Sunday, April 25, 2010

Case Study 60: "The Cupedia"

"There is still the wind that I remember
firing the manes of horses, racing,
slanting, across the plains,
the wind that stains and scours the sandstone,
and the heart of gloomy columns, telamons,
overthrown in the grass. Spirit of the ancients, grey
with rancour, return on the wind,
breathe in that feather-light moss
that covers those giants, hurled down by heaven.
How alone in the space that’s still yours!
And greater, your pain, if you hear, once more,
the sound that moves, far off, towards the sea,
where Hesperus streaks the sky with morning:
the jew’s-harp vibrates
in the waggoner’s mouth
as he climbs the hill of moonlight, slow,
in the murmur of Saracen olive trees."
- Salvatore Quasimodo 

The day after Thanksgiving, we landed at the foot of Etna.  It wouldn't be the last of the Sicilian volcanoes we'd stand in awe of that year, but it was our first trip south, and coming around the corner of Catania, we saw her fiery mouth bathing in a clear blue pool of the Mediterranean. We headed south to Siracusa, and met an old British lady at our apartamento, an expat of England who fled the rainy isles 30 years earlier for Florence, only to find herself retired in a Sicilian port town.  Hours later, while dodging stray cats on the dusty gray streets, we'd come upon her in a cobbler's shop down some quiet back alley, throwing her head back in laughter as she flirted with the little old man whose face was worn like the leathers he polished.

After popping a few steaming zeppole in our mouths, we labeled our journey a food tour.  Sure we would skip down lemon groves in quiet archeological parks older than Ancient Greece.  We would eventually take that archaic one car train through the dessert all the way down to Pozzallo, the last Siclian coast town before reaching Africa.  But most of all, we would eat.  We would salivate over squid and swordfish caught just earlier, grilled to perfection with nothing but a little oil and lemon.  We would become professional marzipan samplers, tasting the fruits of every town.  And we would suck the world's creamiest ricotta out of the world's lightest cannoli shells.  But the best thing we would eat was the torrone

"The Cupedia" is a ricotta and almond cupcake topped with a vanilla-raw honey buttercream and sprinkled with the best torrone that good old Arthur Avenue has to offer.  The history of torrone is foggy at best.  While some claim it was created in the 15th century for a wedding ceremony in Cremona, others believe the sugar-loving Arab Sarcens brought it through Sicily on their conquest by sea.  But the Romans, who called nougat candy "cupedia," held the delicate sweet in the highest regard, reserving it for special celebrations or in offerings to the gods.  A gift for the gods? Consider me sold.

When you are in Italy, you go to church, and not necessarily in the traditional way.  You literally head towards the chapel first and then the altar, because that's where the treasures lie: the most beloved art, the most revered sculptures, the most brilliant architecture.  And so, like any good students of the Italian world, we made a beeline for God, and stumbled upon freshly excavated walls from the 10th century in a Modican church.  We walked the walls, brushing our fingers along the faded ponies and soldiers that were etched by some proud disciple more than a thousand years earlier. 

Later we made our way up to a clock tower where we met a little old man who spoke nothing close to the Florentine we knew back up in Bologna.  But we leaned in anyway, shook our heads knowingly, and followed that man for over an hour as the sun set on the hill.  Two wide-eyed and blonde American anthropologists-in-training in the Venice of the south, hundreds of years later on a rainy November afternoon.  We would only pass that way once.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Notes from the Field: Respect Your Mother

The Summer Day 
by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life? 

It might be the 40th anniversary of Earth Day today, but our little planet has been celebrating 4.54 billion rotations around the sun. Go green!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Case Study 59: "The Girl's Gone Bananas"

"There's a girl in New York City
who calls herself the human trampoline 
And sometimes when I'm falling
and flying and tumbling in turmoil, 
I say 'whoa, so this is what she means'..." 
- Paul Simon

Hot, bothered, and restless -- that's just about where we've been teetering these days.  Jumping in and out of relationships, jobs, and cities, where routine threatens silent suffocation and panic sets in when things get comfortably numb.  They say we're the generation of "instant gratification," but I think some of us are really just wondering what happens next. 

At some point, we started questioning if there was there something beyond it all: the overconnectedness but undercommunication; the simultaneous rapid fire of information as we wave our hands in the air like ghosts, unable to grasp anything at all; the unnerving feeling that we're always chasing the clock but never seem to have enough time.  We were taught that a+b = c, and believed it for years, that is until it was revealed that the formula is only hypothetical -- that it's dependent on things like external factors and noise -- and what about other variables, like d and e and maybe even f, that might actually also be parts of the equation or solution? 

And that's when we enter the state of being in flux, half-suspended above our own lives, observing it all with one eye in real time and the other looking forward to what happens next.  Words across the computer screens break down from paragraphs, messages, and memos into a bunch of meaningless letters and symbols.  We stand in our shoes and feel the wind blow and think it might actually be some other force nudging us in another direction, that is, if only we could figure out just how that direction fits on the path that we've been trying to stay on and lose at the same time.  And all the while, we sit there wondering if we've just gone completely mad.

"The Girl's Gone Bananas" is an unparalleled conundrum of a hi-hat confection.  Equivocally rich and light moist chocolate cake topped a creamy peanut butter frosting that is dipped in chocolate, all while hiding a secret core -- sliced bananas. It's one tall order of smooth cocoa introspection with a crazy kick in the pants on the inside, just to shake things up.

Lately I've been thinking about that little life crossroad as a place between a madwoman tabletop rumba and a brainless la-di-da.  Whenever it's reached I can hear myself saying the same thing over and over again: "just feel your way through it."  Because maybe there are many routes, any number of a, b, d, or e's that will lead us to where and what the c in our life actually is.  Maybe they're better, maybe they're not, but maybe we're supposed to plug them into the equation regardless, just to find out.

So we roll the windows down, turn the volume up, and head toward the water, the gym, the open road, wherever the air's the clearest. We put the headphones on and lean our tired heads against the scratched train window.  We doubleknot our laces, close our eyes, press play, and exhale.  We take the first step into an ever-building gallop.  And in the meantime, we carry on.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Notes from the Field: Cakerazzi

Just a little cake on the go (pun!)

Friday, April 9, 2010

Notes from the Field: Some Like It Hot

With temperatures rising this week, there was something different in the air. The parks were filled to the brim with everyone imaginable: children, running haphazardly, arms up and fingers grasping the warm air, a group of acoustic guitars strumming a little samba song into the soft breeze and endless blankets of liberated toes hugging the grass unbelievably tight, as if to say "I thought you'd never come."

This was the winter that tried us all with it's sucker punch blizzards and paralyzing cold.  There's nothing quite like a one-two 48-inch slap in the face, and to be honest, I'm certain that everybody along the eastern seaboard will find relief in retiring "State of Emergency" as a legitimate phrase when talking about the weather.  But if this was a year apart, what then really brings along the fairest of the seasons? 
Growing up, the nearing summer of an American childhood was measured in a few ways.  I believed that the lengthening of days was directly proportional to both the number of windows slid down on the school bus and the increased frequency of the familiar ice cream truck tune singing in the distance.  The miles traveled by our four-wheeled gang of thieves before dusk more than doubled in the span of a month and was inversely related to the probability of wearing shoes at all.  And the more delicious and sun-drenched it appeared outside that classroom window, the farther and farther I slipped away into a school of thought that didn't include a lick of mathematical life reasoning.

The signs changed as I get older.  In high school, the closing bell signaled a mass exodus toward a parking lot filled with car tops and windows rolling down.  The wild haired boys of teenage dreams would drive by, curls under faded hats flickering like the flames of the Fire Dancer sticker on the back of their cars.   While the fall had been marked by huddling in cow pastures, bathed in wool sweaters, Bob Marley guitar covers and moonlight, summer signified a shedding of our winter skin and an appetite for hurling these fresh summer bodies into any body of water nearby.  The nighttime sky was littered with the summer stars as our noses, shoulders and knees were also branded with new freckles from the daytime sun. Hair began to bleach out, we stopped vacuuming the first traces of sand in our cars, and Memorial Day gave us the high sign to officially cease brain function for the last 3 weeks of school. 

I can't imagine that the average working adult hears the words "school's out for summer" and doesn't feel an ounce of heartbreak for those glorious long hot days gone by.  Cubicles, office parks, and computer screens are no place for the summer-loving soul.  We were meant for sunlight, for water, to feel the grass in our toes and sweat on our palms and be reminded of the fresh renewal of hope that only June can bring around. 

It's still a few weeks away, but if anything, this week's sun teaser should ready your summer rebel cry.  To dine alfresco, lightly, and appropriately, to reconnect with your aqueous side, and to remember to drink up every drop of the sun and warmth.  After all, Mother Nature has made us more aware than ever that she's one multi-faceted broad.  So enjoy her good side.          

Monday, April 5, 2010

Case Study 58: "The Pure and Simple Chocolate"

"We are stardust
We are golden
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden."
-Joni Mitchell 

Have you ever had the feeling that you were supposed to be somewhere in an other place or decade?  There are people who identify with the 40s, and others who are stuck in the 80s, but as for me, I'm pretty sure I was supposed to be at Woodstock.

Though I first experienced this quasi déjà vu in college, the roots were there from the start.  I took in my first Crosby, Stills and Nash concert from a great lawn at age 11 and any Judy Collins sightings at the grocery store were followed up with dusting off her old 45s.  As summers faded into fall, the Neil Young Harvest tape came into heavy rotation, along with my father's story about sleeping on the steps of the Fillmore East after the Santana concert in 69'.  Some Soul Sacrifice it was.  I suffered through heartache to Joni Mitchell's Blue, and roared the sheer poetry of "Baba O'Riley" into the Connecticut woods, eyes closed and windows down as I sped through the windy backstreets of my own teenage wasteland.   

"The Pure and Simple Chocolate" is just that: pure chocolate and comprised of one hell of a simple two cupcake recipe.  Lacking excess and complexity, yet flavorful and rich, it's topped with an basic creamy chocolate buttercream. 

At 20 I studied at the University of Bologna and experienced a whole new type of political and impassioned youth - one that didn't even come close to existing during the Bush/Kerry elections on my Ivy League campus the year before.  The Italian students had gone on strike, drunk with what they truly believed were their rights, and classes were canceled for over a week. Back home, my generation was caught burning in a social media wildfire, overconnected but underconnecting, and seemingly more interested in frat parties and summer internships than protests and walkouts.  That radical distrust and revolutionary thought that pushed our parents to fight for their so-called American dreams seemed to be fading away. But in Bologna, dreadlocked, and with guitars and hash spliffs in hand, the students raided Dante's old classrooms, bathing the afrescoed walls in candlelight, music and graffiti for days. All I could think about was Woodstock.

I came home changed, but it wasn't about the politics, the riots, or facing the threat of a new era at war.  It was a feeling of both loss and gain in one. Loss of the idea that times were once simpler, where a glorious lack of answers and information led to the confrontation and trial of what defined a nation.  And gain of my own sort of personal Woodstock, soul aflame with the notion that in the end we all break down to the same thing - and it's in this leveling organic humanity that we own the right to define ourselves, to be passionate, and make our lives extraordinary.  And of course, to fight to discover that good old American dream. 

Friday, April 2, 2010

Notes from the Field: Peep this.


To check out the sights and sounds that inspire Cupcaketology, find me over here.