especially if you use your food processor, which I did. You don’t even clean the processor between mixing the batter and the topping, because having a bit of batter in helps the topping to stick together. It’s not actually toffee, the topping, but it’s butter, sugar and nuts, baked till brown and crispy.
Here’s Make the Road by Walking, by the Menahan Street Band
 

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Almond cake with jam and chocolate

IMG_5247“You know how people mostly draw Yin and Yang as fish?”
“Um, I guess…”
“What if they drew them as wolves instead, packs of black and white wolves?”
“That’s a picture I’d like to see.”
“Of course the chances of it happening are almost zero. But there’s not a completely zero chance of anything.”
“So anything is possible?”
“Yes, everything is possible,” said Isaac trotting down the street and singing, “Yin and yang, sucker. Yin and yang, Sucker!”
I’m in concurrence with Isaac on this one. I believe anything is possible. I always have. I believe most things some of the time. I believe some things most of the time. I believe there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. I believe there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. I believe in chance and coincidence and luck. I believe if I play a game of solitaire in the morning, whether I win or lose reflects how other things in my life might turn out. Not that it will change the outcome, but it will predict it, like the augers of ancient Rome. Do I really believe this? Naw, no, of course not. Mostly no. But not zero chance no. And the thing I mostly play for these days is my novel and my stories. Will they ever be published? Will anybody in a position of any power in any editorial department in the world like them at all? Will the next message I get be from somebody who likes my writing? No. No it won’t. It will be from somebody trying to sell me something. Somebody asking for money. I know that. There’s a 99.9% chance of that. And although I honestly believe that most people who get their work published are genuinely talented and deserving, and if something’s really good it will get seen (as they used to tell us at the independent film festivals), I believe for me, if anything gets published it will be sheer dumb luck that the right person sees it and likes it. Despite all of my considerable soul-crushing efforts to contact agents and publishers, it won’t be any of those. It will be some weird connection I didn’t even know I’d made. Like when I’d made my second film and I applied for all kinds of grants and submitted it to all kinds of people, but it was some guy that saw somebody else watching it on a monitor across a crowded room that ended up giving me a grant. And I was thinking that maybe I have a little bit of luck set aside for me on a certain day, and it could go towards stories or novels getting published, but maybe instead I win something stupid in a cereal box, or I get a coupon in the mail for something I don’t even want, and that’s my luck for the day. And then, maybe, I don’t even recognize all the luck I have every day, because it’s bigger than any petty thing I’m thinking about. Maybe I drive down a road at the exact time that flocks of blackbirds are forming and reforming in dizzy formations over my head. Maybe I go for a walk with Malcolm and he tells me “Yellow can be lemon or banana, and I’m cool with both of those.” And then he continues with a reasoned monologue on the merits of various candy flavors despite the fact that I’m laughing so hard I can hardly walk. Maybe that’s the lucky thing, having that chance to be with these crazy people who tell me these crazy things that make me bursting glad to be with them. And I know I know about all the lucky things so precious I can’t even talk and can barely even think rationally about. And of course I believe in fate, too, and meant-to-be, because there’s just as great a chance that this is true as anything else. And I’ll take it, I’m cool with both of those. Yin and yang, sucker, yin and yang.

I’ve been making lots of cakes this winter, because it’s been that kind of winter. One after another. For a while I was making cakes with nuts and jam and chocolate. Because who wouldn’t want a cake with nuts and jam and chocolate?

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Almond cinnamon shortbread cake

Almond cinnamon shortbread cake

Almond cinnamon shortbread cake

The other day I thought I lost a scrap of paper. It was just another scrap of paper with words on it, but it was worth fifty dollars, so I felt like an idiot for misplacing it. I searched for it through piles of papers with words on them, through drawers-full of scraps of paper with words on them. This is how I organize my life. I scribble thoughts and plans and recipes and names and dates and numbers unintelligibly on torn pieces of paper, which flutter around me like maddening moths. And then I lose them and years later I find them and wonder at their meaning. As I was searching, I found one relatively intact sheet of a smallish size stuffed into my drawer. Near the bottom, in very neat (for me) handwriting, it said “Yes Today is Today.” The neatness of the handwriting suggests to me that I was trying out a new pen. I love new pens! Other than that, I have no idea what the hell I was talking about, or why I wrote this. Judging from the name & number scribbled on the top of the paper, it dates from around a decade ago. What was I happy about on this today? What had I been looking forward to? I’ll never know. But what a good inspirational meme this would make, Yes Today is Today, with some lady in yoga pants and a flowing scarf looking ecstatic as she stretches into the sunset. It’s so now-momenty. Of course I’m not at all now-momenty. I understand the appeal and the advantages, but I just can’t do it. I live in a cluttered tangle of memories and plans, half-remembered words and half-hearted hopes. How can we live only in this moment when this moment is so fleeting? Of course we can’t, we’re made up of our past and our future is upon us before we know it. Obviously I don’t want to live in the past and anticipate the future at the expense of my appreciation of the present, but there would be no present without the past and the future. I like to think about the moment I wrote this years ago, I’m glad I don’t know what it was that made me happy, that I was looking forward to, I’m glad to imagine what it might have been. It seems more real, more full of promise than whatever actual event I was anticipating. It could have been anything. It could be anything, it might be something I’m still looking forward to. It might be nothing at all other than the recognition that today is irrevocably and undeniably today. There’s no arguing that point! And on these dark cold January mornings when it’s really goddamn hard to get out of bed, it might help to say Yes Today is Today.

Cinnamon almond shortbread

Cinnamon almond shortbread

This is an incredibly simple cake, and I like it a lot. It’s like soft shortbread when you first try it, with a crispy crunchy top of almonds and sugar. And after a day or so it becomes a little firmer and more cookie-like.

Here’s Time has Come Today by The Chambers Brothers

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Tarragon ice cream

Tarragon ice cream

Tarragon ice cream

Many ages and ages ago, I told you that David and I are going to try to watch as many movies from 1967 as we can find. And I promised I’d tell you all about them. Well, we’re making a slow go of it, and it’s taken me weeks to even tell you about the first film we saw. That film was La Collectionneuse, by Eric Rohmer. Rohmer begins the film with a sort of prologue, introducing the three main characters; two men and one woman. The men are introduced in their natural habitat, in the natural habitat of a Rohmer movie, they’re with friends and they’re talking, they’re all talking. The woman, Haydée, is introduced in a bikini on a beach. I thought, “Please let her talk, please let her talk,” but she doesn’t, she doesn’t say a word. And this seems to be setting us up for a movie in which the young woman is just an object and the men are more interesting and likable. But in fact, in many ways, Haydée’s silence is her strength, and the men trip themselves up with talking. The character of Haydee is not very thoroughly-drawn, but she is a strong, compelling presence in the film. The film takes place in the south of France during a couple of idyllic weeks. The three main characters share a home owned by an absent mutual friend. We catch glimpses of the mens’ lives before and after this summer interlude, but we don’t know anything about Haydée, we don’t know where she comes from, or where she’ll go after the vacation. The men think they have her all figured out…she’s just a little slut, with a different boyfriend each night. She’s younger than them, and they think she’s flighty, thoughtless, easily dismissed. They can’t help but be attracted to her, against their will and judgement, though they try to laugh it off. They feel obliged to seduce her, though not very determined to actually go about it, and they discuss who should do it, giving each other permission as though she was the last ripe plum in the house, and they don’t want to be greedy in their enjoyment of it. Rohmer lets the men talk more than Haydée, and he gives them enough words to tangle and hang themselves. Rohmer has said, “You should never think of me as an apologist for my male character, even (or especially) when he is being his own apologist. On the contrary, the men in my films are not meant to be particularly sympathetic characters.” A fourth character enters the film, an American antiques dealer, a collector. He sees Haydee as something the men will give him to ensure his business, a beautiful object he expects to collect. He’s a crude and brutal man–we’re not expected to like him and we don’t. He acts as a sort of mirror for the other men, showing what they really are, in a harsh and unflattering light. The men accuse Haydee of being a collectionneuse, using young men for her own shallow pleasure. She says she’s not collecting, she’s searching, and she has never yet had a lover in the true sense of the word. She doesn’t have many words, but she has the most honest and sincere of the words. In the end Adrien leaves her by the side of the road to an uncertain future. He goes back to the house, and this man who is always talking is suddenly afraid of the silence and aware of the loss of something he had not valued at all. “I was overwhelmed by a feeling of exquisite freedom. Now I could do whatever I wanted. But once back in the emptiness and silence of the house, I was seized with anxiety and unable to sleep.”

Tarragon

Tarragon

Tarragon ice cream! Following on the success of my tarragon cookies a few weeks back, I did what any sane person would do and made tarragon ice cream. It’s sooooo delicious, with a haunting unplaceable flavor. I stewed the leaves in the milk of some time, and then I saved a few leaves to chop and add at the end, to give it flecks of color and flavor.

Here’s The Blossom Toes with Love Bomb. They did some music for the film, don’t you know.

 

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Almond tarragon cookies

Almond tarragon cookies

Almond tarragon cookies

It’s been such a strange week, with Malcolm starting middle school and summer coming to a close and me sort of starting a new job. I’ll tell you what I keep thinking about, the image that keeps playing over and over in my head. One evening we went down to the river. The sun was beautiful as it set in the blue-shadowed clouds, the trees were beautiful as they settled into fall. Isaac danced around collecting conkers with David, who could reach into the branches. Later Isaac would bring the conkers home and leave them on a table with a sign that read “choos yore chestnut.” He labeled them small, medeum, and large. I’d been asking Malcolm all day long about school. I get little snatches of information, but I really have no idea how he feels about it all. I was trying not to hound him, but you could tell he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Well, he went into the water, and he went way out to the middle of the river, all by himself, and he stood battling the never-ending current. It came gently but relentlessly towards him, and he splashed against it, in a world by himself, in his element, thinking.

Almond tarragon cookies

Almond tarragon cookies

Tarragon in something sweet! In cookies! Light lacy almond cookies! I’ll admit I was a little scared to try this, because I’ve always thought of tarragon as a savory flavor. But I’ve also always thought that the lemony anisey taste would be nice in a sweet setting. So I only added this to half the cookies. They turned out absolutely delicious, with a light, haunting addictive flavor.

Here’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe with Down by the Riverside.

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Cherry, white peach, chocolate and frangipane tart

Cherry peach chocolate almond tart

Cherry peach chocolate almond tart

Last night Clio and I went for a walk after dinner, as we almost always do. It wasn’t even close to 8 o’clock yet, but it was getting dark. There was a chill in the air, but we could feel the warmth radiate from the wall of rocks, which had soaked in sunshine all day. Earlier in the day, we’d seen that someone had stuck a piece of tassly grass into the trunk of a tree. It looked like a little bouquet, or a little spray of fireworks. However, at dusk, it seemingly took its true form.

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The spirit of the end of summer. He’s laughing at us from behind a tree, full of mischief, but a little sad, too, maybe even slightly scared. He seems substantial, but if you run your hands through his tresses, as we did today in the bright afternoon light, he falls to nothing. Through his winking eyes and gaping mouth, you can see the beautiful darkening light along our towpath, and watch the leaves fall like bright shadows.

Cherry, white peach, chocolate, and almond tart

Cherry, white peach, chocolate, and almond tart

This tart contained many of my favorite flavors. It was fun to make, and I realized I hadn’t made anything slightly complicated in some time. It’s not complicated as in difficult, but it does have a few steps, a few layers. The first is a sweetish buttery crust. But you don’t roll it out, you just press it down with your hands, so it’s not that hard. The second layer is bittersweet chocolate. I melted the chocolate chips over a low heat till they were just soft, and then spread them into a thin layer with the back of my spoon. The third layer is a frangipane, but on the firm side, not too custardy. And finally, of course, the fruit! I like the rich, tangy, sweet but not too sweet quality of this tart, and ate if for breakfast and before bed for days. We also ate it with whipped cream and vanilla ice cream, and I recommend these presentations as well.

Here’s The Ethiopians with Feel the Spirit. Love this one.

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Almond cake with blueberry & chocolate filling

Almond cake with blueberry and chocolate filling

Almond cake with blueberry and chocolate filling

We went to look for eagle feathers though we knew we wouldn’t find any. As with most things in life, it was more about the journey–the walk on the towpath, over the old train bridge, down the hill through the tall ferns and prickly vines, up to the tower where the eagle had lived. Maybe we’d go farther past it, all the way to the river, maybe we’d see the eagles flying over the water, looking for fish. We didn’t see the eagles, we didn’t find any feathers, the prickly vines scratched our ankles, but it was a wonderful walk. The wild ferns and flowers and vines are taller than me down by the eagle’s tower, and it’s a strange bright green world with narrow paths, some that lead into the woods, some that lead to the river, and some that lead up the hill back to the path. Under the staring blue sky, with small white clouds and grasshoppers flicking across our path, this felt like summer. Is it the dog days? Because we’re living like dogs, sun dogs, dogs of summer, here at The Ordinary, with no plans. We snooze in the warm sun, and wake to eat or run to the river for a swim, or chase wildly through tangled ferny paths. Clio is the leader of our pack, she shows us how it’s done, and the boys are attentive pupils. We’re trying to slow down the days, with our lazy ways, but they’re flying by anyway. Evening falls earlier, and there’s almost a chill in the air in the mornings. So we’ll follow Clio into the sunshine, and soak it up, we’ll store it inside of us against the cold days ahead.

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You know what I’ve been making a lot this summer? Flat wide cakes with fillings inside. Almost like a gateau basque. This one had blueberries and chocolate chips. (They almost always have chocolate) I’ve made some with ground almonds or almonds and pistachios, and I’ve filled them with jam or other kinds of fruit. Sometimes they’re soft, sometimes they’re crispy like big cookies. This one was quite soft inside, and a little crispy on top. It was very juicy, you can’t turn it out of the pan or anything, because it will fall apart. David said it’s like blueberry fudge. I’ll tell you about the other cakes another time.

Here’s Summertime by Sam Cooke.

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Fresh mint sorbet

Fresh mint leaves

Fresh mint leaves

Well, I have two boys. They’re different in many ways, but they’re alike in this. Sometimes you can tell that something is bothering them: they get distracted and quiet, or they talk a lot, they seem nervous, they want to be alone or they’re extra clingy. And with both of them it doesn’t always help to ask them what’s wrong, because they’ll say “nothing.” They’ll both say “I’m fine.” But if you stay with them long enough, if you can get them go for a walk with you, or if you just sit by them on the couch with the dog, or take them for a ride to some place or another, they might tell you what’s eating at them, they might share their worries. Sometimes it’s best just to be there and to be quiet, so when they’re ready to talk, you’re around. It’s hard to do, of course. It’s hard to wait, when every instinct is yelling at you to go in there and figure it out, to fix it and make it better right away. And sometimes when they finally tell you what’s bothering them, it’s not something you can fix in an instant. Sometimes it’s not something you can fix at all, ever. At some point you lose the magical ability to soothe every hurt with a kiss. It’s the hardest thing to do, to just sit and wait and listen, but sometimes it’s the most important. Because it does help to talk about things. Sometimes a worry, which grows larger and uglier in the darkness of your own mind, shrivels to nothing when you expose it to the light by sharing it with another person. Sometimes just saying that you feel pain helps to lessen the pain. And maybe somebody says “I’ve felt that pain, too,” which helps you to know you’ll live through it. Because people like to make connections, they need to. We need to. We all need someone to listen to us with no judgement, no advice, just open caring warmth. And we can wait and listen not just to our own children, but to other people’s children as well. And everybody is somebody else’s child. We’re all in this together. It’s hard to wait and be silent. It’s hard to listen for what is really being spoken. But sometimes it’s the most important thing you can do.

When I was little my mom used to buy Family Circle and Woman’s Day magazines. If you knew my mom, this fact would probably be surprising to you. I used to look through them for helpful household tips and recipes. Once they had a recipe for mint ice. Made with fresh mint leaves. I LOVED it. I still remember exactly how it tasted. I don’t remember the recipe, though. So I’ve tried to recreate it based on how it seems like it should go. We have a wild and unruly bunch of fresh mint in our garden, and I harvested some to make this. You can use any kind you have, peppermint, spearmint, chocolate mint…anything! I used my ice cream maker to make this, because I love my ice cream maker. But if you don’t have one, you can make this as a granita. Let it partially freeze, then stir it, then let it freeze some more, and stir it, till it’s all frozen and all broken up. That’s how I made it when I was little. This was really delicious. Really refreshing. If I do say so myself, and I do!

Here’s Velvet Underground with I’ll Be Your Mirror.

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Chocolate pecan cherry cake

Pecan chocolate cherry cake

Pecan chocolate cherry cake

Hello Ordinary friends! I hope everybody is having a wonderful summer. Ours is melting away in a dreamy succession of trips to rivers and creeks, just as summer should. I took another brief Ordinary sabbatical, and I’ll tell you why. Somebody read my novel! I gave it to my neighbor. I don’t know her very well, but I like her a lot and I respect her opinion. She’s a poet and a teacher. And she read my novel as you would hope a poet and teacher would, and had some generous things to say about it that made me nearly cry with relief when I first read them, and she asked some thoughtful questions that made me want to change a few scenes and add a few scenes, and that’s what I’ve been doing. It’s an odd feeling, like slipping down a pebbly hill. Once you start changing things, you could change anything! You could add scenes or take them away. You could make whole characters disappear; characters who you’ve come to think of as living, feeling people. You could explain everything! You could take away all the explanations! You could make the characters (your friends, as you’ve come to think of them) happy or sad, sick or well. And I wasn’t going to talk about my novel! I’ll tell you a story instead. Yesterday after dinner Malcolm and I and Clio went for a walk. We were all a little tired, but the weather has been so ridiculously perfect this week that it felt wrong to stay inside. By the time we got to the other side of the canal Malcolm’s stomach hurt and I had a blister on my toe. So we decided to come home and sit in the yard instead. Well, what should we see on the way back but a rambly bush with perfect tiny bright red raspberries on it! We ate a few, and they were lovely. Whenever I eat a raspberry I always say, aloud, that raspberry is the most perfect flavor in the world, which is not surprising because as everybody knows, the milky way tastes like raspberries. So we decided to collect a little handful to bring home to Isaac and David. And then, before I knew it, I was up to my knees and elbows in stinging nettles. By god it hurt! Malcolm found me some jewel weed, which helped to calm the sting, but it didn’t really go away. I think I got poison ivy, too. All for a little handful of raspberries. There’s a moral in there somewhere, but I’m not sure what it is.

Chocolate cherry pecan cake

Chocolate cherry pecan cake

Next to raspberries, I love cherries. And they’re perfect this time of year. I thought they’d be nice with pecans and chocolate, and they are. I made this cake, which is almost more like a bar cookie, because it’s thick and chewy and delicious, in the toaster oven. It was very easy to put together, and very easy to eat!

Here’s Charlie Haden with Silence. Beautiful.

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Almond cake with blackcurrants, cherries and bittersweet chocolate

Almond cake with cherries, black currants and bittersweet chocolate

Almond cake with cherries, black currants and bittersweet chocolate

We’re watching L’eclisse at the moment, so today I’m going to wander around town in low-heeled but surprisingly noisy shoes, looking serious and wistful but bursting into laughter at life’s absurdities. Also, it’s my birthday, so I’m going to claim birthday privilege and write the most nonsensical rambling post ever. First of all, here’s a scene from L’eclisse that I like a lot. We haven’t watched the whole film so I’ll reserve judgement, but this scene I found surprising and beautiful.

Second of all, let me tell you about my lunch. I’m very excited about it. It was: a saltine cracker topped with brie, avocado, tomato, castelvetrano olives and lots of black pepper. I don’t usually eat lunch, but I’d been thinking about brie and avocado for a while now, and I had to try it. Everything tastes good on a saltine cracker.

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Finally, I’ll admit that this birthday is a hard one. 45. The only good thing you can say about turning 45 is that it’s better than not turning 45. For some irrational reason, birthdays ending in five or zero are harder than any other birthdays. So I’ve been in a blue mood all week. And then one evening after dinner the boys and I walked to the store to buy ice cream novelties. I was feeling heavy and tired and discouraged. We walked through a big open space in town, and Malcolm said, “Mom! Sky Dive!!” He grabbed my hand and flung his other arm out. Slowly, I caught on, and stretched my arm out, and then he took Isaac’s hand and Isaac stretched his arm out. We were flying and buoyant and weightless in the sweet air of a perfect June evening. And I feel alright, I feel grateful for all of it, for everything.

Almond cake with blackcurrants, cherries and bittersweet chocolate

Almond cake with blackcurrants, cherries and bittersweet chocolate

Our blackcurrant bush is bonkers. Full of fruit. You pick a bowlful in the morning, and it’s completely laden again in the evening. The berries seem to ripen as you pick them. So I boiled them for a long time with lots of sugar, and then pressed them through a sieve and ended up with a thick beautiful sauce. I added this to a custard one night and made ice cream. And yesterday I made a cake. I made a soft almond cake, and put a layer of blackcurrant sauce, fresh bing cherries and bittersweet chocolate chips. The whole thing is tart/sweet/soft and juicy. You have to eat it with a fork, though, cause it’s delightfully messy.

Here’s Nina Simone’s Feeling Good. Sounds like a June day, doesn’t it?
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