Tuesday, 8 November 2011

we bake cake! and nothing's the matter!

I've known my friend Sam for a quarter of a century, longer than anyone in my life apart from my family. Long enough for her to feel like my favourite cousin, a sensation amplified by the fact that our backgrounds are so similar, despite their surface differences. Her family is Iraqi, mine Cypriot; hers Jewish, mine Greek Orthodox: we grew up under the shared shadow of patriarchal cultures that paradoxically revere the matriarch yet restrict the exercise of her power to the confines of the kitchen, prioritise the young male over the young female in infuriating and detrimental ways, and reinforce gender inequality through the exercise of myriad religious hypocrisies. It's largely through talking to her, I think, that I've come to realise how close Cyprus is to the Middle East, and not just geographically.

We bonded on a school trip in our early teens, when I revealed that I superstitiously wore an evil eye at all times to ward off bad luck (an absurdity I maintained until the trinket's ineffectiveness became evident even to me), and she countered that admission with something I found yet more preposterous: that in moments of fear or stress she would carry a few grains of salt on her person, also to keep evil at bay. The rest of our teens were spent swapping stories of one or another ridiculous edict imposed by our overbearing, overprotective parents, people out of step with their place and their times, their constrictive attitudes locked in a lost past and a distant country and a culture that I – I won't speak for Sam here – refused to acknowledge as my own. By some miracle, they allowed us to leave home to go to university; a cousin of mine was not so lucky.

While I spent most of that time at university floundering and wishing I were elsewhere (usually I was, on trains to London, or at gigs, escaping rather than finding myself), Sam seized the opportunity to discover who she could be and make herself so. She began to write plays, and direct them, too; and she's still writing plays today. I don't often see her work, because I'm shamefully lazy, and I don't often read it, either, because she hasn't shown me any of her work for something like a decade, not since I dismissed one of her characters as too autobiographical and prone not only to spout nonsense but to assume she was funny when doing so. (I was particularly riled by a long speech in which this character declared broccoli non-kosher because bugs could nestle unseen among the flower heads; I was duly chastened when, in performance, this speech prompted much laughter from the audience and, several years later, I failed to wash my broccoli properly and discovered the corpse of a caterpillar floating in the saucepan. I hope I've become a more thoughtful critic since then.)

I finally made the effort recently to read Cling To Me Like Ivy, which toured the UK last year, and I'm so glad I did, because it's exhilarating. It's set in the kitchen of a rabbi, in the fortnight before his daughter marries a man she has never even touched, because to do so would contravene Orthodox rulings. The kitchen is, inevitably, governed by the rabbi's indomitable mother, whose every other utterance is a firecracker; and further enlivened by the daughter's Hindu friend, who evades her own family's restrictive rulings by lying through her teeth. Oh, so familiar... But what I most loved about it was how alien much of the experience of the play felt: not only the minute but absorbing discussion of Jewish law (the scene in which the rabbi and the fiance pore over books and internet sites, trying to figure out whether the daughter is allowed to wear the wig that has been custom-made for her wedding, is exquisite in its pacing, vitality, wisdom, humour and heart), but its depiction of fully engaged political protest. It pains me that the play never reached London: for the selfish reason that I want to see it, and for the suspicion it supports that the capital's new-writing theatres are more enthralled by their own brands than they are by plays themselves.

Apart from theatre, and books, and feminism, and ingrained superstition, what Sam and I chiefly bond over is food. For a brief period we had a kind of supper club, in celebration of our mothers and their unconventional backgrounds, along with the children of an Egyptian Jew and (I think) an Iraqi/Assyrian Christian. Much halloumi was consumed. I think we both feel a certain identification with the line, “We bake cake! And nothing's the matter!”, from Maurice Sendak's boundlessly brilliant children's book In the Night Kitchen, which Sam gave to my daughter and which cheers me every time I read it. A couple of years ago I mentioned to Sam that I was working on a cake that involved dried figs, orange and almond; these ingredients being among her favourites (along with aubergines and lemons), she made me promise to give her the recipe if I ever managed to get it right. So this is for Sam, with much admiration and love:

Fig, orange and almond cake

250g dried figs – 25ml cointreau – 1 tbsp orange flower water

125g butter – 125g light muscovado sugar – 4 eggs

125g plain flour – 125g ground almonds – 2tsp baking powder

1 tbsp cointreau – 1tsp almond essence

Slightly stupidly, I didn't write down the method for this, only the ingredients, but I'm pretty sure this is how I did it: put about 250ml water and 25ml or so cointreau into a saucepan and bring it to the boil. Meanwhile cut the dried figs into eighths and when the liquid is boiling add the figs along with the orange flower water, which is entirely optional and just something I happened to have around on the day. Simmer for a good 15 minutes, then leave to cool for a bit.

Cream the butter and sugar, then beat in the eggs one by one. Fold in the flour, ground almonds and baking powder, followed by the tbsp of cointreau and the almond essence, and the drained figs.

Line a cake tin with greaseproof paper, pour in the batter and bake in a 180/gas 4 oven for about 50 minutes, bearing in mind that I'm making that time up in the moment of writing, so it could take an extra 10 or so minutes for a knife inserted in the cake to come out clean.