26 November 2009


Being a soviet kid, and then a post-soviet adolescent, it wasn’t in my culture to celebrate Thanksgiving. It is, however, now. The tradition, unfortunately, is not practiced in the Netherlands -- bad, but curable. What you do is nudge a few Americans living in Amsterdam to pay tribute to their motherland. So tonight I’m rushing to Anthony’s where together with his roommate, Eric, and Eric’s Italian girlfriend, Giovanna, we are going to celebrate Thanksgiving. We’ll light the candles, set the table -- there will be turkey, cranberry sauce, spinach casserole, buckwheat kasha, mashed potatoes with Parmesan, and to crown it all, a pecan pie with bourbon, about which I’ll write soon – and give our American-Italian-Russian thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving, dear all !!!

5 November 2009

Believe it or not

Looks like I might have fallen off the earth, right?

And while that’s not the case, it must, however, be told that time, this savage beast, fell on me and chewed holes in my fiber. I mean, how else, Dear Reader, could I explain the fact that I haven’t coughed up a word here for more than a month? The thought of it makes me sick, literally.

What was I doing then, you might, I hope, ask.

Studies-wise, I was, and am, feverishly grinding up the gristle of linguistics. Academic articles on metaphor have solidly taken up residence on my desk and bed table. My brains? They are afflicted too! Academic essay writing, Power Point presentations and all that jazz are my religion now.

As to my job in the bakery, on this front things are in full throttle too. I can do the dishes and tartlets real fast now. A week ago I rejoiced over my small personal achievement: Issa, our master baker, taught me how to make pate sucree, an event that marked my evolution from a tartlet molder into an occasional tartlet-dough maker, occasional because I can only lend my helping hands in the bakery in between or after I tackle newly-formed mountains of dishes. Besides, every week I’m learning new, more interesting ways to cut my fingers or to bruise my limbs. My latest finding is that you can easily traumatize yourself with a plastic dough scraper (don’t ask). But the accomplishment I’m most proud of is that I made friends with a bunch of exceptionally fine, fine people from the bakery.

One of whom is one French girl named Maud. She took pride in dirtying every single bowl while preparing stuff for baking, to keep me busy, as she explained when I gave her furious glances of appreciation. Yet, I can’t complain. She fed me macaroons, and croissants, and financiers. Oh yes, Maud and I we hit it off all right from my very first day in the bakery. A few weeks ago Maud left back for France and now we are all very sad. Me, I am not sad. I am sorrowful.

But I’m here not to whine. Instead, I’m going to tell you about white wine cake. Before Maud and her boyfriend Jean-michel (a fine Dutch guy with a French name!) bid adieu to Holland, I hurried up to invite myself over to their place for dinner. I knew well that I would be served delectable food. What I did not expect was that I would be exposed to five (!!!) cakes for dessert alone. “I didn’t know what to choose, so I made five”, revealed Maud. That left me breathless with admiration and awe, but only for a second. What followed was an orgy of dessert eating: chocolate cake, tarte Tatin, two charlottes, and ...white wine cake.

Later that day I, over-desserted all right, would be coming back to Amsterdam and it’d be there, on a night train with just a few sleepy passengers lullaby-ed by the late hour, that I’d realize I’d found a new friend whose name was white wine cake. It’s simple, it’s sweet, it’s spirited. If you think it’s tipsy from wine, it is not, not a bit. It’s sober and means business: It pumps you up and makes you smile.

When the mist is thick and you feel somewhat reluctant to poke your head out there and do whatever you should, call for white wine cake first. You take eggs and separate them, then you mix the yolks with sugar and white wine; afterwards, you add vanilla, whose fragrance will make you feel warm and homey. Then you fold in flour, along with baking powder, and mix everything well. Oil, for moisture, goes in next. Last parade the egg whites to which you added a pinch of salt earlier and which you whipped up before adding. All this you pour in a buttered cake pan (or a loaf pan, why not?) and send in the oven. After 30-40 minutes white wine cake will be ready.

And I’ll tell you what, the moment you slice and put a sun-coloured piece on your plate, say, the one with tiny flowers around the rim, the clouds will part, believe it or not, reminding you to never give up, stop fretting, and be always grateful – for the friends, for the cake, for everything.

I’m happy I’m here today. I missed you, Dear Reader!

And before I round off, I should also say that since I’m oven-less, this time my cravings for baking were enabled by a philanthropic soul, Anthony. Who is Anthony, you may be wondering. Anthony is, quite simply, my brother in arms: He stoically tolerated me in his kitchen as I baked, and sometimes burnt, this white wine cake, which I did four times within two past weeks. In real life, Anthony is an American Amsterdammer doing graphic design, at leisure an outstanding thinker, for only outstanding thinkers can list activities such as ‘idiot ignoring’ and ‘weekend enjoying’ among their favourtie pastimes. So thank you, Anthony!

White Wine Cake

Adapted from Maud Chalons

Head note: when you choose white wine, go for the one with fruity and floral aromas -- basically, the more fragrant the wine, the richer in flavour the cake.

3 medium eggs, at room temperature
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup (200 gr) light brown sugar
2/3 cup (160 ml) white wine, at room temperature
2/3 cup (160 ml) non-fragrant oil such as sunflower oil
1 Tbsp vanilla sugar (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)
1 3/4 cup (200 gr) unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
1 Tsb baking powder

1) Pre-heat the oven to 180 C (350 F).

2) Separate the eggs. Add the salt to the egg whites.

3) In a large bowl, beat the yolks with half amount of the sugar. Whisk in half amount of white wine and mix well. Add the remaining half of sugar plus vanilla sugar (or vanilla extract) and mix very well again. Proceed with the remaining amount of white wine; mix whole-heartedly. Pour in the oil; stir until fully-incorporated.
4) In another bowl, whisk the flour and the baking powder together. Pour the white wine mixture into the flour mixture and mix just until the flour is incorporated. Don’t overmix; it’s ok if there are some lumps in the batter, they’ll dissipate during baking.

4) Whip the egg whites until stiff. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold them in the batter. Pour in a buttered 9-inch round cake pan (I think it's not a crime to use a standard-sized, 9 by 5 inches, loaf pan) and bake for 30-40 mins, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10-15 mins.

This cake is delicious plain, but I find that a piece of fruit, say, a juicy pear or a crunchy crispy-skinned apple, is not wrong here at all. Not a bit.