- Avis Devoto to Julia Child, September 1, 1956 from As Always, Julia edited by Joan Reardon
Our long ago move to Italy timed rather unexpectedly with my in-laws retirement and their move from a bustling Parisian suburb to a small house in the middle of nowhere. Their newfound freedom would be filled with gardening and fresh air, vacations filled with the joyous laughter and antics of small grandchildren, relaxation and books. They had spent nearly every waking moment of the past thirty-odd years tending to their corner shop and family and would suddenly find themselves in front of endless days without deadlines, account books and friendly yet demanding clients. My husband, ever thoughtful of his parents’ well being, suggested that they devote some of their time, amuse themselves a bit, in researching their families’ genealogy. He purchased them stacks of books, indicated addresses of archives and instructions on how to make document requests. Knowing that they would have a project on hand, he left for Italy secure in the knowledge that they would have one thing more with which to occupy their hours, days and weeks.
Seven years later, when we returned from our stay in Italy, we found that stack of books uncracked, not one chart filled in, no family tree outlined, not one iota of genealogy done. So he gathered up the books, tossed them in the car and brought them home. “If they have no interest in researching the family history, then I’ll do it!” he proclaimed. And of course, his enthusiasm inspired me as well and I said to anyone who was listening: “Well, if you are going to research your family’s genealogy then I’m going to do mine, too!” And so, little by little, side by side, we researched, took notes, compared documents and drew up our separate family trees. Fascinating! But while he spent much of his time moving backwards in time, my research had me moving sideways. You see, I never knew just how large a family my dad had, how many actually immigrated and all lived together, 4 generations, in Brooklyn. I grew up close to my mom’s side and so knew much of who was who and from whence they came, but only ever having met my dad’s immediate family, that side was truly a mystery. Never in a million years would I have guessed how many aunts and uncles and cousins lived around him when he was growing up. And so slowly, oh so slowly, one at a time, I tracked down and contacted each and every family member still living and the descendents of those no longer with us.
One such person was Gene, my dad’s first cousin although much younger than my dad by about twenty years or so. And as he lives not far from where my brother lived, we arranged to meet and meet we did. And the usual conversation began, the one we know all too well and repeat with anyone and everyone whom we meet with which we share a common city: Do you know this restaurant? Have you ever eaten here? Have you been to…? And the most amazing thing is, there was a little Indonesian restaurant near my brother’s old apartment that was a favorite haunt of both Michael and Gene. And then it struck me! If I had never done my genealogy, if I had never tracked down my dad’s relatives, then we would never have met Gene and how many times would my brother and Gene, these cousins, have sat next to each other in this tiny Brooklyn restaurant as perfect strangers, never knowing how closely they were related?
And throughout both Family Reunions I succeeded in organizing with the paternal side of my family, I couldn’t help but marvel at all of these wonderful people gathered together, laughing, sharing stories, and how but for my research we would have passed through our entire lives never knowing each other, never knowing of this common bond we shared.
This same sentiment overpowers me constantly as I think of the great friends I have made through internet and food blogging. The world is filled with like-minded souls, dynamic, talented, warm and funny individuals who have so much in common, so much to share, and only thanks to this magical world of food blogging have I had the strange and beautiful chance to meet them. I know, this is rather a trite sentiment, an all-too obvious fact, but I truly think we tend to take this for granted all too often. We have become so accustomed to switching on the computer, logging on and sending friend and follow requests, leaving comments with a familiarity that would astound us in face-to-face social situations, connecting with people from every country in the world with stunning speed and fluidity. But just step back for a moment and let the thought rush through your head and settle in. Consider how unimaginable this would have been a generation ago. Or just twenty years or so ago. We’ve stepped beyond the letter writing and phone calls, the friendships limited to near neighbors and visiting former school chums, and we now have the world at our fingertips. Literally. And as someone living in a world that doesn’t always agree with me, someone who finds it difficult to find near neighbors who understand my passions, my gregariousness, my cultural quirks, I find enormous gratification, delight and salvation in this odd and surprising thing called internet. As my husband so astutely pointed out to me once, “The friends you have made on the computer are good people, exciting people with plans and projects, people who actually work on projects together and make things happen…and that you really haven’t been able to find close by.” Ah, yes.
And this week, two of my closest far-away friends, as close as sisters, Jeanne and Meeta and I have baked together and thus started a new tradition. Three ladies, three countries, three kitchens, one recipe. Across the miles and through the screens of our laptops, we selected a wonderful, rich, decadent, chocolatey cake to bake all together, as one. As I claimed in a former blog post, nothing is better, more enriching or even more fun than getting together with friends to spend a day baking.
For our first Bake-a-long, we selected a fabulous Chocolate Orange Cake from Nigella Lawson’s Feast: Food to Celebrate Life cookbook, and what a feast this cake is! Rich, dense and moist, mouthfuls of chocolate goodness infused with the delightful and seasonally festive flavor of orange, the delicate flavors of almonds bringing it all together. No flour makes this an ideal gluten-free dessert and no butter or milk means a dairy-free treat as well! Meeta added the warmth of cardamom to her cake batter and frosted it with a rich salted caramel ganache while Jeanne spiked hers with plenty of Cointreau and slathered a marvelous chocolate orange cream cheese frosting on top. I added my ever favorite partner of chocolate, cinnamon, to the batter along with some fragrant fleur d’oranger and decided to drizzle some warmed bitter orange marmalade over the finished cake to heighten the orange flavor and give it that bitter edge. But in the end, I found that this cake is so stunningly delicious in all of its simplicity it really needed nothing on top. It stands on its own. I also suggest making this cake a day or even two or three before serving as it only gets better and better, the orange and chocolate flavors melding together beautifully while the nutty texture and flavor smooth out deliciously. Oh what a perfect cake!
We are sending our fabulous Chocolate Orange Cakes to our adorable friend Sarah at Maison Cupcake who has created a wonderful new event: Forever Nigella. Her theme for the Forever Nigella challenge #2 is Seduced By Chocolate. And oh aren’t we all?
Go on, you know you want to triple your pleasure: hop over and see both Meeta's and Jeanne's versions of this luscious cake...
NIGELLA’S CHOCOLATE ORANGE CAKE
Oh so easy, cook the orange the day before and you’ll find that putting together this batter is done in the wink of an eye.
2 small or 1 large thick-skinned orange, makes between 1 – 1 ½ cups (@250 ml) purée
6 large eggs
1 heaping tsp (about 10 g) baking powder
½ tsp (2 g) baking soda
1 ¼ cups (250 g) granulated sugar (or superfine)
2 cups (200 g) finely ground blanched almonds
½ cup (50 g) unsweetened, good quality cocoa powder
1 tsp fleur d’oranger (orange flower water), optional
½ tsp ground cinnamon, optional
Early in the day or, better yet, the day before, place the whole orange in a large saucapan and cover with cold water. (The orange will float and bob up at the surface of the water, but don’t worry about this.) Bring the water to a boil, lower to a simmer, cover and cook for 2 hours until the orange is soft. Drain and allow the orange to cool completely to room temperature. When cooled, cut the orange into quarters or eights, remove any seeds/pits and then purée (all of it, the peel, flesh, everything) in a food processor or grinder. Don’t worry if there are lovely little chunks or strips of peel visible. If doing this the day before, place in a clean bowl or jar, cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C) and butter an 8-inch (20 cm) springform pan or one of similar volume. Line the bottom with parchment paper, allowing the parchment to come up about an inch or so up the sides.
Place the puréed orange pulp, the eggs, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, almonds, cocoa and the orange flower water and cinnamon if using, in a food processor or, as I did, in a large mixing bowl. Run the motor or beat the mixture until the batter is cohesive, well blended and smooth. It will be grainy because of the ground almonds and puréed orange. Scrape the batter into the prepared cake tin and bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out pretty clean. I used a taller, narrower tin so the cooking time was longer, so check often near the end. And you may have to cover the top of the cake with a piece of aluminum foil to prevent it from burning or cooking to fast.
Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool on a wire cooling rack. When the cake is cool, carefully take it out of the tin. I decorated the cake by drizzling warmed Bitter Orange Marmalade on the top (pretty and also heightens the orange flavor) and topping it off with sugar-rolled strips of candied orange peel.