I was cooking with flowers this past weekend for a different post. But, I decided to garnish my Fathers' Day dessert with some organic microflowers...must to my trio's dismay. Why are there flowers on the cake, Mom!? This is FATHERS' DAY...you know a testosterone holiday. There shouldn't be flowers on the cake. That's appropriate for Mothers' Day and that has already passed.
"You don't have to eat it," I retorted. They silently removed the scant few flowers on their slices and shoved bites of cake into their mouths. Ha.
On the Page
Admittedly, this is not a foodie book in that it's not a chef's memoir or even a novel about food. But there is plenty of food mentioned and I'll get to a few of those quotations soon.
My feelings about this book are dichotomous. On the one hand, it's well-written with an almost wince-inspiring look at ordinary people, their ordinary lives, and their ordinary problems. On the other hand, I was anticipating a much more varied storyline based on its plot description of the Dead Letters Depot and the "letter detectives" working there.
Letters with no address - or illegible addresses - end up in East London’s Dead Letters Depot, where nearly three dozen letter detectives try to piece together whatever clues they can to ensure that these lost letters find their way to their intended destinations.
While lost letters certainly play a part in the book, I would say that lost love is actually more important to the storyline which revolves around the atrophying marriage between William and Clare. William is one of the letter detectives; Clare is a successful barrister (lawyer) who shelved her artistic aspirations so that William could focus on writing a book. Unfortunately, he's not writing it and lied to her about his writer's block. Once passionate about each other and rife with enthusiasm for their life and future together, now they barely manage a conversation at the end of their days.
I'm not going to say too much more about the plot. But I think that Cullen has produced a beautifully written book. It just wasn't exactly what I expected when I picked it for the book group. However, I will definitely pick up anything else she writes because I enjoyed her prose.
On the Plate
As I mentioned: It's not really a foodie book. But there were several things that caught my attention for kitchen inspiration. Beyond fish and chips, William and Clare hop between "cluttered coffee shops and the little alehouse off campus that their professors monopolized. They baked cheese scones and experimented with cooking Indian food, making pizza and mixing mojitos at home. ...[they] volunteered at a homeless shelter, dishing out hot soup and self-conscious smiles on the last Thursday of every month" (pg. 20). Like most couples, meals and conversation played a role in their courtship.
Winter, one of the writers of the letters William is investigating, writes about Mexican food and mojitos. And William and his friend Stevie go to a Mexican restaurant where "William ordered camarones borrachos and frijoles de la olla with sauteed spinach and rice. Stevie, always a picky eater, grudgingly accepted that they didn't serve burgers or chips and poked at his taco de pollo, seeking out the pieces of meat and wiping off the sauce on the rim of his plate" (pg. 109).
William secreted away some chocolate orange in his desk. "Chocolate orange was Clare's favorite treat. Maybe that's why he chose it. A little taste of happier times, when he was lucky to scavenge the tiniest bite from her: 'I'll buy you one of your own, if you want, but I'm not sharing mine. Take my soul, but you'll never take my chocolate orange'" (pg. 217).
In the end I was inspired by William's visit to a cake shop in search of any information about Winter's true identity. "A cake shop sat on a curved corner, its stained-glass door opening onto the connecting street. ...In the window, a display of wedding cakes blocked most of the interior from view, but he saw that the bakery stretched farther along the street; a row of little tables for two with blue-and-white check tablecloths lined a long window. Each table had a red bud vase in the center that held a sprig of winter jasmine. HIs favorite flower. In fact, the only flower that held any emotional significance for him at all" (pg. 281).
It got me thinking about what kind of cake represents marriage...besides a wedding cake. And, I decided, that at its best a relationship should be sweet (kindness, even when you're angry, cannot be overrated) and spicy (marriages need passion). So, I decided to make a spice cake filled with dulce de leche. This one is topped with a green-hued lemon buttercream and decorated with flowers.
Dulce de Leche-Filled Spice Cake
makes a two-layer 9" round cake
- 2-1/4 C flour
- 1 t baking powder
- 1 t baking soda
- 1/2 t salt
- 1 T ground cinnamon
- 1 t ground nutmeg
- 1 t ground ginger
- 1/2 t ground allspice
- 1/2 t ground cardamom
- 1/4 t ground cloves
- 1-1/2 C organic light brown sugar, lightly packed
- 1-1/2 C oil (I used a mixture of olive oil and walnut oil)
- 4 large eggs
- 2 t pure vanilla extract
- 1 C whole milk yogurt or sour cream
- dulce de leche (you can make your own, but I had a jar in the cupboard), for filling
- 5 large egg yolks
- 1/3 C water
- 1 C organic granulated sugar
- 1 T organic corn syrup
- 2 C butter, softened
- 4 drops lemon essential oil
- green food coloring, as needed (I prefer vegetable and fruit-based dyes and I made this cake green for Fathers' Day because it's Jake's favorite color)
- organic flowers, if desired
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and line two 9-inch round baking pans with parchment paper. Set aside.
In a mixing bowl whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices.
In another mixing bowl, whisk together the brown sugar and oils until well-combined. Mix in eggs and vanilla. Then add in half of the flour mixture. Stir with a spatula until just moistened. Blend in the yogurt, then add remaining flour mixture and stir until everything is moistened.
Divide mixture evenly between the two prepared baking pans. Bake in preheated oven until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, approximately 30 to 35 minutes.
Allow to cool in pans for 5 to 10 minutes. Then loosen the cake and invert onto a wire rack to cool. Cool completely then level tops of cakes as needed. While the cake cools, make the buttercream.
Place egg yolks in a mixing bowl and beat on high until they are thick, pale, and ribbon off the whisks.
Combine water, sugar, and corn syrup in a small saucepan. You can attach a candy thermometer to the side; I just kept testing until it reached soft-ball stage. If you're using a thermometer, heat until it reaches 238 degrees F. For testing otherwise, dip a spoon into the syrup, then into ice cold water. The syrup should immediately set up into a soft ball. Mine took about 8 minutes to reach the correct consistency.
Once the syrup is ready, remove it from the heat. While one hand hold the mixer, use the other hand to pour the syrup into the yolks. When all of the syrup is added, turn the mixer up to high and beat until the yolks have doubled in size and have reached medium peak stage. The bowl should be cooled and just lukewarm to the touch. Mine took about 9 minutes.
Begin adding butter, one tablespoon at a time, mixing well after each addition. The more butter you add, the more firm the buttercream will be. Once your buttercream resembles what you think of as buttercream, add in the lemon essential oil and the food coloring.
Place one layer on your serving platter. Spoon dulce de leche onto the cake and spread a thick layer almost to the edge of the cake. Place the second layer on top.
Frost the cake, then decorate with flower, if using. Place the cake in the fridge to let the buttercream set. Then, let the cake stand at room temperature for, at least, ten minutes before slicing.
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Click to see what everyone else read in June 2019: here.