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.

Assembly:
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.

Coffee: a Fixation

cuppa.jpg
[My morning salvation, Octobre 2007.]

There are few things in life as perfect as a good cup of coffee — oh, a good night’s sleep or, say, falling in love come pretty close, but for those of us who appreciate a decent cup of joe, elevating ‘decent’ to ‘delicious’ is one of life’s simplest and most appreciated pleasures.

I’ve gone on about coffee before, but on the heels of a jetlagged week it’s become ever more apparent to me that coffee — once a luxury item reserved for Friday mornings, payday, or when I was really tired — is now a rash necessity in my life.

I’m not sure how I feel about that.

I blame my job. Back in August, after much debate, my office installed one of those magical brewing pots that comes complete with packets of pre-measured coffee in our spacious and light-filled kitchen (Please note that this kitchen is much nicer than any kitchen in any of the apartments I’ve ever inhabited. What’s that? A kitchen in one’s workplace, you say? A kitchen with a dishwasher and a full set of cooking knives and pots and pans? Just one more reason to love San Francisco.). A lot of the sales guys here come in the early-morning hours before it’s light, even, so naturally they need to fire up the coffee pot to get the day started. By the time I come in, around 8ish, they’re on their second pot, and it’s often freshly-brewed and just right for drinking. I’ve found that I’m powerless to resist the lure of coffee available at all times, delicious and hot, and from Peet’s. My coffee consumption has increased exponentially since last summer, and it seems I’m unable to do a thing about it.

Then, too, there is the little cafe just around the corner from my office that sells — exclusively — coffee from Blue Bottle. They also offer organic milk, which warms the very depths of my heart, as well as organic sugars, cream cheese for the bagels, soups, salads, yogurt parfaits … (should I go on?). Occasionally I’ll get a granola, or a bagel, or, if I’m feeling very decadent, a fruit pastry, but what I’m really hankering for is an americano, made short, with a splash of half-and-half and a jot of sugar. Blue Bottle, which is based across the bay in Oakland, is truly the best coffee I’ve ever had — inky, dark, and smoky-sweet all at once — and I’ve been sending it round the country to my fellow coffee addicts to bring them into the fold (it’s worked). My nearby Italians make my americano just right, but at $2 a pop, I try to limit myself to once a week, or once every other week, as a special treat.

So pretty much I’ve gone over to coffee. You can see it can’t be helped. I hardly ever drink tea any more, and while I miss it very occasionally, if I skip my daily cup or two of java, I feel a bit off. My friend Sally says she likes a cup with breakfast to get her brain working (and since they rise with the sun out there in Inverness, I see the wisdom in this practice) and I’ve come to rely upon that morning brain warm-up myself. If I’ve improved on it to add another cup (bringing the grand total to two) or even another (which means I’ve then had much too much caffeine for one day), I have only myself to thank — or blame.

This afternoon I am happily zipping along, fueled by that aforementioned Blue Bottle espresso drink. I am hoping the inevitable crash comes long after I’ve been ensconced at home for the evening, when I can safely stretch out on the couch and drift off to dreamland to the tune of 9.30, as I’ve been doing the past few nights (see: wedding; jetlag; cross-country flights; whiskey; over-active socialization). I’ll dream of my beloved brew all night until the morning — when I’ll do it all over again.

Ah, cafe. I’d write poems to you every day if I weren’t so hopped up on the caffeine to arrange my thoughts properly.

Not to mention (though of course I shall): My farmers’ market opens in just two weeks, and I can’t wait! Early-season strawberries would be rather perfect with my morning cup, don’t you think?

It’s a hard life.

A Cup by Any Other Name Would Taste as Sweet


[My old French press.]

The other night at Nopa, I had something listed on the menu as “wild mint tea — Greece” (at $3 a pot), which made me laugh a bit because in Greece? I never had tea, nor did I hear a word about it. What I did have, of course, was coffee in many variations.

(Greeks love their coffee.)

A good friend of mine swung by from Jerusalem, where he is working for the bureau there as a tv producer (we are old Reuters pals), to hang out with me. The afternoon he arrived, we popped into one of the little corner markets to pick up a few essentials. One of these was a jar of Nescafe, which I’d never had before except as shaken up into a frappe. I wasn’t sure I’d be OK with drinking it even for a week — but lo! I had no problem, even without sugar (I couldn’t bear to pay the 4 euros for a box when I knew I’d hardly make a dent in it). We got a small bottle of milk, some yogurt, cheese, already-made tziki, crackers … but the truly important thing for both of us was the coffee.

Which is why I had to stifle the giggles at seeing Greek mint tea on the menu. I have only observed one one Greek-American drinking tea, and even then it was tea made from strange dried herbs that looked like sticks; honestly, knowing him, it could have come from anywhere, possibly even his backyard in Rochester (sorry, Simos). The Greeks in Greece drank: Greek coffee, frappe, and ouzo, and that was pretty much it.

The thing about coffee is that it’s just so good. Sometimes I drink too much and get anxious, and then I have to stop for awhile, which is a shame, for I dearly love the taste of it. I mostly drink Peet’s, but as previously mentioned, I learned to stomach, and then embrace, the Nescafe instant. True coffee-philes might scoff at this penchant for what is an admittedly cheap brew, but I have to say it’s not bad. It’s even better iced, with a little sugar and milk. (Now that I’m back in the States, however, it’s Peet’s and Blue Bottle pretty much exclusively, for I’m a bit of a snob.)

Most mornings on Spetses went like this: rise late, have a Nescafe and a light breakfast, talk about what to do that day, meet up with Emily for an iced coffee downtown, or at the kafenio near to my brother’s shop. I don’t know exactly why I have such a thing for frappe, except that I do: really, it’s just Nescafe shaken up with cold water, and then poured into a glass with ice and milk, if you like, and as much or as little sugar as you wish. But it hits that dry, parched spot on the hottest of days. One of my favorite frappe-drinkings was on an afternoon after we’d settled on a little beach after driving halfway around the island on a mykanaki. We went into the restaurant and got tziki to eat with our bread, and frappes, then sat under an umbrella looking out at the sea. The tziki was garlicky, the bread very fresh, the frappes cold … All was right with the world for a few hours.

My second night on the island we went for dinner at a taverna downtown that Kurt liked, and it was, indeed, very good: I had roasted tomatoes stuffed with rice and baked white ‘elephant’ beans in an oniony tomato sauce. At a nearby table was a group of guys — presumably old friends, by the way they spoke to each other — who slowly worked through small bottle after bottle of ouzo; their table was littered with the detritus of their meal, people stopped by to say hello from time to time, and occasionally they ordered more ouzo. But they didn’t get drunk — it was just a way of savoring the evening. We didn’t stay long enough to see, but I’ll bet they capped off the meal with a cup of Greek coffee.

Coffee, for me, is meant to be savored and sipped slowly. It’s the gentle slide into waking up and facing the day. I like it strong (one of the best cups I’ve had was at the “Hard-Core Espresso” stand/strange roadside jumble that is the epitome of West County in Sebastopol), with just a teaspoon of sugar and half-and-half or soy creamer. I’ll do iced in the summer (the iced chicory coffee from the Italian coffee stand next door is delicious, and keeps one zinging along for hours), but mostly I like it hot — unless, of course, I’m in Greece and it’s 100 F every day — and brewed in the little French press that has served me faithfully and well for many years.

Today is the perfect coffee-day: drizzly as I left the house before 7.30 this morning, but not cold. Now the sun is pushing its way through, and I have a freshly-brewed cup to tide me along ’til lunch (couscous salad redux, if you must know). I do adore tea, but for the time being I’ve gone over to the darker side (or, really, slightly milky).

I don’t mind a bit.