Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Angel Food Cake with Whipped Cream in Ruby // Cook Your Books




In this Cook Your Books series, I have chosen 15 books to read in 2017 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories. While we're well into 2018, I did finish reading this book last year--these posts take longer than I anticipate. My theory (bogus it might turn out to be) is that all 15 of these books will somehow connect to food. And I plan to write about that food.  It turns out that these entries are a sort of long-form blog-post. So settle in.  This twelfth installment is an Oprah's Book Club Selection.

Oh, this book is brutal. Sexism, rape, systematic racial injustice, torture, cruelty. Compassion, community, family, love, magic realism, metaphor. Certainly, 
Ruby by Cynthia Bond was all the talk of the Oprah airwaves in 2015, and I chose it for this twelfth installment. And what a whirlwind it was.

The book opens with Ruby Bell wetting herself in the street as the men circle on a center-of-town porch, jeering and judging. All save Ephram Jennings, who promptly returns home, asks his sister to bake her famous white lay angel cake, and rises the next morning to bring it to Ruby. The first half of the book focuses on Ephram's journey through town, the cake on full display, as he withstands the jeers and cruelty of the townspeople. How could he deign to bring this heavenly cake made by a church-going woman (Ephram's sister) to Ruby, the mad woman on the outskirts of an east Texas town? How does he have the nerve to present this cake to a woman who has been used time and again for the sexual pleasure and abuse of many of these god-fearing inhabitants of the, perhaps ironically named, town of Liberty? But Cynthia Bond is no single-sided storyteller, for she points out that these god-fearing inhabitants--well, they too have been shaped and molded by a grinding American history of racism and misogyny. 



As much as these inhabitants would like to pin Ruby's "howling, half-naked" madness on her high-heeled red shoes that she dared to procure in 1950s New York, Ephram sees Ruby for what she is: a woman as beautiful as the girl he knew as a child, a woman who is haunted by her own searching for her mother who abandoned her after her own sisters were killed by the sheriff’s deputies for giving in to a married white man’s demands, a woman who spent part of her childhood in forced prostitution by none other than Ephram's own father, a woman in search of her red-headed green-eyed mother in the New York piano bars, a woman returned to east Texas when called home to her own roots, a woman haunted by ghosts that Ephram will never be able to exorcise but can at least make his own peace with and nudge Ruby to do the same. 



Ephram is single-mindedly bent on protecting Ruby from the gossip of his small town's population, from the purportedly saving graces of his sister Celia and her church, and from the madness that haunts Ruby from the traumas she experienced at the hands of any number of men. Ephram also shares in tragedy--watching his mother be dragged away to a mental institution and knowing that his father (a hard-spirited preacher) was lynched by white men. His sister, Celia, raised him as her own, and now he spends celibate weeks bagging groceries at the local Piggly Wiggly and attending church on Sundays. 

Such are the ghosts of the American South, the American West, the American past, and ultimately the American present. And these ghosts haunt the townspeople as much as they haunt Ruby. She just experiences the ghosts more directly and more presently. Oof. 

Let's take a closer look at the cake, shall we?

Ephram asks his sister to make the cake for him, and she does, with a sense of duty and love and reverence:
“She made it in that pocket of time before dawn, when the aging night gathered its dark skirts and paused in the stillness. She made it with twelve new eggs, still warm and flecked with feathers. She washed them and cracked them, one at a time, holding each golden yolk in her palm as the whites slid and dripped through her open fingers. She set them aside in her flowered china bowl. In the year 1974, Celia Jennings still cooked in a wood-burning stove, she still used a whisk and muscle and patience to beat her egg whites into foaming peaks. She used pure vanilla, the same sweet liquid she had poured into Saturday night baths before her father, the Revered Jennings, arrived back in town. The butter was from her churn, the confectioners sugar from P & K. As she stirred the dawn into being, a dew drop of sweat salted the batter. The cake baked and rose with the sun.  

Ephram slept as the cake slid from its tin, so sweet it crusted at its crumbling edges, so light little craters of air circled its surface, so moist it was sure, as was always the case, to cling to the spaces between his sister’s long three-pronged silver fork” (6).

Could there be a more reverent description of baking a cake? There is muscle and patience and memory and commitment here. This is work done in the dark while others are sleeping. Celia gets a bad rap in this novel--she is judgmental and rigid--but she is also steady, filled with conviction, and determined. Her love for her brother is solid, protective, and strong. This is a prized cake, baked with love, even if that love at times misdirects her. 



Celia slices one piece out of the cake, leaving it for her brother at his door even though he says he doesn't want any. This is an affront to her, she who made this cake with such love, yet the act of disregarding his wishes is indicative of her character. She believes she knows best, especially in matters of the cake. However, Ephram has other designs on this cake, and it does not matter to him that one piece is missing. He simply restores order. When the time comes for him to journey to Ruby, he sees "the slice of cake Celia had cut with her special wire blade. It had a white cloth napkin draped over it like a flag of surrender. He carefully removed it, lifting it with both hands at the corners, slipped the three-pronged silver fork under the slice and fitted it like the last piece of a great puzzle into the whole" (53).  Celia very much wishes to control whose allotment of sweetness she will mete out, when and where; however, Ephram wants something whole to deliver, something pure and unsullied, so he pieces it back together, gently, and prepares for his journey.



And it is no easy one. From his first steps into the world, he is met with dangers: "He leapt free onto the front porch but stumbled on the bottom stair. A pillar of will sent the cake up and out of his right hand. It was falling, flat and hard towards the earth. Time slowed. The yard spun before him. Then he swooped under the falling circle, fell to one knee and caught it in two steady hands. The cake quivered under its cloth but did not crumble. Ephram could have sworn he heard a holy jubilation, a swell of cheers from the passing clouds" (54).  He is a man, however, ready to go to his knees to save this offering. Truly it is holy--a hallelujah bursts forth figuratively. This is no ordinary journey, but it is a spiritual quest, for him, for Ruby, for his community.

This cake bears quite the burden. It is offering, it is salvation. It is community, it is true connection to another, and as such it is dangerous for it makes him vulnerable and exposed. "[H]e figured, he could .... reach Ruby's before nightfall if he was careful. And Ephram Jennings was a careful man. He was careful of the cloud of sweetness he cared on Celia's fine plate, careful not to let the August breeze blow dirt under the cloth. Careful not to hope" (75-6). 



So much is his exposure that when he comes into town, he is heckled by the men who park themselves on the porch outside the P & K, the neighborhood store and center of gossip. Gubber, once a high school friend and now a man at whom Ephram only nods and grunts, challenges Ephram to a game of dominoes in exchange for the cake: "Gubber relented, 'Hell, I'll give you five whole dollars if you win which you ain't 'bout to do.' Suddenly Ephram wanted to be rid of the cake. Wanted it stuffed between Grubber's large teeth, so he nodded yes and the porch leaped to watch" (92). 

Ephram wins the game, and he "stomp"s down the road with his cake teetering. The mocking begins from these men, who claim Ephram hasn't "wet his wick in twenty year" (93) and that it is a "[w]aste of good cake" (92).  This cake is a prized object of desire and possession and when it cannot be had, it becomes a symbol of derision and of failed or at least wasted sexuality. 



When he finally comes upon Ruby, she is clawing the earth with her bare hands and is miming the giving of birth. When she sees him, she assumes he has come to have sex with her and prepares herself. She is grateful that he brought cake, which is more than what most of the men--many of them the same porch-sitters at the P & K--bring to her to demand sex. Ephram ever the decent human, picks her up from the ground, takes out a bottle of iodine, and hopes to begin the slow process of healing her (105). 

But she kicks. She kicks hard and in the face. And hard enough to knock the cake from him: 
"The cake in ruins at his feet, Ephram felt a lump rise in this throat and then he began to sob. Soft whimpers like a child. She looked at him. Then she caught the jagged tear of her breath. Her lungs calmed and she leaned over and let her hand pat his back. Gently like burping a baby. She said, 'There, there.' They stayed like that for awhile in the dark, until she reached over and grabbed a handful of cake from the ground" (105). 
What seems ruined is not. What seems degraded is not. Instead, "[t[he night shifted her horizon and contemplated the kindling of dawn. Ruby and Ephram sat in silence and ate the most amazing white lay angel cake, made theirs with bits of dirt and grass, while the piney woods watched from the shadows" (106). The journey is physically over, and there is a moment of peace between them.



This scene is a big one; however, it's also not one the reader fully understands yet (that takes the whole second half of the book to explore), but it is powerful. In the second half, Ephram cares for Ruby, bathing her, scrubbing her home, tending to her family's property. And Ephram, and we, learn that Ruby is not mad--instead she is a conduit for spirits, spirits she is charged to protect. Now, this is about to sound a little wild, but stay with me--and think in terms of magic realism and metaphor. This spirit--known as a Dybou or an evil spirit--haunts our history and, without our willingness to confront it, must haunt our present. Enter decades of racism, slavery, misogyny, and injustice. 

Ephram does not shy away. He stands with Ruby, sometimes ill-equipped and vulnerable, but always stands, with compassion and humility. Through Ephram and in witness to Ruby, Bond challenges us to confront our individual and our collective pain. She will not let us look away. 



That said, Bond ends with hope as does Ruby herself: “She turned to her children. She had so much to teach them. To stand. To fight. To believe in rising. She would teach them. She would teach herself. She felt her heart beating steady in her chest. She could give each of them this knowing. She would give it to them like angel cake” (330).  Simple, perhaps, but a powerful testament to what we must do, how we must stand, and what we must not only confront but fight. This clear-eyed vision of our collective past is a gift, as much as any angel food cake. 



We may want the sanitized, pure, prized offering of our past, pre-sliced and placed outside our doors. Instead, what we get is the scraping of it from the piney woods floor with the knowledge that by eating it, we are growing closer in community and connection to one another. What we get is a reality worth sharing. What we get is truth.

Let's do this together.




------

Angel Food Cake with Whipped Cream 

“She made it in that pocket of time before dawn, when the aging night gathered its dark skirts and paused in the stillness. She made it with twelve new eggs, still warm and flecked with feathers. She washed them and cracked them, one at a time, holding each golden yolk in her palm as the whites slid and dripped through her open fingers. She set them aside in her flowered china bowl. In the year 1974, Celia Jennings still cooked in a wood-burning stove, she still used a whisk and muscle and patience to beat her egg whites into foaming peaks. She used pure vanilla, the same sweet liquid she had poured into Saturday night baths before her father, the Revered Jennings, arrived back in town. The butter was from her churn, the confectioners sugar from P & K. As she stirred the dawn into being, a dew drop of sweat salted the batter. The cake baked and rose with the sun. 

Ephram slept as the cake slid from its tin, so sweet it crusted at its crumbling edges, so light little craters of air circled its surface, so moist it was sure, as was always the case, to cling to the spaces between his sister’s long three-pronged silver fork” (Ruby 6).

The angel food cake is adapted from Baking in America

Here's a link to the actual recipe, but I made another recipe I enjoy from Greg Patent. He adapted this recipe from the 1951 winning entry in the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Come on!  You cannot do better than that. You do need a baker's dozen of egg whites. The only solution is to make ice cream with the remaining yolks. 

Yield
1 10-inch cake, 16 servings

Ingredients
1 cup sifted cake flour
½ cup confectioners' sugar
13 large egg whites
½ tsp salt
1 tsp cream of tartar
1 cup sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
½ tsp pure almond extract

whipped cream to serve

Instructions
1.  Adjust an oven rack to the lower third position and preheat the oven to 475℉. Have ready a grease-free 10-x-4 inch tube pan.  If you have one with a removable bottom, all the better, but don't worry too much.

2.  Resift the flour with the confectioners' sugar. Set aside.

3.  In a large wide bowl, beat the whites with an electric mixer on medium speed until frothy, about 1 minute. Add the salt and cream of tartar and continue beating until the whites are thick and fluffy and form soft billowy mounds that droop a little at the tip. Beat in the sugar 2 Tbsp at a time, beating for a few second after each addition. Add both extracts and beat for 30 seconds, or until the whites form slightly stiff peaks that curl and the tips.

4.  Gradually fold in the flour mixture, sifting about 3 Tbsps at a time evenly over the whites and using a large rubber spatula to fold the two together with a few gentle strokes.  Using the spatula, gently transfer the batter to the tube pan. To remove any large air bubbles, run a long narrow metal spatula in 3-4 concentric circles through the batter, beginning at the tube and working outward or bang the tube pan on the counter. Smooth the top with the rubber spatula.

5.  Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil. Bake for 10 minutes. Quickly open the oven door and remove the foil (this is a kind of souffle or meringue, so move quickly here). Close the oven door and reduce the temperature to 425℉. Bake for 15 minutes more, or until the cake has risen to the top of the pan, is well browned, and springs back when gently pressed. The cake may have a few cracks. Immediately invert the pan on a narrow-necked bottle. Let cool completely, upside down, for 2-3 hours.

6.  Loosen the sides of the cake from the pan, using a narrow thin-bladed knife. Run the knife between the cake and the central tube. If you have a removable bottom, lift the cake out of the pan by its tube, and release the cake from the bottom of the can with the knife. Carefully turn the cake out onto a wire rack. Cover with a cake plate and invert the two so the cake is right side up. If you don't have a removable bottom, knock the cake out of the pan (it took a good whack from me). Gently turn the cake over so it is right side up.

7. To serve, cut into portions with a serrated knife with whipped cream.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Spicy Meat Dolma from Samarkand


Very few things I can make without a recipe, and dolmas are one of them. Why? Well, when I was a vegetarian for a decade, I taught myself how to make dolmas because, people, they were so freaking tasty, and if I made them myself I could guarantee that they were meat-free and low on oil. Nowadays, the meat doesn't matter, which is a boon for this recipe, for I am telling you, friends, this is all meat. All meat wrapped up in a grape leaf.  And I couldn't be happier.


I snatched up this cookbook a while back, and I don't cook from it nearly enough. This fabulous glimpse into the cooking of the Caucasus region leaves one mouthwatering and aching for dill, eggplant, beets, cucumber, mint, rose petals, and pomegranates. Caroline Eden and Elanor Ford take you on a culinary tour, and they promise that you will not only not get lost but also that there will be delightful stops along the way.


For my first stop, I went with this recipe, for it was an old standby with a new twist for me, and I was not disappointed. Because I like meat now. Lots of it. And it's even better when it is well spiced, wrapped in a grape leaf, and boiled in yummy spices.  The perfect dinner. And then takeaway lunch the next day. I'll take it, with or without a recipe.



One Year Ago: Polenta with Winter Salad, Poached Egg, and Blue Cheese
------

Spicy Meat Dolma

Adapted from Samarkand: Recipes and Stories from Central Asia and The Caucasus

Yield
12 Dolmas

Ingredients
7 ounces beef 
1 shallot, finely chopped 
1 red chile, seeded and finely chopped 
1 Tbsp dried cranberries or barberries 
½  tsp paprika 
¼ tsp cayenne pepper 
¼ tsp ground cumin 
Tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves 
16 grape leaves, in brine
Tbsp olive oil 
1 onion, sliced 
1 carrot, sliced 
4 tomatoes, diced 
salt and freshly ground black pepper 
Greek yogurt, to serve

Instructions
1. Mix the minced beef with the shallot, chile, cranberries (or barberries), spices and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Set a small amount of the mixture aside, then use your hands to shape the rest into 12 sausage shapes. 

2.  Put the grape leaves in a colander and pour over hot water to rinse off the brine. Choose the 12 largest grape leaves and remove the stalks. 

3.  Lay a leaf on the surface with the stalk end towards you. Sit a sausage on top, roll up the leaf to just cover the filling, then draw in the sides and continue rolling to make a neat parcel. Repeat with the remaining leaves. 

4.  Choose a casserole pan that will accommodate all 12 dolmas snugly in a single layer. Heat the oil and add the reserved meat mixture to flavor the stock. Cook over a medium heat until golden, then add the onion and caramelize. Add the carrot and tomatoes and cook for a further minute or two until beginning to soften. Season with salt.

5.  Place each dolma on top, seam-side down. Add enough hot water to the pan to come three-quarters of the way up the dolmas. Cover with the remaining grape leaves–broken ones that would not work for stuffing are perfect here–then use a plate a little smaller than the pan to weigh the stuffed leaves down. 

6.  Bring to a gentle simmer and cook the dolmas for 40 minutes. Leave to cool in their cooking juice. 

7.  Drain and serve at room temperature with Greek yogurt.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review of The Drinking Food of Thailand


I wanted this to be my cookbook.  I get the premise of Andy Ricker's new book, The Drinking Food of Thailand: easy food that is perfect for a 2 a.m. snack in the midst of a night on the town. However, I am generally not awake at 2 a.m. and my nights on the town are somewhat circumscribed.

However, if you're in the market for an adventure-filled cookbook, this might be your book. If you're looking for photos that are meant to capture the nightlife in Thailand, this might be your book.  If you want to go on a bit of your own journey to find some ingredients, this might be your book.  If you're delighted by Ricker's work with Pok Pok in NYC and Portland or a fan of Anthony Bourdain, this is most certainly your book. If you want to get out of rut with your own Thai cooking, people, pick this book up immediately.

If you're looking for a Tuesday night meal before sitting down to answer all those work emails you didn't get to during the day, this is not your book.