Sunday, 4 January 2015

Kim Addonizio | New Year's Walnut Spice Cake

A time comes when, in the expression of our dearest wishes, we shall say not that we want to wage wars against what is ugly, or that we want to judge the actions of others or even those of our own, but that we shall affirm everything, say 'Yes to life as a total economy of the whole', as Nietzsche wrote.

It is a common sentiment to make resolutions on New Year's Day even though we secretly know we will hear 'the clean crack of our promises breaking'. Kim Addonizio's poem 'New Year's Day' is refreshing in that it refuses to be sucked into an emotional fantasy of self-pitying reflection and grand schemes of resolving the past or weaving the future, even if at times it cannot resist images of redemption.

The rain this morning falls
on the last of the snow

and will wash it away. I can smell
the grass again, and the torn leaves

being eased down into the mud.
The few loves I’ve been allowed

to keep are still sleeping
on the West Coast. Here in Virginia

I walk across the fields with only
a few young cows for company.

Big-boned and shy, they are like girls I remember

from junior high, who never
spoke, who kept their heads

lowered and their arms crossed against
their new breasts. Those girls

are nearly forty now. Like me,
they must sometimes stand

at a window late at night, looking out
on a silent backyard, at one

rusting lawn chair and the sheer walls
of other people’s houses.

They must lie down some afternoons
and cry hard for whoever used

to make them happiest,
and wonder how their lives

have carried them
this far without ever once

explaining anything. I don’t know
why I’m walking out here

with my coat darkening
and my boots sinking in, coming up

with a mild sucking sound
I like to hear. I don’t care

where those girls are now.
Whatever they’ve made of it

they can have. Today I want
to resolve nothing.

I only want to walk
a little longer in the cold

blessing of the rain,
and lift my face to it.

Kim Addonizio, 'New Year's Day'

It is perhaps the image of the old schoolgirls, now nearing forty, preserved in memory as cow-like, big-boned and shy, that's the most successful part of the poem. Those girls, who silently look out of a window to rest their gaze on fleeting moments and the sheer impenetrability of human proximity. There are no grand designs! No resolutions! Stories are just stories we tell ourselves in consolation of the one reality - everything passes! And yet, this is the life we must affirm - not despite its reality but for all its reality!

~ New Year's Walnut Spice Cake ~

This is no ordinary cake. Traditionally, it is served in Greece on New Year's Day. A small coin is inserted through the base, signifying good luck to whoever finds it.

The story of the cake and the celebrations around the New Year goes back to the ancient Athenian harvest festival held in honour of the Greek god Kronos. This was in the first month of the Attic calendar, which was roughly equivalent to the latter part of July and the first part of August.

But in popular Greek tradition, the cake and the inserted coin are associated with a legend of St. Basil. According to one version, St. Basil asked the citizens of Caesarea to raise a ransom payment to stop the siege of the city. Everyone gave what they had in gold and jewellery. When the ransom was raised, the enemy was so embarrassed by this act of collective generosity that they called off the siege without collecting payment. St. Basil then had to return all the jewellery but as he didn't know which items belonged to which family, he baked everything into loaves of bread and distributed them to the city. As the story goes, by a miracle each citizen received their own valuables.

There are many variations of the New Year's Cake - some made with yeast, others sponge-like - and for years I have been searching for a recipe; one that would bring back some of the happiest moments of my childhood through the warm aroma of spices and orange peel mixed with the familiar sounds of cracking open walnut shells and grinding their wrinkled flesh with a wooden mortar and pestle. 

And then, I happened to come across a recipe that intrigued me. I tried. I made some changes. I tried again. More changes. Better. This, I think, is as close as I'll ever get! It's a rich, dense but moist cake that smells and tastes like winter - with a warm blend of spices and the earthy notes of walnuts.


195 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
200 g caster sugar
zest of 2 oranges and of 1 lemon
3 large eggs (198 g in their shells)
300 g self-raising flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
100 g finely ground almonds
50 g finely ground walnuts
100 g coarsely ground walnuts, sieved
135 ml buttermilk
75 ml (5 tbsp) orange + clementine juice
20 ml (4 tsp) brandy
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp orange blossom
1 1/2 level tsp (4.5 g) cinnamon
1 level tsp (3 g) mixed spice
1/4 level tsp ground cloves
1/8 level tsp ground nutmeg

icing sugar
pomegranate seeds (optional)

Heat the oven to 180 degrees C and place rack in the lower middle position.

Line a 23cm springform pan with greaseproof paper, then butter and flour it. Tap off any excess flour.

In a large bowl, sift the flour with the salt and baking powder. Mix in the finely ground almonds using  a whisk and set aside.

For the ground walnuts, I use shelled ones with their skin on as this gives the cake its characteristic dark colour and rich flavour. Put the walnuts in a mini food-processor and pulse them a few times until they are finely ground. Don't pulse for too long, otherwise the nuts will release too much of their oils and you'll end up with a paste. Once the walnuts are ground, you can pass them through a sieve. If there are any larger pieces left behind, you can put them back into the processor for additional grinding. Mix finely grounded walnuts with the spices and put aside.

For the coarsely ground walnuts, follow the same method but give them only o a couple of pulses. It's a good idea to sieve the walnut pieces to get rid of any fine grains as you don't want to add to the flour mixture.

Rub the orange and lemon zest into the sugar using the blade of a small knife until the sugar becomes sandy. With a hand-held electric mixer, cream the butter for about a minute. Scrape the butter down the sides into the centre of the bowl. Gradually add the caster sugar with the zest and beat together on medium–high speed until the mixture turns pale and fluffy, about 6 minutes. With speed on medium-low, beat in the eggs one at a time, making sure they are fully incorporated after each addition. Add a spoonful of flour with each egg to avoid curdling. Beat in the vanilla essence, orange blossom and the brandy. 

Mix the buttermilk and the orange and clementine juice together.

Using a rubber spatula, fold 1/2 flour mixture into the egg mixture, followed by 1/2 buttermilk mixture, then the rest of the flour mixture, and the remaining 1/2 buttermilk mixture. Then fold in the finely ground walnut and spice mixture until all dry ingredients are just combined and no flour can be seen. Finally, fold in the coarse walnuts. Do not over-mix.

Spoon the cake batter into the prepared tin, lower oven temperature to 175 C and bake for about 55-65 minutes. After 45 minutes, check the cake periodically to see if it's done.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes before placing it on a wire rack to cool completely. Then carefully lift the cake onto a serving dish or platter.

Once the cake has cooled completely, dust with icing sugar to cover the top entirely and decorate with pomegranate seeds or whatever takes your fancy.

Enjoy the New Year!