A knock at the door. Becca's quizzically raised eyebrows, not expecting company. A matronly dressed, thick woman with gigantic dark glasses stood in the hall. Becca’s landlady; she lives in the upstairs apartment.
Oh hello, she smiled hesitantly, I was walking upstairs to my apartment this morning and I could smell what you were cooking – like a fried meatball was it? – and it smelled exactly like my grandmother’s cooking. I went to my son and said; ‘Do you think grandma is downstairs?’ and I had tears in my eyes.
The words came pouring out in quick flowing jumble. She seemed to have tears glistening in her eyes right at that moment, standing there in the hall.
It reminded me so much of my childhood. I grew up here in the house, you know. It smelled like Grandma. And yesterday too – I swear I could smell stuffed peppers cooking down here. I could smell my family. It's Grandma, I said. It’s my childhood. You must be a great cook.
Becca smiled, touched. Oh thank you! Quite surprised, her landlady has always been distant, remote, communicating largely through tersely written notes. MOVE YOUR CAR. LOCK THE DOOR. But the surprising hint of tears glinting in the plumply dark haired woman was very humanizing.
When the door closed and the landlady returned to her second floor living space (where beginning around 7am sounds like a lot of floorboard thumping square dance practice goes on), Becca shrugged and laughed.
Well that’s the most she’s talked to me all year, she said.
Strange, though, how last night’s truffled risotto*, seared scallops and chocolate cake were the olfactory equivalent of stuffed peppers – and this morning’s frittata and orange muffins were fried meatballs.
Her sense of smell is a bit off, huh.
Better than mine though. I would kill to smell some meatballs.
But no matter how off she was, in the odors emanating from the tiny apartment kitchen she smelled her grandmother, her childhood. It was touching to see her strong reaction to the smells of our weekend of cooking. And I can relate to smelling memories.
Becca and I, clad in pajamas and never very far from a glass of crisp white wine, baked a tremendous chocolate cake on Saturday night. We stirred and evenly poured thick the cake batter into two round cake pans. We made a smooth, rich, brown icing that clung frothily to the beaters. This was all accompanied by some rousing singing duets (renditions of a few old time classics) that competed tunelessly well with the noise of the landlady’s early morning floor stomping. And when we, 35 minutes later, pulled the deeply colored cakes out of the oven, I was shocked by the overwhelming scent that fairly assaulted my nose. The warm, buttery chocolate odor hung around my head, swam down my throat.
Only recently have I been able to smell scents in the air – detecting odors without practically having to stick them up my nose and concentrating. I was sidelined in the grocery store the other day when I walked through the produce section and, all of a sudden, smelled laundry. Clean, strong, potent. I was confused, momentarily, until I realized I was a few feet away from a display case of detergent. Smelling something that far away from me is new. The moment I walked into the kitchen and smelled cake my smile took over my face.
And it was not only a smell – it was a memory of all those times Becca and I had baked, sang, laughed, danced around our shared college apartment with gleeful, worry-free abandonment. I haven’t felt like that in what now seems like a long time. But I saw it with clear vibrancy in that smell.
I stuck my nose right above those cakes, feeling the steam, breathing in the smell – a happy moment. It was, on a side note, one of the best cakes I’ve eaten.
In the touching vision of her grandmother, Becca’s landlady smelled a piece of her childhood, a sense of safety and home. And in that late-night chocolate cake I, too, smelled a similar feeling. A memory of past fun; the present of deep friendship and its future strength. Whether it is found in imaginary fried meatballs or concretely delicious chocolate cake, smell has the ability to paint a vivid picture of home.
*Yes, Becca keeps white truffle oil around in her pantry. (This is just one of the many reasons why I love her).
Chocolate Layer Cake
Recipe adapted from Epicurious
2 cups flour
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups well-shaken buttermilk
2/3 cup whole milk
3 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 sticks unsalted butter, softened
8 oz dark chocolate, melted and cooled
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
1. Put oven rack in the middle position and preheat oven to 350 F. Butter two round cake pans, line the bottoms with parchment paper, butter the parchment and then dust all with flour.
2. For the cake, sift together flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt into a bowl.
3. Beat the butter and sugars with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating each until incorporated. Add chocolate and vanilla and beat until combined. On low speed, alternate adding the flour mixture and buttermilk in small batches until all incorporated.
4. Divide batter between cake pans and bake (until wooden skewer poked into the center of the cake comes out clean) 25-35 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes, remove from cake pans, peel off the parchment paper, and then let cool completely.
5. For the frosting: Heat milk over moderate heat until hot.
6. Whisk together yolks, flour, 1/3 cup confectioners sugar and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Add hot milk in a stream, whisking. Transfer to saucepan and bring to boil over medium heat, whisking again. Reduce heat and simmer 2 minutes (still whisking). Transfer to large bowl. [Here, Epicurious wants you to let the custard cool for 45 minutes before finishing the frosting. We have done that before while making this cake. Last weekend we didn't (we weren't really in a waiting-for-cake mood) - we used the hot custard to finish the frosting and everything turned out beautifully].
7. Add vanilla and remaining confectioners sugar and beat until well combined. Add butter, beat until smooth. Add chocolates, continue beating. At this point we left the room, the mixer on medium speed and came back around 7 minutes later. The frosting was light and fluffy - the perfect consistency for spreading on the cake.
8. Frost the cake. [Despite our generously applied frosting technique, we had quite a bit left over. We could even have halved the recipe, I think.]