Flourless hazelnut walnut mocha torte

Flourless hazelnut walnut mocha torte

Flourless hazelnut walnut mocha torte

Today is, once again, take your child to work day. David usually takes one or both boys up to his shop, but his job is too stressful and his deadline too close at the moment. So they’re spending the day with me. I had very mixed feelings about this, I must say, which made me more than usually cranky from the very beginning. I knew they’d think of it as a day off, a day to stay home and watch cartoons and play video games and chase each other around the house yelling and eating never-ending easter candy. Because, obviously, that’s what I do all day while they’re at school. I woke them up at seven, like I usually do, and I made them help me pack lunches and make breakfast. We went for a walk, because part of my job is taking Isaac to school. I usually go for a jog after they’re in school, so we tried to do that, and I apologize to anybody whose house backs on to the towpath. I realize you probably didn’t want to awoken by a small boy yelling “SLOW DOWN I’M GOING TO PUKE! DO YOU WANT ME TO PUKE?” And then, sigh, we did laundry we dusted and vacuumed and washed dishes, and I thought how incredibly tedious my day must seem. We got all the cleaning done in the morning, like I always try to do, and then they instantly made a complete mess of everything again, and I announced that I was going to write for the rest of the day so they had to as well. And how is writing “work”? How do I justify this way to spend the day? Sometimes I get paid for it, and I do have a job and a deadline at the moment, although I’m fairly successfully ignoring it. But mostly I don’t. Mostly I’m writing this novel, and I’m completely obsessed with it, and it feels incredibly important to me, despite being frequently confounding and disappointing. I lie awake thinking about it, the characters are living in my head, and if I don’t write it down I’ll lose it all. But that doesn’t make it “work.” That makes me crazy. I see that, but most of the time I don’t acknowledge that fact. As long as nobody is watching me and saying, “Why do you get to sit at the computer if we don’t get to play video games?” (and I honestly can’t say that my novel-writing is any more important than their video game-playing), as long as nobody is watching, I’m okay. But what kind of life is it, if you can’t look at it from the outside without everything falling apart? If you can’t justify your existence if you stop to think about it for a minute? The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the examined life sometimes doesn’t hold up to all the questions. Of course it all boils down to money. If I was getting paid to write a novel, as many people are, then it would be work, then it would be justifiable and even admirable. But I’m not and probably will never be, if my past history of creative success is anything to go on. And yet, perversely, I want my boys to see that I write and that I read, and that both pursuits have great value for me. I want to see them write. I want them to grow up to write stories, and to think of it as work, even if they don’t get paid for it. I want them to know how good it feels to create something you feel happy about, even if you know the next time you look at it you’ll wonder what the hell you were thinking when you made it. I want their values to be as skewed as mine, so that creating something that they need to create becomes more important than making money, although of course I want them to be financially secure as well. I want them to work hard at something, with passion, and know the great pleasure of completing something that has taken great time and energy and thought. I want them to feel good about their life, even when events make them look at it from the outside, with questions and judgement. Malcolm wrote, of today, “The day with mom was fun cause we took walks and I also figured out what her life is like.” He figured out what my life is like! Now if I could only do the same!

Flourless hazelnut, walnut mocha torte

Flourless hazelnut, walnut mocha torte

There was some discussion, last week on The Guardian’s website, of a coffee walnut cake. One commenter mentioned a cake he or she remembered from their youth, flourless, with coffee and walnuts and hazelnuts. It seemed like a pleasant challenge to try to recreate a recipe based on this small amount of information, so I did. And I think it turned out very good! This is one of the best flourless cakes that I’ve made, light but substantial, with a lovely flavor.

Here’s REM with Finest Worksong

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Quince, chocolate and hazelnut cake

Quince, chocolate and hazelnut cake

Quince, chocolate and hazelnut cake

On the way to school we passed a tree full of crows. When we startled them they took to the air, bright and noisy. More crows than would seem to fit in the tree, more crows than I’ve seen together at one time. Black and significant and beautiful. They flew over the rooftops and settled in a tree on the next block, and I scared them up again on the way home. I thought I might spend the day following a flock of crows and setting them off, into the cold clear air: a hoarse and raucous ruckus. What were the crows talking about? The weather, I expect. Like everyone else in this part of the world, they were discussing the cold. It’s cold. Not unseasonably, not unprecedentedly, not unexpectedly, to be true. But remarkably cold, and we’re all talking about it. I don’t mind it so much, because it feels clean and pure, it feels like a way to start anew when things come back to life. I don’t mind it so much because I’m lucky enough to have shelter and warmth, and I’m not sorry for an excuse to stay inside, sheltered and warm, baking and writing, if only for a day or two. And this brings us to your Ordinary phrase for the day. That phrase is “tuck in.” As you may recall, Isaac wanted to try taking care of somebody a week or two ago, and as part of the game he tucked me in with two pillows and two blankets. I’ve been thinking ever since about how good it is to be tucked in by gentle hands, how nice it is to be made warm and safe. Such a simple gesture, but such a rare feeling of comfort and happiness, such a memory of childhood, such a dreamy feeling that everything will be okay. Of course, “tuck in” has another meaning that appeals to me as well, especially in this weather, and that is to eat a meal. I always imagine it to be a big, hearty, warm, festive meal, in a scenario that involves tucking in. According to my beloved OED, “tuck” also describes the food itself, as well as the appetite one needs to eat it. You might find, “ten or twelve of these little bowls on the table, each with a different kind of ‘tuck’ in it.” You might have a friend who “being inclined for a tuck out, repaired where he was likely to meet with oysters.” We might “have a solid, staunch tuck-in,” all together. You might, “steal out at night from your dormitory and take tins of sardines from your tuck-box.” (I want a tuck-box!) And finally and best-of-all, you might aspire to the earn the label “tuck hunter,” so that it can be said of you that “Nothing can stop the mouth of a tuck-hunter.” And so it is my hope for all of my Ordinary friends, far and near, that however cold it may be outside, it is warm and cheerful inside, and that we all have some fine warm tuck to tuck into, or some gentle warm hands to tuck us in.

Quinces! I love them! The smell of them, the taste of them, the very idea of them. They’re quite rare around here, and a little pricey, so I always buy very few of them and then save them up till they’re almost past-it, while I wait to think of something special to do with them. This time I decided to make a cake. I cooked the quinces until they were soft. Then I cooked them with sugar, and a bit of clementine zest and juice and some vanilla extract. until they were thick and jammy. I used this, in concert with some bittersweet chocolate chips, as the central layer of a cake with hazelnuts and a bit of sherry. It’s almost like a gateau basque, except that the cake itself is a little different, a little thinner and softer.

Here’s Tom Waits with Cold Cold Ground. God I love this song.
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Chocolate-stuffed-cherry cake

Chocolate-stuffed cherry cake

Chocolate-stuffed cherry cake

We recently re-watched Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film that may or may not have been directed by elusive British street artist Bansky, and is about Thierry Guetta, who may or may not be a real person and who may or may not also be an artist named Mr. Brainwash. Is the whole film a mischievous hoax? A straight documentary? A mix of fact and fiction? I believe it is, of course, the last one, as are all films. (It’s clearly not, as Banksy claims, a re-edit of hundreds of hours of Guetta’s footage of street artists at work, because Guetta is in at least 90% of the shots.) Whatever else it is, I think Exit Through the Gift Shop is a sneakily beautiful film. It’s clever and amusing, certainly, but underneath all this lies a warm and beating human heart. The film asks questions–literally–the characters are always asking questions, and then contradicting themselves in ways that raise more questions. It makes us think about anonymity and celebrity, about the commercialization of art, about whether or not art has any meaning, or needs to have meaning. Guetta’s art, which is dangerously similar to Bansky’s own, is seen as meaningless, but it sells for lots of money, and Guetta, like Bansky, becomes a celebrity, which seems like a depressingly empty pursuit. The film questions whether or not there are rules, if we should play by them or make up our own, and if any of it really matters. “I don’t know how to play chess, but to me, life is like a game of chess.” Guetta supposedly took up the video camera because he didn’t want to miss anything. As a child he was away from home for the death of his own mother, and now he obsessively video tapes everything in his life so that he won’t miss it. He starts to follow street artists all over the world, amassing a prodigious amount of footage, and entirely missing the lives of his own children, and all the ways they are growing and changing all the time. He doesn’t watch any of the video, he packs it all away in boxes, for him capturing it is enough. I’m so taken with this idea…the idea that capturing or creating a moment is sufficient, and that making it viewable, let alone sharing it or exhibiting it, is not a necessary part of the process. It put me in mind of Vivian Maier, a photographer whose work was recently “discovered.” during an auction of the contents of a storage locker that proved to contain a massive hoard of negatives.

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Maier had lived in New York and Chicago, and she created a remarkable collection of gorgeous street photographs that she never developed. The images are strikingly beautiful…the focus is uncanny, the blacks are rich and dark, the subjects are full of humor and sadness. She has beautiful images of children on the streets and looking through windows, images of lovers and workers and parents and elderly people going about their day. Maier was a nanny but I don’t think she had a family of her own, and it’s strange to think about her capturing the passage of time in other peoples’ lives, the progress from childhood to old age. She was never a celebrity, never recognized or acclaimed in her lifetime. She became poor and, I imagine, lonely. Her street photography lies in stark contrast to Guetta’s manically hyped shallow “works” and even to Banksy’s street art. But it seems as though they’re all asking the same questions and all deciding that there are no answers but it doesn’t mean they should stop asking, or that we should stop trying to capture moments as they fly by, though we can never catch time as it passes. The attempt may be futile, but that doesn’t mean it lacks value.

Chocolate-stuffed cherry cake

Chocolate-stuffed cherry cake

Well, I’ve said it was my summer of cherries, and here’s another example. We were playing with our new cherry pitter the other evening, and Malcolm invented the method of stuffing the pitted cherries with chocolate chips. Genius! The boy’s a mad culinary genius! Of course I had to take it all a step further and pit and stuff some cherries and then bake them into a cake. I made a very simple cake, with ground hazelnuts. This is similar to clafoutis, of course, but it really is a cake and not a custard.

Here’s Tonight the Streets are Ours by Richard Hawley from Exit Through the Gift Shop.
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Nutella cake

Nutella cake

I was shelving some books in the boys’ room (their preferred method of storing books is heaping them in a giant pile on the floor, as if in preparation for a bonfire) when I came across a book from my childhood. My Learn to Ride Book. It was from the period in my life that I saved up every penny to buy myself a horse. Looking at the pictures – clean line drawings and simple colors, I recalled vividly what a keen pleasure the book had been for me. I can’t really explain why that would be. There was something so hopeful about it, maybe…the book goes from choosing a horse to jumping over giant hurdles on your horse in about twenty pages. It makes it all seem possible. I never did buy that horse.

Somebody asked me to bake a cake! For an occasion! I felt so honored. I decided to make a nutella cake – everybody likes nutella, right? So I added dark cocoa and ground hazelnuts to the batter, I put a thick layer of nutella in the middle, and I coated the whole thing with bittersweet ganache, just for kicks. While I was making it, I thought about a picture from My Learn to Ride Book. The picture shows the kind of horse you should avoid at all costs. The poor thing has so many problems, one of which is a sway back. Well…my cake didn’t get all puffy and round on top. It wasn’t meant to, I tell you! It was meant to have a dense but tender, cakey-brownie-like texture, with little crunchy hazelnut accents. It was all carefully calculated! But the people at the event might not know that! They might think my cake looked like an undesirable old horse! Sigh. I made myself a tiny version of the cake to be sure that it was edible, and let me tell you, people, it was delicious!! Firm on the outside, light and soft on the inside, with lovely lovely hazelnut taste and crunch. You really can’t go wrong with nutella!

This might seem like sort of an odd connection, but here’s Big Boi’s The Rooster. It was the PTA that asked me to bake the cake, and he talks about going to a PTA meeting on this track, which just kills me, somehow. I love this song!
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