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Like the leaves

I have somewhat contradictory fears: I'm afraid of not getting enough sleep and, on the other hand, of sleeping too late. While it seems perfectly alright to bow out of an evening early, I’m terrified of missing morning: the sweet slowness in my limbs, the ritual first meal of the day, the clanging and buzzing of the street as it begins to wake. In college I’d sometimes sneak away to bed at 9 or 9:30, feeling smart and smug and sensible, as though I were putting an entire paycheck into savings rather than spending it. But I’m softening with age: these days sleep comes closer to midnight, and morning isn’t welcome until eight. I’ve even been known to find ample reasons to stay up past bedtime and lie around the next day. I’m so grown up.

But this morning I’m tired. I woke again to a fog that covered the city, and the trees outside my apartment are turning crimson, then amber, then brittle yellow against the gray air. Today I feel like the leaves. Soon I’ll drag myself out for a long walk. Solvitur ambulando, as the Romans used to say: the solution comes through walking.

Last night brought chocolate cake and a new twist in the future of my kitchen. It came in the form of a Mason jar half-full of foamy sourdough starter, complete with a lid that reads, “Feeeeeed me!” Margot, who is constantly crafting and creating various things from plaster and wax and latex and wood glue and wheat and loads of butter, has given me a bit of her sourdough starter. She also presented me with a collection of recipes from the hilariously hokey Sourdough Jack’s Cookery, which comes with photos of Jack himself in a suede vest and cowboy hat, gazing lovingly at his sourdough sponge.

Seven of us sat around the big round table for a dinner of grilled salmon and offerings from the family garden: purple potatoes dug only minutes before boiling, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers tossed with feta and vinaigrette, and stubby ears of yellow corn. We then wreaked havoc on a still-warm sourdough chocolate cake, complete with its moat of improvised (and remarkably tasty) chocolate glaze made from a giant Hershey’s Kiss melted with milk and butter.

And to cap off the evening, we bundled up against the fall night—I, in Margot’s fleece jacket, proved that red and purple do go together—and went to a cyclocross race to watch men in tight outfits hop over little hurdles with their bikes on their shoulders. Other highlights of the evening included Nicho’s dog Index, with intelligent eyes and an excellent name; Kate’s corduroy pants with stars on the seat; and my feigned fear of Kate's fabulously muscular legs, ready to spring like coiled pythons from the aforementioned corduroy pants.

I came home, marveled at the jar of sourdough starter for a moment or two, and then, possessed by the sort of sweet-and-sour melancholia that comes only after midnight, I stayed up until 2am, writing. Two years ago, when I last spent summer at home in Oklahoma, my father—who I’ve called “Burg” for as long as I can remember—and I talked often of baking bread together. I like to think he was a sourdough starter kind of guy, maybe Sourdough Jack in a photographer’s vest and baseball cap. But we didn’t know then that the summer would be his last, and we let ourselves be distracted by peaches, tomatoes, pesto, and candy-sweet white corn.

Last Sunday, September 26, marked two years since the day Burg was diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer of the kidney. It had already metastasized to his spinal column and his bony pelvis, femurs, skull, and tibia. It took him down fast, viciously. October 7, 2002 was the last day he walked, taking tentative steps with my brothers down the hospital hallway. He died only two months later, on December 7.

I’ve stayed up too late, and this morning I'm tired.
But the solution comes through walking, I tell myself, and so I go.

Margot’s Sourdough Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Sourdough Jack’s Cookery

1 cup thick sourdough starter
1 cup sugar
½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup milk (evaporated preferred, but even regular old skim works fine), at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp ground cinnamon
3 oz semi-sweet chocolate, melted and cooled
½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp baking soda
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

Leave a cup of starter out overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cream sugar and butter until fluffy, then beat in eggs one at a time. Stir in starter, milk, vanilla, cinnamon, and melted chocolate. Beat with electric mixer (or recruit a strong man with a whisk, such as Margot’s boyfriend Todd) for two minutes. Blend salt and soda together and sprinkle over batter. Fold in gently. Fold in flour until batter is smooth. Pour into buttered and floured pan (either a standard Bundt pan or an 8-inch round pan, or experiment).

Bake until cake springs back when pressed lightly and a cake tester comes out clean, 35-60 minutes, depending on the type of pan you use. Cool and frost, or sprinkle with powdered sugar. Then eat, as with other things, aggressively.


Blogger Mark said...

Oh, Molly,

I was truly saddened to read about your father. It is something I have never had to deal with (yet) and it makes one wonder at the purpose of life. However, I have always thought that (as with anything) quality is better than quantity, and I imagine your father's relatively short life was fulfiling because he knew that he had brought a talented, creative, and kind person into the world. I bet he's proud of you...

I love the phrase "the solution comes through walking". I had always wondered what motto I would have on a coat of arms, and I now think that it would be Solvitur ambulando.

While I was at university in Brighton, and for the first year in Aberdeen, I used to walk 3 miles to work and back. They were the best parts of the day. Though I love walking with friends, there is nothing like the sweet solitude of walking through a city on one's own, watching, thinking, dreaming even. I miss it.

The sourdough chocolate cake sounds lovely, though I can't help thinking that it will be difficult to find the starter in a country which sees bagels as being a bit exotic! Wish me luck!

4:11 AM, October 04, 2004  
Blogger amylou said...

What can I say, Molly? Your father sounds like one of the good ones. I'm sorry you didn't get to bake bread with him but I'm glad you were able to share that summer of pesto and white corn.

Enjoy your starter and keep on walking.

9:29 AM, October 04, 2004  
Blogger Molly said...

You two are so sweet, and your comments mean a lot to me.

I feel very lucky to have such wonderful memories of my dad, even if we did have our ugly moments, a moratorium on talking politics (grrrr), and those sorts of things! He is still very present for me, and I love talking about him and writing about him...for me, they are ways of celebrating him. He was a very vibrant, fun-loving, engaging man, and I feel like I honor him best when I'm enjoying myself, being bold, and getting on with getting on.

And Mark, as for the sourdough starter, Margot tells me that it's actually pretty easy to get going. [I just have the extra ease of stealing some of hers!] To make sourdough starter, dissolve in a 1-quart jar (your "starter pot") one packet of yeast, 1 Tbs sugar, and 2 cups warm water. Add 2 cups flour, then mix well and let stand, uncovered, for 24-48 hours in a warm spot. Cover and refrigerate indefinitely, stirring now and then when it separates. If it starts looking tired, or if you need to make more, simply add equal parts flour and water and let sit out overnight. Now, if you live in a farmhouse or a bakery with lots of wild yeast in the air, you could go without the packet of yeast, but it's unlikely to work in normal city conditions...

1:40 PM, October 04, 2004  
Blogger pipstar said...

I'm sorry to read about your Dad, Molly, but I bet you guys had a fabulous summer together even without the bread. In fact, I bet you wouldn't swap that summer for the world.

5:05 PM, October 04, 2004  
Blogger Mark said...

Cheers Molly (and Margot)

I will definitely try it!

5:50 AM, October 05, 2004  
Blogger Lael said...

I tried this cake last week, and posted about it on my blog. It was so good! A great change of pace for my little starter-baby. Thanks for sharing, Molly.

5:36 AM, February 17, 2009  

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