Love Was The Strawberry Cake

"She had been walking to the table carrying a tray of egg-yolk candies when she first felt his hot gaze burning her skin. She turned her head, and her eyes met Pedro's. It was then she understood how dough feels when it is plunged into boiling oil. The heat that invaded her body was so real she was afraid she would start to bubble -- her face, her stomach, her heart, her breasts -- like batter..." ~ Laura Esquivel, Like Water For Chocolate

As I was inspired by springtime... I made two strawberry almond cakes last week. One I discovered from Let Me Eat Cake's blog, a post titled Cornmeal Almond Cake with Strawberries and Mascarpone, which I stirred up happily in my kitchen, baked in the oven, and decorated with cream and strawberries. When it was ready, cake cooled and iced, I served the cake to my three children. They gobbled half of it up after dinner. Cornmeal crumbs all over the table, surrounding their plates, all about their chairs, icing on their fingers, faces. The other half of the cake remaining I brought to my grandmother's for Passover (it was "flourless" in a sense, although not entirely).

The Cornmeal Almond Cake was dense with cornmeal and ground almonds. It was a crumbly cake, one layer. I do like that heavy texture, it evokes backyard barbeques and summery afternoons to me. Maybe it's just because cornbread and homemade cake equals warm weather and backyard get togethers. Nastassia from the blog Let Me Eat Cake explained that she found the recipe from Food & Wine magazine, and it tempted her to make the cake. In turn, Nastassia tempted me to try baking the cake as well. Like a recipe from an earmarked cookbook, or in this case, from a virtual next-door neighbor.

As much as I do love the crumble of cornbread cake and the wonderful tangy goodness of mascarpone frosting mingled with fresh strawberries, I decided that I'd make this cake again using a basic Génoise recipe rather than the heavier cornbread version. Much to my delight, the cake turned out even better than the first. I added the last of my vanilla beans and a splash of amaretto. I used some restraint, perhaps too much for this springtime cake. You see, to me, spring is all about sensual abandon. And the strawberry symbolizes the fruit of earthly pleasures.

I baked two Génoise cakes to layer the second cake, with mascarpone frosting in the middle. More mascarpone all over the outside, generously slathered with that marvelous texture of heavy cream. It felt good to make a layered cake. It had been years. I pressed the toasted almonds on the outside of the frosted cake with my hand. The frosting was enhanced with a few tablespoons of confectioners sugar and a dash of vanilla extract.

But there just wasn't enough amaretto in it to justify its addition. I could barely taste it in the cake itself, so next time I'll add more. Besides, who can resist more amaretto? Darling brought three baskets of strawberries home, and I sliced them to decorate. Toasted slivered almonds sprinkled with decorative gold dust and powdered sugar, crusted along the outside of the cake--- almonds sticking to my fingers, falling all over the floor, the table, my hands covered in mascarpone frosting and almonds. The pleasure of making a cake on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. I gave my three year old daughter the emptied bowl of whipped mascarpone frosting, along with a spatula to lick. That kept her happy for awhile, tracing the edges of the bowl with her fingers. Almonds scattered all about the table like falling leaves. The slivers of strawberry looked flowery spread out on the plate, so I imagined a large bloom made of them on the top of the cake. It reminded me of another cake I had baked years ago, but a strawberry version rather than a chocolate one. And what delight I took in its blossoming red beauty. It gave me the courage to bake again.

“Tita knew through her own flesh how fire transforms the elements, how a lump of corn flour is changed into a tortilla, how a soul that hasn't been warmed by the fire of love is lifeless, like a useless ball of corn flour.” ~ Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate

For many years I didn't bake, and I had grown distant from ovens and stove tops. I had left my apron lonely and ate out in restaurants most of the time. I wasn't in the mood to cook, but now I think if I had, I may have found the kind of solace I find in baking now, where by beating eggs and creaming butter, my troubles melt into a big mixing bowl and emerge lighter. Troubles and worry are transformed into delight and happiness. I can sweeten my life with brown sugar, add spices and create wonderful aromas and flavors. I can daydream as I pour in the heavy cream, add the vanilla extract, its exotic fragrance redolent of kitchen memories, birthday parties, cupcakes, the taste of ice cream and the smell of vanilla malts. The therapeutic act of baking, making something delicious out of a refrigerator and pantry, allowing the mind to unravel its contents, gives me a sense of completion.

"Remember those raspberry tarts you use to bake?" A former boyfriend asked me, years ago, in my large downtown loft, the sound of his voice full of hope. We had met again, a few many years after we split. He wanted to get back together that night. Uncertain about things, I poured us some tea, tumbled some shortbread cookies out of a box and onto a serving plate. This was a night many years ago, almost eighteen years from now, or is it twenty? He was a musician, a talented one with a record deal. He had been on tour, while I was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was going from city to city, airplanes and stages, singing and playing guitar, meeting other girls. I was walking along dirt roads in a sundress and sandals under a big blue sky, thinking about making tamales and posole, painting a still life of oranges and pomegranates, engaged to a chef. Time had passed along a red mesa, down a dusty route from one year to another, and there we were, years later, eating cookies and drinking tea. I had moved back to Los Angeles, found a big loft to paint in. He came back from being on the road. There were many things I liked about him. We always laughed a lot. He'd make up songs and sing to me with his guitar, silly or not so silly, and sometimes I thought we were more than what we really were. He drove a Ford Fairlane convertible, wore cravats, liked 40's film noir. He had hair the color of gingerbread. And he loved gingerbread cookies.

"Do you still bake?" he asked eagerly. I hesitated to answer and tilted my head to the side. I was immersed in French pastry classes at the time. Raspberry tarts were my favorite thing to make and I always seemed to have one in the refrigerator or another fresh from the oven, ready to decorate with jam and fresh raspberries. Chambord was the addition to the jam, painted on with a pastry brush, and raspberries, one by one, placed carefully in a concentric circle of lustrous, glistening berries. I made so many raspberry tarts that you'd think I was running a bakery. I made panfuls of Tarte Tatins, Charlottes with my own homemade ladyfingers, I tempered chocolate and made flower petals out of them, torched the sugared ramekins of crème brûlée, kept bottles of vanilla beans soaking in rum. Every night after class I'd come home with flour on my clothes and something sweet in my hands.

Then I met a chef in cooking school after that boyfriend. We cooked in his kitchen-- he always made dinner, I always made dessert. We were living together, and soon after, engaged. It was in the kitchen during our preparation of a Thanksgiving dinner that he presented me with a ring and asked me to marry him. The ring, shimmering white gold, pearls, garnet, looked like cake icing and berries. He wrapped an apron around my waist, kissed me at the butcher's block just before our guests arrived, and proposed. I was decorating a big cake at that moment; a four-layered chocolate cake with white chocolate flower petals, chocolate shavings decorating the sides. He brought home big blocks of chocolate so I could temper it, shave it, melt it, bake with it. We announced our engagement to my family and our friends at the Thanksgiving table. Lots of food, wine, champagne, and laughter. Then the cake, the glorious cake, full of rich chocolate and a big white flower of chocolate petals that resembled a chrysanthemum bloom.

The ring like cake icing reminded me of that night, and of that kitchen. That was when we moved to the open skies of Santa Fe during wintertime, years later. It was snowing, candelarias decorating adobe walls, cobalt blue painted window frames, the scent of burning piñon. I will always love the scent of piñon, and the smoky chile flavors of the Southwest. Canela, epazote, chipotle. Roasted ears of corn, blue corn tamales.

The ring. I took it off rarely, except when kneading dough. We never married, and I didn't bake cakes like that one for Thanksgiving again. I stopped baking. Maybe every once in awhile, cornbread, or cupcakes for my children's birthday parties out of cake mixes.

Then I moved to New Orleans. It was hot and humid, and baking wasn't even a fleeting thought. Some iced tea with sliced lemon, Eggs Sardou, or a bowl of gazpacho, maybe a salad of Creole tomatoes and Vidalia onions, but not a moment's thought entertained baking. I did have a friend, a poet, who worked in a bookstore in the French Quarter, and she loved to make bread. She would knead her dough and let it rise in her steamy kitchen. The yeasty smell filled the apartment, stacks of books in corners and upon tables, next to reading chairs, her writings all in a pile on her desk. She baked every kind of bread and had frozen loaves stashed away in her freezer. Poetry and baking. Writing and waiting for dough to rise. Contemplation. Creation.

And in New Orleans, there are cakes, but also other temptations, like Bananas Foster, beignets, bread pudding.

“The time it took to prepare didn't matter, because there is no such thing as wasted time in the kitchen--rather that is where we go to recover lost time.” ~ Laura Esquivel, Between Two Fires: Intimate Writings on Life, Love, Food & Flavor

Baking again. Like an expression of contentment, the happiness of flour mixed with eggs, butter, vanilla and spices, creates a sweet new recipe in my life. I am baking again.

Perhaps the strawberry cake represents sweetness returning, like springtime warming the earth, blossoms opening, berries bursting from their green vines. Hope. Renewal. Spring. It's been a long time since I've baked, and nothing seemed to inspire me since, except love.

The raspberry tarts were experimental, perhaps allegory for my searching as a young woman. Like anything, when we create, we are seeking a part of ourselves, to return full circle into wholeness. Whisking eggs, adding sugar, flour, butter, there is a hopefulness in baking. We want to make it sweet, delicious, beautiful. Back in my days of baking, I was a young woman of twenty. I didn't know what I would be like twenty years from then, as I am now, although nearing forty-two to be exact, I'm not an exact person, which makes me wonder why it was that I loved baking and pastry so much, a precise art. But somehow I did bake well and create sweets that people ate and liked. I was very proud of my raspberry tarts in particular. I did attempt other tarts, such as blueberries with lemon curd, or pear tarts in frangipane.

It was the strawberry that I first loved as a child. My grandmother made me a bowl of sliced strawberries mixed in sour cream with heaping spoonfuls of brown sugar. Mix it all together, and you can't go wrong. A bowl full of strawberries, sour cream and brown sugar. That was my most favorite dessert next to rice pudding. I'd ask for it before bedtime, and inquire just before dinner if my grandmother would make it for me afterwards.

"Do you have strawberries?" I'd ask.

A staple in the refrigerator was a carton of sour cream, which to me as a young girl was heaven. I didn't know about crème fraîche, I just knew sour cream. That wondrous sensation of the heaviness of the cream, watching the brown sugar melt and swirling it with my spoon, I'd create whorls of caramel colored cream the more I stirred. The strawberries looked even more appealing in the mixture. Large chunks of brown sugar in a mouthful, the juice of the strawberry, the creamy texture of the sour cream carrying all of it, like a cloud of sweetness. I will never forget bowlfuls of sugar, cream and strawberries. What that meant to me then, what comfort.

And so, with spring arriving, baking gives me that sense of hopefulness. It comes  blossoming with Botticelli flowers, as prettily as Primavera under orange trees, lush fruits of fertility, symbols of love. And the strawberry. Strawberries are an aphrodisiac and typically served to newlyweds to sweeten their love. In Roman myth, when Adonis died, Venus cried so much because she loved Adonis passionately. As her tears fell from the heavens and sank into the earth, they turned into strawberries.

Passionate love has come into my life. And so I've rediscovered baking cakes. Strawberries and almonds with mascarpone frosting, as delightful and as fluffy as wedding cake, my expression of love in eggs, butter, flour, sugar, and vanilla.

“Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can't strike them all by ourselves; just as in the experiment, we need oxygen and a candle to help. In this case, the oxygen, for example, would come from the breath of the person you love; the candle could be any kind of food, music, caress, word, or sound that engenders the explosion that lights one of the matches.”  Laura Esquivel, Like Water For Chocolate

Spring brings new life. Eggs broken open: yellow yolk, new life, hope. Vanilla: intoxicating, pleasure. Sugar: pure sweetness. Cake flour: soft, downy. Butter: melted, warmth, happy. Mascarpone: creamy, luxurious. Strawberries: love.