AN EMOTIONAL LIFE IN BLACK AND WHITE
Shadows amid the starkness of pure black and white, moody and ethereal; mystery fills the empty spaces, statements clear and honest fill in the blanks. Sharp lines drawn across faces and bare torsos like the scratch of a stick pulled across the damp sand, withered and wrinkled, each deep, shadowed crease speaking years of experience; eyes burning out of the glossy surface, admitting so many secrets, hiding so many more. Black melting into gray, something ominous, sinister oozes out of each photo, emotions raw, almost palpable, a persona created from an idea, a vision. Or colors both sharp and hazy at once, rich hues of feminine pink, gold and orange of sunsets and dirt, the blues of skies both limpid and stormy. Colors emotional, sensational, creating a fairytale land of objects both living and not that feed my soul and nourish my imagination, forcing me to feel and think, inspiring me, urging me to create. Breathtaking images of life captured in a moment, a breath, so real in their falseness, portraits not portraits but rather images that reflect a yearning, an emotion, a memory, a dream inside of me.
Annie Leibovitz. We watched Life Through a Lens, the film of this renowned photographer, her life and her work as seen through the eyes of her sister. I, of course, know Annie Leibovitz and her stunning work, have loved it and been in awe of it for years, but I have never really looked at it so closely nor understood it before now. We were immersed in images, her story illustrated by a never-ending continuum of shots, each more moving and breathtaking than the last. She may not have been born with a camera in her hand but she was indeed born with a vision and a gift. As I watched her work, her passion perfectly balanced with a certain nonchalance, her seemingly casual process so intensely thoughtful, I realized that what I reach for, yearn for, grope wildly for is to achieve this same visual effect and emotional impact with my writing. Artists, craftsmen, visionaries such as she are far and few between and mere mortals such as I can only hope, yet to be able to capture in words what she captures on film, to have such a verbal imagery as she has one visual are the stars for which I reach.
I have often tried to explain why I sometimes have such difficulty looking at this painting or that. Standing in the presence of a Van Eyck, a Grünewald, Turner, De Kooning or Pollock, I have felt my heart pounding, jumping and skitting through my body and up into my throat, my breath choked and my mind swept away, dizzyingly. I avert my eyes, turn my back, the depth and complexity too much to bear. The darkness burns inside of me, the searing light blinds, raw emotions claw and tear; the intense beauty of any one of these masterpieces has the power to overwhelm me, and I understand the power true talent wields. And as hard as I try and explain what passes through me, I cannot. It is beyond words.
And I have been entranced by words as well, words strung together one after the other in such a way that it veritably, literally takes my breath away and leaves me speechless. Writing so magical, thoughts and ideas captured so perfectly in sentences that I have had to close the book and place it on the table next to me while the words soaked in, penetrated my mind, my body, the sensation practically physical. It takes a true command of a language, the mastering of vocabulary, the total control of characters and plot, like a painter masters and controls his or her brush, the weight against the canvas, the precise hue of each color, the length and depth of each stroke. Whether witty, humorous or angst-ridden and bleak, words strung together like music, each note, the beat and rhythm laced together just so to create a well-written symphony; music so soul-searingly earnest able to captivate and hypnotize, transport the listener, the reader away to another realm.
Like Annie Leibovitz’ photographs. She tells a story, captures a moment, a thought, an emotion and allows the viewer a glimpse into what she sees. She manipulates our emotions until she has us eating out of the palm of her hand, right where she wants us, experiencing the array of emotions that she has decided she wants us to experience. And we find ourselves reading a story into that one image or series of images that she has pieced together and chosen to tell. She weaves a fairytale with pictures in such a way as I dream of being able to create with my words. A story fleshy, voluptuous, emotions raw and complex, a beauty both light and dark, lined with the wrinkles of time and scarred with my experience. I search for words, just the right ones as I play with and attempt to manipulate how a reader feels. I want to be able to paint a picture in black on white that inspires and excites, disturbs or burns with love and yearning. I want readers to nod their heads and shout, “Yes! Yes! I have been there, I know how you feel!”, tears shed, hearts melting, blood pounding, the heat rising. I want to stir up images of childhood glorious, silly or downright sad. Or elicit torrid passion and fervor. I want to touch someone, anyone, the way her photographs move me.
Out of breath. Skip to kitchen…..
My kitchen experience this weekend was one of chocolate, black on white. Not so much short on time as short on energy, I desired to satisfy a chocolate craving as quickly and as easily as possible. Two one-bowl chocolate cakes, as simple, easy and quick as a fabulous, homemade from-scratch cake can and should be. Baked and served side by side, we, my men and I, tested and tasted both glorious versions: one lighter and fluffier, the other denser and chewy, both offering an intensely luscious chocolate flavor, equally satisfying, equally addictive. Both made with pantry ingredients almost always on hand, both using vegetable oil rather than butter so when the craving hits there is no need to wait for butter to soften to room temperature. One version is eggless so takes the “pantry staple” idea one step further: the ideal cake for either the egg-free diet or for those days when we open up the refrigerator to find…. no eggs on hand.
Frost one or the other with either a Chocolate Ganache or my Simple Chocolate Buttercream. Or dust with powdered sugar.
SPECIAL CHOCOLATE CAKE
My family’s absolute favorite, a light and fluffy texture, always moist with a deep chocolate flavor, this is the perfect chocolate cake when one wants just that: a simple yet intensely flavored chocolate cake. It is ideal either baked in one layer in a 9-inch cake pan and served simply dusted with powdered sugar, the perfect snack or breakfast treat, or, for an elegant, sophisticated dessert, as a smaller 7-inch round layer cake sandwiched with simple buttercream.
6 ounces (1 1/4 cups/175 grams) flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
5 ounces (scant 3/4 cup/150 grams) sugar
½ - 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup (150 ml) warm milk
2/3 cup (150 ml) vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat the oven to 325°F (170°C). Oil and line with parchment paper either one 9-inch (23 cm) round cake pan or two 7-inch (18 cm) round cake pans.
Put the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cocoa powder, sugar and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl and whisk to blend. In a separate mixing bowl or a large liquid measuring cup, whisk together the warm milk, the oil, eggs and vanilla.
Now it is simply a question of pouring the wet ingredients into the dry and blending well either with a whisk or a wooden spoon, although I prefer using a whisk. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. For a smooth, lump-free batter, pour about a quarter of the liquid ingredients into the well, and with small, brisk circular movements, whisk with just enough of the dry until you have a thick, smooth, lump-free batter in the center. Add some more of the liquid, pull in a bit more of the dry, and briskly whisk again until, aha! your batter is smooth. Continue until all the dry ingredients have been incorporated into your (now) lump-free batter, add any remaining liquid and give it a go. Pour this batter into your prepared pan(s) and bake for about 30 minutes (for one 9-inch round pan and depending on your oven) until the center of your cake or layers is just firm to the touch, completely cooked through. The cake should start to pull away from the sides of the pan just after it is removed from the oven. If baking in two 7-inch round pans for layers, the baking time will be closer to 20 minutes.
Remove to racks, let cool for about 10 minutes, then slide a sharp knife blade around the edges to loosen, turn the cake out onto racks, peel off the parchment paper, flip back upright and let cool completely.
EGGLESS “LICKITY SPLIT” CHOCOLATE CAKE
From ideals Hershey’s Chocolate and Cocoa Cookbook, 1982
Much denser than my Special Chocolate Cake, this one-bowl cake has the advantage of being completely eggless, so perfect for either those whose diet does not include eggs or for a day when we are in the mood to bake but discover that, yes, we are out of eggs. Dense to the point of being somewhat chewy, this is a moist, very chocolaty cake that tastes wonderfully like a candy bar. Perfect with or without frosting or ganache and dusted simply with powdered sugar, this chocolate cake is amazingly addictive!
1 ½ cups (210 g) flour
1 cup (200 g) sugar
¼ cup (30 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp ground cinnamon, optional
1 cup (250 ml) water
¼ cup (62 ml) + 2 Tbs vegetable oil
1 Tbs vinegar *
1 tsp vanilla
* I only had cider vinegar in the house and it worked perfectly.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease a 9-inch (23 cm) round cake pan with vegetable oil, bottom and sides, then line the bottom with a round of parchment paper.
Combine the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt (and ground cinnamon, if adding) in a large bowl. Combine the water, vegetable oil, vinegar and vanilla. Using the same method as described in the above Special Chocolate Cake recipe to avoid lumps and produce a smooth batter, whisk the wet ingredients into the dry until well blended and smooth. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for about 30 to 35 minutes or until the center is just set and a tester comes out clean.
Remove from the oven to a rack, let cool for about 10 minutes, then slide a sharp knife blade around the edges to loosen, turn the cake out of the pan, peel off the parchment paper, flip back upright and let cool completely.