Month: October 2004
Les Eyzies-de-Tayac is a village nestled under a cliff alongside the Vézère River in the beautiful Dordogne region of southwestern France. The self-proclaimed “capitale mondiale de la préhistoire,” it boasts a supremely boring (but, I understand, newly revamped) museum of prehistory and a nameless café where I bought some Orangina and used the bathroom. Most importantly, however, it was in Les Eyzies that I had my first taste of a gâteau aux noix, a French walnut cake.
It was October 1999, and I was a month into my two-quarter stay in France as a student in the Stanford-in-Paris program. Thanks to Helen Bing, a truly worship-worthy Stanford donor, we students hopped a train down to Brive-la-Gaillarde and spent a weekend Dordogne-ing with luxury accommodations for a grand total of roughly $40 each. My friend Clare and I were assigned a ridiculously extravagant suite à la française and spent each evening marveling at our good fortune and happily yelling goodnight to each other from our bedrooms at opposite ends of a long, marble-lined hallway.
Other highlights of the trip included:
-a chilly late-night tour of the town of Sarlat, followed by much dancing in a tight, smoky bar to shameful hits such as “Mambo Number Five” and “Tomber la Chemise;”
-befriending Gui, my dear, gorgeous, long-lost Brazilian and one of the flakiest people I’ve ever adored;
-befriending my dear Keaton;
-watching Gui run frantically around the very old Château de Beynac, trying to stay warm on a nippy morning;
-the decadent multi-course feasts of this region known for its truffles, cèpes, and foie gras (the last of which I’m undecided on but strive to avoid);
-and a dinner of pain de son (bran bread) and Peanut M&Ms on the train-ride back to Paris.
But five years later, it’s the walnut cake that haunts me. It had been baked at our hotel and plastic-wrapped in individual wedges for us to take on our day’s sightseeing, and I ate it perched atop a large, sunny rock in a park in Les Eyzies. Nothing fancy, it was a dense-crumbed white cake flecked with brown, humble, nutty, and only faintly sweet. Nothing fancy, it was delicious.
Last July, I found a recipe for it in Gâteaux de Mamie, but an eager trial run resulted in an oddly rubbery, leaden cake that made it no further than the trashcan. After a sufficient hiatus, this week I tried again, turning instead to a Saveur recipe dug up online in a moment of reprieve from a tedious editing task. Calling for walnut oil and white wine, it intrigued me, but I was a bit unsure of the potent, fruity aroma of fermented grapes and toasted nuts that wafted from the oven.
I needn’t have worried.
It was nothing fancy; it was delicious; and I ate a quarter of it on the spot, thinking of Gui and Clare and Keaton and the autumnal colors of a river valley thousands of miles away.
Gâteau aux Noix, or French-Style Walnut Cake
Adapted slightly from Saveur Cooks Authentic French
½ cup chopped walnuts, or a touch more
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup walnut oil
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 350. Place walnuts in a small dry saucepan and toast over medium heat, shaking pan, until nuts are fragrant, 5-10 minutes. Set aside.
Beat eggs in a medium bowl with an electric mixer. Gradually add sugar and beat until mixture is pale yellow, light, and fluffy. Add walnut oil and wine and mix well.
Generously grease a 9” cake pan (I used an 8-inch with no problem, by the way; your cake will just be a bit thicker). Sift flour, baking powder, and salt together into a large bowl. Add egg mixture to flour mixture and mix with a wooden spoon until just combined. Gently fold in walnuts, and then pour batter into prepared pan.
Bake cake until a toothpick can be inserted and pulled out clean, about 40 minutes (mine took only 35, however, and required a bit of tenting with foil for the last five). Remove from oven, cool for ten minutes, and then turn out onto a cooling rack. Allow to cool completely and serve in wedges. Loosely whipped cream would be a nice accompaniment, if possible.
Every week should begin this way: watching the sun rise over the Cascades from a warm bed next to an enormous window, the wind whistling outside, a flock of tiny birds circling and swooping above the spruce. This is a bluegrass song. Late Sunday morning took us down idyllic two-lane roads, past pastures full of cows and trees shaking with turning leaves, to Nicho’s family’s farm in Sultan. Along the road, the dahlias stood out bright under a sky blanketed with clouds, ripped and streaked with blue. A slow fog rolled between two hills, and in the distance, the Cascades foretold winter with their jagged white caps. We arrived just before noon with empty stomachs, and Nicho threw together a…Read more
It’s a bit after eleven. My apartment smells of frittata; the bed is pristine and pale green with fresh sheets; and my social calendar is recently ridiculous. A late Friday night home alone is fine indeed. This being-single thing is quite time-consuming: people to see, spontaneous things to do, loss of sleep to angst and scandal. It’s fantastic. I think I’ll do it for a while. Tonight Keaton and I had dinner chez moi, a cozy plan for a chilly, off-and-on rainy evening. We broke open a bottle of Red Truck California Red Table Wine (not the most promising name, but perfectly drinkable) and settled into an evening of catching up. Dinner began with last winter’s favorite broccoli soup, courtesy…Read more
My weekend in the Bay Area wasn’t entirely about traipsing around without a schedule and sleeping like the dead. I had work to do. My mission, dear reader, was to serve as a bridesmaid to my childhood friend Jennifer, who I’ve known since I was three and she was five, when our backyards butted up against one another and we met over the fence. Together we terrorized more than one hapless babysitter, not to mention the other neighborhood kids we’d frighten by blacking out our teeth with stage makeup and dressing up in the dregs of an old Dolly Parton costume. We also had our own “radio” show, recorded on junky cassette tapes, featuring DJs Alfonso (me, of course) and…Read more
Oh Northern California, I’ve been unfaithful, but you take me back every time. You meet me at the airport with Laurent Garnier on the stereo, and you give me fresh white towels and a bedful of down pillows. You roll out the brown hills of your early fall, and I speed along them, through streets and names I’d almost forgotten, to smelly cheese and good bread and bad classic rock on the staticky radio. You know me so well. My very petite cousin Katie and her new man Andrew picked me up at the airport late Wednesday night and whisked me across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to Corte Madera. There we found Tina, my mother’s identical twin sister and Katie’s…Read more
Tuesday night, and I feel selfish and lazy and wonderfully sleepy. I love a quiet night at home like this, eating a simple dinner of peanut butter on warm toast and zucchini in a tomato-y sauce with onions, capers, and mint. Afterwards I dug into the freezer and came out with half a chocolate gâteau fondant de Nathalie, from which I cut a generous wedge. With a few seconds in the microwave and a cold glass of milk on the side, it was luscious. Dinner alone, if approached willingly, can be the greatest luxury. But dinner with others is awfully nice too. Sunday night brought Nicho back from the Olympic Hot Springs and to my apartment, where we drank Grant’s…Read more
A gold-star day, in the words of fashion maven Elizabeth! 1. My mother called at 10:30am, wanting to know if I would wear a crocheted poncho, just hypothetically. She is well trained, having survived a trial by fire. When I was fifteen she really outdid herself at Christmas. Mom usually has exquisite taste, and she fully supported my teenage forays into burgundy hair (which she dyed for me), clunky boots, lots of layers, and 11-cent thrift-shop men’s pants. But that Christmas, she strayed too far into the realm of ultra-trendy grungesque wear, bringing home for me a baggy flannel dress and a rubber belt with bottle-caps on it, among other unmentionables. This was a huge mistake. Dear reader, I very…Read more
I am a victim of identity theft.I can’t believe this. My poor brain is flogging itself. I won’t go into the details in this loud, echoing, painfully public venue, but yesterday I was weaseled out of the last four digits of my Social Security number by a nasty scheming liar. And then he—no doubt rubbing his hands with devilish glee—called my wireless telephone provider, bought a $600 cell phone in my name, and had it shipped to himself. But my mother and I, an unbeatable cross-country sleuthing duo, put a stop to the madness in less than two hours. There will be no fancy cell phone for you, Mr. Evil Liar-Man, nor will you be buying any flashy hookers with…Read more
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…Read more