“Don’t discourage me. In my job I have to paste one fact to another with words, and in the end everything has to seem coherent even if it’s not.”
“But if the coherence isn’t there, why pretend?
“To create order.” -Elena Ferrante (The Story of the Lost Child)
It’s hard to believe now as life again takes on the outlines of the monotony of a daily routine–breakfast, work, lunch, work, dinner, relaxation/freedom, bed–but this has, quite possibly, been the craziest summer of my life. We drove across the country in a rickety, luridly yellow Penske truck that, at its worst moments, called to mind the van from Little Miss Sunshine. The headlights didn’t work, the truck pulled alarmingly to the right and every time we passed another vehicle, it felt like its frame might collapse into pieces. But its flaws aside, it was also our chariot and faithful companion for a solid 10 days. In this big truck of horrors and delights, we chased numerous sunsets, from the fiery grenadine-tinged skies of the American southwest to the pale pink and streaky violet of Delaware; we watched as the wild sunflowers and rolling hills of Arizona and New Mexico gave way to the endlessly flat and burnt-by-the-sun cow pastures of Texas and Oklahoma; from there, Arkansas, with its verdant hills and wildflowers, was nothing if not a breath of fresh air: full of Southern charm and with both the energy and shiny veneer of a red brick American college town, full of long-legged, long-haired sorority girls with their uniform of short shorts and long t-shirts. Then, entering Missouri, it was endless corn fields, corn fields, corn fields–swaths of green and gold, that hard currency of the American heartland; it was then that corn fields became a fixture of the journey, from Missouri to Pennsylvania and, if at any point you start to find them, despite the mysteries that they might contain (imagine the potential for a novel set in a labyrinth of corn fields–the essence of farm/Midwestern noir), hopelessly monotonous, know that corn fields are preferable to potholes so deep that they rattle your teeth and make you say a silent prayer for the valuables in the back of the truck that, however miraculously, has carried you this far. Which state took the award for most treacherous potholes? Hands down it was Indiana, whose state promise of speedways and of being the “crossroads of America” belies the truth that you might not get that far since a flat tire is most likely in your future.
On this journey, we ate well, incredibly well. We gorged on the excesses of a Vegas breakfast, dined in high style at El Tovar at the Grand Canyon and then, the next morning, feasted on the colors of the canyon itself. It was here, surrounded by fresh air and natural beauty (not including the ravenous and plague-ridden squirrels), that the Greek proposed, much to the delight of the romance-loving Italian tourists the Greek had asked to take our picture and who, until the Greek got down on one knee, had no idea what was going to happen. I was embraced, my cheeks kissed and in that small way I became, for a moment at least, a part of the canyon’s supposed magic. We celebrated with lunch at La Posada (a recommendation from a dear friend who, on her own blog, has shared the Turquoise Room’s fantastic recipe for black bean soup) and then drove onwards to the chiles, both red and green and oh so hot, that dot the landscape of the Land of Enchantment. And after Texas, which at a local steakhouse we discovered the Texan penchant for spicy ranch everything (except for on their superlative peach cobblers), we found ourselves solidly in the world of Midwestern experimentation with sweet corn; the results were surprising, elevating corn to heights I hadn’t imagined possible (sweet corn agnolotti)!
Though we had beautiful weather for almost the whole trip–sunshine and cripplingly bright skies in the Southwestern desert and cloudy but sunny skies in the Midwest with a few light showers–the day we moved into our new house it poured. You would think, after 3,500 miles of driving, that the actual act of moving in would have been the easy part, but, somehow, everything went wrong. The movers didn’t show up and the house was not, as promised, cleaned. We, who had been objects in constant motion for the past 10 days, were suddenly frozen; it was unclear where to begin. Fortunately, the movers, after two prodding phone calls, drove here in the rain from New Jersey and, to highlight the farcical nature of the whole welcome to Delaware experience, about 20 minutes after, the errant handyman (a character out of a nineteenth-century French novel; he reminds of sneaky, out-for-himself Homais from Madame Bovary), pulled up in his pickup truck, smelling of alcohol, cigarettes and swearing up and down in his thick Delawarean drawl that he himself had cleaned the place. After kindly explaining to him why I knew that was not possible and still being met with protestations to the contrary, I pointed out the several glaring examples that indicated lies. Case in point: I recalled being particularly repulsed–so much so that I had wanted to dispose of it myself–by a small piece of lettuce, the kind that is shredded and put on sandwiches or tacos at fast food joints–that I had seen when I was there in July; well, on August 20, it was still shriveled and still there. Before this debate over the lettuce could get too heated, the cleaning lady sent by our landlord to remedy the situation showed up and it was, in short, the most ridiculous of situations, a zoo: boxes being carried in and out, the cleaning lady commenting, to the handyman’s chagrin, that the house was dirty, the sound of a vacuum being met with the thump of furniture being put into its new position. In short, this was nowhere near the peaceful and smooth arrival that we had hoped for.
But you can make do in any situation, which is exactly what we did. This next part may sound craziest of all, but after five days of frantically putting things away, scrubbing doorways and paneling with a combination of Magic Erasers, q-tips and toothpicks, we headed to the Philadelphia airport and boarded a plane for Athens via Frankfurt. The Greek had to take care of his visa and we, as it now turned out, had to begin to plan a wedding. While I had had my reservations about this trip (jetting off to Greece when our home was still partly in shambles seemed to me to be the very height of irresponsibility), it was, as Greece always is, restorative and otherwordly, a place where time appears to move differently.
It was in Europe that we finally exhausted all forms of transportation available to human beings within a period of less than two months: we took a boat to the island of Syros, where we stuffed ourselves with figs, capers as plump as raisins and fennel sausage; we traveled by bus to Hermoupolis, the capital of the Cyclades Islands, where we saw the power of the final days of the tourist season in action; we drove to and from Thessaloniki, where we will get married next summer in a church that is older than American civilization; in Germany, en route to America, we took advantage of a long layover by taking a train to downtown Frankfurt and walking around, enjoying a coffee, smoked herring and the suddenly chilly temperatures of the north that indicated that fall was just around the corner. Going from Greece to Germany in what seemed to be the blink of an eye highlighted the impossibility of the wish of most European officials: that Greece will magically morph into Germany. From climate to landscape to cuisine, not to mention a thousand other things, it cannot, nor will it ever happen (and I personally don’t think it should).
And now here we are again in Delaware, where time also moves differently. Perhaps it’s the fact that I lived so many (vastly different) lives in one tiny period of time, but I continue to feel a little strange and restless, somewhat disconnected from the present. I suspect that I’m now just waiting for the next adventure to happen; my wanderlust can’t help but ask, “Where to next?” But I think that the “where next” is going to have to wait. I am, for now, very firmly here to stay, trying to piece together this new and tentative existence. When we returned from Europe, my family came and worked their magic, helping us to put the finishing touches (and to fully eradicate the mold in the basement; I kid you not, I never moved into a place as filthy as this one) on our new home. Last Saturday I bought a new car (this was only after the Greek was told that he could not get a loan since he is not a U.S. citizen; ah, the perils of international love!). Beyond the big purchases, I’m now happily exploring the Delaware farmers’ markets (tomatillos, so many varieties of apples, shiny and plump peppers! There is, it turns out, life after the spoils of California), as well as stuffing the pantry with all the things that we not only left behind us during the move, but that we might also want to eat in the undoubtedly long winter ahead.
In a way, I get the feeling that this is how things are meant to be. I do love traveling and adventure, but I like my home, its comforts, the ease of a life that is well organized but with the option to be spontaneous. I like my books, their proximity, lazy mornings and the comforting presence of a wagging tail that looks like it was dipped in white paint. There is a pleasing comfort in permanence that I relish. This past week I celebrated this feeling, my grand return to normalcy in my domain, by cooking up a storm: roasting squash, simmering the joyful mess of tomatoes and peppers that is peperonata and cooking endlessly from Heidi Swanson’s new book, Near and Far. While there have been times when I have openly rebelled against the aestheticization of food that Swanson and many others practice, there is no getting around the fact that this is a stunning and well-conceived book. I would say masterly even. Not only does it offer recipes for the kind of things that I want to eat and drink (Almond Cake with an Amaro Glaze, Plum Wine Sparklers, Harira, Saffron Tagines), but it also explores the cuisine of places that I myself love (San Francisco, Japan, Italy, France) and of those that I want to visit (India and Morocco; I’m the thinking the latter has honeymoon potential). I’ve already made Red Lentil Hummus, spicy and protein-filled Harira (with modifications to my pantry), Turmeric tea and, thanks to Friday’s baking spree, not one, but three, Rye Buttermilk Cakes. These cakes are lovely and sturdy little things, deriving their flavor from a combination of rye and all purpose flour and buttermilk and vanilla. They fall into the realm of everyday cakes, simple to execute and easy to dress up–with either fresh or roasted fruit, jam or, if you’re feeling decadent, a scoop of vanilla ice cream. One is currently on the counter, half eaten, and two others (already glazed) have been put into airtight containers in the freezer for the blustery days ahead.
I wasn’t going to share the recipe for these, but I’ve been gone for so long that a recipe seemed like it was in order. I’ll be back soon with more notes and photos from the road trip (this was just a preview of a few select places: Arizona, New Mexico, Greece, Germany) and recipes both inspired by my own travels and from the endless archives of posts not yet written. Happy Sunday in the meantime!
P.S. For the Ferrante fans out there who are reading this, the Paris Review just published an interview with her, which offers a glimpse into her writing process.
Rye Buttermilk Cakes
From Heidi Swanson’s Near and Far (written in my own words)
Swanson says that this recipe makes about 7 1/2 cups batter and that she divides the batter across small and odd-sized pans (usually different-sized bundt pans), making sure not to fill them more than 2/3 of the way full. The baking time she suggests ranges from 30-50 minutes, depending on the size of the pans you select. I opted to use a small bundt, as well as two small loaf pans; for these, 35-40 minutes seemed ideal and, when I checked them at 40, they were ready to be removed from the oven: their tops were crackly and golden and would spring back when touched. These are the signs to look for.
Be sure to adjust the time according to the pans you choose; I would suggest erring on the side of caution and checking them earlier rather than later. That said, you can also use one large bundt pan and bake for 40-50 minutes, problem solved.
For the cakes:
2 cups (225 g) dark rye flour
2 cups (255 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 cups (480 ml) buttermilk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup (225 g) butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups (210 g) natural cane sugar
4 eggs, at room temperature
For the glaze:
1 1/2 cups (200 g) confectioners’ sugar
4 tablespoons buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla or 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat it to 350 F (175 C). Butter and flour the cake pans you’ve selected, tapping out any excess flour.
Sift the flours, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Then, in another bowl whisk together the buttermilk and vanilla. Set both bowls aside until needed.
Using either a stand mixer with a paddle attachment or a hand-held mixer, cream the butter until fluffy. With the mixer on, add the sugar and beat until well incorporated (since natural cane sugar is thick, this might take a few minutes; don’t be alarmed if the batter seems slightly gritty). Turn the mixer off and scrape down the sides, then add the eggs one at a time. Make sure that the eggs are well incorporated before adding the next one. Once all the eggs have been added, the batter should be creamy and light.
With the mixer on low (the stir function is best), add one-third of the dry ingredients and, once incorporated, then one-third of the buttermilk mixture. Continue until all of the dry and wet ingredients have been added to the batter, making sure not to overmix.
Divide the batter–it will be heavy and thick– among the prepared pans (they should be 2/3 full), then rap them one at a time against the counter or floor to remove any air bubbles. Place the pans on a baking sheet and bake until golden and the cake springs back when touched. Remove the cakes from the oven as they are baked (mine finished at the same time, but, depending on the size of your pans, yours may not) and let cool in the pan on a rack for a few minutes before turning them out to cool completely.
While the cakes are cooling, make the glaze. Sift the confectioners’ sugar into a small bowl, then slowly, whisking all the while, add the buttermilk and vanilla mixture. Whisk until smooth. Once the cakes have completely cooled, pour the glaze onto the cakes, allowing it to flow down their sides.
The cakes, if consumed immediately, can be left on the counter, loosely wrapped in foil or plastic. They can also be frozen in an airtight container up to a month.