She sighs heavily, dropping to the ground, flopping down exhausted onto the spot where minutes ago she had been vigorously pushing the worn metal scraper. Every centimeter of old, dried glue has now been lifted away revealing the raw wood, unveiling long, slim, pale slats of parquet, and all of her hard, painful, concentrated work is rewarded by a gorgeous stretch of livingroom floor. Sunlight floods in and across the glowing pine, a near angelic golden warmth wrapping around her. She pushes herself up and wanders room to room amid the echoes of “You all done?!”, contentedly surveying a job well done, basking in the pride of their having achieved so much, even at their age.
With a satisfying scritch scritch of the Velcro, she yanks off the now worn yellow and black work gloves and tosses them onto the nearest radiator. Her pink sneakers are enveloped in an ethereal dusting of white powder, her knees are a lovely shade of bruised, the color of aubergine, her clothes smudged and smeared with weeks of manual labor. Battered white paper masks now streaked with the brown of wood dust are scattered across floors where they have been pulled off willy-nilly and left to retire. She glances into what will one day be a sparkling new bathroom all in shades of black and white to see how the men have advanced. Dust and grime coat old tiling speckled with bits of plaster as holes where walls once stood are filled. Pencil marks delineate bathtub and shower and light fixtures. Plumbers wander in and out, analyzing, pondering, debating. Through the open window, she listens to the noise of boards being crowbarred off of the balcony slats, boards to be replaced with insulated panels. A new laundry room!
The kitchen has become the universal holdall, tool shed and general dump; the last of the bags of wood dust and gravel, the old industrial vacuum cleaner, ramshackle, jerry-rigged tables and shelves holding a world of tools and equipment at the ready. Half-drunk cans of soda, boxes of cookies and other various paraphernalia of a construction site fill in the gaps. She squints and works her imagination, envisioning this space as a gorgeous open kitchen all in creamy shades of white, brown and gray. But first, the floors must be looked after. Her job is done and now it is time for Men and Machines.
3 days of sanding ensue: heavy machinery whirs and buzzes and roars across the parquet, shaking the building, resonating through the entire neighborhood. Industrial sanders pushed heavily, patiently back and forth, back and forth as the dust billows around his scruffed sneakers. Son follows, leaning over the tiny edger, pushing it into corners and up against the woodwork. She scurries after them, broom in hand, gathering up the sawdust, leaving the wood clear for yet another turn of the machines. One day and two, three days of muscle and sweat and now the wood is stripped completely bare. Now swathe those boards lovingly in sheets of plastic, carefully pushed up against the woodwork and taped, sealed against any wayward spattering of paint. For now the painting must begin.
And she hurries home to bake, something gentle, homey and calming, to soothe sore bodies and sour souls (which sometimes happens in such situations). A tea bread. Chocolate, of course. Light and airy, less dense and moist than usual. With the snap, the pliant crunch of chopped nuts. Nothing complicated, no gooey dessert. Just something to slice and pick up with the fingers, those fingers now scraped, worn and calloused, an ideal cake for any time of the day, from breakfast to snack. Sit and savor a slice or two in the early morning when the sky is fading from black to gray, dunked in a steaming bowl of café au lait. Just to brace the nerves and build up energy for yet another day of work. Or snitch a slice quickly as one passes through the kitchen late in the afternoon, swallowed down greedily, hungrily, washed down with a tall cool glass of milk.
We wash off the grime before dinner, and spread a cloth on the coffee table in the livingroom. Dinner together, as a family, forgetting the sore muscles, putting off disagreements until tomorrow, just for another evening. Pass around thick slices of Chocolate Tea Bread lightly dusted with powdered sugar and place a scoop of ice cream atop each one. Or a froth of whipped cream. And make it a special dessert.
CHOCOLATE PECAN TEA BREAD
Adapted from ideals Hershey’s Chocolate and Cocoa Cookbook, 1982
1/3 cup (75 g) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup (200 g) sugar
3 large eggs
2 ¼ cups (315 g) flour
1/3 cup (40 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsps baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
¾ cup (185 ml) milk
About 1 cup coarsely chopped pecans or walnuts
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Generously grease a 9 x 5 x 3-inch standard loaf pan.
Cream the butter, sugar and eggs in a large mixing bowl until smooth and creamy.
In a separate bowl, whisk to combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda and salt. On low speed, beat the dry ingredients into the butter/sugar/egg mixture in 3 additions alternating with the milk in 2 additions, beating just to blend, no more. Using a spatula, fold in the chopped nuts.
Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake in the preheated oven for 60 to 65 minutes or until well risen and just set in the center.
Remove from the oven to a cooling rack and allow to cool for about 10 minutes before sliding a knife blade around the edges to loosen and remove from the pan.
Tea breads are slightly drier and cakier than regular quick breads and are best eaten the day of or within 2 days of baking. This is a wonderful chocolate bread to eat with a mug of tea or coffee or a glass of milk simply dusted with powdered sugar. Although a scoop of ice cream or a dollop of freshly whipped cream never hurt anybody. The perfect treat to decompress, a soul-soothing snack after a long, hard day of work.