I wish I knew the right thing to say. Ever, really, but especially in situations where it is most needed. As I think is the case with a good amount of us, I find it much easier to express my thoughts and feelings on paper than I do verbally. Verbally, I clam up, I say the wrong thing, I trip and stumble and bumble my way through awkward, short-lived conversations only to replay them in my head later wondering why indeed I’ve never had my jaw wired shut. This is especially true in sensitive, somber situations. simply put, I am horrendous at providing comfort and I beat myself up about it thinking there should be a way to change that.
I was faced with this recently (last weekend, in fact), at a funeral for a close friend of our family’s. it was a sudden, unexpected thing, and indescribably heartbreaking. It was The Thing That Should Never Have Happened. It was the call you get in the evening you don’t believe. It was terrifyingly real and completely unreal at the same time. And I didn’t know what to do. I just had no idea what I could do to help. There was nothing, not one thing, I could say, or do, to make things better. Not even a little bit. Anything that comes into your mind to vocalize sounds pathetic, and small, and inadequate next to the grief it brushes up against.
Instead, I fall into silence. I let others talk and I stand there like a mute. Because I’m terrified of saying the wrong thing and I just know, I just know, that I will say the exact wrong thing.
So I baked. I baked and baked and baked, and maybe that sounds dumb, but I realized while all of this was going on, and plans were being made, that making things is how I express my sorrow, and how I tell people I’m there for them if they need me. For me, baking is the only thing thing to say. Making something for someone else is my muted, stumble-free way of saying “hey: I can’t even to begin to imagine your loss. I don’t want to say something dumb and upset you even more. I will mangle any thoughts which come to mind the minute I open my mouth, so please let me do this for you instead. I wish I could do better.”
This cake came into my mind the afternoon after the service. It was rainy and I was chilly and cold and sad and I was thinking so many things and flipping absently through books trying to focus on something, anything, but also trying to focus on the events of the last few days. I thought it would be a good way – my way, I guess – to commemorate a life well lived and ended too soon.
He was a friend who came along with meeting my husband – a business partner, but also a friend. I was lucky enough to see him in the office if I stopped by, during summer holidays, and at business-related gatherings. I considered him a friend, even though I didn’t see him often. I enjoyed his sense of humor, his dislike of social functions and small talk, the overwhelming interest and pride he took in his children, and the excitement he took in their accomplishments. I suspect he will always be involved in and very much a part of their lives, albeit from a greater distance.
I will miss his point of view, his impact on my husband’s life and way of thinking, and the way, when I disagreed with him (which was often the case) he would sometimes say I reminded him of his younger self. I always took that as a compliment. I will also miss him being one of the few people during public functions who enjoyed wallflowering it up as much as I did while watching his enormously talented wife manage to chat with everyone in the room.
A massive amount of people considered him a friend. He will be greatly missed by an innumerable amount of people due to the way he touched so many lives in such a wide variety of ways.
For him, and as I remember him, I make this cake. It is not a sad, sorrowful cake, but rather one which is simple and with an overriding sense of warmth. It is a cake that chooses to be unpretentious; it stands back away from excitement and is content to just be itself.
This is a lovely, subtle cake. it’s buttery and smooth and not too sweet, and gets a quiet little boost in flavor from the apple and the lemon juice, although both flavors would be hard to identify. it’s nice like that, though; i think those real fruit flavors give it a sweet mellowness other flavorings can’t accomplish. The rosemary sprig on top sheds its oil on baking so you get a beautiful scent both in your kitchen and down the middle of your loaves.
There’s something about this cake that’s solemn. and calm. and peaceful. maybe it’s just the mood I’m in; that pensiveness carried over into actually having something taste like a still, cloudy afternoon. If it is, that’s ok. Because no matter what, I feel like it’s the exact right thing to say.
Adapted from Feast: Food to Celebrate Life by Nigella Lawson.
Rosemary Remembrance Cake
for the apple mixture:
- 2 small eating apples (I used the Fiji variety), or 1 large apple
- 1 small sprig of and 1 or 2 long sprigs of rosemary (depending on if you make one large or two smaller loaves)
- 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
- juice and zest of 1 lemon
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
for the cake batter base:
- 2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar plus more for sprinkling on top
- 3 eggs
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
Peel, core, and roughly chop the apples and put in a saucepan with the small sprig of rosemary, the 2 teaspoons of sugar, the lemon zest and juice, and 1 tablespoon butter. Cover the pan and cook on low heat for 8-10 minutes until the apple is sot. How long this takes really depends on the variety of apple you’re using; use our best judgement and remove from heat when tender. Set aside to cool, fishing out the rosemary sprig once it is cold.
Preheat oven to 325˚F. Butter either a) 1 large loaf pan or b) 2 smaller loaf pans and line the bottom(s) with parchment paper.
Whisk together your flour and baking powder in a medium bowl. Put the cooled apple mixture into a food processor (remember to remove the rosemary first) and blitz to a puree. Add the butter, sugar, eggs, flour, and baking powder and process to a smooth batter. Pour into prepared pan(s) and smooth the top(s). Sprinkle the surface of each with about 1 tablespoon of granulated sugar and then lay the long sprig(s) of rosemary down the center. Baking allows the rosemary oil to spread a path through the middle of the cake, leaving everything smelling and tasting wonderful.
Bake the cake for 45-50 minutes (regardless of size; they seem to cook the same whether it’s one loaf or two slightly smaller loaves), checking at the 35-minute mark to see how it’s going. When your cake tester or wooden skewer comes out clean, remove from oven and cool on a rack. Try to let it cool most of the way, but eating this slightly warm wasn’t a bad idea at all.
Keeps well in an airtight container for 4 days. I suspect it will freeze well, as rosemary does well and so do butter cakes like these, but I don’t know for certain. My guess is tightly sealed for up to 1 month, but I have one of my loaves in the freezer now, and I’ll update once I know for sure.