Sunday, May 16, 2010


42 years after my last pool-based workout, I was swimming timed sets early on Sunday morning at the Loyola Marymount University pool. I was the only one without goggles or a cap, and the only one in a bright pink suit. What on earth am I doing here?

The water was warm, the coach was a sweet, smart guy, and I was not the worst or slowest swimmer, though I was definitely the fattest. Breaststroke was always my forte; here I was expected to do backstroke and butterfly, which had only recently been invented during my AAU days in the 1960's. LMU is an outdoor pool; how on earth do you swim a straight backstroke without lines on the ceiling?

After an hour of various sets, we were finished, and I was tired. Good tired. Muscles tired.

I think I'll buy some goggles and a cap this week, and try again next Sunday. 

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Black Cake: The Recipe

As Christmas loomed, I could not delay any longer. It was time to bake the Black Cake.

I was concerned that Laurie Colwin's recipe had not been tested. She confesses right there in the book that she has never made a Black Cake. Since my previous attempt had been a dismal failure (10 years ago, or more) I decided to do a little more research before baking.

I found two recipes that helped.

One was a (presumably tested) version of Laurie Colwin's version in the Boston Globe. The other was called "Aunt Flossie's Fruitcake" that I found on the internet.

It seems that most recipes call for more alcohol than is needed to soak the fruit, and there is also some disagreement about how finely to chop the dried fruit. I ran all the fruit through the Cuisinart, and added rum and sweet wine to cover. It marinated for about 2 months.

Here's my final recipe:

9 cups of the fruit (see previous post) with alcohol. (All that I soaked)

Black Cake

1 lb. butter, at room temperature
1 lb. all-purpose bleached white flour
1 lb. light brown sugar
1 dozen eggs
1/2 pint heavy cream
2 tablespoons of ginger juice from japanese sliced sweet ginger
2 tablespoons of vanilla extract
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
one glob of burnt sugar essence
zest of three small limes

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Cream the butter with the sugar until fluffy. This took about 4 minutes in the Cuisinart.
Mix the spices and the lime zest in with the flour in a bowl or measuring cup. (I don't like a really spicy cake; you could add any other sweet spices you like.)
Mix the vanilla and ginger juice into the cream in a separate cup or bowl. (You could use any other form of ginger, but this was all I had. You could also use half almond extract, but I was aiming for a nut-free cake.)
Separate the eggs, and beat the yolks into the butter/sugar mixture one at a time.
Beat 1/3 of the flour into the butter/egg mixture, followed by 1/3 of the cream, and alternate until all the flour and cream is in the batter. Then put in a glob of burnt sugar essence. As far as I can tell, this is just to make it dark.

Stir in the fruit by hand.

Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. Fold them into the batter. Folding should always be as gentle as possible, which is difficult with a heavy batter like this. Do your best.

Grease all the pans. I used some tart pans with scalloped edges, tiny and normal sized, and a glass baking pan that I would make brownies or lemon bars in. Pour the batter into the pans, and smooth it out. The cakes won't rise much. If you are using tart pans or springform pans that are in two parts, put foil on the bottom so the batter doesn't leak through.

Bake for about 45 minutes at 300. Then lower the oven temp to 200 and bake for another two or more hours. The length of time to bake depends on the pan, so different sized pans take different lengths of time to bake. Test with a toothpick as you would any other cake.

Black cake is supposed to have white frosting that is simply powdered sugar, egg whites, vanilla, and water. Since that seemed way too sweet to me, I just decorated the cakes with the icing so you get a bite of icing now and then, but are not overwhelmed with it.

The teens say it tastes like the inside of a Fig Newton. I think next year I will try to use more cherries and less other fruit, but it turned out pretty and yummy.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Confessions of an Appliance Addict

I admit it; I am addicted to clever kitchen electrics. I bought my first Cuisinart when they first appeared on this shore, and recently dumped old faithful and bought the new FP-16 the minute it came out. Here's what sounded so great about it:

• large capacity; 16 cups, which is big enough to really make bread, large loads of cookies, grate a LOT of cheese, etc.
• small bowl option for all those little jobs that are just too small for the Cuisinart, like chopping garlic and herbs, mixing up the dressing for coleslaw, etc.
• the feed tube is at the front. How smart is that?
• the slicing blade is adjustable (whoopee!!!!) and the grating blade has a small and a large side. I may be able to pass on the ever-dangerous mandoline.

So I ran up to Williams-Sonoma and bought the FP-16 even though I never go to Montana Avenue, and the machine only comes in industrial steel (I like traditional white appliances), and I had only read a couple of reviews on, and I really couldn't afford a new appliance, and there was really nothing wrong with my old Cuisinart.

Before I could change my mind, I took the old one over to the local shelter kitchen and immediately cut my finger on the blade as I was showing the women who live there and cook there how to use this great old machine. Not a great start to this adventure.

I've been using the FP-16 for a couple of weeks now, and I do like the stronger motor, the nifty storage box for the blades, the small bowl, and the front feed tube. However, I have yet to become anywhere near proficient at this tool, and will try to document my efforts to learn by describing my successes and failures here on the blog.

My biggest frustration to date is the difficulty of separating the different sized bowls when trying to remove the small or medium one from the machine. It seems to require all three bowls to be in place if I'm using the mini, and the big bowl needs to be there if I'm using the medium one. This means that all three of them get dirty because my hands are messy when I'm trying to remove them.

Another cleaning challenge is that the top has a lot of crevices that collect food. I now keep a toothbrush handy at the sink to get those stubborn little bits.

It is difficult to tell which blade is which, although the storage container is quite fetching.

Dough was mixed and kneaded nicely in the large bowl.

I made a nice tuna salad to go in Jeremy's lunch by pulsing some celery in the small bowl, then adding the tuna and mayo and pulsing a little bit more. It made me think that what I might really need is a regular big Cuisinart and a regular tiny Cuisinart, not this behemoth do-it-all thing.

I have yet to have success with the slicing blade. I have tried to slice onions, which were way too thin, and sausages, which were quite a disappointment. I had these chicken apple sausages that are pre-cooked, and I wanted to slice them thin to go on pizza. I set the blade at #4, expecting sausage that resembled pepperoni. I stood them up neatly in the feed tube, but they got caught between the top and the blade, and look like chipped lunch meat. The pizza still tasted fine, but the presentation suffered.

I used those pre-fried onions instead of raw onions on the pizza, which is why it is a little dark, but it was delicious nonetheless. I really must watch the rest of the darned video before I use the FP-16 again.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Advice on Black Cake, and a Poem about it

Googling around the internet found much advice about making the famous Black Cake. Apparently Nigella Lawson put it in one of her cookbooks. Madeira can be substituted for the Manischewitz, so I guess my Gewurztraminer will be fine. There are several approaches to the fruit, and I am considering adding a bit of preserved ginger to my macaw pot. I fear I may have used too little alcoholic liquid; that's another thing I'll need to research more.

Most interesting, though, was a blog about Emily Dickinson, who it seems was a great baker and was famous for her Black Cake. A professor at UC Davis wrote this poem about it:

by Sandra M. Gilbert

Black cake, black Uncle Emily cake,
I tunnel among your grains of darkness
fierce as a mouse: your riches
are all my purpose, your currants and death's eye raisins
wrinkling and thickening blackness,
and the single almond of light she buried
somewhere under layers of shadow . . .

One day I too will be Uncle Sandra:
iambic and terse. I'll hobble the tough sidewalks,
the alleys that moan go on, go on.
O when I reach those late-night streets,
when acorns and twigs
litter my path like sentences
the oaks no longer choose to say,

I want that cake in my wallet.
I want to nibble as I hobble.
I want to smile and nibble
that infinite black cake,
                       and lean
on Uncle Emily's salt-white
ice-bright sugar cane.

~ from Kissing the Bread: New and Selected Poems, 1969-1999 (W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2001

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Black Cake: Muck in a Macaw

Laurie says to chop the fruit "extra, extra fine" so I ran it through the Cuisinart so that it is the consistency of hummus or peanut butter. I was 3 oz. short of raisins and another 3 oz. short of currants, so I put in a couple of extra prunes. So now there are both prunes and plums in there. I used Navarro Vineyards Sweet Last Harvest Gewurztraminer, a 375 ml. split, instead of the "bottle of Passover wine".

Laurie says to put it in a large bowl or crock. I couldn't find an empty glass jar that was big enough to hold all this, and at the same time had a top, so I decided to use the Macaw cookie jar.

Once the fruit and the wine were in there, I could add about 3/4 pint of Myers's dark rum, but I'm hoping it will take more after the next few weeks of soaking. the muck tastes pretty good, but if it were up to me I'd add more glace cherries. I am very fond of glace cherries, much more so than prunes, plums or raisins.

Here's the recipe as I made it:

13 oz. raisins
3 oz. dried prunes
13 oz. dried currants
16 oz. dried plums
16 oz. glace cherries
12 oz. candied orange peel

375 ml. sweet Gewurztraminer wine
12 oz. dark rum

(The photo makes it look like chili!)

Jeremy wants to know when we can eat this cake, and is disappointed that I say it will probably be a month before it is well marinated, baked and frosted. We shall see. And I'm sure we will take little tastes!

The Black Cake Saga: The Beginning

It's been at least 15 years since I first read Laurie Colwin's description of Black Cake, a frosted fruitcake from the West Indies that Colwin wrote up in her readable cookbook, "Home Cooking."

Colwin talks about how it is nothing like our idea of holiday fruitcake; she says "there is fruitcake, and there is Black Cake, which is to fruitcake what the Brahms piano quartets are to Muzak." I don't need to get out my iPod to make that comparison.

I tried making the black cake at some point in the distant past, to, I remember, pretty miserable results. I did a lot of substitutions, based on the dried fruit I had on hand, and the result was so sad that I added chocolate to the second batch of batter thinking that chocolate makes anything taste fine. The chocolate one was edible but not very good.

Laurie Colwin admits that she never made this cake, but loved it when her West Indian nanny made it. Presumably Alfred A. Knopf and Harper-Collins tested the recipe before publishing the book.

It's the beginning of what I think of as the cooking season. I made my first batch of peach jam a few weeks ago, and the guavas are ready for the jelly brigade around the end of September. Then it is time for ghost cookies and apple pies and Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year, I am going to try again to make the Black Cake, for the first cold evenings or the last sunset at the beach, and if it's edible, I'll send one to my son Kevin to share with his college pals.

Perhaps by documenting the process I'll be less likely to cut corners or make bizarre substitutions. My notes from my past attempt say that I used prunes, yellow raisins, mango, cranberries, rum, vanilla syrup, and caramel syrup. Laurie Colwin's recipe calls for raisins, prunes, currants, glace cherries, and mixed peel, along with Passover wine and rum.

I will follow Colwin's amounts, using dried pitted plums from the Iranian grocery store (aren't dried plums the same as prunes?), currants, raisins, glace cherries, and orange peel. The currants and raisins I got at my local Whole Foods market. I had to look in three places and ask two people before I found the currants. I don't think we grow many currants in the U.S., and I'm not really sure what a currant is...they seem like a small raisin and are usually in scones. I had to mail-order the glace cherries and peel (I think it is all orange peel) from a place I found on the Internet called The Barry Farm.

Last time I made this, there was WAY too much liquid with the rum and the wine (if I even used the wine; I can't tell from my notes.) Laurie says to use "one bottle each", so this time I will use a half-bottle of a dessert wine that came with my twice-annual offering from Navarro Vineyards, and a pint of Meyer's Dark Rum. We'll see what happens.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Unitarian Christianity

As I have been on my spiritual journey, the UU Church of Santa Monica has been an important support for my exploration and learning about what is holy in our world.

For the past few years, I have felt an increasing rejection and lack of respect for the Christian traditions that many of us find meaningful. The statement is usually that “Christianity has hurt people deeply”, but I doubt that there is a faith tradition that hasn’t hurt someone deeply, yet because of our shared traditions, it is easier to trash Christianity than, say, Buddhism or Judaism.

Last night I looked up Unitarian and Universalism in the Larousse Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions, and I was reminded why I chose the Unitarian Universalist Church as my chosen faith. Here is what it says:

“Unitarians: A religious group which, although in many ways akin to Christianity, rejects the doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.”

“Universalism: The religious belief that all people will be saved. It implies rejection of the traditional Christian belief in hell. A feature of much contemporary Protestant theology, it is motivated by moral doubts concerning eternal punishment, and by a recognition of the validity of other non-Christian world faiths.”

These definitions feel comfortable and perfect for me!

The simmering anti-Christianity and an even greater atheism culture at the UU Church of Santa Monica has alienated me. While we respect other religious traditions, we are snarky and dismissive of Christian traditions. Although I do not believe Jesus was more divine than, say, Jimmy Carter, I believe that both of these men reflect the higher power of unconditional love, the holiness of communal action, and the worship these god forces deserve. I would never admit to these beliefs in a Sunday service, which is more like a meeting or performance than worship. The announcements, recognitions, applause, and whole services devoted to non-worship activities are not what I want to do on Sunday mornings! The removal of the multi-faith banners and the consideration of eliminating the word “church” from our name drive me further from my spiritual home at the UU Church of SM.

In my independent religious exploration I have found some brilliant and moving work by UU ministers who identify as Christian. I wish they weren’t in places like Kansas! I am a Unitarian Universalist who follows the Universalist tradition of “recognizing the validity of non-Christian world faiths”, as well as the Christian tradition. Like other faith traditions, Christianity has much to teach us. I am especially interested in finding the overlaps among the great faith traditions (group practice, kindness, self-reliance, and meditation come to mind). Christianity deserves the respect of a UU congregation, whether it calls itself a church or not.

I choose to belong to a church that is characterized by ecumenical spiritual exploration and acceptance of differing beliefs. I want my church to participate in the National Council of Churches, and as an advocate for separation of church and state. I love belonging to a church that is a leader in welcoming all kinds of people, and that believes in sanctifying marriages between two people who love each other, regardless of gender. I am proud to be part of a church that is a leader in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. I am inspired by the variety of religious symbols welcoming those of all faiths to our church. Most of all, I strive to respect and honor the truths and the practices common to all world faiths. Church should be where that can happen.