It has been raining hard outside since before dawn. The sky, that hazy pewter gray, undefined. Sorrow has washed over the city turning stunning, regal white into dirty, unkempt beige. They say that the rain should wash a city clean, yet it only seems to muddy everything, evoke a sadness that lies hidden underneath, a sadness that smolders just below the surface in better times, brighter days. People, bundled up and shrouded underneath hoods and umbrellas, scurry across the square and disappear into the distance. I stare down at the scene from my window above.
I’ve baked a chocolate cake! Such joy! I sometimes bake treats that leave my men indifferent, no one in the mood. I sometimes concoct cakes, breads or puddings that lie unattended, forlorn. Utterly rejected by one and all. Yet this chocolate cake was a triumph! It was whittled away one slice after the next, divvied up and passed around. Before one full day had elapsed, half of the chocolate cake with a hint of cherry, a touch of cinnamon, tender and moist, had disappeared.
Mid afternoon; watery sunlight finally pushes itself through the brume and my contentment is tinged with melancholy as the New Year begins. The Jewish New Year is a time of joy, reflection and celebration. We ask to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the year to come, praying for a sweet year. Yet Michael was buried on the Eve of Rosh Hashanah; we saw in that New Year in front of a wooden casket under the searing Florida sun. A New Year awash in tears. Now I cannot but think of him as the holiday approaches, as we celebrate, as we begin afresh. Joy obscured by sadness.
It has been four years since the death of my brother Michael. Time spins by, my sons grow up, my husband and I make decisions, begin new careers, life plans change. Yet Michael is missing. No more phone calls or letters, no more visits or meeting up at mom’s in Florida. I approach the New Year with a heavy heart, the broken heart that I carry with me every day.
I am naturally reflective and tend to get rather mournful and maudlin. Yet with a family around me, I rarely allow myself the decadence of wallowing in my sadness and memories for long. Photographs slide around my desktop, among the empty coffee mugs and cake crumbs, and I think of him. Startled, I catch glimpses of him in my son’s movements, the lilt of his voice, his laugh, the way he speaks with his hands or taps out a tune with the same tapered fingers. One is always fearful of forgetting the sound of a loved one’s voice, forgetting the features of his or her face, yet in some strange twist of destiny, my brother has slipped back into my life in my own son. My brother was an extraordinary person. Smart, vivacious, fearless. He did what he loved – travel, music, cooking – with intelligence, passion and enthusiasm; he inspired others; he connected and brought together so many of us who would otherwise have lost touch. I hope my son does follow in his footsteps.
A rabbi once offered a group of us a religious conundrum: If a funeral procession meets a wedding procession at a crossroads, which stops and allows the other to pass first? We argued the question back and forth as only a circle of teens can do, tossing out words such as respect, deference, honor. He finally brought us back around to the question and his answer was, in fact, quite simple and has remained with me to this day. In the Jewish faith, it is always the wedding procession that has the right of way. Life always takes precedence over death. And so I place the thoughts of my brother back in their secret little box, brush the sadness aside and turn back to my family, my sons.
Late afternoon; the sun reaches through the window and touches me as I type. The brilliance of an autumn day cheers me and pulls me out of my wistful recollections, urging me to get up and out. Thoughts of my brother lighten and I flick through the photos looking for moments of laughter echoing from the past. I think of the silly things we did, the song-and-dance acts we put on in the family room, smuggling purloined candy and marshmallows into the room we shared at my grandparents’ house in the dead of night, in fear of discovery and sure punishment… and spending half the night on our bellies, groping around in the darkness, under beds and tables trying to gather up the candy and marshmallows that had tumbled from our hands. Or taking my two little boys to the beach, Michael spending hours helping tiny toddler Simon overcome his fear of sand and water, Clem dancing around and around them, the three of them screeching in excitement as they jumped waves.
The last thing I made for Michael was a chocolate cake. I fed him thick wedges of that chocolate cake with scoops of ice cream, hoping to plump him back up. Maybe somewhere deep down, I kind of hoped that somehow my love and the food I fed him, the chicken and Brussel sprouts, the Organic Chicken Pot Pies, the bagels and lox, the treats I picked up from the neighborhood bakery, the chocolate cake and ice cream would miraculously save him.
I know he would have loved this chocolate cake. My husband and sons did. And more. “Another chocolate cake?” one cries. “A different chocolate cake than the only one I like?” snarls another. Yet as soon as it was turned out of the pan and onto the plate, eyes lit up. One slice led to the next… tender and delicate, perfect crumb, moist without being too dense or gooey. A lovely delicate chocolate flavor not too sweet, not too dark. Just right.
CHOCOLATE SPICE CAKE WITH SOUR BLACK CHERRIES
Makes one 9-inch (23 cm) Bundt – can also be baked in layers or in a loaf pan but adjust baking time as needed. (Thank you to my wonderful friend Jenni Field of Pastry Chef Online who helped me figure out the correct amount of flour to put into the recipe)
7 Tbs (100 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup (200 g) sugar
2 large eggs at room temperature
1 ¾ cup (230 g) flour
3 Tbs (25 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp cloves, optional
¼ tsp salt
¾ cup (scant 200 ml) milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 small jar sour black cherries (griottes) in syrup – or replace with my Rum Roasted Cherries – cherries and juice
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter a 9-inch (23 cm) Bundt pan – (or two 9-inch layer cake pans or one loaf pan).
Place the softened butter and the sugar in a large mixing bowl. Using a hand or stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar for 3 to 5 minutes until thick, smooth and doubled in volume. Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating for a minute after each addition to increase the volume of the batter.
Stir or sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves and salt in a separate bowl.
Add the dry ingredients to the batter in three additions, alternating with the milk in two, beginning and ending in dry, beating after each addition until well blended. Beat in the vanilla as well as 1 – 2 tablespoons of the cherry syrup.
If you want more of the cherries in the cake, simply fold 2 - 3 tablespoons of the drained cherries into the batter. This will be particularly good if using my rum roasted cherries.
If using a Bundt pan, place a row of cherries – let the juice drip off back into the jar – around the bottom of the pan around the tube. Carefully ladle the batter into the pan on top of the cherries so the cherries aren’t pushed out of line. Scrape out the rest of the batter into the pan, gently smooth the top if needed and place in the preheated oven.
Bake for 45 – 50 minutes (Note: if using layer cake pans or a loaf pan and depending upon your oven, baking times may vary greatly, so begin checking the cake for doneness after 35 minutes.) The cake is done when a tester stuck into the center of the cake comes out clean - or cleanish, with no liquid batter.
Remove from the oven onto cooling racks and allow to cool for 10 – 15 minutes before gently shaking the cake lose and turning it out of the baking pan and onto a cooling rack to cool completely.
Slide the cake onto a serving platter, dust with a bit of cocoa powder and serve. For an elegant dessert, serve the cake with very lightly sweetened whipped cream or ice cream topped with more of the cherries and a drizzle of syrup.