My parents came to visit us a few weeks ago, and after showing off the Bay Area for several days, we drove south to Monterey, parallel to the coastline, past green hills where cows lazily graze, through the Garlic Capital of the World (!).
Perhaps my favorite part of our visit to Monterey was the bike ride we took along the rocky coast. The sun was warm, the wind swirled my hair into a tangled mess, my “comfort bike” had fantastically high handlebars so I could sit up like a lady, the views were breathtaking.
As we rode, I saw a family unloading their car, which was parked on the side of the road, just a stone’s throw from the ocean. The couple sorted through the contents of the trunk while their little boy, not more than three years old, crouched by their feet. He was squatting in the sandy rubble lining the road, picking up dirt by the handful and dropping it back down to the ground. His eyes were fixed on the task before him, entranced by small brown rocks with the kind of attention only children can muster.
But behind him, the majestic ocean crashed and bellowed, its glorious blue stretching for miles and miles in the other direction, deep and gorgeous and wild and utterly mysterious. Waves rushed toward us before pushing back into the endless expanse; dark rocks jutted out from far beneath—the resting grounds for sea lions and cormorants. The ocean went on and on forever, hiding the lives of the creatures that live inside its arms, whispering of mystery and grandeur. I could hardly breathe for its beauty.
Yet the little boy saw only the dirt running through his fingers.
I am not so different. The world, the ocean: full of mystery and wilderness and beauty both known and unknown, offering adventure so lovely and grand I can’t possibly fathom it. It is a great, big, endless expanse, with good things to enjoy and bad things someone must make better and opportunities unknown. But it is scary and inexplicable and sometimes so unkind. It is much less straightforward than what I have right in front of my face, and it’s out there—far off, unfamiliar, strange. And, after all, I am so absorbed with the dirt in my hands.
But the little boy with his innocent fixation? His seemed a simple situation. Passing on my bike, I wanted to shout, “Look at the ocean, my darling! It is good and beautiful, mysterious and wonderful, there for you to explore! Put down the dirt! Put it down and turn around.”
This is for me.
Put down the dirt. Turn around. Walk toward the mysterious, unfathomable expanse. So much waits for you.
Almond-Lemon Tea Cake
Adapted from Elisabeth M. Prueitt & Chad Robertson’s Tartine
I have eaten many things at Tartine, but I had not eaten this lemon cake until we took my parents there during their visit. The thick, yellow slices standing in the case had always been beautiful, but they seemed so plain alongside the flaking croissants and perfectly shaped cakes and exquisite tarts. Little did I know! This cake is AMAZING, with perhaps the most fantastic glaze I’ve ever tasted. I must note that for me, the cookbook version didn’t yield an exact replica, but for those days when one cannot venture to Tartine, it is a mighty fine substitution.
The glaze should not be made until just before it is needed; it should be brushed on while the cake is still warm so that a crystallized layer is formed. This crisp exterior is the true magic of the cake, and it keeps the interior moist for days.
The cake should be kept refrigerated. It is extremely good served cold, straight out of the fridge–and you can’t get that at Tartine!
3/4 cup // 95 g pastry or cake flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup // 200 g almond paste, at room temperature
1 cup // 200 g sugar
1 cup // 225 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon lemon zest, grated
1 teaspoon orange zest, grated
1-2 tablespoons poppy seeds
FOR THE GLAZE
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons orange juice
3/4 cup // 150 g sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan, tapping out the excess flour.
To make the cake, sift or whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. In a small bowl, combine the eggs and vanilla, whisking just to combine. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, beat the almond paste on low speed until it breaks up. This can take up to a minute. Slowly add the sugar in a steady stream, beating until incorporated.
Cut the butter into 1-tablespoon pieces. Continue mixing the almond paste and sugar on low speed while adding the butter, a tablespoon at a time, for about 1 minute. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Beat again, at medium speed, until the mixture is light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Keeping the mixer on, add the egg and vanilla mixture in a slow, steady stream. Mix until incorporated. Stop the mixer, scrape down the sides of the bowl and then mix again for 30 seconds.
Add the citrus zests and poppy seeds and, switching to a spatula, stir to combine. Add the dry ingredients in 2 batches, mixing after each addition until incorporated. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing its surface with an offset spatula.
Bake until the top springs back when lightly touched and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 to 7 minutes.
Make the glaze while the cake cools. In a small bowl, stir together the citrus juices and sugar. Place the wire rack holding the cake over a sheet of waxed paper or aluminum foil to catch any drips of glaze, and invert the cake onto the rack. If the cake does not want to release, run the tip of a small knife around the edge to loosen it. (NOTE: If any bits of cake do not release from the pan, remove with a spatula and fit back onto the cake; the glaze will help them stick.)
Brush the entire warm cake with the glaze, continuing until the glaze is gone. Let the cake cool completely on the rack.
Serve the cake at room temperature. It will keep, well wrapped, for 1 week in the refrigerator.
Yield: 1 large loaf // about 10 slices