Zig, Puce and their trusty black and white sidekick Alfred have finally made a return appearance. The silly cartoon side of our couple has been in hibernation for much too long, huddling together in our secret hideaway, keeping together and keeping our heads low. Our once-weekly ramble through the vineyards on the outskirts of town took a downturn that arrived with hunting season and slogged on throughout the cold, wet months of autumn and winter. No fun strolling through mud, whistling or singing loudly so as not to be mistaken for the odd hare or deer as the shots ring out and whistle by. And then as trouble mounted, as our world began closing in with tough choices and tension had us in a stranglehold, we chose the safety of our cozy apartment, stuck close to home and took shelter in each other’s company. We survived on love, humor and baked goods, making plans as best we could, our dreams tempered by the odd dash of reality.
Zig, Puce et Alfred by Alain Saint-Ogan
Bad parents, we knew that Marty suffered from our reclusion. He spent the winter and well into the spring moping about the house, shuffling from radiator to sun spot and back again as the day shifted into evening. Heavy sighs communicated his discontent, sadness and boredom pervaded the hallway each time he plopped down onto the carpet with a thud. He yearned for a romp in the great outdoors and with no garden, yard or terrace and with no energy or desire to make that long trek out of town and into the mud, we could offer him little more than a toy toss indoors and a cuddle in front of the occasional televised rugby match.
But hope springs eternal and patience is eventually rewarded and as Sunday morning broke bright and clear, a brilliant sun gracing the pale blue sky, JP closed his book and asked me what I thought about a walk through the vineyards. In these odd times we are living through, I knew that nothing would be better for both his and Marty’s mental and physical wellbeing as a Sunday morning excursion.
Gathering up our belongings (coats, backpacks, keys and a box of cookies…you never know when you will need sustenance) we hooked the leash onto Marty’s collar and off we went. A mere twenty minutes later finds us knee deep in vines, their tiny green leaves fluttering in the wind as they twine gracefully along the wires connecting the stubby pale brown clumps of tree. The ground is littered with twigs that snap underfoot, the pathways that separate the elegant squares of vines a peril to navigate, the churned dirt spotted with holes and rocks, perfectly imitating the ups and downs of life. He takes my hand and, face up to capture every warm touch of sun, the breeze ruffling my hair, I follow happily in his wake, allowing his strong hold to guide and lead me deeper and deeper into the countryside. The air is clear and brisk with just enough chill to keep us moving and we feel miles and miles away from the rough and tumble of city life, the madness of the rat race. These walks, surrounded by nothing more than the green and brown of the earth and no living body other than that black and white character excitedly dashing in and out of the vines as much for our entertainment as his own, have always been our solitude, our safe haven, our personal therapist’s couch for discussing, sharing, dreaming and calculating. Here, as if separated from all mankind and civilization, we are able to step back and imagine our life as it really is, not caught up in someone else’s expectations but rather as it is only as it pertains to us, our needs and our happiness.
Passover is a time of exodus, and I certainly don’t intend to go all biblical on you, but it seems strangely fortuitous that as we enter this festive period celebrating the Jews’ freedom from slavery, my husband and I balance the risks and benefits, the pros and cons of changing our life, moving on, of instigating our own personal exodus. Sometimes we feel as if we are being released from a certain kind of bondage, and that we, too, must wander through some proverbial desert until we stumble into not quite a Promised Land but a place that we create ourselves, a Brave New World of sorts, a land both unknown yet familiar, a land beautiful yet ruggedly barren, an empty space ours to build and create.
Let’s say, then, that we pick up a sharpened pencil and slide a clean, crisp sheet of paper towards us, or how about an entire notebook with pages enough for a very long story, and begin to draw, box by box, a new comic strip. The characters have already been invented, their trusty sidekick ever present, two handsome young men alternating between comic relief and teen antagonists at the ready to draw on their adolescent hormonally-fueled behavior to drive us bonkers or at least place stumbling blocks in our path and the world is the setting for our all new adventures. And as we control the pencil and draw in the action and fill in the bubbles with conversation, we can write the story just as we see fit, changing the mood and the era as we feel. Like those long ago pioneers settling a new land of milk and honey after long years of trial and tribulation, so are we about to release ourselves from our fetters and go wandering off to discover life as it should be.
As we returned tired and hungry from our healthy saunter through the vines, we head straight to the kitchen to start lunch. Marty, happy as a bug, skittles over to his warm, sunny spot on the carpet and curls up into a tight little ball, exhausted but happy. We share a meal, knowing that we have done our duty towards ourselves and our dog, content and satisfied in the decisions that we made while out in the sunshine, one step forward. Out there in our own Secret Garden, in between the giggles, jokes and snatches of tunes sung loudly and carried away on the wind, we let our minds wander to other places and greater things. And in between our hard work and dedication, we hope for a lot of milk and honey.
Like Manna from Heaven, this Chocolate Nut Torte is one wonderful treat to help us through the week of Passover. Very moist and light, a rich chocolate flavor followed by the fruitiness of the cherry juice, we enjoy this cake morning, noon and night, for breakfast, snack or an elegant after-dinner dessert with the addition of a dollop of whipped cream.
For yet another great Passover-friendly (and gluten-free) dessert, visit my latest on Huffington Post Food where I present a luscious Berry Mascarpone Cheesecake on a Chocolate Cake Base.
CHOCOLATE ALMOND TORTE FOR PASSOVER
Adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible
½ cup (65 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
½ cup (120 ml) boiling liquid *
1 tsp vanilla
16 Tbs (225 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup + 2 Tbs (230 g) sugar, separated
6 large eggs, separated, keeping the whites clean with no trace of yolk or shell
1/8 tsp salt
Scant 1 2/3 cups (170 g) finely ground almonds
½ tsp ground cinnamon
* the original recipe calls for water. I replaced the water with the juice from jarred cherries although coffee would also be a fabulous substitute. Even think of replacing half or all of the liquid with orange juice.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Line an ungreased 9-inch (23 cm) baking pan or springform pan with parchment paper.
In a small, heatproof bowl, stir the boiling liquid into the cocoa powder and stir until the cocoa is dissolved and the mixture perfectly smooth. Stir in the vanilla and set aside to cool.
In a large mixing bowl, beat the softened butter with 1 cup of sugar on low speed until all of the sugar is incorporated into the butter then increase speed to medium and beat for about 2 minutes until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks two at a time, beating after each addition just until incorporated, scraping down the sides as necessary. Beat in the cocoa mixture followed by the almonds and ground cinnamon until well blended and the batter is smooth and creamy.
Place the whites in a very clean bowl, preferably plastic or metal if possible, with the salt. Using very clean beaters, beat on low speed for 30 seconds, then increase beater speed to high and continue whipping the whites until opaque and soft peaks form. Gradually add the remaining 2 tablespoons of the sugar while continuing to beat until stiff peak form.
Using a spatula, fold in about a quarter of the stiff egg whites to lighten the batter, then fold in the remaining whites, a third at a time, until completely incorporated with no white lumps. The batter should be light and smooth. Scrape into the prepared pan, smooth the top and bake for 60 to 65 minutes. After the first 30 minutes you will want to cover the top of the cake loosely with a square of aluminum foil to avoid overbrowning. The cake is done when the center is just set. Do not overbake.
Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool in the pan for about 45 minutes. Run a sharp knife blade around the edge to loosen from the sides of the pan before turning the cake out onto a cooling rack or directly onto a serving platter.
Allow the cake to set overnight. I find that it does get moister and the flavors meld when allowed to rest. The full flavor of the cherry came through the chocolate in a perfect, sweet balance after having set for 24 hours. Serve the cake dusted with powdered sugar and accompanied by lightly sweetened whipped cream or ice cream.