BLACK & WHITE…. NIGHT & DAY…. VANILLA & CHOCOLATE
How different can two be? From the start they were like black & white, one bouncing inside, the other quiet as a mouse on Christmas Eve. I remember when JP and I, heavily pregnant, nearing the end, went to see Hairspray. Sitting in my movie theater seat Clem would lie quietly, patiently during the dialogue but each time the first chords of the music would begin, the singing and dancing start, my belly would bounce, baby swinging, turning, twisting this way and that to the music. And every night exactly at 10, as I was resting my book on my mountain of a belly, my eyes heavy, off he would start, like clockwork, swirling and twirling, letting me know he was there and wide awake. Simon, on the other hand, hardly moved, still as the night. In the evenings I would get nervous and start to punch and push and pound trying to get some kind of reaction to make sure he was all right and still there. And, of course, Clem popped out according to schedule, right on time, while Simon, tricky little fellow, kept teasing, playing hide and seek, being sneaky until he decided that he was ready to grace the world with his presence. Clem arrived like a little roly-poly bundle of joy, eyes squeezed shut, sleeping like a little angel, while Simon, like a long, tall drink of water as my mom would say, came out awake and alert, eyes not only wide open but staring at each of us present, tiny dark eyes boring into ours, appraising, judging, soaking it all in as if he were master of the situation.
When they were very young, people mistook them for twin brothers, but more like night & day you wouldn’t find. Clem was a bundle of energy, anxious to take his first steps, impatient for his independence. He never walked, he stood up one day and shot off, running like there was no tomorrow, as if he knew that life wouldn’t wait. He chattered and babbled on and on, non-stop, always stories to tell. And mischievous in a playful way. As I lay flat on my back like the beached whale that I resembled, days from giving him a baby brother, he would pull open the doors of the “meuble bleu”, the funny, lopsided old cabinet I used to store my baking supplies, and, glancing in my direction and gigglingly making sure that I was indeed totally indisposed, he would begin pulling out bottles of spices, opening them and tasting, pouring the contents out onto the floor, eating bouillon cubes and wreaking havoc gleefully, joyously. His brother, on the other hand, at the same age was quiet and thoughtful, observant, eerily observant for someone so young and tiny. He would plant himself discreetly in the corner of a room and listen, watch, and looking into his piercing hazel eyes you just knew that he understood, that he was following the conversation, was reading each person and filing away the knowledge gleaned. Tiny, innocent, silent, nothing like his brother. One splashing happily in the water, water baby that he was, running carefree through the waves, digging in the dirt, the other cautious to a fault, fearful of the water, hating the feel of the hot sand between his toes.
And one so carefree, the other so stubborn. One more confident in groups, the other more at ease one on one. One stuck to his best friend or two, the other surrounded by his gaggle of admirers, his groupies. One jumping into the middle of the group whether in school or out, even the first day with new people, and waving his arms, making friends, letting the others see he is there, learning the rules as he goes, the other hiding in his coat, off to the side, by himself, observing the comings and goings of the others, learning the language, the hierarchy of the group, who is who and who does what, taking days or weeks before infiltrating the group slowly, carefully but assured of where he may fit in.
One hesitant, doubting, ill at ease with things he doesn’t understand, judgmental, refusing what he doesn’t agree with, turning dark and moody, the other brushing these things off with nonchalance, with his “anyway….” and his “not interested….” And his “so what?” followed by a shrug of the shoulders and a roll of the eyes and he’s off onto something else. One retreating into himself, trusting only himself, the other marching to his own tune, picking and choosing, ignoring the rest, making his own rules as he goes along. One flitting from thing to thing, interested in this and that but never tied down to one, creative, physical, the other concentrated, working at something until it is done, symmetrical, organized, matter of fact, analytical.
And their tastes as different as vanilla & chocolate: one loving to eat, willing to try anything, chewing garlic, sucking on lemons, scooping bits of cheese into his mouth from the get go, enjoying every little thing, every gorgeous flavor, the other clamping shut his tiny rosebud lips, refusing entrance to more and more as the months and years passed. One growing to eat to his mother’s delight, the other breaking his mother’s heart with each shake of the head “no”. One loving chocolate, the other strictly vanilla, the one embracing all things luscious and gooey, creamy and sweet, the other demanding the plain and the simple, cake, just plain cake, if you please, and the same things over and over again.
But, brothers, my babies, all grown up. So different, like night & day, black & white, vanilla & chocolate, but both warm and generous, wickedly funny, smart as whips, worldly from all the traveling they’ve done in a way their friends are not, able to slide from one culture, one language into another, as easily as some boys change their clothes. So different, one working hard and excelling at school, starting his own business, the other off to do volunteer work, trying to figure out where he fits and what he can do with his life in this wide world. One here in France, one soon to be making his home in the States. So different, but so alike, pushing and pulling and trying to become their own person, each in their own right, not a shadow of the other, and side by side the perfect pair, complements, two halves of a whole, like the perfect cake, layers of chocolate and vanilla, side by side, sweet and delicate, separate but creating one.
My dear friend Lien of Lien’s Notes recently shared with me the recipe for this extraordinary cake, an Indonesian treat, intriguing layers of batter each cooked quickly under the grill and separated by a quick brush of melted butter. This is a rather rich cake made with lots of eggs and butter, and rather time-consuming considering you must sit and watch the cake and pull it out of the oven every 2 or 3 minutes to brush with butter and add more batter, but it is so worth it! It is truly fantastic! It has the taste and texture of a stack of crêpes, and although this treat is usually simple layers of plain vanilla batter or alternate layers of vanilla and spiced batters, I decided to create a vanilla-chocolate version by dividing the batter into two and stirring cocoa powder into one. And as you can see, it was fabulous! A rich flavor, elegant and impressive, but simple and light enough to have with coffee for breakfast or a glass of milk or a mug of tea for a snack. Beautiful!
("Spekuk" or Indonesian layered cake)
from Lonny Gerungan’s "De complete Indonesische keuken"
17 ½ Tbs (250 g) unsalted butter, softened
7 oz (200 g) light brown (or white) soft sugar *
3 ½ oz (100 g) flour
1/4 tsp salt
seeds from one vanilla pod
3 ½ - 4 Tbs (50 g) unsalted butter, melted (for brushing)
* This is light brown packing sugar, Vergeoise blonde in France
2 Variations : Chocolate or Spice (traditional)
For the Chocolate version :
1 ½ Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
For the Spice version (I have not tried this version but Lien has) :
8 tsp ground cinnamon
3 tsp ground cardamom
3 tsp ground nutmeg
2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground anice seeds
Blend the spices together.
Butter an 8-inch (20 cm) springform pan.
Separate the eggs. Place the whites in a large metal or plastic bowl and, if you like, add a few grains of salt and 1 or 2 drops of lemon juice to help stabilize them. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter with the sugar until light and creamy. Beat in the yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift the flour and salt over the mixture, add the scraped out seeds from the vanilla pod and beat briefly, just until blended.
With very clean beaters, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks hold. Fold the whites gently into the cake batter, about a third of the whites at a time, just until well blended.
If you want to make either the chocolate or the spice version, divide the batter into two bowls, weighing the batter if necessary to make sure you have equal portions. Gently fold either the cocoa powder or the spice blend (to taste) to one half of the batter.
Heat the oven to grill and place your oven rack 4 inches (10 cm) below the grill. Have the melted butter and a brush at hand.
Scoop a few tablespoons of the vanilla batter into the buttered pan and, using the back of the spoon, spread around the bottom of the pan as evenly as possible, all the way to the edges. Place the pan under the grill and bake until the batter is firm, begins to puff up and is golden brown. This will take only 2 to 3 minutes, so do not take your eyes off of the pan!
Grab the pan and take it out of the oven. Quickly brush the entire surface of the baked layer (it will look like a crêpe) with melted butter then scoop up and add another layer of batter – if you have flavored half the batter with cocoa or spices then alternate the flavored batter with the vanilla – just 2 or 3 heaping tablespoons, and quickly spread the batter as evenly as possible over the cooked layer. The batter will begin to melt as it hits the hot cooked layer but don’t worry, just spread it around quickly. Then pop it back under the grill for another 2 to 3 minutes until this layer is baked, puffed and golden. Remove from the oven, brush with melted butter and repeat the process, alternating vanilla and cocoa layers as I have done, until you have used up all of the batter.
Be very careful, because as you add layers and each layer moves up the pan and gets closer to the grill, the batter may cook more quickly so it is important to watch the baking process! Don’t walk away from that oven!
Let the cake cool completely in the pan on a cooling rack before sliding a knife around the sides to loosen then removing from the pan. The cake stays perfect and moist for a few days.
Results: What a fabulous cake! As I said, it is like eating a stack of perfect crêpes, is impressive to look at and can be served simply, as is, for breakfast or a snack or can be dressed up with whipped cream or crème anglaise when you want an elegant dessert. And what a wonderful cake that comes in 3 versions – all vanilla, vanilla-chocolate or vanilla-spice!
Thank you, Lien, for a fabulous recipe!
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