Monday, 3 December 2012

A CARROT CAKE FOR "HEARTBURN"

It was so easy to become a fan of Nora Ephron! An inveterate New Yorker who occasionally put up with living in such backwaters as Washington DC and Hollywood, Nora Ephron was an author known for her intelligent and sophisticated prose. She wrote in a spirited manner, hiding soulfulness and vulnerability inside paragraphs brimming with wit and sarcasm. 

In addition to novels and essays, Ephron wrote screenplays, producing and directing some of them when they were made into movies. She was a Hollywood power player whose untimely death at the age of 71 came as a shock. 

For years, she had been in remission from leukemia, a condition she chose to keep hidden. She had planned her own memorial, and because she was passionate about food and cooking, she wanted favourite recipes included in the service. She died from pneumonia, a complication caused by chemotherapy. I admired Nora Ephron; her intelligence and creativity remain an inspiration.
  
What made Ephron famous was the roman à clef “Heartburn,” a satire based on the collapse of her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein. He threatened to sue over its publication but never did.  I guess “Heartburn” hit Mr Bernstein too close to home. I remember the gossip going around at the time concerning his infidelity. Mr Bernstein was quite a womanizer, and I have often wondered what compels that sort of man to marry. Why did he bother?

“Heartburn,” is a funny story of love, betrayal and heartbreak. Humour acts as the salve which makes the heroine’s predicament bearable. Her name is Rachel Samstat, and she’s a cookbook author seven months pregnant with her second child. At seven months she is bloated, her feet feel “like old cucumbers” and she suffers from what she describes as “terminal heartburn.” To compound her misery, it’s at this stage that she stumbles upon the fact that her husband, Mark, is having an affair. What’s more, she's acquainted with her husband’s mistress and has had her over the house for carrot cake! 

At first, Rachel vows to win back Mark, despite the fact that he confesses he loves his mistress and has never loved another woman as much. Still, he wants Rachel to stay with him, at least until the birth of their child. How kind.  

Eventually, Rachel takes her children and leaves Mark. The catalyst is her discovery that he has spent a small fortune as a down-payment on a necklace for his mistress. Soon thereafter, a sense of clarity comes to Rachel.“You can love someone so much,” she thinks, “that you don’t see anything at all. You decide to trust him and you kind of notice that things aren’t what they were, but it’s a distant bell, it’s through a filter… I can’t stand feeling sorry for myself.  I can’t stand feeling like a victim… I can’t stand sitting here with all this rage turning to hurt and then to tears.”  

Rachel tells the story of her marriage “because if I tell the story I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me. Because if I tell the story it doesn’t hurt as much.” In this manner, Rachel can begin to forget. 

The narrative of the novel is interspersed with Rachel’s recipes, some of them quite mouthwatering. There’s even a recipe index at the end of the book:  Cheesecake, page 49. Key lime pie, page 166. Vinaigrette, page 177. 


There’s been some criticism that the characters in the book are not well developed. My answer is that Ephron’s focus is mainly on satire, which is a genre that does not necessarily rely on a heavy-duty psychological evaluation of character motivation. The main purpose of satire is social criticism via the use of wit as a weapon. 

Ephron’s novel was socially significant. At the time of its publication in the early 1980s, divorce rates were climbing, but divorced women kept quiet about their predicament. Ephron was the first to write openly about living with a philandering husband and about experiencing a painful divorce. She empowered women by changing the way divorce was talked about. She encouraged women to talk candidly about it and to share their stories.  

With this reading of “Heartburn,” I am participating in Cook the Books, a bimonthly (not semimonthly) Internet book club/cooking event that features a different book for each round. The challenge is to read the book chosen, cook something inspired by it, and then blog about it. I chose to make carrot cake because that's what the unsuspecting heroine of “Heartburn” serves to her husband’s mistress. Years ago, I found myself in a situation similar to Rachel’s. One of the most important things I learned from my experience was not to be the victim in a relationship. Love, cohabitation, marriage, all relationships, even friendships … they should be victim free. Easier said than done, but as Rachel Samstat says in “Heartburn,” when your dream dies, you are left “with a choice: You can settle for reality, or you can go off, like a fool, and dream another dream.”


WASHINGTON CARROT CAKE

I call this my “Washington” carrot cake. That’s because the recipe was given to me by a wonderful cook and family member who lives in the Washington DC area. This is one of the first cakes I learned to make successfully, and it has been in my cake repertoire since I first made it, in the early 1980s. The cake is fruity and tastes a little like a spice cake. It's made with canola oil and with carrots, so as far as cakes go, I guess it's kind of "healthy." It can be eaten plain; that's why I usually bake it in a 9x13 pan. For a holiday treat, bake the batter in round pans and then slather cream cheese frosting on top, on the sides and between the cake layers.
  
Ingredients:
butter and flour to grease the pan
2 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups peeled and grated carrots(about 10 carrots)
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts 
3/4 cup canola oil
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk
4 eggs
1 cup chopped pineapple, drained well


For the Frosting:

8 tbsp. unsalted butter softened and cut into pieces.
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese
2 cups confectioner sugar
1 cup finely chopped walnuts

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350° F.  
Grease and flour a 9" x 13" baking dish with the butter and flour. This is an important step, don't forget it.
Gather the carrots, walnuts, and drained pineapple into a large bowl.
Into a medium size bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, and salt. Pour them on top of the carrot mixture.


Into a really large bowl whisk together the oil, sugar and buttermilk. Add the eggs one at a time and beat after each addition. Add the vanilla and beat in. Fold in the carrot mixture in batches. Make sure that you don’t over-mix; mix until smooth.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes. Lower the heat to 325º F, and bake another 15 to 20 minutes. 
Let the cake cool in the pan for about 1/2 an hour.  Then turn it out onto a cake rack and let it cool completely.


For frosting, you can frost just the top if you've baked the cake in a 9x13 pan. If you want frosting on the top, sides and between layers, bake the batter in round pans.


For the Frosting:

Use an electric mixer with the paddle attachment.  On medium speed beat the butter with the mascarpone and cream cheeses until they are smooth. Add the vanilla and the orange zest and beat until they are integrated. 
Lower the speed and add the sugar in batches, beating for about a minute between additions. Finish beating by bringing the frosting to a smooth consistency. Chill and spread the icing evenly over the cake. When done, press the nuts onto the cake.  Chill before serving.