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Monday, July 28, 2014

Let Us, One and All, Eat Cake!

The Cake Chronicles: Finding Sweet Hope in this Crazy World, by Jayne B. Robinson
Paper, $21.95

Let’s admit up front that doctors, dietitians, and health food gurus are all against cake. Wheat bad, sugar bad, carbs bad! I’m all for fresh salads and vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds myself, but I love this book and can hardly wait to try the recipe for fresh tomato cake with cream cheese frosting! Can you believe it? Carrot cake, move over! I also want to make the almond semolina cake, “dense and not too sweet and good for brunch or dinner.” And Irish buttermilk bannock for the Feast of St. Michael. Mind you, I have very seldom in my life made cakes at all (pies are more my thing, in general), but this book inspires and excites even a hesitant cake baker like me.

Here’s how it starts: When her younger daughter asks if the family can’t have a home-baked cake every week, the busy working mom agrees. Cake night, she thinks, will be good for everyone. Inspiration also comes from another, more surprising source, a novel by Dean Koontz called Life Expectancy, in which a family of bakers take as their motto, “Where there is cake there is hope, and there is always cake.” The Robinson family adopts the motto, also, as every Saturday night that year becomes Cake Night! A year of 52 cakes!

(I was relieved that Robinson did not agree to bake a cake every night of the week for a whole year. Just reading about that would exhaust me.)

Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring, and back to Summer is the way Robinson’s year is laid out in the book, with each “chapter,” as it were, beginning with two or three pages setting the scene. One summer entry begins as follows:
This morning there were over 100 Heavenly Blue morning glory blooms on the arbor in my backyard. I paused before heading to work to take a photo just as the morning sun began to light them up on the edges.
Along with morning glories, though, the morning also brings radio news full of rising death toll numbers from Hurricane Katrina, making it a day that “wasn’t Monday” but “felt like it.” I’m not going to recount Jayne’s whole story of that day but simply tell you that she made “New Orleans Blues Chocolate Layer Cake” in the evening (after contributing to relief victims), in honor of the culture and cuisine of the Big Easy.

Disaster in Louisiana, war in the Middle East, World War I, WWII, Colony Collapse Disorder, a diagnosis of MS in the family – in a book of recipes? Yes, because The Cake Chronicles is much more than a cookbook. There is also Girl Scout camp, a grade school science fair, an academic conference or two, and vacations in Ontario and Leelanau County. (Omena rates a mention, I was happy to note.) That's because the author, a Ph.D. biologist, professor and researcher, is also a refreshing and entertaining writer. Renaissance woman! Her personal essays, you begin to realize as you turn the pages (and begin to recognize and think of them as essays), could stand alone without the recipes, at least as easily as the recipes could stand on their own, unaccompanied by stories, but having both together makes this book a very special treat. It’s a window into one woman’s life that takes note of academic work and family, world headlines and intimate, personal, daily details. It is a happy place for the most part -- you'll love visiting -- but has its share of challenge and sorrow, too.

I wanted to cheer when I reached the fall entry telling of Robinson's promotion to full professor, but what she writes about the celebratory cake her daughter baked for the occasion is surprisingly down-to-earth and heart-warming:
Katie’s cake this week is also the first cake I ever made by myself. I found the recipe on the side of the Bisquick box when I was eleven. It’s still there in the same place, a fact that is immensely comforting. It’s the same great comfort I feel knowing that books I haven’t read for decades, as well as books I might never read but hope to read someday, are waiting for me on the shelf at the library.
You see? She’s cake, I’m pie; she’s biology, I’m philosophy – and yet, in so many ways, we’re on the same page. Again, I just love this book! I hope Jayne accepts my loving it and, for that reason, forgives me for quoting from at such length.

Here’s another bit that tugs at my heart, the author reflecting on traditions lost or left behind:
All of the houses built of sand in July and the castles built of gingerbread in December may be gone, but they live on n my memories and those of my daughters. And besides, we can always start new traditions to take the place of old ones.
Ever wish that you could go back to Girl Scout (or Boy Scout) sleepover camp as an adult and enjoy a glass of wine with the evening campfire? What cake would go with that? Homecoming cakes, wedding cakes, cakes for birthdays and for vegan houseguests – all are in this book, along with memorable stories and stories of memories. There are even Michigan cherries and  sandcastles on a Lake Michigan beach, so really now, what more could you ask?

With some of my bookmarks
Note #1: This is the fourteen-hundred-and-first post on Books in Northport! On Sunday I noticed I was at 1400 and could hardly believe it. Time has flown since 2007, and a lot has changed in our little town, but I’m still here, still selling books, and still excited to discover new books and new friends.

Note #2: The Cake Chronicles and today's heading would have been perfect for Bastille Day, but, having missed this year, no way was I going to wait for July 14, 2015!


Kathy said...

1) I am now hungry for cake.
2) Congrats for 1401 posts!
3) I like how you celebrate writers and books and life.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks, Kathy. And now I'm nerving myself up to attempt Lemon Polenta Pound Cake. I'm envisioning it with black raspberry sauce in place of blueberries.

Kathy said...

We picked raspberries from a friend's patch yesterday. Those would be delicious on that lemon polenta pound cake.

P. J. Grath said...

Kathy, I have picked as many ripe black raspberries as I could find last night and this morning but am not finding as many this year, for some reason, and may have to add blueberries to them. The recipe calls for blueberries. Then there will be heavy cream to whip with my whisk -- will that count as exercise?

Dawn said...

Congratulations on 1400 posts! This book reminds me of one of my favorite recipe/memoir books: "A Homemade Life" by Molly Wizenberg. I have little sticky notes sticking out of it too. She talks about growing up and at the end of every chapter is the recipe for whatever was in the chapter. I have made a few, they were all wonderful.

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, that sounds like another wonderful book that I'll have to keep an eye out for. I can now report that the lemon polenta pound cake is delicious and was more than worth the trouble of whipping those egg whites with my little hand whisk.