Friday, May 29, 2009

Almond Cake

I baked a cake this afternoon. A moist, densely packed almond cake from my well-worn copy of Baking with Julia. I didn't really have a reason to bake. But I wanted to try this one, which is an element of the cookbook's intense Wedding Cake recipe, because I am the designated pastry chef for a friend's wedding late this summer. And I'm nervous. So I'm practicing. Every single cake I bake, I tell myself, will make the finished product just that much better. I have over three months. That's a lot of cakes.

This one is nice. It came out of the oven golden brown and buttery. Almost too buttery, I thought as I sneaked a little sliver to eat with my late-afternoon coffee. But perhaps that will go well later on with layers of lemon curd or blueberry jam, swiss or simple vanilla buttercream. I haven't yet worked out the details. But I know that there will be no fondant. Definitely no fondant. Though lovely on its own, I have a different idea for this particular cake. I'm having friends over for dinner tomorrow and I plan to use it, cut into small disks, as the base for a fleet of individual Baked Alaskas. We'll see how that goes.*

I don't know a whole lot about the science of baking, despite the fact that I love to make and eat cakes of all kinds. I certainly don't know much about the architecture of wedding cakes. But if the testing and tweaking involved in the creation of this one offers me the opportunity to spend more afternoons like today's, procrastinating on thoughts of the real world in my warm apartment, which smelled of almonds and butter, I'm happy to learn.

*Update: They went well. A little too much cake to ice cream ratio. But what beats miniature rounds of almond sweet, topped with strawberry ice cream and a cloud of oven-brown meringue? In my mind, not much.

Dense Almond Cake
Adapted from Baking with Julia

I adapted this recipe a bit, mainly due to ingredient and equipment restraints. Instead of going to the store to buy the extra 2.5 ounces of almond paste, I just used the 7 that I had. Instead of cake flour, I used all purpose. I didn't have a working food processor, and used a hand-held mixer to beat in the eggs rather than a paddle attachment on a standing one. In retrospect, there isn't much I did do exactly according to the directions. This is most likely the reason for my only complaint: the almost too-moist texture of my end result. But either way, I imagine, it's nice. Julia's original recipe is below.

9.5 ounces, or 1 packed cup, almond paste
2.25 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
6 large eggs
1 cup cake flour, sifted

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Butter a baking pan -- I used a single 9" circular cake pan, while Julia's instructions are for a number of different sizes for the construction of a wedding cake -- and then place a sheet of parchment paper, cut to fit, within. Dust with flour, tap out the excess, and put aside.

Put the almond paste, butter, and sugar in a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Process for one minute, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. The mixture should be mainly smooth, with a bit of a grainy edge.

Scrape this mixture into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add the eggs and beat at medium speed until the batter is smooth. This should take about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides, again, as needed. Turn the mixer up to high in the final 15 seconds.

Remove the bowl and fold in the flour, a little at a time, with a rubber spatula. Spread into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for 1.5 to 1.75 hours, until the top is golden, the edges begin to spring away from the pan and the top is springy to the touch. For me, this took only one hour.

Transfer to a cooling rack and let sit at least 25 minutes, then invert, remove the parchment paper, and enjoy.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


As many of you know, I’ve been writing about the sense of smell since 2005. It was then, in the crack of my skull against the windshield of a quickly-moving car, that my olfactory neurons were damaged and I lost the ability to detect the scent of brewing coffee, freshly baked bread, or a ripe bag of garbage. For a while, I lost the ability to smell anything at all.

I began this blog before that, however, when I could think of little more than the kitchen, sauté pans and paring knives. While scent was important to me as the gateway to flavor, it hardly crossed my mind that without a working nose a sip of coffee was simply hot and bitter and that a bite of chicken similar to one of cardboard. I had wanted to be a chef, and I began this blog to write about my work prepping and washing dishes in an upscale Boston restaurant. I had hoped the job would be the first step in many on my way to the professional culinary world. I wanted to chronicle the journey.

Without smell, however, my ability to perceive the world around me changed and, with that, so did my plans. I’ve written about it all along the way.

My fascination with scent began out of necessity. After the accident I suddenly realized that its absence sapped the texture from both physical experience and memory. It implied the power of what was once there. In the last four years my sense of smell, as I’ve written here, has slowly returned. While it is not completely restored—skunk sometimes smells of almond biscotti and I often can’t tell the difference between sage and thyme—I’ve watched the details painstakingly crawl back into my sensory landscape. Throughout this process, my interest in smell has grown far deeper.

And now I’m very happy to announce my current project, which I’ve been working on for quite some time but that only recently became official. I’m writing a book.

“In Search of Smell,” an olfactory memoir exploring the neuroscience, psychology, and social history of smell through the lens of my own story of loss and regain, will be published by the HarperCollins imprint Ecco. I’ll be reporting and writing for a little less than the next year. I’m very excited.

I’m not sure how this will change ‘My Madeleine.’ I plan to keep writing as I have been—about food, about smell, and about how they intersect. But perhaps now that my days are filled with research and interviews on scent, this blog will veer more towards food. Perhaps not. I just wanted to let you all know what I’m up to. And if you have any ideas or any stories to share with me, please let me know. I’m looking forward to learning so much more.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


I like to wake up early.

I work best in the pre-dawn, my dark studio lit only by the computer screen. I love the chilly moments before the sun comes up, before I begin to hear the clank and clatter of the rest of my building starting the day. I like to type with the radio on in the background, so low as to be almost inaudible. I like to move slowly, pausing to read the paper with a mug of coffee steaming on my desk nearby.

None of this is nice, however, when I’m hungry. My mind just doesn’t work without breakfast. As Lewis Carroll said so eloquently in Through the Looking Glass: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

For me, breakfast is usually oatmeal, served with a dollop of milk and some combination of berries, apple slices or nuts. Sometimes it’s a bowl of cold cereal and yogurt. There is toast with butter and jam on occasion, oranges often, and always a piece of chocolate or two.

I made my first batch of granola this afternoon. It filled my apartment with the scent of brown sugar and cinnamon, ginger and almonds. Tomorrow morning I’ll eat it with milk and a sliced banana. Though I will admit: it’s pretty nice as a late afternoon snack.

Adapted from Orangette

I adapted this recipe from Orangette, which is a blog (and now book) that I often turn to for trusted recipes ranging from chocolate madeleines to chickpea salads. I changed some things here due to taste preference: cutting down on both sugar and the amount of nuts and seeds. I changed some things due to convenience: a lack of brown rice syrup resulted in a lovely swath of honey.

Dry Ingredients:
5 cups rolled oats
2 ½ cups slivered almonds
a heaping ½ cup light brown sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp salt

Wet Ingredients:
a heaping ¾ cup unsweetened applesauce
1/3 cup honey (I used raw wildflower honey, which I had picked up when in Tennessee.)
2 Tbsp canola oil

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.

Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Stir and set aside. Combine wet ingredients in another, smaller bowl. Stir. Add wet ingredients to the dry ones and stir to combine.

Spread mixture out on two rimmed baking sheets, and bake for 35 – 40 minutes on two racks set on the top and bottom third of the oven. Turn around the pans and stir every 10 minutes or so. When done, the granola should be a toasty golden brown. Take the pans out of the oven and let cool. It will still be a bit soft upon its exit, but crunches up while losing heat.

Store in sealed containers, or a plastic bag, as long as you like.

Friday, May 01, 2009


Ever since Matt was called back into the Army and my days were suddenly laced with heightened levels of anxiety, I have been able to smell more.

It’s not that I’m noticing the scent of new things. There are still smells lost to me, like that of water in a stagnant pond or of certain types of flowers, which remain imperceptible now four years removed from the accident that damaged my olfactory neurons. This heightened emotional state doesn’t make a difference there.

It’s the intensity that has changed.

Last Thursday night, for example, I walked into a hair salon in the East Village just as the sun was beginning to set. The anxiety, usually swirling somewhere in the periphery of my day, had moved front and center that afternoon when Matt told me his official deployment assignment: a year in the mountains of Afghanistan. Suddenly it throbbed in the back of my throat, and I decided to get my hair cut. I could use the gossip-rag-fueled distraction, I thought.

When I entered the salon, which had red walls and glittery lights, I was immediately hit by scent. It was pungent and floral with notes of jasmine and a lingering chemical twang. It filled my head like a honeyed cloud and I inhaled and exhaled slowly as I sat to wait on a bench by the window. I could almost feel the sweet, fatty globs of conditioner, which I watched the stylist squirt onto a customer’s head over by the sink, on the roof of my mouth. The salon has never been so intense.

Is it possible to have an increased sense of smell due to a keyed-up emotional state? I’m not sure. Of course, there are physical factors known to affect the one’s ability to smell. For example, changes in the level of hormones due to pregnancy are known to cause a heightened sense of smell in women. I’m not pregnant, so that’s not it. But I’ve been stressed out. More than usual. And the body reacts to stress in many intense internal ways, including the release of such hormones as cortisol into the blood stream.

In the years since the car accident I’ve noticed a strong connection between my emotions and scent. When moving through moments of depression—whether at the tortured end of a relationship or in the months after the death of a friend—I’ve noticed that I hardly register smell at all. Scents are there, of course. But they are muted, lacking all sense of intensity. Like my mood, the olfactory environment around me becomes flat and dim.

Similarly, during times when I’ve been happiest, like in the heart-flapping beginning to a new relationship, or in the brief nothing-months of summer before beginning graduate school, I’ve found that smell is all around me, striking in its strength.

Brown University professor Rachel Herz writes about the connection between smell and emotion in her book, The Scent of Desire. The connection, she says, “is not only metaphorical but also is founded on the evolution of our brain.” The limbic system, where emotion, memory and motivation are processed, first grew from a primitive olfactory cortex, she explains. “In other words, the ability to experience and express emotion grew directly out of our brain’s ability to process smell,” Herz writes.

I’m not sure what exactly is going on in my nose right now. But for the (big, scary) writing project I am currently working on, which I’ll certainly be telling you more about later, I’m jumping headlong into research on the sense of smell, and how the science and psychology of it all relate to my own experience. I hope to soon learn more.

There are some things I do know, however. I know that on an evening in February, a week after Matt had been called back into the Army and only a few days into the resulting, panicked search for a new apartment, I stood in a parking garage on the Upper West Side. I was on assignment for a long-term story on high school kids building robots and was reporting with a notebook and pen amidst a crowd of teachers, students and electrical wiring.

Inhaling and exhaling slowly against the back-lit scent of dank concrete, I caught a whiff of cologne, a hint of sweat and the strong aroma of motor oil. Someone to my left opened the plastic lid to a cup of hot chocolate and the scent—rich, sweet—hit me from several feet away. A moment later there was the peppermint breath of an interview subject chewing gum. Someone was drinking orange juice; I could smell the pungent citrus before I saw the container in a teacher’s hand.

Everything smelled. Everything. I could hardly concentrate in the face of so many scents. What’s going on here? I remember thinking. I was exhausted but alert, jazzed on anxiety and caffeine. I was in a dark, cold parking garage, but it had been a long time since everything seemed so bright.