Sunday, September 15, 2013

Chocolate Spice Cake with Sour Black Cherries


Perhaps they are not stars, but rather openings in heaven 
where the love of our lost ones pours through 
and shines down upon us to let us know they are happy. 
Eskimo proverb 

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.

The heart that truly loves never forgets. 

- Proverb 

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.

Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us 
Oscar Wilde 

Michael S Schler
April 9, 1957 - September 15, 2009

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. 


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.


bellini said...

It is so sad to lose someone so dear to us Jamie. It is the little things in life that make us remember all that is good in the world and bring back wonderful memories.

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

A beautifully melancholic ode to your brother. I love that first quote... I'm sure your brother would have enjoyed that gorgeous cake.

Indeed, we never forget those we have truly loved and cherish the memories of them all our life. It is our way of keeping them with us all this time.



Bizzy Lizzy's Good Things said...

Dear Jamie, your heart is filled with such pain, I wish I could wrap my arms around you and give you a warm hug. Losing your brother is so difficult, especially when you were so close and loved/love him so much. I know, I've lost both of mine, years ago now, but that hurt deep down inside never goes away, even though life goes on. I love that you celebrate his life xox

Jamie said...

@Bizzy Lizzy's Good Things: Oh, Liz, I knew that you had lost your brothers and my heart goes out to you. No, the pain never goes away. And a virtual hug, your more than kind words, mean so much to me. x

Barbara Bakes said...

Your cake does look irresistible. Hopefully it softened the hurt of this difficult day.

domenicacooks said...

Thinking of you, my friend. xo

AdriBarr said...

I am so sad you have lost your brother. So may are taken from us far too soon. I imagine you have many wonderful memories that sustain you, and I can see that this cake is among them.

Ivy said...

Jamie, I feel your pain and sorrow but one thing is for sure: he will always be alive, as those who are forgotten are the ones who really die. I wish I had your eloquence to express the feelings I also have for my beloved brother who left us three years ago.

Jenni said...

A beautiful post, and I love the rabbi's teaching "life always takes precedence over death." Sometimes we need permission to get back to living after a loved one no longer has that option.

And on a more mundane level, chocolate plus cherry plus spice. Hooray!

Much love to you this day and all days; I know how difficult anniversaries can be.

Robin O said...

It is a delicate balancing act, grief. To hold onto the love's of our lives with the joy and richness they brought us and the depths of loss, dark and unrelenting. Your celebration of your dear brother Michael is that beautiful balance Jamie. Love, remembrance and cake. Perfect.

Michael said...

I lost my own brother several years ago. As more and more time passed, the grief lessened over his physical absence. What replaced the grief was an odd sort of happiness. Not that he was gone, of course, but instead I think it was a happiness born from the realization that he still has such an influence over how I see the world in a very positive way.

Enjoy your cake. And thank you for sharing it with us.


Maruschka said...


Carolyn Jung said...

Whenever I bake or cook, I often think about what my late-Mom or late-Dad would think of the treat or dish. Food connects us to others like nothing else -- even when they are no longer with us. I think Michael would have smiled with joy at your chocolate cake with cherries.

Robin said...

I love looking at the photos of the two of you together when you were young. Deep in my heart I know we will be reunited with loved ones again at some point down the line. In the meantime you have to keep his memory alive and bake the treats he loved!

katrina said...

A beautiful cake - and the comments you made about making delicious foods and finding the perfect, enticing treats for your brother, in hopes of the magic wand - so poignant. So very, very sad, but loving.

Barb | Creative Culinary said...

So much of this post touches me Jamie. I should tell you this in person because sometimes you can't be sure if the message is translated well in mere typing.

I just know that I'm glad you miss your brother so much; that your heart still feels pangs when you think of him. Not because I wish you sadness but because you had a love worth missing. Both my mother and my brother died too young and I miss neither of them and find myself oddly envious of you.

Mine were both alcoholics; dead before their time but not before they had destroyed the relationships around them. In both cases there was just a relief that both their agony and the continuous heartache they caused all around them was over. I read of your love for your brother and wish I had those memories or feelings.

So I say celebrate Michael; be thankful for all that you did have, and be grateful that your memories, while bittersweet, are because you loved him so much.

My daughter's birthday was yesterday...she is another story; her beating cancer had to happen. I simply could not bear the thought of losing her; that love has no bounds.

Take good care my sweet friend and be grateful for all the love the two of you had!

Maureen | Orgasmic Chef said...

While couched in sadness, your posts about Michael are such a tribute to the man he was. I never met Michael (nor you for that matter) but you are both a part of my heart family.

Asha Shivakumar said...

A beautiful written post for you dear one, I had tears. Your brother would appreciate every word and this cake.

Elizabeth said...

Who wouldn't adore that cake? It looks fabulous.

And what a beautiful tribute to your beloved brother, Jamie.

I really like the Rabbi's advice that the wedding procession takes precedence, that life always takes precedence over death.

Even though I never met him, your brother lives for me now through your words. And I miss him too - just as I miss my mother's brother, my uncle whom I never met and yet know very well through Mum's many stories about their growing up together.

So please, don't push the thoughts of your brother back. There's always room for more stories about the laughter, the music, the adventures in faroff places, the shared meals, the "screeching in excitement" with your boys - all the joy that your brother brought to our world.

Meeta K. Wolff said...

My dear Jamie! I feel your sorrow and I wish I could do more than give you words --- I'd like to wrap my arms around you and also feed you cake to make you feel better. But I am here to share your grief and listen to you when you need to pour your heart out. Sending you strong and positive vibes!

Paula @ Vintage Kitchen Notes said...

I can't think of a more beautiful way to remember him Jamie...yes, life is bittersweet

Lora CakeDuchess said...

A beautiful post to remember Michael. I have a very close connection with your brother and feel your pain in every word you write about yours and the loss you feel. Thank you for sharing with us your feelings and I send you love.

Chez Us said...

Wrapping my arms around you, and giving you a squeeze. Always remember the ones we love never die, they live on forever in our hearts and memories. Michael, is always sitting right next to you my friend.

Loving post, delicious recipe.


Liz Berg said...

There are never too many chocolate cake recipes...and I can see why this one was triumphant! How bittersweet that it takes you back to the last treat you made for he must have loved his kind and doting sister. Sending you a virtual hug.

Jamie said...

@Michael: What bittersweet words... words that made me stop and think about it all and realize that you are right. The pain of the loss and feeling that loss every day definitely evolves into something a little more positive when I realize how much he influences me still, how much he contributed to who and what I am today. And my sons. That does ease the sorrow. Thank you for sharing and I am sorry for your loss.

Jamie said...

@Carolyn Jung: So many of us have lost a loved one - just scroll down the list of comments - and yes, those of us with a deep connection to food realize just how much it connects us to those we love, both dead and alive. I love your perspective and I do think of Michael - and my father - when I cook or bake something that was influenced by one or the other in one way or another. Infusing the food with love and meaning. xo

Jamie said...

@Barb @ Creative Culinary: Wow.... You have been through so much shit in your life and I am always in awe at how strong you are and how much love you still have for others when many of us would be left bitter and wary. I so admire you and your courage and your humor. We do have so much to celebrate - your lovely daughter and her success in beating cancer!!! and, yes, my wonderful brother and all he left behind, especially the love and great memories I have in my heart. Thank you, friend xoxo

Nuts about food said...

I can only imagine the pain of losing a sibling, it must be terrible. I especially loved the paragraph about the Jewish proverb, about life always having precedence over death and how you tuck away pieces of your past to get on with your present life, no matter how difficult. You write beautifully.

Betsy @ Desserts Required said...

What a beautiful, touching, sad and hopeful post. Your memories and stories of Michael are such treasures and I love that you shared them with us here.

As for the cake...perfection in a bundt form!

bellini said...

I loved the priests words that life takes precedence over death. It makes me feel grateful for all that we have Jamie and I just want to wrap myself in friends and family because who knows how long we have them with us. Love never dies. Happy New Year.


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