9 June 2017

Less talked about

The storm started with a flawless sky.

– It will pour soon, take the raincoat, pronounced Anthony, eyes closed. The weather service on the phone showed it would storm, he continued, his head part of the pillow.

– Really? I open the balcony door to check. But it looks alright, clear and quiet, I say incredulously.

– They even graded it code yellow, a warning.

– A good storm starts with a warning, I say, half-jokingly, and look through the layers of winter jackets and trench coats. But I have to go, can't see the raincoat here, and it doesn't look like any storm out there, I add, grab my bicycle keys from the kitchen table. pull a ripe peach from the fruit bowl for breakfast later (wonder if it's actually going to be enough for breakfast; no, not really), and walk out. I shut the door closed behind me on my tiptoes, always holding back a little before the lock latch clicks. I'm stealth like that; no one hears when I come and when I go.

I leave home when the only light available is the flickering yellow of traffic signals. (I've always wondered why the red and green go after midnight; life on the road never ceases.) Away from the traffic lights and a crossroad, I move past a lengthy stretch of rose bushes, the soft sweet smell. I inhale noisily and it really gets into my head. I feel a subtle tickle along my spine and up my neck and down into my legs, like a buzz you get from a cigarette.

Stifled air keeps grating against my bare arms as I pedal. I look up; the eastern part of the sky starts to loose its stars, becomes mellowed, starts to lighten, comes down from a dark high.

The storm continues with a loud pop, no, two. One from a window pried ajar by the wind, the other from an overturned trash bin outside. I wash my hands clean from the chocolate batter, rub them dry against my apron and rush out to collect the scattered garbage bags on the pavement. In the thin dawn light I can see the storm now. I mean, I can see the low thunderclouds, they look like sand dunes. It's mesmerizing to see a white and blue jet flying into one, a man-made mirage. By the time I'm done gathering the egg shells that spilt from a loosely tied trash bag, the back of my chef's jacket is soaked. The temperatures have been in the upper twenties lately, no difference between the inside and out- on the skin, so the wet cotton feels good, cooling.

Back inside, I check the weather on my phone: heavy wind and showers for the next hour, code yellow. I'm about to go and fix the open window, but then I get a better idea. I'm going to have the peach now and watch the rainwater form ellipses on the window sill. Half-way into my breakfast, I realize, with a pang in my stomach, I don't have much else for seconds. I was right, a peach wasn't going to be enough. I try to distract myself from feeling the disappointment and think about how many of the commuters will pour onto the streets any moment now, see drenched roads and sidewalks and wonder if it's rained in the night. I'm still hungry but I have seen the dune fields in the sky, so.

In a week there will be another code yellow. It will knock off the trees, disrupt the traffic, make the news. It will hold on for over a day and everyone will know of it – the first summer storm of the year. To me it will smell like damp cow shit in the pre-dawn air – I prefer storms less talked about. But whatever, I'll pack a bigger breakfast at least.

Olive Oil and White Wine Cake
Makes one 24-cm (9-icnh) loaf cake

I wrote about this cake before. In November of two thousand and nine, to be exact. Lately I've found myself making it with a renewed zeal, and in doing so there have appeared a few tricks that make this cake even better, which is a long-ish sentence to simply say I'd like to talk about it again here. (Hi, Maud!)

First, in place of neutral vegetable oil I now use extra-virgin olive oil. It lends a level of sophistication to the cake, adds to it a pleasant savouriness. It shouldn't be anything too crazy, the olive oil. Something fruity would be best.

Second, regarding white wine, it should be dry and fragrant (and not too expensive). A Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio will blend in well with olive oil and you'd still be able to taste the wine after baking. For a little more wine flavour, because why not, I pour a few tablespoon of white wine over the cake top when it's out of the oven.

I don't remember if I emphasized before how good and unusual this cake is, so let me do it again now. It's a simple recipe, but it yields a way more complex outcome, with the most moist crumb out there. I'm pretty sure of that. You probably wouldn't know what to expect after the first contact. There is a possibility you'd be wondering if this is a savoury business or sweet. I'd say it's both as far as a cake could allow, a mix of olive oil and white wine in a sweet batter. A delectable happy thing that won't easily bore you out.

3 large eggs, at room temperature
¼ teaspoon table salt
300 g light brown sugar
180 ml extra-virgin olive oil
180 ml white wine, plus more for after baking (see above)
300 g unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Grease a 24-cm loaf pan.

Separate the eggs. Add the salt to the egg white.

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or using a hand-held mxer), beat the egg yolks together with the sugar at high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Lower the speed and mix in the olive oil until incorporated; then add the white wine and mix until fully blended.

Combine the flour and baking powder together, add to the white wine mixture. Mix well.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff. Using a rubber spatula, carefully fold them into the batter. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake until golden brown, about 30-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and pour a few more tablespoon of the white wine over the top. Let cool completely before taking out of the pan.

Wrapped in cling film, it will keep wondrously moist and fragrant for up to a week.

Goes great, like it should, with Earl Grey tea or black coffee, or plain, storms or no storms.

30 April 2017

Familiar but different

It smells of black tea leaves, steeped and left since dinner in the pot on the kitchen counter. The night air.

I'm at knifepoint, and yet I'm mostly concerned that my feet are cold. I cringe.

– It really feels it should be a different time of year, don't you think? I say to a man who is about to, what, rob me? I'm really cold, I add. I draw out 'really' and shuffle from one foot to the other. It's close to freezing. My eyes are watering from a flu.

– Where have you been? The man asks me.

I'm looking at his sharp jawline first, then at the knife blade at my throat. It's beautiful, engraved with a female silhouette. I feel more relief when I notice the birthmark on his neck, right above where the collar of his shirt grips it tightly. It's dark out, but I can make out its color – merlot. A wine stain on the pristine white tablecloth. I saw it before.

– I know you, I say slowly and pause after 'you'.

Suddenly there is a shriek, and another, they are coming from around the corner. It's loud and unexpected and makes me jump. Take it easy, must be a sea gull, he says and pulls away the knife. It sounds human to me, like someone is laughing, I say and look around. There is no one in sight.

– I know you do. Is there something you wanted to tell me last time?

I know the man, I'm sure now. Before, I sat next to him on the train. He was asleep and his phone kept ringing. I remember he had on a nice perfume – citrus fruit and incense smoke. I was studying his exposed neck. It felt intruding but exciting to be so near to someone's live artery and stare at it uninterruptedly and with impunity. The birthmark was close to it.

– You smelled of knives, I wanted to tell you then.

– Why knives?

– My metaphor for danger, I guess.

– I would have liked to hear that. What stopped you?

– I woke up.

Another shriek, strong enough to shatter glass. Someone is patting me on the shoulder, asks me if I'm O.K.

– Wake up, Anya, wake up. Are you O.K.?

I open my eyes; my forehead is covered in sweat. Anthony is sitting on the edge of the bed, looking concerned. It's getting light out, close to a sunrise.

– I had a strange dream, really strange, I say to him, drawing out 'really' again.

I'm making coffee. I think you'd like some?

Bitter Orange and Walnut Bars (Mabroosha)
Adapted from The Gaza Kitchen, by Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt
Makes about 24 pieces

This one here is a very interesting recipe, no need to draw out 'interesting' – only, maybe, 'very'. Interesting because in essence it's a crumble kind of thing, except that all crumbles I know of are butter-based, and for mabroosha a combination of butter and olive oil is used, with a bigger emphasis on olive oil than butter. I like recipes like this: familiar but different.

Also, try to say mabroosha and not feel comforted by the sound at the same time, a bunch of consonants and vowels that conspire to sound, to me, like babushka.

Actually, mabroosha means 'grated' in Arabic, and that's because the recipe will have you grate half of the dough over the jam and nuts. It's good if you have a medium-sized cheese grater for it. Bitter orange marmalade is a tradition choice, but any kind of jam can be used for mabroosha.

Of course it goes very well with coffee. It crunches pleasantly under the teeth, and has soft pockets of jam, is sweet but olive oil pulls it a little towards savoury, plus cinnamon, orange zest and rosewater, it's got a lot of good stuff, this great little mabroosha.

380 g (3 cups) all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
220 g (1 cup) sugar
Pinch of salt
60 g (4 Tablespoons) butter, softened to room temperature
180 ml (¾ cup) olive oil
2 medium eggs
1 Tablespoon rosewater
2 teaspoons orange zest
160 g (1 ½ cup) bitter orange marmalade
100 g (1 cup) finely chopped walnuts
½ teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 180 C (350 F). Thoroughly grease a 33 x 23 cm (13 x 9 inch) rectangular pan.

Mix together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. To this, add the butter, olive oil, eggs, rosewater and orange zest. Knead together until they are well combined. The resulting dough should not be sticky. If the dough appears too crumbly, add a little more rosewater. If it appears to be too wet, add a little more flour. Divide the dough into two equal parts.

Using the palm of your hand, spread out one part of the dough in the prepared pan. Spread the jam or marmalade evenly over the dough. Mix the walnuts with the cinnamon and top the dough with this nut mixture. Using a medium-sized cheese grate, shred the remaining dough evenly over the jam and nuts.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until the crumbs are slightly golden and the jam is bubbling out. Let it cool, then divide it into bars. 

31 January 2017

Here is another scene

Here is a scene. I'm in a small town on the Black Sea coast, on summer holidays with Mom. We are having lunch at a roadside restaurant near the beach. We just ordered and while waiting I'm thinking what to write on a postcard for Dad. He is back home working, toiling, through the hottest month, July. I aim to be funny and write that nothing over here, like our laundry or hair, ever completely dries out. It's humid over here, Dad. I capitalize 'humid' to make a point. Also, I add, Georgian food is the best. I underscore 'the best'. I'm having lobio for lunch. I'm twelve years-old here; a summer sea breeze tickles my knees. 

Here is another scene. I put two kitchen towels wrapped around ice cubes onto my knees. Anthony drapes a blanket over my shoulders, hands me a bowl of warmed stewed beans. My face is streaked with tears.

I caught a cab to get home. The car moves fast through the late-afternoon traffic. The driver, who is young, turns on the wipers and checks his phone at the traffic lights. I think he notices in the rear window that I've been sobbing. 

– Is something wrong? he asks.

– No, no, everything is alright.

I really don't want to be crying, it's involuntary. It could have been worse, this is probably nothing, stop sobbing, it's embarrassing, I tell to myself. I underscore 'embarrassing' and highlight 'nothing' in my mind's eye. It's green and the car jolts and starts moving fast again. It knives through the rain.

Anthony returns a call. I phoned him ten minutes ago or something like that to ask for help.

– What happened?

I came off my bike – my foot slipped off the wet pedal. I lost control, was on the ground in an instant. I wince at the image of my knees hitting the cobbled road, feel the lines on my forehead gather into a tense and busy intersection. I notice a rip in my jeans sleeve, a few frilly dark threads are sticking out. I took a taxi back home, I say, the steering wheel is badly bent, and the knees are starting to ache like hell, something similar to when a dentist hits a nerve ending with his drill. I hang up, the cab driver asks if I want to go to the hospital first.

No, it's probably OK, I tell him. The forehead lines and eyebrows conspire into a frown now; I really don't want his attention.

When I get home, the ice cubes are ready to go, wrapped up into the kitchen towels. I pull off the jeans and sit down on the couch, two cushions under the knees – to straighten them now is beyond my willpower. In a little while the ice feels too cold to tolerate, I take a break. I eat the Georgian bean and walnuts stew that Anthony warmed up for dinner, amolesili lobio. I take a spoonful and the mouth is instantly comforted by the rich and creamy. And in my mind I'm twelve again, sitting at the roadside Georgian cafe, writing the postcard for Dad. I can almost feel the warm sea breeze too.

Amolesili Lobio (Stewed Red Beans and Walnuts)
Adapted from Saveur
Serves 6-8

Back in time (USSR) they used to say that Georgian, bold, fresh, spicy, was the best Russian cuisine. Lobio means 'beans' in Georgian, and there is an infinite number of recipes for it out there, from slow-cooked stews to crushed-bean salads. I favor this version: it's rich and earthy, beautifully colored, not quite purple and not quite red, highly aromatic. Heed the walnuts here: they enrich the stew and they freshen it too, similar to a cucumber's job in a stir-fry.

Without further ado:

100 g toasted walnuts
½ cup olive oil
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
1 small red chile, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
1 medium leek, finely chopped
2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
1 teaspoon hot paprika
450 g dried dark red kidney beans, soaked overnight and drained
3 L water (or chicken or vegetable stock)
½ cup finely chopped cilantro
½ cup finely chopped dill
½ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
Salt and black pepper, to taste

Place the walnuts and half the olive oil in a food processor. Puree until very smooth, about 2 minutes, and set aside.

Heat the remaining oil in a large heavy-bottom saucepan over a medium heat. Add the garlic, carrots, onions, chile, and leek. Cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 10 minutes. Add the coriander seeds and paprika, and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add the beans and water, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a bare simmer and cook, uncovered, until the beans are very tender and the cooking liquid has reduced enough to cover the beans by a fingertip, about 2 – 2 ½ hours Using a ladle, transfer half of the beans to a blender. Puree until smooth and return to the pot. Stir in the walnut puree, cilantro, dill, parsley, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Serve with country-style bread on the side.

Refrigerated, keeps well for up to 5 days.

30 November 2016

Tell more

'Code yellow' is beginning with a bunch of dry leaves blowing across the bike path and rolling over the glistening sidewalk. The scratching sound they leave behind is the only chord the first badass storm of the season is offering right now. It's 4.30 am. At 4 am, midst my half-burnt toast and coffee for breakfast, I got a warning on my phone of the imminent severe wind – and that users of 'fragile' means of transportation such as bicycles, scooters and caravans may be at risk.

Another duo of leaves perform a circus stunt. A synchronized, uninterrupted somersault from one side of the bike path to the other. At 4.45 am I'm their sole spectator, albeit in a rush to get to work on time. I feel annoyed with my bike – it's stuck on the lowest gear. I take it out on the pedals, push harder on them. A block further it's starting to drizzle, a soft infrequent drizzle for now, and even quite pleasant on the skin.

I take a turn, and suddenly – a loud, low bang of thunder, the next chord in line. I'm about fifteen minutes away from work and the risen loaves of bread (plump and soft, and not unlike a young woman's breast), and the warmth of the bread oven. I push the pedals harder, I can make it, past the light installation that says in tall red electric letters MEMORIES ARE SOUVENIRS, just go go, fast fast.

4 pm. 'Code yellow' ends with a phone call from my parents.

Are you safe? We read on the internet about the storm, worried now, my mother says.

Yes, we are fine. I just got back home from work. It's calming down now. I'm making cookies.

What cookies? Tell more.

Nutbutter Cookies

Adapted from Sourdough, by Sarah Owens
Makes about 60-65 cookies

You know Lebkuchen, that old-fashioned German gingerbread? I bet these nutbutter cookies will remind you of it. And possibly of oatmeal cookies. And most certainly of spice cookies. And if that's not enough, here is more: they are sourdough cookies. Sourdough nutbutter cookies!

I understand that to make and keep alive your own sourdough starter for cookies alone, however delicious, is a big ask. But if you already have one, wouldn't you then want a great breakfast cookie – because it's great for breakfast, crumbled over a bowl of thick yogurt, or along with coffee and a cold tangerine on the side – for winter months at least?

What nut butter to use is the subject of taste. I myself gravitate towards milder nut butters – such as almond or cashew – for these cookies. This way all elements at play are more noticeable in the outcome: earthy rye flour; nutty, nearly milky oats; deep, smoky maple syrup; soothing cinnamon and exotic nutmeg.

By the way, if the presence of sourdough in the cookie evokes the notions of acidity, I'll hasten to say this is really not the case here. The sourdough starter is first mixed with water and rye flour to form such a pre-ferment that leaves no traces of acidity in the cookie dough.

For the leaven (pre-ferment)

20 g sourdough starter
50 g very warm water (40 C)
70 g rye flour

For the cookie dough

140 g leaven (pre-ferment)
2 large eggs
60 g maple syrup
½ teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon table salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
480 g good-quality nut butter of choice (almond, cashew, hazelnut, etc)
120 g unrefined cane sugar
1 vanilla bean, seeds only
30 g rolled oats

To make the leaven (pre-ferment):

Eight hours before making the cookies, mix together the starter and water in a medium non-reactive bowl (wooden, plastic or stainless steel). Add the rye flour, mix with your hand until hydrated and stiff then cover with plastic. Leave to ferment at room temperature. Once it's puffy and smelling of honeyed fruit, you can mix it into the dough or keep refrigerated up to several days before using.

To make the cookie dough:

Preheat the oven to 175 C (350 F). Add the eggs and maple syrup to the leaven and mix well with your hand. The mixture will look split, but it will come together once the remaining ingredients have been added. Sprinkle the baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg over the top, stir to incorporate. Mash in the nut butter, sugar and vanilla seeds, and then fold in the oats. If the dough feels a little runny, refrigerate it for about an hour.

Form the dough, about a teaspoon's worth, into small balls, and place onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Don't overcrowd it, bake about 12-15 cookies at a time. (At this point you can also refrigerate the dough, covered with plastic, for up to two days.) Using a fork, press the balls gently to flatten into 4-cm disks. Dip your fork in (rye) flour before each cookie to prevent it from sticking to the dough.

Bake for 7 to 8 minutes, rotating the sheet halfway through, until the edges just begin to appear firm. Do not overbake. Let cool on a wire rack. These will keep well in an airtight container at room temperature for 4 to 5 days.

31 October 2016

Quite near

Downstairs a drama is unfolding.

In my bedroom there is a mosquito on the window, it makes thumping sounds as it runs into the glass, in angular curves, like the ones on a cardiogram, moves from one corner to the next. I'm in bed, arms under a pillow, and I'm watching it. There is not much choice for the mosquito to go elsewhere, the window is closed. I'd give it a moment before it will sense there is warm blood on the pillow, an easy reach. The sky is all grey, thick grey, it makes the mosquito look grey too.

A man with a pistol walks out of the hallway, starts to pace in front of the building.

The wine last night has left me with the disinclination to get out of bed too early. It was a good red, too good to stop at a glass. I baked a loaf of Russian rye and there were well-aged Dutch farmer's cheese, butter, a couple of soft-boiled eggs that trod on the edge of hard, and the remnants of an OK, store-bought roast chicken. We both agreed we could have made a better chicken ourselves, but we'd been too hungry to wait I suppose. Anyway, all that was dinner, and it was delicious. We had it on the floor, with the balcony door open, 'a picnic'. 

Downstairs police cars are everywhere, a security cordon around the entrance. The man has fired the pistol. Sirens break through the glass, come to a halt quite near. I wonder what may be wrong, eyes tracking the mosquito's ups and downs along the window frame.

The phone buzzes, but it's so far away, on the computer desk. The thought of getting up and out from under the warm blanket isn't so agreeable right now, it's my free day after six days of work. I'll get out of bed when the mosquito has finally reached me, I'm thinking. The phone buzzes again, makes me curious. I'm now willing the mosquito to finally get close enough to be annoying, so I have a good reason to make a move myself. Now it starts ringing. I'm getting up.

It's 12 p.m. on the phone clock, plus two messages and a missed call from Anthony. There is a shooting right in front of our building, says one, and a link to a Dutch news site in the other. I stare at the phone screen, make out that at least no one is injured.

I sit back down on the bed to call back Anthony. We exchange a few incredulous can-you-believe-its. After I hang up I reach for a newspaper by the bed and swat at the mosquito. Got him. Then I open the window and go to the kitchen. I set the kettle on and as I wait I cut a thick slice of the rye bread from last night to go with my coffee. I'll spread honey on it now. It's my favourite most comforting Russian bread -- Borodynsky.

Borodynsky Bread

Adapted from Bread Matters, by Andrew Whitley
Makes 1 large sandwich loaf

This is a beautiful bread: hearty, moist, dark, dense, intensely sour and flavoured with coriander seeds. Somebody I know even compared it to beer, something to do with the floral coriander seeds. It's certainly the most consumed bread in Russia, I grew up on it. Some time ago a great idea descended on me to make my own Borodynsky. Now I have a tub with rye sourdough starter in the fridge, I'm starting to think of it as a pet, I only need to name it. Alriiiiight. 

The process is really straightforward. You need the aforementioned rye sourdough starter that will require four days to fully come to life. Then you make a production sourdough, which is going to be more active than the starter itself, and which will be used, as the name suggests, for the production of the bread. And then you make the main dough. Frankly, it's almost a one-bowl operation, save for a tub and a loaf tin.

For the rye sourdough starter

100 g dark rye flour
200 g very warm water (40 C)

For the production sourdough

100 g rye sourdough starter
300 g dark rye flour
600 g very warm water (40 C)

For the dough

540 g production sourdough (the rest can be mixed into the sourdough starter as a “feed”)
460 g dark rye flour
10 g fine sea salt
40 g unsulphured molasses
180 g warm water
2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds, divided use

To make the rye sourdough starter:

On day 1 mix 25 g of dark rye flour with 50 g of warm water in a large jar or a plastic tub with a lid. Keep out of the fridge. On day 2,3,4 continue adding another 25 g of dark rye flour and 50 g of warm water. The starter will get a little bubbly, and that's of course a very good thing. After the last feeding let the starter ferment for another 24 hours out of the fridge before moving on to the next step to make the production sourdough.

To make the production sourdough:

Mix 100 g of the rye sourdough starter with the dark rye flour and warm water in a large plastic tub. The rest of the rye sourdough starter can be stored in the fridge, and fed with 25 g of dark rye flour and 50 g of warm water once every 2-3 days, and at least 24 hours ahead of your next Borodynsky loaf.

Let the production starter ferment, out of the fridge and for about 12 hours. Place a bowl underneath the tub in the (likely) event the production starter overflows; it will get very bubbly.

To make the dough:

Thoroughly oil a bread loaf tin about 23 x 13 cm. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of slightly crushed coriander seeds over the bottom of the tin.

In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients together. It will be a very sticky mass. Wet your hands and place the mixture in the tin. Even it out, cover loosely (a clean plastic bag works well) and leave to prove until the dough has increased in size by about one third. This can take up to 4-5 hours.

Preheat the oven to 220 C. When the dough is ready, sprinkle another teaspoon of lightly crushed coriander seeds over the top. Bake for 10 minutes, then turn the oven down to 200 C and bake for further 40 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let rest for 5-10 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack. If necessary, run a sharp knife along the sides of the tin to ease the bread out. Cool completely before storing (wrapped in cling film). Borodynsky is best the day after baking.

30 September 2016

So many more

It starts with an unusual sound – I would have easily mistaken it for a candy foil wrapper.

– How strange, Anthony says looking out of the window across the narrow courtyard.

– What's that? 

– I can see the curtains moving about in the apartment across, and last night I saw the shadows and heard the clanking of the cutlery, but I can't see who lives there, the actual figures, not the outlines, you know. Such a difference from Amsterdam.

– It's an Eastern European thing, I contemplate from the kitchen table where I laid out a couple postcards we picked up at a souvenir shop in the old town last night. Your coffee is getting cold, I say then pour fresh boiling water into another cup and drown in it two full teaspoons of instant coffee for myself. The taste isn't that great but it does the job, hurries up the brain alright. I take a sip and think of what to write on the postcard we are going to post to ourselves.

Next to my coffee I have fresh prune plums, we bought a kilo at the market nearby yesterday. I pick one from a bowl on the kitchen counter, it's small and roughly oval, I look at it before biting into. I expect its thin purple skin to snap under my teeth which will then go on to sink into the juicy glass-green flesh. I'm right about that. I take another, this one looks like a misshapen rain drop. I'll probably end up eating at least a dozen now.
Every fruit street vendor in this beautiful city sells fresh Italian prune plums this time of year, I write down on the back of the postcard. On the front there are three connected images of winding cobbled alleys of the Old Town, and București below them. 

– How is it looking with the rain? Still sounds like a foil candy wrapper? I ask. The phone says it's thunderstorms and showers for the next hour or so, and that the temperatures are going to drop. Maybe we should get a cheap umbrella, and a pair of sweaters, one for each?

I push the chair back, stand up and move towards the window to bring Anthony his coffee. Sugar? He nods towards the cup. Affirmative, I say leaning over the window sill. A mix between a rustle and a swish, the rain drops remain soft and rare. Maybe the forecast is wrong, I suggest. I take a deep breath and notice how the air in the courtyard simultaneously smells of laundry detergent and wallpaper paste, or maybe that's nail polish remover. 

– How is the postcard coming along? Anthony asks between his coffee sips. I congratulated Bucharest with its abundant offerings of purple Italian plums, I say and we both chuckle. And in the next sentence, I'm thinking, we could congratulate ourselves with our wedding anniversary today.

Four years down already? We wish you so many more! With love from Bucharest --

Purple Plum Torte
Adapted from The New York Times
Yield: 8 servings

I'm happy to report that I did track down Italian prune plums back in Amsterdam (last weekend at the farmers' market at Noordermarkt, to be helpful). In Dutch they are known as kwetsen, and it's their season now, and this is the cake for them (and for you if you love plums). I must say the recipe looks too simple to believe it's special. But it is! It's about the plums, only them, how jammy and pleasantly sharp they get after they bake and how it's such a nice contrast to the sweeter crumb, and how, sitting atop the said nutty whole wheat crumb, they gather under themselves pools of their own bright juices to slowly release them the next day down the aforementioned buttery crumb. Purple Italian prune plums (they are sweet and tart at once) are meant for this torte, but if none are around, other purple plums will do too.
Anthony says this torte is "10 out of 10". Sweet but not too much, a little sour (because of the plums), nutty (because of the whole wheat flour), and light so you keep wanting to eat it – “it's got it all figured out”.

120 g cane sugar
115 g unsalted butter, softened
130 g whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder (4 g) baking powder
¼ teaspoon table salt
2 large eggs
15-20 Italian prune plums, pitted and halved
½-1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (depends on how much you like cinnamon)
1-2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Heat the oven to 175 C (350 F). Line the bottom of a 22-cm (9-inch) or 24-cm (10-inch) springform pan with parchment paper and lightly grease the sides.

Combine the prune halves with the cinnamon in a bowl and set aside. To cut down on washing up, you  perhaps may want to sprinkle the cardamom over the fruit at a later stage in the process once the plum halves are arranged over the batter, but tossing the fruit in spice first allows for a nice and even coating.

In another bowl cream the sugar and butter with an electric mixer until fluffy and cappuccino in color. Add the eggs, one at a time, then the flour, baking powder and salt, and beat well. Scrape down the sides of the bowl; the batter will be rather thick.

Spoon the batter into the prepared baking form and smooth the top. Place the plum halves skin side up all over the batter, it should be all covered. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and a tablespoon or two more of cane sugar, depending on the sweetness of the fruit.

Bake until the top is golden and a toothpick inserted into the a centre part of the torte comes out clean of batter, about 45-50 minutes. Let it sit for ten minutes then remove from the pan. Cool on a rack and keep covered in clingfilm. It get even better on the next day after the plum juices has further permeated into the crumb. Keeps well for up to three days.