Tuesday, December 11, 2012

quiet pleasure: a cake in my oven

Because I grew up on (and still generally prefer the texture of) boxed cake mix cakes, and because I had a Martha Stewart phase in my early twenties, I often forget how simple it is to whip up a little cake for dessert. But it can be quite simple. I was reminded this morning, as I tracked down a vaguely remembered recipe and then stood at the counter stirring silky batter.

I buttered the pan, heated the oven, scrubbed a lemon. Then I grated the zest off that lemon into a glass bowl that lived for years and years in my mom's stand mixer--how many cakes has it helped come into being? I cracked three eggs into the bowl, measured in half a cup of plain yogurt, a full cup of glittery sugar. This golden, glistening mass of yolk and yogurt and sugar I stirred with my whisk until it all merged into a satiny, wet pool. Next: a cup and a half of flour, two teaspoons of baking powder, a dash of salt, beaten in. Finally, half a cup of oil, turned into the rest with a light touch, and I scraped that beautiful mixture into the round cake pan.

Now it bakes, filling the kitchen with a mysterious scent of browning edges against the buttered tin and sugar mingling with egg and lemon in 350-degree heat. In a while I will make a glaze of the lemon's juice with powdered sugar, and that glaze will seep into the cake, soaking its crumbs with tart-sweet confidence. Tonight I will serve it to my guests in plain triangles, with strong coffee, on white plates and blue plates.

There is something particularly lovely about the minutes the cake spends in the oven. My sink may be full of dishes, my counter in need of another good soapy wiping, but the ticking of the timer and the slowly developing fragrance remind me that something good is on its way. I have done the bulk of the work, and now I trust that the magic of actions and reactions will result, as they generally do, in a properly risen bit of tasty baking.

I have a great deal to do today. I have laundry and dusting and sweeping to consider, not to mention looming research deadlines and course planning. I have a voice in my head reminding me of friends who will chuckle at yet another bit of cooking mysticism on this blog. I also have a sneaking suspicion that refined sugar may be poisonous to our bodies in the quantities we tend to consume it (hence my commitment to buying the expensive organic sugar that comes in rather small cartons to help me think twice before using it and to try to minimize environmental impact). The news headlines are, as always, disheartening, and my little circle of domesticity is hardly a decent response to the hunger and injustice and loneliness that saturates our world.

But it is a tentative and imperfect and humble announcement (annunciation?) of welcome and care for my guests tonight. It is a simple sign of our hope in wholeness, good food, olive groves and lemon trees. We will gather around it, this lemon-yogurt cake, and we will eat it together.

So in this time between stirring and tipping it, still steaming, from the pan, I take pleasure in its scent, and the feeling of having made something simple and good, and anticipation for the sharing still to come.

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