As mentioned before, I’ve been reading a lot of food books lately: chef memoirs, books about specific foodstuffs, but also fiction about food. I’ve decided to add a new partial focus to this blog: commenting on these books (I don’t want to say “reviewing,” because I don’t plan on being nearly that systematic or authoritative) and including a recipe taken from or inspired from the book in question. Basically what I did with Devil’s Food Cake Murder last month. This way, I get the best of both worlds I love: cooking and reading.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake was one of those books that I came upon accidentally at the store. The greenish-blue cover, quirky title font, and, of course, the title and the striking slice of triple-layer cake caught my eye as I was skimming the shelves, looking for Kate Atkinson’s latest novel. I had never heard of Aimee Bender, but after reading her book’s synopsis, I was too intrigued to leave it behind.
The narrator, Rose, is a happy, carefree nine-year-old girl at the beginning of the novel. The first scene is the kind of childhood memory everyone either cherishes or would like to have: she comes home from school to her smiling mother, who is just about to start baking her a birthday cake. But after one bite, Rose realizes something is very wrong: although the cake is objectively delicious and made from quality ingredients, she can taste something else in it, too. Hollowness, emptiness. Her mother’s mal-de-vivre.
Rose soon discovers, much to her despair, that, no matter what she eats, she can now taste the emotions of the person who prepared the food – even in something as basic as a sandwich. Imagine eating a bakery cookie and tasting the boredom and frustration of the person who made it. Or, even worse, finding out your mother’s deep, dark secrets by way of her roast beef.
The novel follows Rose through the years, as she deals with this gift/curse. The focus is also on her family, which appears fairly average, in that dysfunctional way that is so frequent in contemporary novels: her father, a pragmatic lawyer who seems to have achieved most of his personal ambitions, and who remains a distant figure most of the time; her mother, who struggles to discover what she wants in life and hides her inner void as best as she can; and her older brother, Joseph, a reclusive teen genius who grows up to be an even more reclusive young adult, with, as it turns out, a gift of his own.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, despite its title and premise, is much less about food than it is about human relations. Descriptions of food revolve more around feelings than flavours, which may disappoint foodies looking for mouth-watering depictions, but which also makes the mind wander to interesting places: what would depression, joy, infatuation, or excitement taste like?
Ultimately, the novel is about how people navigate around and with each other – a fairly common theme, but a seemingly infinite one. Rose’s problem is that, no matter how much she would like to shut the world out, she can’t: she has to eat, and although she relies as much as possible on vending machine snacks and factory-made food, she can’t forever avoid tasting other people’s feelings and having to deal with them. Her circumstances are unique, but she remains a relatable protagonist in that way. It also helps that, although her chipper personality takes a sarcastic turn after she discovers her gift, she never resorts to whining about her condition, and remains stoic, almost wise at times. I also very much liked her father, despite his complacency: he too, in his own way, is at heart someone trying to find his place. The character of Joseph was harder for me to enjoy (although you’d think I’d relate to an anti-social nerd who insists on reading at the dinner table), in part because of what his gift turns out to be: I won’t spoil it, but I thought it was a bit far-fetched, and not very useful to the story (or in the real world, for that matter).
Despite the book’s qualities, I closed it with a feeling of emptiness – maybe like the one Rose tasted in that fateful birthday cake. It had started out strong, a real page-turner, but I felt the book fizzled out in the end, with much potential left untapped. This is probably because the story ends just as Rose is starting to discover something her gift might be good for. I would have liked to see that part be more explored. In fact, I would have liked more development in general: the ingredients were there for a great story, and there are little gems scattered throughout, but somehow the richness was lacking to bring them all together.
Although the title lemon cake is explicitly a round cake, iced with chocolate, I took this as an opportunity to revisit an old favourite: lemon pound cake. My father-in-law gave me this recipe, and, although it is a classic, it’s still delectable. The syrup at the end is all-important, as it gives the cake its lovely moisture and terrific lemon flavour. I’m told it works best with margarine, but I refused to try this, as margarine make me shudder.
Lemon Pound Cake
From my father-in-law’s kitchen (possibly taken from somewhere else)
Yields one 22 by 11 cm (8.5 by 4.5 inch) cake
250g (2 1/2 sticks, 9 oz) unsalted butter, softened
250g (1 1/3 cup, 9 oz) granulated sugar
5 whole eggs, beaten
The zest of two lemons, grated
250g (1 3/4 cuo, 9 oz) flour
2 tsp baking soda
Pinch of salt
For the syrup:
The juice of 4 lemons
100g (3/4 cup, 3.5 oz) confectioner’s sugar
Preheat oven to 180ºC (350ºF).
In a large mixing bowl, cream the soft butter with the sugar, until pale yellow in colour. Gradually beat in the eggs and lemon zest. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl, and gradually stir the dry ingredients into the butter and egg mixture.
Butter a 22 by 11 cm (8.5 by 4.5 inch) cake mould. Pour the batter into the mould, place it on a baking sheet, and bake for 60 to 65 minutes. The cake is ready when a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.
Meanwhile, make the syrup: gradually stir the confectioner’s sugar into the lemon juice, until all the sugar is dissolved.
When the cake is baked, unmould it and prick its top and sides with a fork while it is still very warm, and brush with syrup, until most or all of the syrup is absorbed. Let cool on a rack. Store at room temperature, wrapped in plastic wrap.