Mocha mousse cake

Mocha mousse cake

Mocha mousse cake

I was sewing some felt owls the other month, as one does. The seams flying through the machine, somewhat sloppy and uneven, brought to mind a phrase my mother uses. “Loving hands at home.” The phrase, taken as a whole, is an adjective, and it describes work that is not technically perfect, but that is made with love. It’s such a nice expression, particularly if used by a mother, because a mother’s hands can be so magically comforting. When my boys were little I could soothe an achy belly with a tummy rub, and Malcolm still asks me to put cool hands on his forehead when he’s feverish. The exact shape and size of your mother’s hand seems to be imprinted in the memory of your own hand. My mother’s hands are calloused from cello-playing, but they’re always very soft and warm. I have a vivid memory of a train ride to Washington DC. I must have been in middle school. It was just after Christmas, and the train was very cold, but we all sat close together in the cramped compartment two facing seats make. My mother’s hand rested on my knee for some time, and the warmth of it felt good. When she took her hand away, it was as if the whole train became a little colder – not just the place where her hand had been, but every place.

I’m grateful to have grown up in a home that celebrated a loving-hands-at-home aesthetic. If the expression is taken not as an absolution of mediocrity or a justification for lackluster effort, but as an appreciation of the imperfections that make something unique, it becomes very freeing. I find that I’m raising my own boys this way. We color outside the lines. Sometimes, we don’t even make lines first! We find more beauty in lack of symmetry, in less-than-clean lines. An irregularity in fabric or wood is not a flaw but an opportunity to make something distinctly lovely. By hand, with affection for the work and the object that it produces, like true amateurs. I believe this is what they now call “artisanal.”

What’s this? A chocolate cake recipe in January! Nobody wants to see that! We all want light and healthy, dammit. Well, I’m a rebel, so here it is: four layers of dense, dark chocolatey, cinnamony cake with 3 layers of light mocha-cinnamon mousse, with the whole being topped by melted bittersweet chocolate. Actually, I made this cake for my mom’s birthday back in November, but what with one thing and another, I haven’t gotten around to telling you about it yet. My mom likes not-too-sweet things, she likes dark chocolate, and she used to eat these candies called “coffee nips,” which came in a yellow and brown box. I combined these ideas to make this cake, which is dark and rich, but not too sweet. She said it was the best birthday cake she’d ever had!! Of course, it might have been a cake that only a mother could love.

Here’s Peter Tosh with Equal Rights, because my mother likes it a lot. And so do I.

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French-cake-a-week: Buche de Noel

Buche de noel

Buche de noel

In which Claire, who doesn’t speak French, bakes her way through the cake section of a French cookbook from 1962. It’s nearly Christmas!! Three days till Christmas eve, and we get presents on Christmas eve, too! Or so I’ve been told over and over and over again. The boys have been waiting ages for Christmas, and I’ve been waiting for ages to make this cake. The time is finally right! Tis the season for buche de noel. I’ve gotten into the habit of talking about French films in my preamble to my French cakes, and it’s a habit I’ve enjoyed, so here we go again… This is a season of lights, in which we celebrate the lights on our Christmas tree, and in our hearths and hearts, so let’s talk about the Lumière brothers. Their name means light, of course, and they invented a way to organize lights and shadows to make pictures, and to project them so that we could all see them. They invented cinema, or more specifically, the cinématographe, a device that recorded, developed and projected motion pictures. (Of course they didn’t invent moving pictures singlehandedly, but were part of a long process of experimentation performed by many different people in many different places.) They were the first to perfect the art, though, and the first to project it. Cinématographe means “writing with movement,” which I find a beautiful idea, and which many film theorists would be drawn to, later, in discussing the language of cinema. I love the films of the Lumière brothers. They’re short (50 seconds), simple, beautifully framed, and oddly compelling. This time of year, when I look at the boys and the pure, concentrated force of their love for everything about Christmas, for everything that makes Christmas magical, I’m always more than a little envious of them. We’ve all become jaded about film, I think. Digital effects, techonological advances, and millions of dollars thrown at what has become an industry have helped us to forget how magical film must have seemed at its birth. Watching the Lumière brothers films is like seeing a child excited by Christmas – thrilled by the lights, proud of the decorations they made, hopeful and inspired. And, of course, I love the Lumière brothers films because they’re all (wait for it) about ordinary people, and every day situations. Their films are called actualités, and they record mundane, daily events. The very first film shows workers leaving a factory, along with a large dog, a horse-drawn carriage and a few bicycles. Subsequent films show babies eating, trains arriving at a station, children playing marbles. But they’re so beautifully shot – they’re static, but the composition is so thoughtful, and the play of light and darkness so graceful, that they’re unforgettable. By noticing and recording an ordinary moment they make it memorable. And surely that’s what film is all about.

As the Lumière brothers were the first filmmakers, this buche de noel is the first cake in my French cookbook. Although it seems fancy, it’s actually quite simple – a sort of genoise sponge cake, just butter, sugar, eggs and flour, spread thin, and then rolled up with mocha cream inside and out. I followed the cake recipe exactly, but I was a little perplexed by the mocha cream, which seemed to consist of uncooked egg whites and coffee, so I strayed a bit on the cream, and made my own, sort of a pastry cream/mousse, with chocolate and coffee. Very delicious!! And, as you know if you’ve been following along, my attempts to make marzipan were mixed, so I bought some to make these leaves. And then added a bit of green writing-frosting, because if there was one thing this cake needed it was more sugar!! The whole cake was lovely – after a few hours in the fridge it set enough that you could cut it into slices, but we finished off the cake, all of us attacking it directly on the platter!!buche-de-noel

Here’s the first part of a show on the Lumière brothers that shows all of their early films and has lovely dry, witty, informative narration by Bertrand Tavernier.

And here’s Ding Dong Bell, by The Ethiopians. Another song that I posted last year that bears repeating. I love it!!

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