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Humble, nutty, and chez moi: un gateau aux noix

Les Eyzies-de-Tayac is a village nestled under a cliff alongside the Vézère River in the beautiful Dordogne region of southwestern France. The self-proclaimed “capitale mondiale de la préhistoire,” it boasts a supremely boring (but, I understand, newly revamped) museum of prehistory and a nameless café where I bought some Orangina and used the bathroom. Most importantly, however, it was in Les Eyzies that I had my first taste of a gâteau aux noix, a French walnut cake.

It was October 1999, and I was a month into my two-quarter stay in France as a student in the Stanford-in-Paris program. Thanks to Helen Bing, a truly worship-worthy Stanford donor, we students hopped a train down to Brive-la-Gaillarde and spent a weekend Dordogne-ing with luxury accommodations for a grand total of roughly $40 each. My friend Clare and I were assigned a ridiculously extravagant suite à la française and spent each evening marveling at our good fortune and happily yelling goodnight to each other from our bedrooms at opposite ends of a long, marble-lined hallway.

Other highlights of the trip included:
-a chilly late-night tour of the town of Sarlat, followed by much dancing in a tight, smoky bar to shameful hits such as “Mambo Number Five” and “Tomber la Chemise;”
-befriending Gui, my dear, gorgeous, long-lost Brazilian and one of the flakiest people I’ve ever adored;
-befriending my dear Keaton;
-watching Gui run frantically around the very old Château de Beynac, trying to stay warm on a nippy morning;
-the decadent multi-course feasts of this region known for its truffles, cèpes, and foie gras (the last of which I’m undecided on but strive to avoid);
-and a dinner of pain de son (bran bread) and Peanut M&Ms on the train-ride back to Paris.

But five years later, it’s the walnut cake that haunts me. It had been baked at our hotel and plastic-wrapped in individual wedges for us to take on our day’s sightseeing, and I ate it perched atop a large, sunny rock in a park in Les Eyzies. Nothing fancy, it was a dense-crumbed white cake flecked with brown, humble, nutty, and only faintly sweet. Nothing fancy, it was delicious.

Last July, I found a recipe for it in Gâteaux de Mamie, but an eager trial run resulted in an oddly rubbery, leaden cake that made it no further than the trashcan. After a sufficient hiatus, this week I tried again, turning instead to a Saveur recipe dug up online in a moment of reprieve from a tedious editing task. Calling for walnut oil and white wine, it intrigued me, but I was a bit unsure of the potent, fruity aroma of fermented grapes and toasted nuts that wafted from the oven.

I needn’t have worried.

It was nothing fancy; it was delicious; and I ate a quarter of it on the spot, thinking of Gui and Clare and Keaton and the autumnal colors of a river valley thousands of miles away.

Gâteau aux Noix, or French-Style Walnut Cake
Adapted slightly from Saveur Cooks Authentic French

½ cup chopped walnuts, or a touch more
3 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup walnut oil
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350. Place walnuts in a small dry saucepan and toast over medium heat, shaking pan, until nuts are fragrant, 5-10 minutes. Set aside.

Beat eggs in a medium bowl with an electric mixer. Gradually add sugar and beat until mixture is pale yellow, light, and fluffy. Add walnut oil and wine and mix well.

Generously grease a 9” cake pan (I used an 8-inch with no problem, by the way; your cake will just be a bit thicker). Sift flour, baking powder, and salt together into a large bowl. Add egg mixture to flour mixture and mix with a wooden spoon until just combined. Gently fold in walnuts, and then pour batter into prepared pan.

Bake cake until a toothpick can be inserted and pulled out clean, about 40 minutes (mine took only 35, however, and required a bit of tenting with foil for the last five). Remove from oven, cool for ten minutes, and then turn out onto a cooling rack. Allow to cool completely and serve in wedges. Loosely whipped cream would be a nice accompaniment, if possible.


Still life with giant sloth and loaf of bread

Every week should begin this way: watching the sun rise over the Cascades from a warm bed next to an enormous window, the wind whistling outside, a flock of tiny birds circling and swooping above the spruce. This is a bluegrass song.

Late Sunday morning took us down idyllic two-lane roads, past pastures full of cows and trees shaking with turning leaves, to Nicho’s family’s farm in Sultan. Along the road, the dahlias stood out bright under a sky blanketed with clouds, ripped and streaked with blue. A slow fog rolled between two hills, and in the distance, the Cascades foretold winter with their jagged white caps.

We arrived just before noon with empty stomachs, and Nicho threw together a delicious omelette-scramble of sorts—sautéed onions and garlic with fresh chard from the garden, a splash of his “secret sauce,” fork-scrambled eggs, slivers of tomato, and generous slices of cheddar and mozzarella cheeses. Nicho’s mother Martha joined us, and we sat and ate and talked. Then, while Nicho sunk into a food coma on the couch, his very gracious mother showed me how to bake her sweet, dense, and addictive wheat bread.

She, remarkable woman that she is, grinds her own red winter wheat and makes the nutty dough from memory and with a minimum of measuring, adding shakes of triticale, wheat germ, wheat bran, and oats entirely by eye and by feel. We tasted the raw dough and nodded our appreciation, kneaded and folded and pinched and tucked it into pans.

While the loaves rose, we roused Nicho, pulled on big rubber boots, and went outside to trim hooves. Not being a strapping man with a helmet, I stood back and watched as Nicho and his father Hans wrestled the quarrelsome sheep (whose names include Kerry and Dubya; I adore these people) and quieted the skittish llamas.

Late afternoon brought thick slices of fresh, steaming bread; a bit of kitchen-dancing with Nicho in his work overalls (who kindly put up with my bumbling and giggling); a walk down to the river and stick-throwing for Index; the piercing brightness of a receding sun; and a red nose for me. Returning to the house, we found Martha preparing a warming dinner of lentil soup with shavings of white cheddar, roasted acorn squash with sliced apples, and aforementioned bread. Nicho and I collaborated on some sautéed rainbow chard and broccoli with onion, garlic, and a squeeze of lemon. Dark had come early, as is fitting of this late-October date, and I realized happily that I’d hardly looked at my watch all day, content to let the hours come and go as they pleased.

This morning’s sunrise was slow and tentative, as was I. Nicho half-jokingly read to me from a book on the last ice age as rust-colored leaves swirled past outside. We learned the difference between mastodons and mammoths and admired their sturdy columnar legs, but given our languor, we resembled nothing so much as the giant sloth. It was delicious. Around midday, loaf of bread under my arm, I climbed reluctantly into my car and pointed it southwest, back to Seattle and concrete and anthropology and e-mail and Monday.


Friday night: frittata with assorted dances

It’s a bit after eleven. My apartment smells of frittata; the bed is pristine and pale green with fresh sheets; and my social calendar is recently ridiculous. A late Friday night home alone is fine indeed. This being-single thing is quite time-consuming: people to see, spontaneous things to do, loss of sleep to angst and scandal. It’s fantastic. I think I’ll do it for a while.

Tonight Keaton and I had dinner chez moi, a cozy plan for a chilly, off-and-on rainy evening. We broke open a bottle of Red Truck California Red Table Wine (not the most promising name, but perfectly drinkable) and settled into an evening of catching up. Dinner began with last winter’s favorite broccoli soup, courtesy of Chocolate and Zucchini’s Clotilde, sopped up with slices of the Essential Baking Company’s Columbia Bread. Meanwhile, a zucchini-and-Pecorino frittata was browning slowly on the stovetop,

to be later sliced into wedges and served alongside halves of roasted delicata squash with olive oil and fancy-schmancy fleur de sel. And although Keaton complained of a tentative stomach, she put away a decent share of the last of the defrosted chocolate gâteau fondant de Nathalie. Along the way, the stereo provided accompaniment with a bit of Richard Buckner and then “What a Day That Was” from the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, for which I did an odd but appropriate running-in-place dance. Keaton did her part by gallivanting and gyrating with the poofy, cupcake-y, petal-pink dress I’ll be wearing in my brother’s wedding next May. I adore that girl, and not only for her dancing and eating abilities.

After all, it was Keaton who introduced me to the Old 97s one fateful day long ago in our nasty Mirrielees apartment with brown shag carpet. This past Tuesday brought them in all their indie country-rock glory to Seattle’s Showbox, which meant that I got in a couple hours of my odd but appropriate “shovel dancing” and wistful gazing at lead singer Rhett Miller. Sadly, Keaton had begged off on this particular opportunity, having gotten mysteriously ill on recent outings to the Showbox, but Kate proved a willing recruit.

As pre-show fuel, Kate and I attempted to make a dinner of tilapia, a plan we reconsidered after shrieking and convulsing and threatening to go into the fetal position upon peeking inside its body cavity and glimpsing its weird white worm-like innards. Damn that man at the Asian market who didn’t clean the thing thoroughly, damn him. Plan B was garlicky sautéed shrimp, garlicky sautéed escarole, and brown rice, along with some cheap and tasty Smoking Loon Pinot Noir.

And dessert was, of course, Rhett Miller. He's so pretty that he should be kept under lock and key. Short of that, he should at least be barred from looking at his audience so flirtatiously; as a married man with a child, he’s being downright unfair. I’d be shocked if there were a single person in the audience—male or female, gay or straight—who wasn’t pining for him by the end of the evening. Yours truly woke up Wednesday morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on only five hours of sleep, invigorated solely by the previous night’s eyefuls of Mr. Miller. I tore through the day’s editorial projects with unusual passion. Old 97s for Men of the Year!

So tonight, in a spirit of generosity, I regaled Keaton with recreations of my shovel dance—picture lots of grinding hip action and dirt-heaving arm movements—and vivid descriptions of Rhett Miller’s red lips and sweaty girly hair. I sent her home with a leftover-frittata care package, and she generously bestowed upon me the rest of the wine. Now a bath and my bed await, and the promise of restorative sleep. Tomorrow I’ve got to buckle down with a cold frittata sandwich, volume five of A History of Private Life, and purposeful thesis-oriented thinking about solidarity and social security. I’ve been making merry entirely too much, but well, I think I'll do it for a while.

Zucchini-and-Pecorino Frittata
Adapted slightly from Torakris’ recipe on eGullet

3 Tbs olive oil
1 red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1-1 ½ lb zucchini, thinly sliced into half-circles
2 Tbs fresh basil, chopped
6 large eggs (preferably free-range, please)
S & P
½ cup good-quality Pecorino Romano, grated

In a 12-inch nonstick skillet, heat 2 Tbs olive oil over medium heat. Sauté onions until wilted, about 5 minutes. Add zucchini and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 10 minutes. Add basil and remove from heat. Drain in colander.

Crack eggs into a medium bowl and whisk with a fork. Add salt and pepper and cheese, stirring to mix. Add zucchini and onion and stir to mix evenly.

Heat remaining Tbs oil over medium heat. Add egg mixture, using fork to distribute evenly over pan. Reduce heat to low and cook until set, 12 to 15 minutes or so. Remove from heat and slide frittata onto a large plate. Place skillet over plate, and invert frittata back into skillet. Cook a few minutes more. Invert frittata onto plate to serve. Eat at room temperature or cold. Serves 6-8 as a first course or 4 as a main dish.


Home But Not: Bay Area Long Weekend with Cheese and Strapless Dress, Part II

My weekend in the Bay Area wasn’t entirely about traipsing around without a schedule and sleeping like the dead. I had work to do.

My mission, dear reader, was to serve as a bridesmaid to my childhood friend Jennifer, who I’ve known since I was three and she was five, when our backyards butted up against one another and we met over the fence. Together we terrorized more than one hapless babysitter, not to mention the other neighborhood kids we’d frighten by blacking out our teeth with stage makeup and dressing up in the dregs of an old Dolly Parton costume. We also had our own “radio” show, recorded on junky cassette tapes, featuring DJs Alfonso (me, of course) and Bock n’ Bowl Jennifer and with lots of fake toilet-flushing noises in the background. And like any good friend, Jennifer helped me get my childhood quota of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal—forbidden fruit in my family’s house—by not complaining when I (constantly) raided her kitchen cabinets. She also made a mean egg-drop soup with chicken bouillon cubes. As pre-teens, we gave code names to our crushes and jointly wrote stories about them in a notebook covered with stickers. Then when Jen was dating her first “real” boyfriend, I milked her for sordid details and provided, in accordance with my thirteen-year-old sensibilities, the requisite sounds of awe, disgust, or horror. And last Wednesday, after twenty-three years of this sort of girly goofiness, I found myself on a flight down to the Bay Area—Jen’s home for the past five or six years—to take part in her wedding.

First of all, I must admit that I cry at weddings. A completely visceral reaction, yes, largely irrational. I'm such a girl. And for this particular wedding, I pulled out all the stops, officially beginning my crying at the rehearsal dinner.

The dinner was held Friday night at Ramekins in Sonoma, and we started with wine, bread, and local cheeses on the patio. Jen looked poised and beautiful, the quintessential bride, in red patent-leather Betty Boop heels. I had a glass or two of Homewood Zinfandel, which was delicious with the nutty Vella Dry Jack cheese and purple-tinted slices of walnut bread. My mom arrived just in time to scoop up the last of the cheese, having flown in from Oklahoma only a few hours earlier. She looked incredible, as usual, with her brown ponytail, an off-white silk shantung pants suit, and a gorgeous Fabrice resin flower pin with seed-pearl-tipped stamens. My mother is a total bombshell.

The seated dinner for 150(!) began with a mixed-greens salad with slivers of sundried tomato and creamy chunks of goat cheese, and then we proceeded on to seared salmon on a bed of too-salty rice with slivered scallions. The rice aside, it was a very impressive spread for such a large crowd. Dessert, miniature pear tarte tatins with little pools of caramel and crème anglaise, arrived just as the first toasts began. My eyes welled up immediately, as if on cue. My mom, having had perhaps a bit too much Chardonnay, sprang unexpectedly from her seat and was the third or fourth to speak. She too was weepy, but with a few deep breaths, she muscled through. Jen and her fiancé Dave were absolutely glowing as they sat and listened to no fewer than two dozen of their friends and family members speak for them and their future. I managed to get myself under control after about a half hour of this, but there was still Saturday—and the actual wedding—to get through.

The ceremony took place on Boot Hill at Kunde Estate Winery and Vineyards in Kenwood, a spectacular site resembling something you’d see on the pages of an Italian cookbook.

At 4:30, the sky was overcast and the breeze blustery, but we carried on, ten bridesmaids in strapless tea-length dresses.

It was freezing, and I was visibly shivering. But the ceremony was solemn and heartfelt, and I only cried for a minute or two, when I saw Dave’s eyes fill with tears as he watched Jen came down the aisle with her father. I was not, as I had dreamed, the Foxy Bridesmaid, but rather the Red-Eyed and Blue-Lipped Bridesmaid. But no matter. Jennifer was radiant.

The reception began under towering oak trees strung with lights, next to a fire pit. A table was laid with fresh figs, Serrano ham, cherry tomatoes, bread, and Northern California cheeses: Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam, Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog, and more. Kunde Zinfandel to drink. Dinner and dancing took place under a clear tent lit by white Chinese lanterns, and I dug into fork-tender slices of beef tenderloin with caramelized onions, a mixed-beet salad with feta and slivered red onions, halved roasted potatoes with a dot of sour cream and minced chives, and green beans with (I think) marjoram. The wedding cake was three-tiered and minimally decorated outside—which I much appreciated—with a raspberry mousse-like filling. But the groom’s cake was the real show-stopper: two-tiered and dense with chocolate mousse and ganache. Much dancing followed, with me trying not to fall out of my strapless dress and Mom being whipped around the dance floor by eternally-playful family friend Richard Parry. We finally left at ten with very sore toes all around and a sore throat for me.

So there end my Bay Area adventures, dear reader, but for an outstanding Sunday breakfast at Larkspur’s funky Easy Street Café: fresh-squeezed orange juice, (my first ever) huevos rancheros, and a plateful of not-corned-beefy-enough corned beef hash for the table. And true to form, I flew back with loot from my travels: a bagful of Acme breads (herb slab and pain au levain) and a wedge of Vella Dry Jack, which has already been ravaged. Jennifer called last night, just to make sure I was safe and sound.

Seattle feels good, but “home” means many places, happily untethered.


Home But Not: Bay Area Long Weekend with Cheese and Strapless Dress, Part I

Oh Northern California, I've been unfaithful, but you take me back every time. You meet me at the airport with Laurent Garnier on the stereo, and you give me fresh white towels and a bedful of down pillows. You roll out the brown hills of your early fall, and I speed along them, through streets and names I'd almost forgotten, to smelly cheese and good bread and bad classic rock on the staticky radio. You know me so well.

My very petite cousin Katie and her new man Andrew picked me up at the airport late Wednesday night and whisked me across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to Corte Madera. There we found Tina, my mother’s identical twin sister and Katie’s mom, and stayed up too late talking and giggling and carrying on. Teens’ house is my second home, with its barely slanting floor and red front door and too-short showerhead and ceramic duck head with fake eyelashes peering down over the kitchen. “My” bedroom was ready and waiting, fluffy with four(!) down pillows, and I sank into it and slept as I always do there, as though dead, deliciously. Waking in that bed is like climbing out of a hole, a warm cottony womb.

On Thursday morning the sun shone in freckles through the magnolia tree, and Katie, Andrew, and I sped into San Francisco a little after eight. Dropping Katie and Andrew at their respective places of work, I dredged up my faded mental map of the City and made my way to the Boulange de Cole Valley. I settled in with a foamy-capped latte and the now-ancient New Yorker food issue, happily distracted by dogs and babies and almond croissants and the general joy of people who (for whatever reason) don’t have to work on a Thursday morning. Around 10:30 a platter of cannelés de Bordeaux, one of my favorite French sweets, appeared on the counter. I was powerless in its midst. And happily, the cannelés didn’t disappoint: encased in a caramelized-sugary crust, their centers were moist and milky sweet, almost custardy.

It was warm and sunny, and after a bit I headed to the rose garden in Golden Gate Park, where I spied on an old man sunning in a fedora and rolled-up dress pants. I recovered Katie from work around one, and, on a bench outside the Castro's Harvest Ranch Market, we lunched on tomato-corn salad with balsamic, a wedge of marinated tofu, some delicious curried potatoes inexplicably labeled “Karma d’Amour,” and a perfectly ripe banana. We attempted some thrift-shopping on Haight but soon abandoned our lackluster mission, instead settling for a few CDs at Amoeba. And then we zipped over to the AIDS Memorial Grove, the site for Katie’s thesis in architecture, where we took photos for a conceptual model she’s constructing and bungled our now-ritual self-portrait:

Our day came to a close with Teens and Andrew at Potrero Hill’s Universal Café, long one of my favorite neighborhood spots. Teens and I each started with warm porcini mushroom salads with arugula, leeks, chopped egg, and mustard vinaigrette, and then we split fresh tagliatelle with chicken-liver bolognaise, Bloomsdale spinach, and Pecorino. Katie had heirloom romaine lettuces with avocado, beets, and citrus vinaigrette, followed by charcoal-grilled sea scallops with Serrano ham and romesco sauce. Andrew began with grilled flatbread with roasted Knoll Farm figs, radicchio, and Tallegio (insanely delicious, stinky with ripe cheese and musky-sweet with ripe figs; what a lovely boy for sharing) and rounded things out with a risotto with delicata squash, thyme, white truffle oil, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. The whole was washed down with Navarro Pinot Noir, carefully selected by Teens. For dessert, we ordered a peach and huckleberry cobbler with vanilla gelato and four spoons. Much moaning and whimpering and sighing ensued.

Tired and chilly from the fall evening air, we wound our home across the fog-swaddled Golden Gate Bridge to bed.

[To be continued…]


“Civilization / it’s all about knives and forks”

Tuesday night, and I feel selfish and lazy and wonderfully sleepy. I love a quiet night at home like this, eating a simple dinner of peanut butter on warm toast and zucchini in a tomato-y sauce with onions, capers, and mint. Afterwards I dug into the freezer and came out with half a chocolate gâteau fondant de Nathalie, from which I cut a generous wedge. With a few seconds in the microwave and a cold glass of milk on the side, it was luscious. Dinner alone, if approached willingly, can be the greatest luxury.

But dinner with others is awfully nice too. Sunday night brought Nicho back from the Olympic Hot Springs and to my apartment, where we drank Grant’s Mandarin Hefeweizen and ate the fresh lamb sausages I’d picked up on Saturday with Margot at Uli’s Sausage. We also roasted a halved delicata squash with olive oil and coarse salt, and I made a tomato bread salad with what I’m afraid may be the last of the summer’s heirlooms. We finished things off with the aforementioned chocolate cake, which Nicho put away like a pro, all the while claiming to not be a fan of dark chocolate. He also claimed that he couldn’t remember the Spanish word for “swan” and instead told me that my neck is like a goose’s. He is lovely.

But tonight there’s much to be said for feeling solo and sleepy and still and too full. I almost missed my bus this morning but didn’t, and on this afternoon's bus I almost didn’t spill a big glug of water down my front but did. David Byrne is doing his loud and exquisite opera number on the stereo. My pinky toes hurt from hoofing around downtown in my ultra-pretty, ultra-pointy black heels.

I’m so predictable.
The dirty dishes are calling.

[Thank you, DB, for the title.]


Gold stars: a well-trained mother, plus cheese and chocolate

A gold-star day, in the words of fashion maven Elizabeth!

1. My mother called at 10:30am, wanting to know if I would wear a crocheted poncho, just hypothetically. She is well trained, having survived a trial by fire.

When I was fifteen she really outdid herself at Christmas. Mom usually has exquisite taste, and she fully supported my teenage forays into burgundy hair (which she dyed for me), clunky boots, lots of layers, and 11-cent thrift-shop men’s pants. But that Christmas, she strayed too far into the realm of ultra-trendy grungesque wear, bringing home for me a baggy flannel dress and a rubber belt with bottle-caps on it, among other unmentionables. This was a huge mistake. Dear reader, I very nearly died that morning under the Christmas tree. In an effort to be good-natured—there’s nothing more painful than putting on a brave face when confronted with a horrible gift—I agreed to try on the aforementioned articles. I put on the dress, and then I cried. I wouldn’t come out of my room. Complete and total meltdown: sniveling, hiding, whathaveyou. By the end of the day we'd discovered that my hysteria was actually due to a nasty flu virus, and I spent the following week sleeping on the couch in the den, living on Comtrex, and effortlessly shedding eight pounds. Mom’s presents, however, remained an unmitigated disaster and were confined to the back of my closet, still in their boxes. Even eleven years later, I wince in retelling this.

And so it was established that my mother would refrain from buying clothing for me without my approval. Hence this morning’s call and the poncho question, which was met with a negative, rest assured. But she called back three minutes later, giggly and secretive and unfazed, to ask, “So, would you wear something fur? Something that goes around your neck? Fur? Yes? Chocolate brown?” Well now, affirmative! I love that woman. This calls to mind another snippet from Ted Kooser’s interview in the New York Times Magazine:

Q: Is an unhappy childhood a prerequisite for a career in poetry?

Kooser: I had a wonderfully happy childhood. As the writer William Maxwell said of his mother, ‘She just shone on me like the sun.’”

Oh Mommy Mommy.

2. Friday lunch: a sandwich of Grafton two-year white cheddar and grated carrots on lightly toasted wheaty wheat bread. This is a staple chez moi. The sweetness of the carrots is a perfect foil for the tangy sharpness of the cheddar. Miam miam. Also highly recommended on cinnamon-raisin bread.

3. When baking three dozen chocolate cupcakes for PPNW’s third anniversary party, there’s nothing better than Blackalicious. Please take heed. Scrubbing away at that weird pink mold in the shower? Blackalicious. Feeling bleary-eyed and whiny at 6:30 in the morning? Blackalicious, honey. Plotting your next move? Blackalicious. Gold-star day? I think you see where I’m headed.


When in a jam

I am a victim of identity theft.
I can’t believe this. My poor brain is flogging itself.

I won’t go into the details in this loud, echoing, painfully public venue, but yesterday I was weaseled out of the last four digits of my Social Security number by a nasty scheming liar. And then he—no doubt rubbing his hands with devilish glee—called my wireless telephone provider, bought a $600 cell phone in my name, and had it shipped to himself.

But my mother and I, an unbeatable cross-country sleuthing duo, put a stop to the madness in less than two hours. There will be no fancy cell phone for you, Mr. Evil Liar-Man, nor will you be buying any flashy hookers with the money you’d make selling that fancy cell phone. I called the cops on you, and the Federal Trade Commission too. And I’ve fraud alerted myself up and away to safety.

After all that crime-fighting, a lovely low-key dinner with lovely friends was the only way to redeem the day. Kate bravely roasted her first chicken—with lots of help from foxy visitor Ian—and likewise foxy Nicho chipped in with roasted acorn squash and squash seeds. There were also roasted potatoes with loads of garlic and rosemary and olive oil, and rounding out the color palette was a salad of watercress, spinach, cherry tomatoes, and feta. And I brought up the rear with dessert, of course: a buttery cake scented with almond and lemon extracts, with a layer of homemade strawberry jam in the center.

As the saying goes, when in a jam of identity-theft proportions, eat buttery jam cake:

Flo Braker’s Plain & Simple Jam-Filled Butter Cake

[Note: I modified the recipe slightly by using high-butterfat European-style butter. Also, I did not use Braker’s jam recipe, preferring instead to tap into my stash of early-summer strawberry jam. And I made an only somewhat successful grid pattern on top with powdered sugar, using strips of waxed paper I cut while on the phone with the police. Nothing gets in the way of my dessert preparations, but nothing.]


Like the leaves

I have somewhat contradictory fears: I'm afraid of not getting enough sleep and, on the other hand, of sleeping too late. While it seems perfectly alright to bow out of an evening early, I’m terrified of missing morning: the sweet slowness in my limbs, the ritual first meal of the day, the clanging and buzzing of the street as it begins to wake. In college I’d sometimes sneak away to bed at 9 or 9:30, feeling smart and smug and sensible, as though I were putting an entire paycheck into savings rather than spending it. But I’m softening with age: these days sleep comes closer to midnight, and morning isn’t welcome until eight. I’ve even been known to find ample reasons to stay up past bedtime and lie around the next day. I’m so grown up.

But this morning I’m tired. I woke again to a fog that covered the city, and the trees outside my apartment are turning crimson, then amber, then brittle yellow against the gray air. Today I feel like the leaves. Soon I’ll drag myself out for a long walk. Solvitur ambulando, as the Romans used to say: the solution comes through walking.

Last night brought chocolate cake and a new twist in the future of my kitchen. It came in the form of a Mason jar half-full of foamy sourdough starter, complete with a lid that reads, “Feeeeeed me!” Margot, who is constantly crafting and creating various things from plaster and wax and latex and wood glue and wheat and loads of butter, has given me a bit of her sourdough starter. She also presented me with a collection of recipes from the hilariously hokey Sourdough Jack’s Cookery, which comes with photos of Jack himself in a suede vest and cowboy hat, gazing lovingly at his sourdough sponge.

Seven of us sat around the big round table for a dinner of grilled salmon and offerings from the family garden: purple potatoes dug only minutes before boiling, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers tossed with feta and vinaigrette, and stubby ears of yellow corn. We then wreaked havoc on a still-warm sourdough chocolate cake, complete with its moat of improvised (and remarkably tasty) chocolate glaze made from a giant Hershey’s Kiss melted with milk and butter.

And to cap off the evening, we bundled up against the fall night—I, in Margot’s fleece jacket, proved that red and purple do go together—and went to a cyclocross race to watch men in tight outfits hop over little hurdles with their bikes on their shoulders. Other highlights of the evening included Nicho’s dog Index, with intelligent eyes and an excellent name; Kate’s corduroy pants with stars on the seat; and my feigned fear of Kate's fabulously muscular legs, ready to spring like coiled pythons from the aforementioned corduroy pants.

I came home, marveled at the jar of sourdough starter for a moment or two, and then, possessed by the sort of sweet-and-sour melancholia that comes only after midnight, I stayed up until 2am, writing. Two years ago, when I last spent summer at home in Oklahoma, my father—who I’ve called “Burg” for as long as I can remember—and I talked often of baking bread together. I like to think he was a sourdough starter kind of guy, maybe Sourdough Jack in a photographer’s vest and baseball cap. But we didn’t know then that the summer would be his last, and we let ourselves be distracted by peaches, tomatoes, pesto, and candy-sweet white corn.

Last Sunday, September 26, marked two years since the day Burg was diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer of the kidney. It had already metastasized to his spinal column and his bony pelvis, femurs, skull, and tibia. It took him down fast, viciously. October 7, 2002 was the last day he walked, taking tentative steps with my brothers down the hospital hallway. He died only two months later, on December 7.

I’ve stayed up too late, and this morning I'm tired.
But the solution comes through walking, I tell myself, and so I go.

Margot’s Sourdough Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Sourdough Jack’s Cookery

1 cup thick sourdough starter
1 cup sugar
½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup milk (evaporated preferred, but even regular old skim works fine), at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp ground cinnamon
3 oz semi-sweet chocolate, melted and cooled
½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp baking soda
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

Leave a cup of starter out overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cream sugar and butter until fluffy, then beat in eggs one at a time. Stir in starter, milk, vanilla, cinnamon, and melted chocolate. Beat with electric mixer (or recruit a strong man with a whisk, such as Margot’s boyfriend Todd) for two minutes. Blend salt and soda together and sprinkle over batter. Fold in gently. Fold in flour until batter is smooth. Pour into buttered and floured pan (either a standard Bundt pan or an 8-inch round pan, or experiment).

Bake until cake springs back when pressed lightly and a cake tester comes out clean, 35-60 minutes, depending on the type of pan you use. Cool and frost, or sprinkle with powdered sugar. Then eat, as with other things, aggressively.