Unequal Infinities and Chocolate-Raspberry Layer Cake

“I am not a mathematician, but I know this: There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.”
-John Green in The Fault in Our Stars
Though the idea of some infinities being bigger than others in John Green's new YA novel The Fault in Our Stars has to do with two terminally ill teenagers finding "forever" in a terribly finite amount of time, it made me reflect - not on anything in particular, nothing grand and monumental like My Life or My Past, but a superficial touch upon the surface of memories, like the gentle patter of rain against a tin roof. 

"Some infinities are bigger than other infinities." If a moment stands crisp in my memory like the clarion call of a church bell clanging, does it transcend time in a way, does it occupy an infinite continuum within the finite reserves of my consciousness - because, let's say a strong emotion exists forever, infinitely, then haven't I, on occasion, created my own small infinities? Hasn't everybody?

Last week, I attempted to make Bon Appetit's Chocolate-Raspberry Layer Cake. It was the most complicated dessert recipe I have tried so far, and I had chosen the wrong day for it. It was difficult for me to focus last Wednesday. My family was all around me, the day was warm, my baby was circling around and through my legs like a cat, and my kitchen was a mess, full of clutter and noise and people. I positively revel in the concentration it takes to bake a good cake. I like being vigilant about each step so my cake doesn't fail. It allows me to focus on something other than myself, which means, I may be baking in my kitchen, but I am not there, not really. So, if you call my name a few times and I don't answer, it's not because I am ignoring you, but because I am in the zone, detached, far away, unwound. But last week, I was simply not achieving that state of heavy-lidded, slack-jawed convergence on the cake, and so, since my body did not relax on its own, I decided to dip a finger into my imaginary Pensieve and search for a memory to stabilize me. 

I was 10 or 11 years old when I baked my first cake. It was such a complete catastrophe that I did not attempt to bake a dessert from scratch again until recently. So last week, as I felt my concentration lapsing and my Chocolate Raspberry Layer Cake inching closer and closer to a similar fate of failure, I transported myself away from the noise, from the laughter around me, from the warm afternoon sun filtering in through the window and falling relentlessly on my neck, from the jangling pans and scattered flour and cocoa powder on the counter - snow and sand. I was instead in my mother's cool kitchen, dimly lit because of the neighbor's wall blocking the sun. The small 4-seater wooden dining table was littered with mixing bowls, bags of flour and sugar, eggshells, dirty spatulas. My sisters were bursting in and out of the kitchen excitedly. "Is it ready yet?" It was a November afternoon, my mother's birthday. I spent hours on the preparation. It was a basic yellow cake - I remember the amber color of the finished product that smelled of eggs and felt like a small boulder. It was my first personal failure. And what did I do? Well, of course I decorated the cake and served it. I simply could not accept that my creation was anything less than worthy of being served and enjoyed.

I wonder if that was overconfidence or faith in myself or both. I wonder if there is a way to channel it again, the absolute conviction that what I had achieved was good, or at least good enough. Instead, in my kitchen last week, I was wringing my hands, wiping small beads of sweat from my forehead, disappointed in myself for not being able to pull off the Bon Appetit recipe successfully. Whereas the ten-year-old me not only served the cake, but also insisted that the whole family taste it, last week, the present me haplessly tried to reassure herself. "It's OK, it's OK, it's OK." It was OK in the end. More than OK, actually, the cake was delicious, but I realized something: I doubt myself now. I don't just factor failure into the equations of my endeavors as a possibility - I consider it to be a likely outcome. There is a subtle difference between the two, but it's enough to make me hold back, shy away, and say, "No, this is not for me." 

After hearing my family praise my cake, I leaned against my clean kitchen counter and unspooled an infinitely long thread backwards in time. I touched that little girl who exists in the small infinity of my yellow cake disaster memory. "How are you not afraid of failing?" I asked. But she didn't hear me. I looked closely at her. "I know you," I whispered. She watched the ingredients in front of her with heavy lids and a slack jaw. She wasn't there, not really. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Simple Transformations - Tomato, Corn, and Avocado Salsa

In one of the episodes of short Sesame Street videos titled Food for Thought, Elmo looks at a fuzzy round thing lying on a table outside Hooper's Store and wonders what it is. A group of Super Foods, "foods, who are also heroes" comes to enlighten him. "It's a kiwi!" says a Banana. They encourage Elmo to try it. "You want Elmo to try this kiwi?" Elmo asks plaintively. "But it's so fuzzy!" The yellow Cheese Wedge laughs and her red cape shivers a little. "That's only the outside peel. Inside, the kiwi is a juicy and delicious fruit!" One wave of her cape and the fuzzy kiwi transforms into wonderful green slices of one of my favorite fruits. In the background, Grover exclaims with a mixture of awe and envy, "They have got some serious superpowers!"

I agree with Grover. It takes serious superpowers to transform something so completely, render it inside out, succulent and sweet instead of hard and fuzzy. This is a reality. But it is also a reality that you simply need a knife, a little skill, and some time to achieve the same transformation. Both are true - one is more likely to happen than the other. Do people transform, like foods? Can we slice through someone's nature and turn them over, discard their abrasive exterior and somehow touch the tenderness within, because I refuse to believe that they are entirely devoid of any vulnerability at all? I refuse to believe that I am only hard and fuzzy, all angles, rough edges, sandpaper-like frictional, grating. Can I, too, take a knife to this exterior (or acquire a magic cape) in order to transform? Do I wish to? Sometimes, I do. Sometimes I wish to have a happier disposition, more optimistic, less exhausted, more attached, less distant - because I remember being that way. I remember expressing love - and I still do in my own way - but that old way was different.  Sometimes I covet it.

A few weeks ago, I was trying to clean out the garage. In one of my old boxes with term papers and blue books, I found my journal dated 2006-2008. That notebook bound with faux-leather, bought in bulk from a sale at Borders, was privy to so much of me that has changed. Pages upon pages of ramblings. Two pages on the image of a flower. Another on strangers in the bus. Five pages on the idea of a story, dialogue, uncomfortable exchanges between characters, because I was holding honesty back. I was trying to hold on to things back then, things I have since let go. Several pages on planning a wedding that never happened. The sketch of a dress. Music. Food. Invitations. I felt bitterness seep into my body from the dank air around me as if by osmosis. It swelled inside me until I could feel it thrumming into the tips of my fingers. I tore up the pages and receded - shook myself away from that girl with plans and her ability to see happiness even on a mid-day bus among strangers. If I were to take that bus today, would I see the same things and think the same things, or would I roll my eyes and look away, stare at the landscape running past my vision, time flying, places, too?

So, no, it is not easy to transform people like that kiwi. There is no superhero to put a salve on old hurts. Nevertheless, people do transform at their own pace. My contrast from the girl who lived in the pages of that journal is, in itself, a transformation. It took years, but it happened. A transformation towards more honesty, the willingness to remain steadfast in what I want rather than what others want for me, and new loves - this blog, cooking, my baby, meaningful relationships, little matters, nothing more. 

And it pleases me to see this transformation, simple, yet profound, agreeable - it gives me a certain kind of peace, almost. So, that lingering sense of coveting what is lost diminishes further. It pleases me to transform things, too, particularly food. On Monday afternoons, even if I am bone-tired, I go into my kitchen and start lining up ingredients for my weekly forays into the world of Bon Appetit recipes. Rebecca arrives and starts setting up her camera equipment. She photographs ingredients whole, like each part of the Bon Appetit Tomato, Corn, and Avocado Salsa above, and then transformed, combined together for a wonderful and refreshing snack. No superpowers here, I do not possess any - just a knife and a cutting board, some skill taught me by a wonderful woman who loves me far more than I deserve, and time invested with care and concentration. Does this transformation please me, too? Well, the pictures speak for themselves.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

What Fish Fillets Teach Us

This week's Bon Appetit recipe is Fish Fillets. (I used thyme as I did not have basil on hand.)

When I was making this dish, which took a half hour at most, I was struck by the simplicity of it. I am used to whipping out my tall mason jars full of whole black cardamom, cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, cumin, star anise, et cetera, that I measure and pour into my spice grinder or a marble mortar to crush. I am familiar with taking upwards of 20 minutes to get onions just the right shade of golden brown. When I cook, the whole house needs to be aired for I fear that the aromas of garlic sputtering in hot oil, spices sizzling upon meat, and rich gravies shining with a touch of butter and/or ghee, will seep into the walls, furniture, clothes, even my pores! 

When I started this blog (and frequently since), I treated food as a malleable metaphor spanning a medley of emotions, representing life, love, families, relationships. It works for me. I am able to reflect on and understand the tangled mess of questions, insecurities, and fears I struggle with when I am cooking. The act of concentrating on combinations of flavors, focusing on creating something delicious from humble ingredients is both gratifying and therapeutic. 

Admittedly, the period of reflection while making this particular dish was rather short. Simple in preparation, it was anything but when it came to presentation and flavor. We focus so much on the details every day, on all that goes wrong, on disappointments, entanglements, losses, and heartaches. I think we lose sight of things that actually work perfectly, like all sections of the orchestra coming alive together and creating a symphony. Life, always, presents us with small blessings that are taken for granted or overlooked entirely because negativity is enticing - juicier, more exotic. 

When I was preparing these fish fillets, I was humbled by them, surprised by them. Packaged in pieces of parchment, with the most basic of ingredients to impart flavor to this dish, it turned out to be delicious and refreshing. That was unexpected. I am used to thinking that complication equals better. This dish completely debunked that theory of mine. Sometimes simple things are all you need. Sometimes going back to the basics is good. 
It is true for food. And it is true for life. Go back to the beginning of beautiful things with this dish. Appreciate the simple things in life, and remind yourself, "Yes, they are worth it."

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Chocolate Sponge Cake

I am still keeping up with my planned 1 recipe per week from Bon Appetit, but did not blog about it last week. I cook every Monday night, so I hope to have the associated entry up the following week. 

Two weeks ago, I baked Chocolate Sponge Cake, which turned out great! I took it to work and asked people to give feedback. "Is there anything I should change?" I asked. One of my co-workers said "No, just keep bringing it in!"

This cake was more challenging than Fallen Chocolate Cake. One little hiccup was that I didn't have a 9x13 baking pan, so I ended up using two 9'' round pans and layered them. The icing was rich and glossy. I served the cake at room temperature. 

I am having a wonderful experience with all these Bon Appetit recipes. We will be taking a break from dessert for a while, though, and the next couple of food-related entries will be savory. 

The reality of the BA 1-recipe/week entries is that they are more visually appealing because of the pictures rather than intellectually stimulating because of the content. Enjoy Rebecca's amazing photography of my successful Chocolate Sponge Cake. Try the Bon Appetit recipe, and don't forget to let me know how much you love the cake once you polish off a few slices. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Fallen Chococolate Cake, A Sick Baby, And Solace in Baking

Last week, Jahan came down with a terrible cold. She had a high fever, which probably persisted for a day longer than it should have because I was fretting as mothers are wont to do. On Monday afternoon, haggard after taking care of a sick baby, carting her to the pediatrician's office, pleading with her to eat something, anything, even fries, for god's sake, I heaved a sigh of relief when Rebecca came over. With Jahan fitfully napping, I began to bake Fallen Chocolate Cake featured in Bon Appetit. Slowly, as the day wore on and the cake took shape, I began to feel better. The sense of being overwhelmed began to recede. "Babies gets sick all the time, right? She's just fine. It's just a fever. We're fine," I kept saying to myself (and to Rebecca, who good-naturedly agreed with my ramblings, validating and encouraging me by turns).

This new-found passion for baking came on rather strongly, I must admit. One day, I baked banana bread and blogged about it, and almost immediately afterwards, I was drawn to baking, which I previously detested. Part of the reason may be that I have found I am not dreadful at it, which is to say I am a better baker than I had previously anticipated. The other, and I suspect the more pertinent reason may be that I have discovered baking to be a stress-reliever for me, much like cooking (and writing). It is the distraction it provides from the rest of the day, from the daily pressures of being...well, me...paired with the tangible results I see in the form of a rising cake, thickening heavy cream, the happy faces of the people I love when they taste it, which makes it so rewarding. It allows me to forget about everything else and devote my attention completely to a piece of paper with just a few different ingredients whose chemistry upon combining together creates delicious results. And this is why I feel rested despite being on my feet stirring, chopping, frosting, et cetera, while cooking and baking.

The cake turned out great - you all must try it. It is rich and smooth and creamy. The chocolate melts in your mouth. The whipped cream frosting is a wonderful accompaniment to the richness of the chocolate. And it's beautiful to look at. 

Before I could serve dessert, however, there was that little matter of cooking dinner.  So I cheated and served something that required minimal preparation - shami kebabs with roti (ah, the hardy roti - it requires a post of its own) and a cucumber and red onion salad. Jahan woke up, ate a little, and even had some dessert. We were fine. Just fine.    

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Chai - & - Announcing 1-recipe/week from Bon Appetit

Chai has featured more or less consistently in my writing. A series of poems I have written and posted on Desi Writers Lounge is called Chai and a Poem. The poems aren't all about chai, but doesn't it create a powerful image? A cup of steaming chai next to a piece of paper with words scribbled on it that make a poem - a few phrases married to each other to create compelling meaning. Most of the prose I have written recently has chai in it - a girl sitting on her balcony sipping a cup of chai, watching the city breathing, writhing, teeming below her; a woman breaking the coat of milk-fat forming on top of her chai and wondering if this is how her relationship with her father is breaking apart - one touch of a finger and a million cracks running all over the thin wrinkled brown layer; a boy and girl on a rooftop in Lahore during Basant, the festival of kites, a teacup breaking as it slips and falls between them, a meet-cute. I use chai consistently in my poems, too. The brown ring of chai left on a glass-top table, a reminder of somebody no longer there. Burnt chai. Strong chai. Weak chai. Chai the color of someone's skin. Chai that burns. Chai that soothes. Chai that reminds you there is much to live for yet. Not long ago, my good friend, the amazing Editor of Papercuts, and humorous blogger Afia Aslam asked me, "Why didn't we call your blog Chai and a poem?"

There is something inspiring about this humble drink. It is a beverage that crosses all class barriers in Pakistan. The cleaning girl, the errand boy, the washerwoman, the driver - they may have a separate set of china for their chai, but it is poured out of the same pot as Bibi Jee's or Sahib's. It is what sells year-round on the street in chipped porcelain cups (or small narrow glasses if you're across the Wagah Border). Every home has a way of brewing it. And when guests arrive, the hosts ask, "Chai? Thanda?" (Chai or something cold?). Until recently, my image of an arranged marriage, which is common in Pakistan, was one of a demure young lady wheeling a tea trolley with kebabs, samosas, scones, pastries, and the queen of the arrangement, chai in a majestic teapot, to the drawing room.

The oft-overlooked, humble chai is quite an inspiration. If you don't believe me, just look at the pictures Rebecca took!

Chai is the first thing I really learned how to "cook." I spent a long time coming up with just the right recipe. The best kind of milk (whole milk), the right amount of Lipton Yellow Label Orange Pekoe (sorry, PG Tips), the perfect additions (crushed green cardamom), and the right length of boiling. I mastered it. It's what I did on stressful afternoons back in Davis with an exam looming in the near future. It physically made me overcome my stress, relaxed my tense muscles one by one, made me realize it was going to be OK. It was strangely therapeutic for me, this act of making the perfect cup of chai. And now I feel the same way about cooking (and maybe even baking).

This is my perfect cup of chai
And this is a great segue to the second part of this post - the announcement! I will be cooking 1 recipe per week from past issues of Bon Appetit magazine that have been accumulating in my kitchen for over a year now. Posts will be labeled with the "1-recipe/week from Bon Appetit" tag. I will be cooking on Mondays and posting pictures (taken by Rebecca), an accompanying blog post, and a link to the recipe by the end of each week - Friday-ish. Stay tuned for....drumroll please....Fallen Chocolate Cake....coming soon!

Photos by Rebecca McCue