Pistachio chocolate chip cake

Pistachio cardamom chocolate chip cake

Pistachio cardamom chocolate chip cake

Sad news about Seamus Heaney! It’s strange because I’ve been thinking about him lately. As you may have notice I’ve been semi-obsessed with mythological characters–reading about them, writing about them, reinterpreting the lives of ordinary people as if they were mythological characters, following some pattern of characteristics of all mythological characters in all cultures. Back in March I declared Heaney a poet laureate of The Ordinary, and I said this about him…

    His poems seemed washed in the affectionate, melancholic light of memory, so that everything he touches quietly glows. We all cast mythical shadows in his poems, we’re all the gods and goddesses of our own creation. However humble our labors may seem, they become honorable in his words.

Probably not a very scholarly or accurate thing to say about his poetry, but that’s how it feels to me, and that’s how it fits my mood lately.

When asked to choose two poems that summed up his life’s work, he chose two with mythical overtones. In The Underground, he imagines a scene from his honeymoon in light of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

    THE UNDERGROUND

    There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
    You in your going-away coat speeding ahead
    And me, me then like a fleet god gaining
    Upon you before you turned to a reed

    Or some new white flower japped with crimson
    As the coat flapped wild and button after button
    Sprang off and fell in a trail
    Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.

    Honeymooning, moonlighting, late for the Proms,
    Our echoes die in that corridor and now
    I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
    Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons

    To end up in a draughty lamplit station
    After the trains have gone, the wet track
    Bared and tensed as I am, all attention
    For your step following and damned if I look back.

Damned if I look back!!

This is a mild, plainish cake, with subtle flavors. A tea-cake, if you will. Good with your coffee in the morning, your tea in the afternoon, and your wine after dinner. It’s very easy to make, I did it all in the food processor in a matter of minutes. It has pistachios ground right into the batter. It’s flavored with vanilla and cardamom, and of course it has chocolate chips, because all good cakes have chocolate chips!! I made it in the French style, with whipped eggs and no extra leavening.

Here’s Seamus Heaney reading The Underground, for your song today.

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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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Blueberry and meyer lemon cake

Blueberry meyer lemon cake

Blueberry meyer lemon cake

Here at The Ordinary, we have words in great store. We keep them in packets, in boxes, in trunks. We have marble vaults for the cool words that melt in the warmth. Hot words are kept in toasty nests lined with downy feathers. We’re waiting for them to hatch. Whole phrases are stored in coils – pull on the first, and a wondrous surprising chain of words will follow it out of its lair. Fully-formed sentences, with giddily precise punctuation, lie in furrows in our greenhouses, buried in soft soil, watered every morning, waiting to sprout. Rows of dusty drawers in sheds and old shacks contain words in a jumble. They were labeled once, and organized, but now they’re tossed in any old way, and rarely used. We have carefully guarded collections of curious old words, elaborate, intriguing, well-wrought. We’ve forgotten how to use them! We can only guess at their original function. And, of course, we have small words all around us, falling constantly, as light and icy as snow. They make the world seem strangely quiet, despite their great number. They melt to nothing as soon as they touch us. We have rooms full of useful words, close to hand, which we take out each and every day. And words for special occasions, carefully preserved in tissue paper, to be unwrapped when we need them most. The boys have words, too, piled in any which way in jumbles on their desks and under their beds. Words that they’ve invented themselves, that they throw around with giddy grace. Well, we have words, everywhere you look, seeping out of every crack in the plaster. And yet, oddly, we sometimes have nothing to say! We’re at a loss for them, and we don’t know how to put them together. We don’t know which goes with which – in what order, to what purpose?

This is a simple cake. A cake you can have with a cup of coffee in the morning, a cup of tea in the afternoon, or a glass of wine after dinner. We always have something like this around the house! Some little sweet thing in the cupboard. It’s easy to make, and nice to eat. Meyer lemon zest, when baked, has a lovely piney flavor. Combined with the sweet tart citrussy kick of the juice, a few spoonfuls of marmalade, and a handful of fresh blueberries, this was a pleasantly juicy cake, with an unusual flavor.

Here’s Billie Holiday with Too Marvelous for Words.

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Chocolate covered caramel cake and salty toffee ice cream

chocolate-caramel-cakeI was ridiculously excited this week to learn that a person can log into the OED online using … a library card number! I’m so tickled to think of my library card being as useful and valuable as a credit card – the key to uncovering unknown riches!! I think it’s awesome! (Full of awe, profoundly reverential. He did gie an awesome glance up at the auld castle.) I’m a logophile! I love words, I always have. The sound of them, their weight and flavor in your mouth, their shifting meanings. I’m a vague, blurry sort of person, and I’m more than comfortable with the instability and ambiguity of meaning – I’m delighted by it! I’m not clever enough myself to play with words, but I have endless admiration for those who do. My idea of a good time is to discover the hidden meanings behind language, and to see how much fun the author is having as they set you their riddles. Nabokov’s subject matter is often disturbing and depressing (to me) but his playfulness with language (with three languages!) is thrilling. “Haze, Dolores…What is it? The tender anonymity of this name with its formal veil (“Dolores”) and that abstract transposition of first name and surname, which is like a pair of new pale gloves or a mask? Is “Mask” the keyword? Is it because there is always delight in the semitranslucent mystery, the flowing charshaf, through which the flesh and the eye you alone are elected to know smile in passing at you alone? Or is it because I can imagine so well the rest of the colorful classroom around my dolorous and hazy darling…” Or fellow polyglot Tom Stoppard who bemoans the complexity and insubstantiality of language with loving relish…”Rosencrantz: What are you playing at? Guildenstern: Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.” And of course Stoppard is playing with the words of the writer most seemingly in love with words, one William Shakespeare. ““Lord Polonius: What do you read, my lord?/ Hamlet: Words, words, words./ Lord Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?/ Hamlet: Between who?/ Lord Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.” I wish we gave words more weight and thought today, and didn’t devalue them as we sometimes do. Well, I wish that I did, anyway, to speak for myself!
I have to admit, though, that sometimes I find words overwhelming. I was going through some boxes in the attic the other day, and I found decades worth of notebooks and journals from every stage in my life. What a lunatic I am! Scribbles and notes and nonsense and sketches. Screenplays I filmed, screenplays I will never film. Stories I started, fell in love with, fell out of love with and never finished. Ideas for stories, random thoughts I penned while not trying to think of ideas for stories, usually in increasingly frantic and illegible handwriting. Little asides directed at whoever was sitting next to me as I wrote. Words words words!! No method, all madness! And why do I keep them? Why do I keep this dusty spider web of ink? I don’t know!! I should start a giant bonfire, and set the words free, to float into the air around us. If you’re a scribbler, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about! And it’s not just my nonsense that overwhelms me, it’s other people’s words, too. In a bookstore or library, the sight of all of these collections of words, so carefully crafted and combined, so ardently arranged, now sitting quietly on some shelf or another, bursting at the bindings with stifled words. It wears me out to think about it! But it’s beautiful, too, these worlds of words, so easily misunderstood, so accidentally powerful, so tricky, so musical, so full of life. Words words words.

toffee ice cream

toffee ice cream

We live in the “Used bookstore district” of our small town, which means that there’s a bookstore next to us and one across the street. I love them both! I love the smell of paper and ink and dust. I love the very old books – gorgeous stately objects – I love the trashy paperbacks with crumbling pages and lurid covers. And I love the soft caramels they have in a bowl by the register at The Phoenix. Wrapped in gold foil, so creamy and buttery and ridiculously good! I’ve been in a few times in the last week or so, and I take one every time. I decided to try to recreate their deliciousness in different forms, because that’s what I do. So I started with a small jar of condensed milk, and the rest is history! I made this cake, which is chewy, crunchy, buttery and, yes, caramelly. The boys loved it! And then I decided to try the ice cream – I made it a tiny bit salty, and it has a wonderfully buttery quality, though there’s no actual butter in it. It tastes a bit like praline ice cream without the nuts. I’m addicted to it! It’s nice and creamy and melty, too.

And that’s more than my fair share of words for the day! Here’s Word Play by A Tribe Called Quest.

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French cake a week – gateau de savoie

Gateau de savoie

In which Claire, who doesn’t speak french, bakes her way through the cake section of a 1962 french cookbook.
We’re keeping it simple again this week, in our french-cake-a-week division, with a lovely gateau de savoie. This cake is, in truth, remarkably similar to last week’s genoise. The ingredients are nearly identical. The difference is that the eggs are separated, in this cake, this cake has less butter, and the cake is baked in a deep dish. Last week, I went on and on (and on) about how a genoise is like my favorite movie, L’atalante. This week we’ll continue the tradition, because I’d like to tell you about Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre. (I promise not to ramble on about how the film is like a cake, but I have to tell you that one of the youTube comments on the trailer is “such a beautiful film, simple and deep,” which could be said exactly of a gateau de savoie, with one word switched.) L’atalante begins in the port town of Le Havre, and the town is (suprise!) the setting of Kaurismaki’s film. Le Havre tells the story of a former bohemian poet-turned-shoeshiner. He’s a man with a simple but pleasant life. But when his wife falls ill and he makes a new friend, his world is gently, subtly turned upside down. The characters are ordinary people; the lovers are older, they’re not glamorous; the story is slow and simple, but it tells of huge changes in the life of an old man and a young boy. The film is beautifully made, all sea-green and rusted red, with a style and grace reminiscent of much older films. Despite the perfectly professional technical quality of the film and the admirable attention to detail, it looks like they had fun making it – in some places it’s as though an old group of friends got together to shoot a movie. Similarly, though the film teeters on the edge of tragedy, and peers into some deep, dark places, it retains a lightness and a wry humor. I’d heard, once, that tragedy ends in death and comedy ends in marriage, and Le Havre ends with the salvation of a marriage. It’s a funny thing, but my reaction at the end of the film was that Kaurismaki was brave to end the movie the way that he did. I remember discussions, back in the days of endless talking, about the fact that comedies could never be weighty or substantial – they could never be great works of art. Only a tragedy could be considered high art; comedies are low, they’re light. I’ve always found that idea troubling. I think it’s actually more difficult to create something happy. It’s easy to be shocking, depressing, degrading. It’s the refuge of juvenile directors to make sad and disturbing films, and express scorn for anything joyful or pretty. And yet real life is a combination of joy and sorrow, of beauty and ugliness, and I admire anyone who can tell a story that shows this, with humor and taste, and just the right amount of sweetness.

Gateau de savoie

So, this cake is deep, and light, and subtly sweet. Because of its simplicity it makes a nice base for other flavors – for fruit and cream, or compotes, or liqueurs or syrups. The directions require you to bake it in “un moule profond.” That’s right, a baking dish deep and full of meaning. I don’t have a wide selection of cake pans, so I used a quart-sized souffle dish – about 6 inches wide and 3 inches deep. It worked perfectly! The recipe suggested that you make a ring of paper to help contain the batter, and I did, but it wasn’t really necessary. The recipe also stated that you could use the “parfum” of your choice, and suggested vanilla, fleur d’orange, lemon zest. I chose a bit of vanilla and a bit of rum, because that’s what I had. When I made the genoise I couldn’t resist adding a bit of salt, but I didn’t do that this time, instead I cheated by using salted butter! The cake has very little butter, though, which contributes to its lovely lightness. The recipe also says that you can substitute starch for half the flour. I assume they mean corn starch, but I didn’t have any, so I went for the all-flour option.

Here’s Mr McTell Got the Blues, by Blind Willie McTell, used to nice effect in Le Havre.
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French cake a week – Genoise

Genoise

In which Claire, who doesn’t speak French, bakes her way through the cake section of a French cookbook from 1962.

We went back to basics, for this french-cake-a-week-cake, with a Genoise. And now I’m going to tell you all the ways that a genoise is like my favorite movie. To begin with, there’s the frenchness. My favorite movie is L’atalante, by Jean Vigo, which was shot in France in 1934. To go on with, a genoise is a very very simple cake. In its simplicity, the full subtle sweetness of the flavor shines through. I say, “sweetness,” but in truth I don’t mean sugary sweetness. The genoise is not the least bit cloying, it has a scant half cup of sugar (by my calculations). The method of making a genoise is (to me) unusual and completely delightful. It doesn’t involve leavening, rather you whisk whole eggs until they’re frothy and “ribbony,” and this is what gives the cake its lift and texture. I was childlike in my amazement! I’m sure I’ve seen video of people making this cake, but I’d never done it myself. I kept saying “this is fun! this is my idea of fun!” (David, passing through the kitchen at that moment, muttered, “poor kid,” and patted me on the head.) L’atalante, similarly, is sweet without being cloying. Aesthetically, it’s unusual, but the method makes so much sense as you watch it, that it feels nearly perfect. Visually and emotionally it’s the exact right combination of light and darkness. It has a real elegance, not from sophistication or stylishness, but from the deft, loving way that the shots are framed and the plot is revealed. It has a fine crumb. The characters are simple as well – they’re not a bit glamorous – but they’re beautiful in the way that kind people become beautiful when you know them well. Many stories end with a wedding, and tell you the dramatic story of the relationship leading up to it. L’atalante starts with a wedding, and tells you the story of the life of the newly-married couple in the weeks after. It’s as mundane, dreamy, messy, glowing, erotic, and bewildering as real human love. And it has Michel Simon, the slightly tart apricot jam on the top of the cake.

I’m not sure I made the cake exactly as it was meant to be made. As I’ve said, the instructions in my cookbook are slight, vague, and in a foreign language. But I think it came out precisely as it was supposed to. (I wouldn’t change anything about it!) I’ve read that the eggs are supposed to be whisked over a bain marie, but I didn’t see any indication of that in my recipe. I was conflicted about how to proceed. I decided to hold my very thick pottery bowl over the warm burner on which I’d melted the butter. This seemed like a good compromise! My eggs became perfectly frothy and mousse-like (…le mélange soit devenu mousseux.) Perhaps it’s because the day was so warm. If I tried this again in colder weather, I might arrange a bain marie. We shall see! I added a pinch of salt. Also, the instructions said to mix icing sugar with an eggwhite for the final glaze. I’m a coward about using raw eggs, so I combined icing sugar with a bit of milk, and drizzled this on the edges and down the sides. It adds a nice sort of crunchy crust to the otherwise soft, light yet dense cake. I believe the genoise is the base for many other fancier cakes, and I’ll certainly be making it again and trying out different fancifications.

Genoise

Here’s Le chalande qui passe sung by Lys Gauty. This song was an influence on the film, and at one point the title of the film was changed to Le chalande qui passe.

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