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 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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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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Salty caramel almond, hazelnut, chocolate chip blondies

Salty caramel chocolate chip bars

Salty caramel chocolate chip bars

We’re experimenting with a “screen-free Sunday.” No TV, no computer, no video games. I’d imagined it would be something like the scene from the Simpsons: all the children of Springfield stop watching television and they all venture outside into the fresh air and sunshine to the tune of Beethoven’s pastoral symphony. It hasn’t been like that. I thought the boys would actually be excited about this plan, because they like camping and they like when the power goes out. They like roughing it. They have so much creativity and imagination it’s bursting out of them, they don’t need TV! But they like TV, and we find them sneakily watching cartoons or claiming that Malcolm’s nook doesn’t count as a screen. So by noon on a Sunday you’ll find me shouting at them that their brains are going to rot, or perhaps have already rotted. That they have INNER RESOURCES, dammit, and they need to use them. I tell them that when I was little we almost never watched TV, we didn’t even want to and we had so much fun, we had so many adventures and created whole worlds. And then Malcolm says, “Yeah, but you had a brother who liked to go outside,” and complaints of Isaac’s proclivity for sitting in his pajamas besides a warm radiator resurface. But I think it’s going to be good for all of us in the long run. One Sunday the boys were slouching about listlessly and moodily one moment, staring at the dark TV, and when I looked back over at them they were playing chess. And the next moment they were playing some complicated game they’d invented involving chess pieces and pieces from some entirely different game. I’m at work all day most Sundays, and when I’ve come home the last few weeks, the house has been an extremely messy testament to the wildness of their imaginations, once let loose from the dulling shackles of the TV. Giant blanket forts, creatures cut out of paper, a crown–with a strap on it–fashioned for poor long-suffering Clio. Drawings that tell stories. Odd science experiments. Crazy and wonderful robots and whole upside-down cities made out of legos. It’s strange to think about how much of our time the computer and television eat away at (and we don’t even get any reception on our television!) A lamentable waste of our precious swiftly-pasing moments. Yesterday Malcolm said he couldn’t relax without watching television, and that made me sad. He should be able to just do nothing. He should be able to just stare into space and think his thoughts. He should be able to go for long car rides or sit around waiting for something to start, and follow his mind wherever it takes him. Yesterday Malcolm also told me that one of these screen-free Sundays will be a rainy day, it will be pouring down rain outside, and he and his brother will have so much energy in them that they’ll explode. Well, we’ll just re-channel it! Think of all of the explosions of energy and creativity throughout history that turned into music and paintings and novels and films! Think how sorry we’d be if instead of making music, paintings, novels, and films, the creator had been sitting around watching Star Wars cartoons. Maybe we’ll have to add a few more screen-free days!

Salty caramel chocolate chip bars

Salty caramel chocolate chip bars

This is something between a cake and bar cookies. It’s made with ground almonds and hazelnuts and very little flour. It’s dense and a little chewy and crunchy on top. It has browned butter inside, brown sugar on top, and a sprinkling of coarse salt, so it’s got a rich, caramel-y flavor. Delicious with tea, coffee or red wine.

Here’s Elvis Perkins with Doomsday. I’m currently obsessed with this beautiful-melancholy-cheerful song.
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Coconut, almond, & cherry cake

Coconut, almond & cherry cake

When I was twenty I went to school in England. I was supposed to be there three years, but after a year I was completely miserable and I came back home. Maybe I should have stuck it out, but it didn’t feel like an option. Three years is such a long time, when you’re twenty. Besides, I wouldn’t have met David and had my boys. It’s hard to regret former decisions, once you have children!! Anyway, I’d never been very patriotic, but a strange shift occurred, and I started to be very defensive about America, and very nostalgic for it. Not the way it actually was at the time, though, but for some myth of simplicity and pioneer spirit. I devoured the Little House on the Prairie books, though I hadn’t really liked them when I was little. Laura’s dad made a big blanket pancake, to keep all the little pancakes warm! I loved that! During a holiday, we stayed at the mennonite center in London. I found a cookbook – The Mennonite Community Cookbook. I can’t tell you how comforting I found this odd little book. It was compiled by Mary Emma Showalter in 1950, but many of the recipes are much older than that, I think. They’re contributed by women from all over the country…Mrs. D.D. Driver, from Heston Kan contributed the Salmon Roll with Egg Sauce recipe. The Pansy Cake was the work of Mrs. Henry Brown, of North Lima, Ohio. The Chicken Relish Mold was provided by Mrs. Lillian Wought of Cullom, Ill. The back of the book contains extensive lists of helpful information. When wrapping a package for mailing, dip cord in water to moisten. The cord will shrink as it dries, and will make a tighter package. Save the empty adhesive tape spool to wind your tape measure on. This will save trying moments caused by a jumbled sewing basket. Boiled rice water makes an excellent starch for dainty collars, cuffs and baby dresses. It’s like the hagakure for housewives! I liked to read these women’s names, and locations, and recipes, and think about them having lives and passions just like mine. I can’t quite explain why this book appealed to me so much, but it did, I read it like a story book, and I bought it, and I still consult it from time-to-time, for baking basics.

This cake reminds me of one that could be in the oddly dark little pictures in the book. It’s a simple, flavorful tea cake. I like almond and coconut together, and I like the texture that they give to a plain cake. After making the gateau basque, I wanted to experiment with a layer of cherry preserves baked right into the cake. It sorta sunk to the bottom. Not quite what I had in mind! Good, though – it reminded me of a fruit-filled danish, somehow. You could just as easily bake this cake, and then slice it in half when the cake cooled, and spread jam on then.

Here’s The Carter Family with Single Girl, Married Girl. A remarkable, subersive song that gives me the same feeling as my Mennonite cookbook. What were these women’s lives like?

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Apricot almond cake w/ apricot-cassis cream

Apricot almond cake

I love the idea of a cake with apricot glaze – I always have. It’s strangely associated with some childhood notion of sophistication in edible form. Strange, because I can’t remember the actual moment that I ate an elegant cake with an apricot glaze. I can remember plenty of battenburg cakes, wrapped in plastic like the block of modeling clay that they resembled. They had a layer of apricot glaze under their oddly chewy marzipan layer. I loved them! But I’m sure I never thought of them as elegant. The truth is, whether sophisticated or not, a layer of apricot makes sense in a cake! It adds a pleasant fruity tartness that offsets the sweetness of whatever else happens to be in the cake. This cake happens to have almonds – a classic match with apricots – and bittersweet chocolate, which adds its own version of bitter-with-sweet, to complement the apricots.

Inexplicably, I became semi-obsessed with making apricot-cassis cream. I thought about a million different things to make, but I kept returning to this. So I turned to my new BFF, the pastry cream, and I added a purée made of apricots and cassis, and then folded in a little lightly whipped cream. I thought it was very nice with the cake – I don’t think I’ve ever had pastry cream or any of its subsidiaries alongside a cake before, but I thought it was a lovely combination of textures. You could easily eat the apricot cream on its own as a mousse, with some crispy cookies!

I just can’t not share this! It’s a song called Apricot, by the Armenian Navy Band, and it has my Malcolm dancing around the room in his pjs.
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Coconut cake with blackberry mousse

Coconut cake with blackberry mousse

I work in a restaurant that has a candy dispenser. If I have two quarters left over at the end of the day, I’ll sometimes bring home small cups of candy to my boys. Twenty-five cents worth a piece. I always bring M&Ms to my little one, and skittles to my older son. It seems funny that their love for fruity or chocolate-y candy has become a defining characteristic for them. One small way to be their own boy. And an easy way to divide the spoils come Halloween or Easter! I made a cake for my brother and father the other day (they both have February birthdays). I know they like chocolate (who doesn’t?) but I always think of them as falling towards the fruity end of the sweet spectrum. So…flush from my success with the chocolate drambuie mousse, I decided to make them a coconut cake with blackberry mousse in between the layers. This being February, when raspberries and blackberries seem to cost about $10 a piece, I used blackberry jam instead of fresh fruit. (Honestly, if you have fresh raspberries, don’t you just eat them? Exactly as they are?) The mousse is actually a white chocolate blackberry mousse, because I didn’t want to use gelatin, and I thought the chocolate would help to make the mousse more substantial, once it un-melted. It isn’t a difficult cake to make, but the assembly process does have a few messy-fun steps.

Here’s Doc Watson’s Blackberry Rag.
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Pear, hazelnut, dark chocolate CAKE!

Pear chocolate hazelnut cake

The juiciness of the pear, the nutty crunch of the hazelnut, and the supreme deliciousness of very very dark chocolate combine to make this fairly ordinary cake seem like something special. This is a nice combination of autumnal flavors, and it goes well with your coffee in the morning, but with a dollop of cream whipped with a little sugar and vanilla, it can seem like a fancy dessert as well.

Here’s Miles Davis’ Chocolate Chip
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CAKE

I love making cakes. Not fancy, special-occasion cakes, but every-day cakes, to have with coffee in the morning, or tea in the afternoon, or a glass of wine after dinner. I have a very simple recipe I use, that is a good starting point for any kind of variation you can think of. It’s a vanilla cake, but you can add any kind of flavoring you like. You can add chocolate chips, or nuts, or coconuts, or fruit. You can slice it in half and spread jam or nutella (or both!) in between and stick it back together again. You can add lemon zest or orange zest or cinnamon or ginger. You can make a chocolate cake by adding cocoa powder or melted chocolate. You can make a crumb topping with brown sugar, oatmeal, flour, butter and cinnamon. You can frost it, or put powdered sugar on it, or coat it with ganache, or make it into an angler fish for your son’s birthday. The possibilities are endless!

To show you how easy it is, I’ve made two at once! A pumpkin chocolate chip cake, and a coconut-almond cake with cherry filling.

Here’s some instrumental hip hop to warm up this dreary day.
RZA’s Cakes, and Pete Rock’s The Cake.
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