Monday, April 16, 2012

Canal House Ginger Spice Cake with Dried Cherries

I spent Sunday morning reading. I don’t yet have a bookcase in my new apartment, so my books are stacked against the walls. In some ways this is a bother: I have to pull my chosen novel out of an already unsteady pile of fiction—cautiously, so that it won’t all topple over onto the floor. But because my books are in piles rather than on shelves, horizontal rather than vertical, mismatched and out of order, they look different than they ever did before, and therefore they seem new. I find myself noticing more among them.

Yesterday morning I pulled a few books out of the stacks—old books, mainly books of poetry, ones that I haven’t picked up in a long time. I read some Billy Collins. He reminds me of college, my freshman year dorm room, and the way I used to scribble my favorite quotes on Post-It notes and stick them to my wall.

I read some Robert Pinsky. I interviewed Pinsky one afternoon on the phone a few years ago. I remember him as smart and generous and quite kind. Even after we spoke, I reread his poetry for months. Today, the rhythm of his words remind me of the tiny studio in Brooklyn where I lived when I was freaking out about writing my book. That apartment was so small there wasn’t space for a sink in the bathroom. I brushed my teeth at the kitchen counter.

Finally, I read some Philip Schultz. Just a little. I had picked up The God of Loneliness, and, well, I didn’t need too much of that. But in it I read a poem called “Pumpernickel.” It’s a poem about his grandmother, and how she baked bread on Monday mornings—challah and rye, but pumpernickel was the kind that mattered. Pumpernickel was the one that “…demanded cornmeal, ripe caraway, mashed potatoes & several Old Testament stories about patience & fortitude & for which she cursed in five languages if it didn’t pop out fat as an apple-cheeked peasant bride.”

For some people, bread is just bread, and baking it seems a bit much. But it’s worth the bother, and Schultz tells us why:

“For the moment when the steam curls off the black crust like a strip of pure sunlight & the hard oily flesh breaks open like a poem pulling out of its own stubborn complexity a single glistening truth & who can help but wonder at the mystery of the human heart when you hold a slice up to the light in all its absurd splendor & I tell you we must risk everything for the raw recipe of our passion.”

I haven’t made bread in a while. Definitely not pumpernickel. But last week I did bake a cake, for Easter dinner at my mom's house. It was a ginger spice cake with dried cherries, from the most recent issue of Bon Appetit. It’s a simple cake with rich flavor—a compendium of fresh, candied, and powdered ginger; strong coffee; molasses; Dijon mustard (!); and tart dried cherries. It’s spicy and smoky and sweet and when served warm with vanilla ice cream might even be capable of pulling a single glistening truth out of its own complexity. Well, maybe not quite. But close.

Ginger Spice Cake with Dried Cherries
Barely adapted from Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton (otherwise known as the folks behind Canal House Cooking) in Bon Appetit

I baked this in two loaf pans, rather than in a bundt pan, so don’t be surprised that mine looks nothing like the Canal House version in the magazine. Because of this pan switch, I baked the cakes for less time then they call for, and was careful to keep a careful watch on their progress. Yes, this cake contains Dijon mustard. And black pepper. That sounds a little wonky, but the cake doesn’t taste like mustard or pepper at all. These ingredients simply heighten the soft and spicy depth of flavor, I promise. The authors recommend serving this with a “luscious chocolate icing.” I think it’s lovely with just a sprinkling of powdered sugar, or served warm with vanilla ice cream. I also think it’s nice for breakfast on its own, but that may be just me. I'm a dessert for breakfast kind of gal.

1 cup dried tart cherries, finely chopped
½ cup crystallized ginger, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely grated peeled ginger
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 cup hot, strong coffee (they recommend espresso; I made coffee in my French Press, and let it sit a bit longer than usual)
2 ½ cups flour (all-purpose)
1 tablespoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup dark brown sugar, packed
3 large eggs
1 cup molasses

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter two loaf pans, or one 6 – 8 cup Bundt pan. Dust the pans with flour and tap out the excess.

In a medium bowl, combine the cherries, crystallized ginger, fresh ginger, and Dijon mustard. Pour the hot coffee over the mixture and set the bowl aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, ground ginger, baking soda, salt, allspice, cinnamon, and pepper.

Using your electric mixer, cream the butter until light and fluffy, on medium speed for a couple of minutes. Add the brown sugar and beat for a couple of minutes more. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing in between. Then beat in the molasses.

Return to the cherry mixture and strain it into a small bowl, reserving the soaking liquid. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture in three additions, alternating with the soaking liquid, blending in between. Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in the cherry solids. Scrape the batter evenly into the two loaf pans, or all of it into a bundt pan.

Bake the loaf pans for about 30 – 40 minutes (for loaf pans), checking carefully. The bundt pan should bake for about an hour. The top of the cake will spring back lightly when pressed in the middle. If you insert a toothpick into the cake’s center and it comes out clean, the cake should be done.

Let the cake cool in its pan on a wire rack. When ready to eat, remove it from the pan, cut it into nice fat slices, and enjoy.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Three Feet Ahead

In the last few weeks, I’ve tried to write about many things. Seared fennel things. Roasted pork chop things. Whole wheat chocolate chip cookie things. Cooking things. Eating things. The thing about how my mind wanders into the feathery netherworld of recipes, or novels, or both, when I walk along the Charles River to work. 

But I haven’t been able to get anything down onto this Word document. Not anything that isn’t a poorly veiled excuse. An attempt to kill time before I write about what I’m actually thinking about.

I’ll just get down to business. Here I go.

Matt and I broke up.

There is it. That sentence. It’s a short sentence. Just five words. Words ridiculously painful in their brevity. As I typed them, I could feel my insides seize up, clench tight, prevent me from moving, feeling, thinking beyond the sound of my fingers clacking on my computer.

Click, clack, click.


When Julie Powell, author of Julie and Julia, separated from her husband of seven years, she moved into a small sublet apartment. On her first night there, she ordered a pizza. “There's a New York rule, one of those we osmose through the soles of our stylish yet affordable boots, that on your first night in a new apartment, you must order takeout,” she wrote in the New York Times. There’s another rule, she added, and that is on your second night, you cook. Powell made garlic soup.

On the first night in my new apartment, the one I moved into about a month after leaving Matt, who was my boyfriend for almost five years, I didn’t want to order pizza. Or anything else. Take-out seemed too sterile, too greasy and cold.

Cooking for just one, however, felt foreign and strange. I had grown so used to cooking meals with Matt—big meals, rich meals, ones that would satisfy a burly man who believed red meat and potatoes were all you really needed to survive. I didn’t even have a table in my new place. My empty, echoing place. The apartment is a studio, but a big studio, and despite the fact that I grew up in a cavernous suburban house in farm-town Massachusetts, no place has ever felt so large.

In the end, I roasted a sweet potato on a piece of foil in the oven until it was tender and sweet. I ate it sitting on my bed. With barbecue sauce. That was all I had in the fridge.


They call it a “broken heart,” and it wasn’t until recently that I began to think about that term as more than a metaphor.

Matt and I met when I was just beginning to take my writing seriously, when I was just beginning to feel confident in my returning sense of smell, in the direction I wanted to take my career. We finished graduate school side by side, and then stayed together when I worked in California and he in Europe. He was there when I sold my book proposal. I was there when he was called back off the Individual Ready Reserves to serve his third tour of duty at war, that year in Afghanistan. He has been a huge part of my writing. A huge part of this website. A huge part of my life. In fact, I’m not sure I remember who I am alone.

At a certain point it no longer matters what happened, who is to blame for what, why, when, or how. Because in the end it’s just you. Facing the end of something, something big, something way bigger than you ever were alone. And it hurts. Emotionally, of course. But physically, it hurts, too.

In those first few weeks I remember wondering how it was possible that the decision to go our separate ways could be so physically painful. This decision didn’t touch my skin. It didn’t make contact with my muscles or my bones. Yet I sat on my bed, waiting for that goddamn sweet potato to bake, and my body ached.

Of course, I began to read.

“… [It] seems difficult to imagine that these social experiences that do not physically wound us could truly lead to the same kind of pain as a broken bone or an aching stomach,” writes scientist Naomi Eisenberger in her 2012 paper, Broken Hearts and Broken Bones: A Neural Perspective on the Similarities Between Social and Physical Pain. “However, accumulating evidence demonstrates that experiences of social and physical pain actually rely on some of the same neurobiological and neural substrates.”

So there’s evidence that the same parts of the brain light up when you feel social pain as when you feel physical pain. When Matt and I split, I felt like I was ripping my arm out of the shoulder socket, or cutting my leg off at the knee, or tearing a pattern of tiny holes in my gut, or all of that, or maybe none of that, but nonetheless it was substantial and consuming and physical all at the same time. My brain, it seems, was processing it in a similar way.

Diane Ackerman puts it more succinctly. “That’s why being spurned by a lover hurts all over the body, but in no place you can point to,” she recently wrote in the Times. “Or rather, you’d need to point to the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex in the brain, the front of a collar wrapped around the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers zinging messages between the hemispheres that register both rejection and physical assault.”


I’ve been re-reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. That is, in fact, what I’ve been doing this morning, this Sunday Easter morning, here at my new kitchen table, for the last hour. As I write, it’s early. My head is fuzzy. My throat feels a little swollen. I’m not sure if this is because of spring allergies, or because of the (one too many) cocktails I shared last night with my friend Mary. But it’s sunny outside. I can hear a student at the nearby music school playing the tuba—long, slow groans that should probably make me feel sad, but for some reason don’t, probably because it’s sunny, I’m surrounded by books, and this afternoon I plan to bake a cake. Filling this apartment with the warm scents of molasses and coffee and sour cherries will no doubt make me feel a bit more at home.

Anyway, Lamott’s book is important to me, as I know it’s important to countless others. I also know that I’ve written about this book before, and others have written about it, too, perhaps so much so that what I’m about to type out is insufferably cliché. But I don’t care. I’m a re-reader. Especially when I’m sad, I will return to the books that moved me, that helped to define me, that brought me to where I am today.

Lamott writes:

E.L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

On the next page she writes about an oft-repeated story, the title story, the one that helps her to get a grip:

... thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

That’s what I’m trying to do, too.