Toasted almond shortbread cake

Toasted almond shortbread cake

Toasted almond shortbread cake

There’s a crow in my backyard making the strangest noises: throaty, urgent, with just an edge of rudeness. They’ve been all around my house all day, these crows, calling to each other, calling to me, trying to tell me something. It’s not just what they’re saying, either, it’s the way they fly as well, it feels studied, with a pattern and a purpose. It’s quite dramatic and beautiful. And it’s all around my house, circling my world. Of course, once I ventured outside of my house, beyond my block, I realize that they’re all over town behaving strangely, these crows. It’s spring, they’re in a tizzy. But as long as I’m sitting in my own home, searching for meaning everywhere, it feels as thought they’re speaking just to me. I passed a man on the way to school today who was talking to some friends in a truck idling in front of his house. He said that every morning, when he steps onto his porch, he sees the vulture who is nesting in the abandoned house next door, and the vulture is staring down at him, watching his every move. It doesn’t bode well for his day, he fears. I’ve been studying the calls and flight patterns of birds, lately, because I’m applying for an exciting new job. I want to be an augur. It’s a stressful job, I know, with a lot of responsibility, but I feel up for the task. My duties, as an augur, will involve studying the flight paths of birds, listening to how they sing or call, identifying patterns and directions, determining the kind of bird, and whether it flies in a group or alone. If a flock of birds takes into the air all at once, in a confusion of movement, in certain waves, with small sure speed, like an explosion of fireworks, I will know what this means. If a lone bird soars far above the clouds in great lazy circles, I will understand what that bird is telling me, because I will take the auspices. I will decide what is auspicious. Of course the job of an augur is not to determine the future, but to decide if a path already begun upon is the right path to take, if a plan of action is pleasing to the gods. And the gods show us this on the wings of birds, the delicate, powerful, inexplicable, beautiful wings of birds. And this is where I think I would shine as an augur. Because I always think birds are beautiful, I love all of their calls and songs, I love the birds with dusky feathers as well as those with jewel-like plumage. I admire vultures and revere crows, practically anything a bird can do seems like a happy portent to me, except maybe flying into a window. So if you want some good news, you want to feel hopeful about a project you’ve started or a journey you’re taking, come to me. I will read your auspices, I will watch the birds busy in you back yard, feeding in your garden or floating dreamily high above your house, and I will find encouraging signs there.

Toasted almond shortbread cake

Toasted almond shortbread cake

This cake was inspired by memories of a good humor toasted almond bar. It has a simple, shortbread like base, with chocolate chips, of course! And it’s topped with a crunchy almond crumb.

Here’s Flying Birds by the RZA

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Clementine almond pastry cake

Clementine almond pastry cake

Clementine almond pastry cake

Sometimes when we have trouble making a decision we’ll ask Malcolm for help. Usually it’s a small thing–choosing between two paint colors, say, or whether or not I should add olives to a stew. He’s very decisive, but he’s thoughtful, too–he thinks quickly. And when he gives an answer it always seems to have been the obvious answer all along. It sounds silly, but I’ve been wracked with indecision lately on the subject of a story I’m writing. It was going along in the usual halting, stumbling way of most of my stories, when I noticed that it kept getting longer and longer. The characters were in my thoughts all day and night, and they were becoming more complicated, and all of these ideas about what things could be about started haunting me. I know you’re supposed to write something until it’s as long as it needs to be, but at some point you have to decide what you’re doing, you have to know where you’re going and have some idea how to get there. So I asked Malcolm. I was mostly joking, but I said, “Hey, Malcolm, should I write a short story or a novel?” I was thinking he’d just laugh it off, because it’s a ridiculous question. But he said, “Well, tell me about it, tell me about some of the characters, what’s it about?” This kills me! It’s so smart and sweet. And Malcolm had an idea for a story, too, which I’m going to help him write by asking him questions, so we were just like two writers, together, just a couple of story-writing friends, discussing our work. And I’ve decided to think like Malcolm, when I’m choosing if the story goes this way or that way…I’ll think quickly, and make it seem like it was inevitable all along. He chose novel, by the way, so we’ll see how that goes!

Clementine almond pastry cake

Clementine almond pastry cake

It’s a pastry cake! I’m very excited about this…I feel like I’ve invented a genre of sweet food. I first encountered the phrase “Pastry Cake” in one of my favorite books, Joan Aiken’s Go Saddle the Sea. I couldn’t find an actual pastry cake any where, so I decided it should be a thick dense cake, almost like a soft shortbread. The first one I made had a salted top. This one has clementine zest in the batter, plus almonds and a pinch of allspice and a drop of sherry. It’s stuffed with milk chocolate chips, and topped with sugar crystals, which gives it a nice sort of crispiness. Very festive, very tasty!

Here’s The Choice is Yours by Black Sheep
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Cinnamon almond cake

Almond cinnamon cake

Almond cinnamon cake

It sometimes seems as though Thanksgiving has become a celebration of having too much. It’s funny that it’s a uniquely American holiday, because it seems like such a singularly American characteristic to want more than we need. Too much is never enough. We don’t just eat lots of good food, we eat till we feel ill, and then we set out that very night to buy lots of things we don’t need just because they’re cheaper than they were the day before. It’s madness, I tell you! Everything feels very off-kilter sometimes: in a world with so much poverty and hunger, we should celebrate because we have enough, we should celebrate balance and sharing, and plenty for everyone. We should remember what it feels like to be hungry, to have that keen feeling of anticipation, and we should recognize when we’ve had enough, when we’re sated. And we should be thankful for being full of hope and love and affection and kindness, because these things we truly can’t have too much of. And that’s quite enough of my Sunday preaching! In this spirit, today’s Sunday interactive playlist is on the subject of feeling full and feeling hungry. We could be talking about food, or emotion, or ambition, or any other thing.
Almond & cinnamon cake

Almond & cinnamon cake

Well, I make a lot of cakes, and this is one of my favorite I’ve ever made. It has a dense pleasant quality, almost like shortbread, and the combination of cinnamon and almond is a perfect one. It has a soft cakey part topped with a sort of crumble with lots of bittersweet chocolate chips in it. Nice with coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon, and wine after dinner.

Here’s a link to the interactive playlist. Add what you like or leave a note in the comments and I’ll try to add it through the week.

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French cake a week – Galette Bretonne

Galette Bretonne

Galette Bretonne

In which Claire, who doesn’t speak french, bakes her way through the cake section of a French cookbook from 1962. It’s the day after the orgy of soulless self-adoration and styleless glamor that is the Oscars! This seems an appropriate time to return to the practice of discussing female French film makers in conjunction with our French-cake-a-week recipe. It seems particularly fitting to discuss the films of Germaine Dulac, a woman who worked with remarkably energy and passion to create a “pure” cinema with which to express the inner workings of the human mind and soul. (I should say at this point that I haven’t seen any of the Oscar-nominated films, and that I used to enjoy watching the Academy Awards, and might still if we got any television reception and if they weren’t on way past my bed time.) Dulac was born in France in 1882. Her love for film developed as the art itself was in its infancy, and she had fervent hopes for the direction it would take as it matured. She believed in a cinema separate from literature or theater, one that would achieve its full potential power by focussing on movement and montage, and would not be confined by the restrictions of narrative. She began making films in 1915, and would continue working for nearly twenty years, shaping the evolution of cinema. Her early films were commercial and narrative, serial stories based on novels or scenarios that she or others wrote, but from the first she was more interested in the musicality of film – the ability of film to create rhythm and atmosphere that plays on the emotions of the viewer – than in the dramatic action or the story. Her films became increasingly abstract and dream-like as her career advanced. She used film technology to create “Interior life rendered perceptible through images, combined with movement–this is the whole art of the cinema. Movement, interior life, these terms are not incompatible. What is more active than the life of the psyche, with its reactions, its multiple impressions, its swells, its dreams, its memories?” She sought to express spiritual life “…cadenced by the rhythm of the images, their duration, their dramatic or emotional intensity, following the sweetness or violence which emerged from the souls of my characters.” In her 1922 film The Smiling Madame Beudet, Dulac tells the story of a housewife trapped in a loveless marriage, who escapes her unhappy reality with a rich and vivid fantasy life. Dulac shows her flights of fancy in beautiful sequences that illustrate the rich creative world we all have inside of us, that we can turn to at any time, no matter what our outward circumstances. I love this era of film, when it was so new, unknown and full of promise. I love the way that people wrote about film, thought about film, and talked about film with such passion and urgency. It was so important to them not to squander the magical possibilities of their new medium, not to let it take a wrong direction that would result in it becoming stale or dull. I wonder how they would feel about the movie industry today, as typified by Hollywood and the Oscars, which seems so cynical, bloated and mercenary. Later in her career, Dulac would write an article discussing French film in relation to Hollywood, but I think it could easily apply to any film made outside of the system – independent films, home movies, even – and, in fact, it could apply beyond film to any effort to express ourselves creatively, in art, or in our lives. “We may lack faith in ourselves, and that’s the cause of our trouble. Our so-called inferiority…leads us to seek perfection through the correction of our faults rather than through the development of our good qualities…Instead of seeking inside ourselves, having lost confidence, we look to the accomplishments of others…The time has come, I believe, to listen in silence to our own song, to try to express our own personal vision, to define our own sensibility, to make our own way. Let us learn to look, let us learn to see, let us learn to feel.”

Galette bretonne

Galette bretonne

This Galette Bretonne is a lovely cake. It’s a little like a giant shortbread cookie, a bit crunchy on the outside and soft within. It calls for “fruits confits,” and since I’m not a big fan of most candied fruit, I decided to use small pieces of quince membrillo that I made at Christmas time. You could use any kind of dried or candied fruit you like. I think candied ginger would be nice, too! Or you could leave the fruit out altogether!

Here’s Space Boy Dream, by Belle and Sebastian, which is a nice expression of a flight of fancy.

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