The days are getting stranger. I go to the market around the corner and ask for artichokes. “A l’hivern,” I’m told. In winter. I sigh. I’m constantly being told no.
Today I wanted to make lavender panna cotta, but I need fresh lavender for the photo. I go to the florist around the corner and search among the plants only to spy two bedraggled half dead lavender plants under the display. I ask the owner if he has more or when he might get some. He says it’s horrible this season. They’re all dead. All the old ladies have come back to complain about the state of their lavender plants. The one I bought from him two months ago has also kicked the bucket, but I don’t relay this because I don’t want to make him feel worse. I tell him I need it for a photo, hoping he might produce a place I can find some. He goes behind the tiny counter in the corner and plucks a dried bouquet of lavender out of a small glass vase. It’s tied with a simple paper string. “Will this do?” he asks. I immediately accept it, although I have my doubts, because I don’t want to turn my nose up at his resourcefulness. “Photograph it. Use it. Bring it back when you can.” He doesn’t charge me for it. This is the way of Spain. The man at the coffee shop where I stop most mornings often says to me when I’m digging around for change to cover my tab, “Bring it another day.” I don’t have quite enough change for the cab. “No pasa nada” with a flick of the hand. So it goes. I have an intense feeling of gratitude for these small acquaintances. It’s taken time to learn them, to cultivate them. But they’ve become the closest feeling to home I have.
I walk the two blocks home, past the Moroccan embassy. A man is being pulled out onto the sidewalk by what appears to be his sponsor holding an official looking folder filled with papers. He’s yelling and gesticulating. The sponsor lets him go and starts to walk away, upset. At the light, he turns around and they begin again. I find an odd sense of comfort in this scene. The ire at the immigration process. The rejection and frustration. I’ve had problems with my residency status too. I understand what it means to be told no.
In the elevator, I have the sudden realization that I’m going about this all wrong. I need to stop thinking, then writing, and then shopping. Instead I need to shop, think, then write. This is the most fundamental rule of cooking, and I’d forgotten it. It’s the rule of the season which we live by in Europe. Which doesn’t exist in America where you can get anything all of the time. I’ve been trained wrong. I have a lot of unlearning to do. The elevator doors open. The hallway is darker than usual. There is a small woman standing before me. I ask her what floor we’re on, explain that I’ve got two more floors to go. In my confusion, I switch to the wrong verb. Again. The doors close, and I sigh in frustration. When will this finally become natural? When will I not have to think about this anymore? I have faith that it gets better–this frustration with language–even though it will probably never entirely go away. When up against an obstacle, change the route. By the time I make it in the door, I’m onto almonds instead.
Tarta de Santiago
I fell in love with this dessert when I ate it for the first time at Dalí in Cambridge, Massachusetts long before I ever set foot in Spain. Their version skips the powdered sugar and sits in a pool of sweet liqueur instead. The traditional version calls for the form of a cross to be dusted onto the top. This is my apology to my downstairs neighbor whose clothes I accidentally watered yesterday morning. I hope they’re finally dry now.
- 1 cup Marcona almonds, peeled and ground*
- 3/4 cup white sugar
- 5 large eggs
- 1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 2 ounces liqueur**
- 1 lemon peel, grated
- 1 piece unsalted butter
- 1 ounce liqueur (optional)
- 2 ounces powdered sugar (optional)
In a food processor, blend the almonds until finely ground. Then in a pan, toast over low heat until light golden brown. Set aside to cool.
In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs and then add the sugar and stir until well blended. Add the cinnamon, lemon zest, and liqueur and mix thoroughly. Add the almonds and fold in until fully incorporated.
Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees. While it is heating up, grease a springform pan with the butter. Add the mixture to the pan, cover with foil and bake for 40 minutes checking the doneness every fifteen minutes or so. You can remove the foil for the last 10 minutes or so watching carefully to make sure it doesn’t burn.
Remove from oven, allow to cool, and dust with powdered sugar.
*As with all recipes of few ingredients, quality really matters. Buy the best almonds, the best free-range organic eggs and quality spices. Don’t be afraid of a chicken feather or two.
**This recipe calls for a liqueur from Spain called hierbas. Like it’s name, it’s an herbal liqueur found in various iterations throughout southern Europe under slightly different names and served as an after-dinner digestif. I used a homemade version called Mistela that my good friend Pol brought to my house for a party. An anise liqueur is probably the most similar–although I personally find the flavor too strong–but you can use whatever is easiest to find. If you want to add an extra ounce to the plate at the end, you can. Or top with powdered sugar instead.