Friday, July 01, 2005

little cake, big hands, massive passion

I was standing in the center of a car-less parking lot, surrounded by bustling people lugging plastic bags of fruit and vegetables, a misty layer of sweat on my forehead and deeply inhaling the smell of fresh basil. I watched from behind a stack of rhubarb as a tall man with a pink, weather-hewn face and crinkly long red hair smiled as he greeted a customer, radiating a sense of affability. He was wearing worn denim overalls, a rumply white shirt. His tan, freckled nose and the obvious but hidden muscles, lurking under his bilious clothing, were the mark of what I would consider a stereotypical farmer. He towered over the makeshift wooden table, his own stall at the farmers market in Coolidge Corner yesterday. His giant frame, dwarfing all others, was made even more acute when seen in context of his goods for sale. The tables surrounding him were covered in displays of tiny pies, little cakes, and stacks of cookies. Flakey pie crusts oozing blueberry and raspberry juices; golden pumpkin streusel cakes in mini aluminum loaf pans; chocolate chip cookies larger than my head (yet I imagine still smaller than his massive hands). I was drawn to the man’s quiet happiness, the wild looks of pleasure flashing on the faces of his customers, and who am I, really, to pass up a baked good. I extricated myself from the rhubarb and approached the table gingerly, mesmerized by the cakes, the seller, and only somewhat worried about my lack of self control in the face of butter and sugar. My eyes were immediately drawn to the towering mountain of a large chocolate loaf, its formidable sides in crusty peaks, reminding me of drip sandcastles on the beach.

The pink-faced farmer saw me eyeing the voluptuous cakes, practically drooling. He picked one up and held it out to me. Even through the cellophane wrap I could smell its buttery richness. This week we ran out of dark chocolate chips, the man said softly, almost nervously, in a deep voice. The gruff tambour of his speech perfectly suited his wide mouth and rough face, but was jarring in relation to his sweetly concerned words. I’m really so very sorry, but this morning we just ran out. I don’t want any of our regulars to be surprised or upset, so I need to warn you that we used white chips today.

When I seemed confused, he asked if I had ever had their Chocolate Banana Sour Cream Cake before. No. He smiled at the cake, lovingly; and he smiled at me, like he knew a secret I couldn’t possibly yet understand. Of course I bought some – he handed it over delicately, cradled as carefully as a newborn baby. I didn’t say anything; I was in awe of the love this man possessed for his work and his product. I was struck dumb and mute by the sheer passion that he exuded simply holding a chocolate loaf or peach pie, each dwarfed in his large hands. I paid and slipped silently away, clutching my cake, wondering if my obsession could ever possibly match his in pure force and happiness.

I walked home happily, a buoyant spring in my step despite the fact that I was practically swimming in Boston’s summer humidity. I unloaded my bag, and besides my cake took out a bundle of bright, crisp radishes, a cluster of juicy tomatoes, a pot of ginger-fig jam, and two quarts of burstingly ripe strawberries.

I created a masterpiece of lunch with my farmer’s market bounty: fresh wheat bread slathered with butter, topped with thinly sliced radishes and a smattering of sea salt. Crunchy red-rimmed radish against the cool creamy butter, the perfect bite of salt. A peach, explodingly ripe. And a huge hunk of chocolate banana cake – moist and rich, gooey with a crusty rim - alarmingly addictive. That stuff should be monitored by the FDA it’s so good.

I later sat surveying my mountain of ripe strawberries; a pile larger than any one house of humans could possibly eat.

I was pondering what to do with them, unsure why I bought so many, when an image of the dark corner of my basement immediately infiltrated my mind’s eye. A dusty shelf stacked with a plethora of random plates and utensils brought home from my college apartment, a fish poacher, panini maker, and an ice cream machine. When Becca and I moved into our apartment last year, we possessed none of the necessary kitchenware, not even a table. We also, collectively, had a dearth of money. We went to the mall, hoping to buy some of the basics – so at least that we didn’t have to eat off the floor that night. The only thing we came home with, however, was an ice cream maker (and decidedly smaller bank accounts). Of course we never regretted that purchase, despite the fact that it was used a pitifully few number of times in the last year.

Yesterday, though, the ice cream machine was resurrected in all its former glory to create the perfect food for a day that made me sweat just walking to the fridge. I rubbed the ripe berries against a sieve, catching the juice and puree, leaving the seeds. I added citrus and sugar; whipping cream beaten to soft peaks. And what I ended up with was a soft and richly flavored strawberry ice cream – filled with pure summer and so far in taste from the preservative-pumped supermarket brands that it should be considered an evolutionarily miracle and taxonomically re-labeled.

My first bite of the cold pink ice cream was sweet, smooth, frothy, and infused with the sun, earth, and vines of the farm-fresh berries. I didn’t speak for a moment, mute with pleasure. And that’s when I realized that though I may not have hands the size of 10-inch peach pies, I certainly do have the ability to happily strike myself dumb with culinary passion.

Strawberry Ice Cream
Adapted from Shona Crawford Poole’s Ice Cream

1 quart of ripe strawberries, hulled

juice of one orange

juice of half a lemon

juice of half a lime

a scant ½ cup of sugar

¾ pint whipping cream, chilled

- rub the berries through a sieve, keeping the juice and discarding the seeds and solids.
- combine the strawberry with citrus juices and sugar, letting it sit for a few hours in the fridge to marry the flavors.
- whip the cream into stiff peaks and then fold it into the fruit puree.

- freeze in an ice cream machine.


Molly said...

Molly, your writing is lovely! That chocolate cake sounds fantastic, not to mention the strawberry ice cream. Mmm, it may be time to finally invest in an ice cream maker...

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