Have you ever felt like you’re stuck in a rut and even when you’re doing what you love, it’s all a little too monotonous and no longer as exciting as it was when you started?
I bake and cook for a living. It’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. But I also want to make new memories around food, discover and learn about other cultures, and grow. Working in a kitchen, making the same recipes doesn’t really allow for that.
Not as often and as much as I’d like, anyway.
My customers are amazing people who give me the chance to be an integral part of their special days and I am grateful for that – that something I do on occasion makes someone smile. It’s a special feeling, and any chef you will ever meet gets off on it, specially the pastry people.
However, there are a few things that are set in stone when it comes to us apparently:
- We love sugar.
- We might have alcoholic tendencies.
- We love precision and take pride in how baking is both an art and a science.
- We spend long hours, measuring and perfecting even the simplest recipes, knowing that on the other side, someone is going to take that first bite and smile because that’s what a sweet treat does.
- Oh! We’re secretly party people who are awkward.
- And… cake has a special place in our lives.
That being said, sometimes, specially when the brief to potential clients is “go crazy and ask for any flavour combination you can think of”, and people respond with “Erm I think I want a plain chocolate cake”, I want to kill myself. (Disclaimer: I don’t.)
Maybe it’s me, but where is the imagination! It’s at such times that this dissatisfaction sets in.
There’s no doubt that there’s money in it for me and, let’s face it, chocolate is one of the sexiest flavours out there. So why am I complaining? Am I even really complaining? It’s hard to put a finger on but it’s still something that happens and I am compelled to tell it like it is.
It’s not bad really, just a vague feeling that there is something more out there, that something is missing. I may be childish, but the excitement starts dying bit by bit and the need for a rekindling is real.
[It’s like that 30 Rock episode where Jack Donaghy is very happy with his life but wants to vomit in excitement about something, anything, like he did on one his birthdays as a child. And then he finds it again on his 50th birthday, in Liz Lemon’s ad video.]
I may have taken too long to get to it, but this post is really about that rekindling. It’s about a cake (yes, always a cake with us pastry people) that brought it all back (forgive my Proust), that reminded me of the excitement of choosing to do what you love for the rest of your life.
My partner loves comic books and I am in love with food. So every holiday he tries to give me presents that are a combination of the two. It’s special and complicated, for a host of reasons as most things related to relationships and food are. A story for another time, perhaps.
This winter he gave me three books, out of which one had recipes surrounding the illustrated memories of the author’s life. I instantly connected to it. Cake by Maira Kalman was a delightful read. I identified with it because just I had found another person who equated memories with the food it was associated.
In her case, it was all cake and it was brilliant.
Of all the recipes I read, written by Barbara Scott-Goodman for the book, the Honey Cake stood out to me. It was so compelling that I immediately wanted to try it. So simple yet something I felt like I must try out (and I don’t even like honey that much)!
While measuring the ingredients however, I started to realise how although deceptively simple at first read, the flavour profile of the cake was vast. With the addition of honey, espresso, whiskey, and orange juice (not to mention, the spices) it would make for a very interesting array of possibly competing tastes and I was curious about how it would turn out.
Funnily enough, I ran out of honey while making it, so instead I put in some gur* because it is one of my favourite sugars and winter is when it is in season so why the hell not! I also ended up tinkering with the ratio of the white and brown sugars. After that, I just crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.
Another alteration I made was removing the allspice in the recipe and adding the same amount of chai spice instead. I didn’t have allspice and it made sense as an alternative given the flavour notes in the one I was changing.
Although it was a lot of ingredients, the mixing and baking process was fairly simple. The baking time however was somewhat long but made sense given that the batter was so thin. Tasting the batter (don’t recommend it but do it all the time) was when I became emotionally invested in the cake. I knew in my gut that something magical was about to happen to me and I couldn’t wait!
You know that instance when you know that everything you’ve done in life has been leading you to a specific moment? That was how I felt when my mum (it’s usually her job) took the cake out of the oven. Immediately the whole house smelt of what I assume Christmas smells like for people in the west. The spices with a hint of the whiskey and the caramelised sugars was something made out of Strawberry Shortcake’s wet dream. If I could bottle up that warm fragrance I would.
On closer inspection though, it did smell a tad eggy, and although my heart sank a little I held out hope waiting for it to be cooler and let the insides settle. I stayed in my room and avoided walking around it for the longest half hour of my life! And then, finally, I experienced what will probably be a memory and recipe I shall cherish forever!
What is the softest surface you have ever touched? Take a moment and imagine it. That times two was this cake. It was moist and almost bounced back when poked. It was so very satisfying! I kept playing with it much to my family’s irritation.
Because of the long baking time, the outside was a dark rich brown, almost black in places. You’d think it was burnt, but it’s actually the sugars and the dark gur (that was giving it the colour. It was harder than you’d think, like a very thin crust had been formed by the caramel on the outside, protecting the soft inside while also giving the cake texture.
The inside was the colour of wet sand, but speckled from the spices in the mix. It was very inviting. To my utter delight, the cake tasted breathtakingly beautiful. The flavours married so well and nothing was overpowering. It was such a delicate profile and so very very good, like a work of art that actually moved you!
I almost cried, there were tears in my eyes at any rate. This was special. I remember giving my partner updates every few seconds! It was such a warm feeling, a hug from someone you loved on a cold lonely day. My parents felt the same way and that somehow made it more exceptionally so.
A piece of cake that takes you back to your first baking memories. It is almost like it’s straight out of an anime. It brings back the excitement you felt the first time you were in the kitchen. Donaghy’s vomit moment. (On second thoughts, maybe that’s not something you’d want to think about.)
It’s important because it reminded me of why I like to cook and brought back the feeling of unadulterated excitement and joy, the kind I hadn’t felt in a long time while making something. It’s the perfect surprise to myself and I am better for it, inspired and prepared for the future! Everyone needs a reminder of why they choose to do what they do once in a while, and this is one that served the same purpose for me.
It is among my very first attempts at Jewish recipes. (I also have a killer Baklava recipe I might post in the future.) But this is one that is making me consider looking into more of the simple middle eastern recipes out there that are so comforting yet so simple.
I’d recommend having it warm and fresh out of the oven if you ever decide to make it and you should make it. In case you make it in advance, give it a day outside. The outer surfaces of the cut pieces of the cake start to crystallise and taste a different kind of amazing. It’s the perfect present as well, a gift that is affordable and keeps on giving.
If you dislike fruit cake (I have a whole rant, wait for it) and are looking for something new but familiar, give this a try and let us know if you thought it was as life changing as it was for me!
You can always buy the book online (or from the friendly neighbourhood bookstore) and try other recipes in it as well! Look forward to hearing from you.
*Gur or jaggery is a concentrate form of date, palm, or cane sap without the separation of the molasses and crystals. It varies in colour from golden to dark brown and is used in sweets and cooking around India and south Asia.