Sunday, 6 October 2013

Sylvia Plath | Fig and Plum Torte

To describe The Bell Jar as a feminist novel concerned with the disjunction between the dominant patriarchal social reality and the anticipations of a young woman battling against not only gender and identity stereotypes but also her own mental fragility is perhaps to state the obvious. Sylvia Plath presents a heroine who invariably finds herself confronted with having to choose between opposing poles and who ironically (and tragically) serves no socially identifiable purpose. What good does a degree in English literature do if you don't know how to cook, take shorthand, speak a foreign language or dance?
   "I started adding up all the things I couldn't do.
    I began with cooking.
    My grandmother and my mother were such good cooks that I left everything to them. They were always trying to teach me one dish or another, but I would just look on and say, "Yes, yes, I see," while the instructions slid through my head like water, and then I'd always spoil what I did so nobody would ask me to do it again.
    I remember Jody, my best and only girlfriend at college in my freshman year, making me scrambled eggs at her house one morning. They tasted unusual, and when I asked her if she had put in anything extra, she said cheese and garlic salt. I asked who told her to do that, and she said nobody, she just thought it up. But then, she was practical and a sociology major.
    "I didn't know shorthand either.
    This meant I couldn't get a good job after college. My mother kept telling me nobody wanted a plain English major. But an English major who knew shorthand was something else again. Everybody would want her. She would be in demand among all the up-and-coming young men and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter.
     The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters. Besides, those little shorthand symbols in the book my mother showed me seemed just as bad as let t equal time and let s equal the total distance.
    My list grew longer.
    I was a terrible dancer. I couldn't carry a tune. I had no sense of balance, and when we had to walk down a narrow board with our hands out and a book on our heads in gym class I always fell over. I couldn't ride a horse or ski, the two things I wanted to do most, because they cost too much money. I couldn't speak German or read Hebrew or write Chinese.
John Singer Sargent, Study of a Fig Tree
    "I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.
    From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out.
    I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet."
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
The metaphor of the fig tree is perhaps one of the few instances in Plath's novel which succeeds in overriding the dualism of much of the rest of the book. To choose is to eliminate all other possibilities. But the image of the wrinkled and blackened figs condemned to rot as a consequence of the refusal to choose falls into the familiar trap of the politics of duality. I admit that I find Sylvia Plath's poetry much more intense and dynamic, where language and ideas startle in unusual and often stark combinations conjuring up a realm of ambiguity where every presence arrives with absences.

~ Fig and Plum Torte ~

Not wishing to choose between figs and plums, I decided to use both in this heavenly combination of two fruit; more fig than plum, more torte than cake. I deviated considerably from the original recipe as I wanted to experiment with different ingredients and also wasn't so keen on walnuts. I made four versions of the cake: with buttermilk; with sour cream; with ground almonds; and with ground hazelnuts. The result was an oh! so tender torte, heavily saturated with fruit and suffused with delicate aromas.

(Based on an idea from Fresh from the Oven)  

115g unsalted butter
90g granulated sugar
20g light muscovado sugar
zest of 1 orange
2 medium eggs + 1 medium egg yolk
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp Grand Marnier or brandy
140g self-raising flour
30g ground hazelnuts or ground almonds
1/4 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
100 ml sour cream
3-4 red plums, pitted and quartered or sliced
5 figs, peeled and quartered
1 tbsp granulated sugar (to sprinkle over the fruit)

3-4 tbsp dark plum jam
1-2 tsp lemon juice
1tbsp Grand Marnier or brandy

Place the rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 180 C.

Butter a 23cm round cake tin. Line the bottom with parchment paper and butter the parchment. Dust the pan with flour, tapping out the excess.

Prepare the cake batter: Sift flour, baking powder, salt and ground hazelnuts or almonds and set aside.

With a hand-held mixer, beat the butter at medium-low speed until creamy smooth, for about a minute. Scrape butter down the sides into the centre of the bowl. Gradually add the granulated sugar, followed by the muscovado sugar. Continue beating until well incorporated and slightly fluffy. Add  the orange zest. Beat in the eggs and egg yolk, one at a time, adding a tablespoon of flour with each egg to prevent curdling, making sure that they are well combined. Add the vanilla and Grand Marnier or brandy and mix again.

Using a rubber spatula, fold the flour mixture alternately with the sour cream into the egg mixture in 5 batches, beginning and ending with flour, until just combined and no flour can be seen. (The batter is not too thick but it should hold. If it seems a bit runny, add 1-2 tsp flour, half a teaspoon at a time.)

Starting at the periphery of the pan, arrange the fruit wedges, flesh side up, one next to the other in circles around the tart alternating figs with plums. After completing the circles, if any wedges remain, fit them snugly where you can. Sprinkle 1 tbsp granulated sugar over the fruit.

Bake for 55-60 minutes or until the cake is golden and pulling away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted near the centre comes out clean. Rotate the pan front to back a little past halfway through baking to ensure even baking.

Remove from the oven and let it cool in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes. Remove the pan ring and allow to cool for a further 20-30 minutes before transferring onto a plate.

Once it's cool, you can dust with icing sugar. But I also prefer to glaze the fruit with the dark plum jam which has been heated with the lemon juice and brandy until it melts.

Serve warm or at room temperature. Place a sheet of baking paper on top of any leftover portion of the cake and store at room temperature.

Notes: The buttermilk made the cake rather wet and required more flour, perhaps another 10-15g. The sour cream worked much better as the cake was somewhat denser but not too compact and held its shape. The ground hazelnuts gave the cake a most distinct nutty flavour, a crunchier texture and a darker colour. This was by far a personal favourite.

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