BOOK: When 9-year-old Rose Edelstein discovers she can taste her mother's emotions in the food they share, she suddenly realizes that this seemingly cheerful, competent woman struggles with desperation and despair. When she tastes food prepared by her father, she gains insight into his detachment. She even comes to understand that her brother is much smarter than she thought, and therefore lonely and rather desperate himself. We can know too much about the people we love, Rose learns, and this creates an obligation to understand, to sympathize, and even to forgive. As she grows to maturity, in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Doubleday, 2010), Rose comes to understand she has more in common with these people than she cares to admit.
WHY READ? Aimee Bender, 40, has been labeled a fabulist, a "magical realist" on the order of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude). The lover of a woman in one of her short stories, for example, devolves from human to ape to reptile. Her 2000 novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, includes a math teacher who associates a number with every object he beholds. And one of the stories in her 2005 collection, Willful Creatures, revolves around seven potato-children. But Bender's fiction also deftly renders the powerful reality of the emotions that drive her characters. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, perhaps her most poignant work so far, reveals the peculiar pain associated with being too acutely aware of others - of knowing things that cannot be said, cannot be acknowledged.
MAKE IT: Lemon cake seems like an obvious choice to accompany a discussion of this book, but also appropriate since the combination of sweet and tart serves as an apt symbol of both Bender's subject matter and her writing style, which can be simultaneously luscious and astringent. ("In the sandwich as a whole, I tasted a kind of yelling, almost," Rose says after taking a bite of a sandwich prepared for a store clerk by his girlfriend. "Like the sandwich itself was yelling at me, yelling love me, love me, really loud.") Lemon cake manages to be commonplace with a hint of the exotic, which echoes nicely the magical realism of Bender's story.
OR INSTEAD: If you prefer to drink your snack, you might want to try a lemon drop martini, which was popular in California during the 1970s, which is where and when The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake takes place.
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send e-mail to email@example.com. Put READ & FEED in the subject line.
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For the cake:
- 1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2- 1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided use
4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
- 1/3 cup grated lemon zest (6 to 8 large lemons)
3 cups flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, divided use
- 3/4 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the glaze:
2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
3- 1/2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two (8-1/2- by 4-1/4- by 2-1/2-inch) loaf pans. Line the bottom with parchment paper, if desired.
Cream the butter and 2 cups granulated sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. With the mixer on medium speed, add the eggs, one at a time, and the lemon zest.
In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In another bowl, combine -1/4 cup lemon juice, the buttermilk and vanilla. Add the flour and buttermilk mixtures alternately to the batter, beginning and ending with the flour. Divide the batter evenly between the pans, smooth the tops and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until a cake tester comes out clean.
Combine remaining -1/2 cup granulated sugar with remaining -1/2 cup lemon juice in a small saucepan and cook over low heat until the sugar dissolves. When the cakes are done, allow to cool for 10 minutes. Remove the cakes from the pans and set them on a rack set over a tray or sheet pan; spoon the lemon syrup over them. Allow the cakes to cool completely.
For the glaze, combine the confectioners' sugar and lemon juice in a bowl, mixing with a wire whisk until smooth. Pour over the tops of the cakes and allow the glaze to drizzle down the sides.
Source: Barefoot Contessa Parties! (Clarkson Potter, 2001)
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Lemon Drop Martini
1- 1/2 ounces vodka (use a good-quality vodka)
- 1/2 ounce orange liqueur (such as Triple Sec, Grand Marnier or Cointreau)
1 teaspoon superfine sugar or basic simple syrup (-1/2 cup sugar, -1/2 cup water, heated to boiling, then cooled)
- 3/4 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
Twisted peel of lemon or a lemon wedge
Mix the vodka, orange liqueur, sugar and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker half-filled with ice; shake well (around 40 shakes).
Strain into martini glass and garnish with a bit of twisted lemon peel or a lemon wedge hanging on the rim of the glass.
You can first rim the glass with superfine sugar by rubbing a lemon wedge around the rim and dipping the rim in the sugar.
Makes 1 serving.
Source: Tom Valeo, special to the Times