Reliable (+ a Flat White)

Coffee and I, as has been well-documented on this site, have a long and mostly happy history. I don’t know for sure when I first started drinking it regularly, though it probably was during college. I remember coming home to California for a visit in the early years and being taken to Chez Claude in San Francisco on the way home from the airport. I ordered a cafe au lait and felt marvelously grown-up and decadent sitting in the sunlit cafe with my elbows perched on the wooden table and a large bowl of milky coffee in front of me. I’ll still drink the occasional latte or cappuccino but for everyday whoever makes his or her way down to the kitchen first puts on a pot of simple American-style coffee and we work on it throughout the morning. I’ve had my flings with drinking coffee black, without sugar, with cream, with half and half, with soy creamer, and have finally settled on whole milk and about a 1/4-teaspoon of sugar per cup. It works, it’s easy, you can drink coffee like this in most places you may find yourself.

Continue reading

The Dream of Cake

[Cake for Whitney, May 2009.]

Once, a few years ago, I had a long layover in Munich on the way back from Thessaloniki to Washington, DC. I wandered the airport in a fog of sleepiness and humidity (who knew Germany was so grey and hot in the summer?) and bought a sweater in Benetton on the euro that I ended up hardly ever wearing. I checked in early and looked for a place to eat — not a sandwich, as I’d had so many of those during the past few weeks (or at least, lots of cheese and bread) — but something sit-down and proper. I can’t remember exactly what I got (!) but it was delicious. I read my magazine and sipped a strong cup of coffee, and then I tucked into a slice of chocolate cake

What was so special about that cake? Nothing, probably — it was just chocolate, after all, topped with thick bittersweet ganache. But oh, did it taste so good to that weary traveler, already aching a bit for the Greece I’d just left.

Or maybe I was jetlagged?

Jetlag can do funny things to the brain. It can prompt one to send text messages in the early morning hours of the day from the Philadelphia airport regarding wishes to catch the next plane … anywhere, perhaps to Burlington or Belize or Bahrain or all or neither. It can create naps while waiting for the next flight, curled up into those uncomfortable airport seats. It can cause you to fall asleep at 6p and wake up at 3a ready to start the day even though there’s no way you should be starting the day at 3a.

Mostly, it necessitates lots of coffee and sometimes also cake.

There’s a certain cake I used to bake a lot for birthdays when I lived in Washington : a confectioner’s ideal of smooth white cake layers sandwiching cool pineapple, filled and frosted with fluffy whipped cream, and sprinkled all over with toasted coconut. Individually each of these components could stand on its own — fresh pineapple for breakfast is one of my favorite treats, and I swear I could eat shredded coconut by the handful — so together they form a sort of cake-y splendor that transcends even the dream of cake.

Yes, perhaps it seems as though I exaggerate a bit. But really I’m not. Promise.

(Look at that thing — it’s really so awfully pretty, don’t you think?)

It’s a true stunner.

This weekend we celebrated my parents’ 40th anniversary with a garden party (or, rather, a party in the backyard, complete with lots of cold champagne and a ping-pong table set up in the field). My brother and his girlfriend Emily were in from Maine, as well as my uncle and his girlfriend, Sharon, from Florida and so we cooked and drank and feasted quite well for about two days. Our menu included

Spanikopita and dolmades
Hummus and breads
Assorted cheeses

Grilled salmon, with choice of almond-parsley pesto or nectarine salsa
Roasted potato-pesto salad
Grilled zucchini
Slow-roasted tomatoes
Vegetable skewers (mushrooms, peppers, onions)
Couscous-feta salad
Greek salad

Oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies
Mini vegan chocolate cupcakes
Two coconut cakes, one filled with pineapple and one filled with peaches

It was a time, and I have photos. Oh-so-many photos. But for the moment I can only offer you this cake: appropriate for birthdays, weddings, anniversary celebrations, last days at the office — or just tonight. It’s dreamy and perfect any time of year and for any occasion. And I wish I had a piece right now with some Greek coffee to tide me through the rest of the afternoon.

Coconut-pineapple Layer Cake

For cake layers
2 1/3 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
5 large eggs, beaten lightly

For filling
a 28-ounce can crushed pineapple in unsweetened juice
1 tablespoon cornstarch
a rounded 1/4 cup sugar

2 2/3 cups sweetened flaked coconut (a 7-ounce bag), toasted golden
and cooled

1 carton whipped cream, whipped

Make cake layers:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line bottoms of 2 buttered 9- by2-inch round cake pans with rounds of wax paper. Dust pans with flour, knocking out excess.

Into a bowl sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. In a glass measuring cup stir together milk and vanilla. In a bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed cream butter 1 minute and add sugar in a steady stream, beating until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Beat in eggs, a little at a time, beating well after each addition, until pale and fluffy. Stir in flour mixture in 4 batches alternately with milk, beginning and ending with flour mixture and stirring after each addition until batter is smooth.

Divide batter between pans, smoothing tops, and bake in middle of oven until a tester inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool cake layers in pans on racks 10 minutes. Run a thin knife around edge of each pan and invert cake layers onto racks. Remove wax paper carefully and cool cake layers completely. Cake layers may be made 5 days ahead and frozen, wrapped in plastic wrap and foil. Thaw cake layers in refrigerator 1 day before proceeding with recipe.

Make filling:
In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, combine the pineapple, sugar, and cornstarch. Stir well to combine and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until thick. Remove from heat and let cool completely.

Spread one cake layer with about 1/4 of the whipped cream. Top with the pineapple filling and sprinkle coconut lightly over it. Top with the other cake layer. Spread the cake with the remaining whipped cream, covering completely. Liberally sprinkle coconut over the cake.

Morning Essential

[Breakfast, coffee required, March 2009.]

I woke up this morning feeling a bit fractious. It’s been hot here, climbing to the 80s, even, which for this sea-blown city is an anomaly except for a few times a year (though I’m not complaining; I love the warmer weather) — too hot to sleep almost. Also, the birds suddenly know it’s spring and are pealing away every morning, noon, and sometimes all night with their riotous singing. I’m not wishing this away by any means but it does make for a sort of restless night’s sleep.

Even that early I could already feel the press of the day’s heat in my apartment. Hot, I thought, almost East Coast hot. Almost-but-not-quite Greece hot. I wandered sleepily into thoughts of the beach, summer camping trips, hikes out to Tomales Point, to baseball games and home made ice cream. I stretched out and wished for just another hour of delicious sleep and a whole day off for rambling.

I’ve never exactly been a morning person — my ex always used to complain I was a wee bit, err, cranky before 8 a.m. though really I must argue in my own defense that I wasn’t so much cranky as just barely awake and in the past few years I’ve learned the early morning hours are some of the most beautiful of the whole day — but there is one thing that always gets me up and out the door. You know what it is: my daily cup of coffee.

I texted my bff with a question: Quick! Iced coffee or americano?! She responded as I hoped she would: IC

. The hot weather really did deserve to be celebrated with a special treat.

[Northern Greece, August 2005.]

For some reason this morning my coffee tastes like Greece — or at least very like the coffee I drank so much of when I was there. Coffee first thing in the still, heavy mornings right when I woke up, with the milk heated in one of those little Greek coffee pot-tins on the hot plate. Then I’d walk through the narrow, hot streets to the kafenio near the boat yard where my brother worked to meet him for a mid-morning frappé (mine I liked metrios, and with a little milk) or met his girlfriend Emily at a restaurant above the dock to watch the ferry come in. Inevitably we also had one or two in the afternoons; it was too hot not to.

It’s always like that. The second time I was in Greece, in the north, I found I could hardly sleep and couldn’t figure it out until I realized just how much coffee I was drinking every day.

But it’s so good — bitter, strong, and full of the Mediterranean.

The last time I went to Greece was almost two years ago now, and it was my favorite trip of all — maybe because I’d been there a few times already so I knew what to expect; most likely it was because I was back to the islands and staying with my brother and it felt good and right to be there. Even Athens, dirty and hot and crowded as it is, didn’t feel strange; for once, and for the first time, I felt like I could slip into it pretty easily. It was familiar somehow.

All we did really was sleep and eat (well, they worked, too) and swim and eat and swim and swim and swim and read on the little rocky beach that was their favorite. One day we road bikes to the supposed best restaurant on the island (and it was very good) up the hills and past the horses in the blazing sun. The last bit was down a dirt path and as soon as we got the beach we threw the bikes down and jumped in the water to wash away all the dust and sweat. I probably have never been so tan in my entire life and I never got sunburned. We drank beer with dinner and rode back through the deserted roads to town, me stopping every so often to take pictures of the bay and the boats anchored there. It was so quiet I could hear the wind rushing through the dry grass. A tanker ship sailed serenely in at dusk.

It was a golden time, relaxed and full of good food and stretching out. I almost didn’t go — so expensive, my boyfriend wasn’t interested, hard to get the time off — but what if I hadn’t? I would never have known. I want to go back, of course, but it won’t be the same; my brother lives in Maine now and without my tie to the island I might not feel as at-home (well, sure).

Still, I want to go to Aegena, where I went on my very first trip so long ago, to try to find any bits of my family who may still be there. I want to find out for certain where my grandfather grew up — I could well imagine him under the drooping pistachio trees in the island’s dusty interior but I’d like to know for sure. For whatever reason that connection to family I’ve never met, even generations back, endlessly fascinates.

This kind of weather makes me nostalgic for so many things: childhood summers playing soccer in the field, sweat running into my eyes; early-morning swim lessons at the pool downtown; life on the East Coast; trips abroad. It seems almost like vacation — tropical and exotic. I’m surely not the only one who feels this way. My coffee guy this morning looked a little woebegone and when I asked him how he was doing he said this weather makes him daydreamy for Rome, where he’s from.

I know that homesickness well.

There are so many places I want to go: Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, Barcelona, South Africa and beyond, back to Greece, even bits of the Middle East one day. I long for the time and money to do it all; in the meantime I will just drink lots of coffee, and remember.