“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” -Helen Keller
“It’s life,” she said. These were the words my dissertation adviser offered me when, in our final meeting of the semester (of my whole graduate student career, really [!!]), I told her that I would have to file in the summer instead of in May. It was not the response I was anticipating, but so much about these past few weeks has been unexpected that little could well and truly surprise me at this point.
I’ve been quiet here for longer than I was expecting, but not without cause. Last week one of our professors passed away, which brought both sadness and a sense of reality to our tiny, often uneventful part of the world. It was strange to go to a funeral with my friends and colleagues, to see our professors grieving–the very same professors who, in an academic setting, can be so intimidating and seem so untouchable–and to know that a jovial, erudite man who only days before was envisioning finishing yet another scholarly manuscript would never again give an enthusiastic lecture on Russia in the eighteenth century. On some level, it just felt so surreal, not at all an appropriate time to talk about a Persian loaf cake.
This feeling only continued throughout the weekend. For some reason, I was plagued with a horrible headache, one that just kept coming back. A part of me believes that it was induced by the events of last week, in addition to the thick stream of incense that constitutes an essential part of any Orthodox service, while another part thinks that it was the thought of Monday’s dissertation meeting weighing on my mind. What initially seemed worrisome, however, turned into 20 business-like minutes; there was compassion, well wishes and advice. And then the all-important signature/approval page was signed in advance of my completing the last chapter, the editing and the endless formatting that is half the battle of filing a dissertation. But I have to keep reminding myself that it’s important to take it all one step at a time; the work is hardly done yet. The signature signified an important, albeit a small step forward. But it just might have been the push that I had been craving, something like a vote of confidence.
Then, with that good news to buoy my spirits, other good things started happening: in a matter of days, the Greek’s parents arrived, a good friend passed her Qualifying Exam and I began to wade into a preliminary search for a post-dissertation job. Everything is suddenly moving so quickly that it’s hard to know what to do first. I’m not even sure I know what to think about all of this. After seven years of being a Slavist, it’s difficult to imagine who I am without the daily dose of Dostoevsky, Pushkin and company. Or who I am outside of a classroom, or even outside of a larger academic setting. There are moments when I think I know, but I’m excited to see what new surroundings and challenges will bring me. Maybe my fear sometimes makes me want to pause on this moment–as imperfect and thankless as it can often be–but I know that I would just be doing a disservice to myself if I were to attempt to turn back now. Not to look beyond this life would be cheating myself of all that could be and, at the end of the day, there are many ways to make a life.
In the spirit of discovery, of going beyond habits (both mine and yours) and of celebrating life in all of its simultaneous glory and misery, I offer you today a Persian loaf cake. My obsession with the flavors of Persian cuisine continues, although I should confess that this cake was baked at the very beginning of spring break. The photos have been sitting abandoned in a titled blog post since late March, waiting for me to return to them in a quiet moment. That moment has finally arrived.
This cake is a lovely little thing, studded with walnuts and flavored with one of my all-time favorite sweets, halva. In Arabic, halva simply means “sweet,” but I first became familiar with it in two other contexts: the first was while I lived in Russia and was looking for a candy to eat. I was also rather desperate for peanut butter and, when I discovered the red and gold foil covered candies with “Khalva” written on them, I discovered something that was not only akin to peanut butter (it was crushed sesame or sunflower seeds), but also covered in chocolate. To this day, I can’t go into a Russian or Eastern European grocery store without buying these candies. The second context was a cinnamon-scented dessert the Greek makes from semolina; I love it only a little less than I do the Russian and Middle Eastern-style halva. And in this cake, I found another new way of enjoying halva (I will happily try them all): two layers of light, crumbly dough with crumbled halva, walnuts and cinnamon in the middle and cinnamon-coated top. It reminds me of coffee cake, but one that is more subtle in terms of its flavor and only lightly sweetened. The real star of this cake is the halva, which melts in the oven and creates caramelized pockets of nutty goodness in the center of the cake. It’s the kind of cake you want to reach for in the afternoon when you need a pick-me-up. That, in and of itself, should be a glowing endorsement.
Walnut and Halva Cake
yields 8 pieces
Because I got this recipe out of a British column, I used weight measurements instead of the more standard volume measurements. I do find these easier to work with when baking–mainly because I find that it saves time.
In terms of changes, I altered the method a little, finding the order of steps to be a little confusing for my tastes; I also used plain old cane sugar instead of caster and demerrera when muscovado was called for. My halva was also not the recommended plain kind; I opted for the marbled kind (a mix of light and dark halva), whose flavor I love. I also think that this cake, when I make it in the future, could benefit from the chocolate covered halva that I mentioned earlier–both in the middle and on top. I think a layer of halva–whether chocolate covered, plain or marbled–would also make a wonderful addition to this cake since it’s the stand-out ingredient.
For the cake:
85 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the plan
100 grams cane sugar
2 medium eggs, whisked lightly
200 grams all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
a pinch of salt
130 grams of sour cream (or Greek yogurt)
For the topping:
60 grams unsalted butter
120 grams walnuts, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
25 grams demerara sugar
170 grams marbled halva, broken into large pieces (about 1-2 inches)
-Preheat the oven to 320 F and grease a loaf tin with a small bit of butter. Line the base and sides of the pan with parchment paper (this will help you to lift the delicate cake out of the pan, so do not skip this step!).
-Put the 60 grams of butter in a small saucepan on medium-low heat. Allow it to melt and then let sizzle for a few minutes until its color is light brown and it gives off a nutty smell.
-Remove the butter from the heat and let cool. Then, mix the butter walnuts and cinnamon together and divide the mixture into two.
-Take one half of the topping mixture and stir the demerara sugar into it. Then, set aside.
-Now, sift together the flour, baking powder and soda and a pinch of salt. Set aside.
-Cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy, then add the eggs one at a time.
-Then, add some of the dry ingredients, then some of the sour cream. Keep adding alternately, ending with the sour cream. Be careful not to over-mix; the mixer should be on its lowest setting for this step.
-Spread half the batter on the base of the loaf pan, smoothing it out into an even layer with a spoon or spatula.
-Scatter the sugarless nut mix over this layer evenly and then place bits of the crumbled halva throughout the sugarless nut mix.
-Then, spread the remaining batter on top, smoothing it with a spoon or spatula. Sprinkle the sugary nut mix on top.
-Bake for 40-45 minutes, until a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean. Let cool for about 20 minutes and then carefully remove the cake from the pan with the parchment sling you’ve created.
-Let cool and then serve with either whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.