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Sweet and Salty
My mother has a way with cake.
Well, not just cake — biscuits, cookies, tarts, even crème brulee. Anything sugar laden and worthy of icing grows to a masterpiece under her touch. Marzipan figures on wedding cakes are miniature copies of the bride and groom, down to scars, freckles and even scuffs on their shiny black shoes.
I spent my childhood aiding her efforts, fetching marzipan and vanilla essence and sometimes a teaspoonful of crème de menthe for particularly special batters. It was why I learnt to read so fast—she would ask for French names, Italian names, and once even for a small bottle of Turkish pomegranate extract that sat, covered in dust, at the back of our rabbit warren of a pantry. If I came back with Limón cello instead of lemon zest, or worse, empty handed, she would fix her cocoa eyes on my own blue peepers and shake her head. Then she would rise from her short wooden stool, patchy with flour dust, to fetch the item herself.
I had to avert my eyes from her creations then, because no matter how delicious a caramel iced pound cake looked, it would always seem somewhat accusing. The wedding cakes were the absolute worst. The figurines glared at me with pinprick eyes for daring to interrupt their completion.
Disappointment was as complex as my mother ever got. For all her charm and skill, her personality was about as substantial as an angel food cake. She was a kitchen fairy, petite, delicate (although the slight roundness of her middle should have contradicted that), with a halo of licorice-colored hair. When I was younger I thought her as charming as one of my baby dolls, but once I grew out of childhood her giggly laughter grated on my ears and her polite small talk bored me.
Maybe that was what my father had discovered after a few years with her—that she was as beautiful and sweet as a sugar dusted Victoria sponge, but missing the jam and cream in the middle.
This absolute contrast was what shocked me about my aunt. She arrived shortly after my sixteenth birthday with some muttered excuse about my grandfather’s long awaited death. She didn’t impress me at first—she was tall, heavy set, her hair dirty blonde and her eyes a dull shade of brown. Worst of all, she was as tan as a summer tomato picker, with big, muscled arms. As soon as she stepped in the door, she breathed in deeply, narrowed her eyes and studied my face. She then said two things: "It smells like sugar in here. You must be Celeste."
I nodded, and she strode into the kitchen. "I’m your Aunt Dora. Where are your bowls?"
I followed her in, mute, and pointed to a cupboard. She fished out a metal bowl and sniffed it. "Ugh. So sweet. Tell me, Celeste, does my little sister ever cook you anything salty?"
"Pasta, sometimes," I ventured. "Though I make that myself now."
Aunt Dora wrinkled her nose as she plunged the bowl under a stream of hot water. "Typical of her. Pasta means cake in some languages, did you know that? And a word so close to patisserie!" I was silent, but she carried on talking. "No matter. I’m here now. Lord! With all that cake, I’m surprised you’re not as chubby as a babushka doll!"
She sent me to the store for yeast and plain flour, and when I came back our countertop was free of diamond sugar specks, a clear stretch of granite. I watched as she poured wet and dry ingredients into the bowl, and then sunk her hands into the wet, doughy mass. Her eyes closed as she worked the bread, and soon she had transferred it to the granite, now white with flour. She turned to me and motioned to the sink. "Wash your hands, Celeste. I will teach you how to knead."
I was cautious at first, my mind full of the sensation of sticky clotted fingernails that came with shaping cookie dough. The bread dough, however, was firm and elastic and almost warm. It felt good under my hands. Dora offered me the glimpse of a smile when I told her.
"Cake, Celeste, is for girls and fairies, insubstantial, instant gratification, a culinary plaster. Women like us—we make bread. Bread heals you, fills you up. Make no mistake—bread is very much alive."
When the kneading was finished my aunt fished in her suitcases for a battered loaf pan and scrubbed it up. She placed the dough into it carefully, like she was handling the baby she’d never had. Before the loaf went into the oven we sprinkled it with sea salt and rosemary, brushed it with melted butter. After less than an hour we sat down to perfumed slices with fresh butter and a jar of raspberry jam that Dora had brought with her.
It was then that my mother flounced in, her nose wrinkled.
"I thought I smelled something. It’s you."
Dora stood up. "Hello, Selene." My mother didn’t answer.
I held up the plate. "Would you like a slice?"
My mother shook her head and reached for a madeleine from the tray that sat on the kitchen counter. A crumb fell on her shirt as she bit into the cake, but she ignored it. When her mouth was empty again she muttered, "I’m fine, thank you," and stalked out of the room.
I turned to my aunt with wonder in my eyes. "You made her angry. I didn’t think she was capable of that."
Dora grinned. "I think I’m the only person alive with that talent." Then she picked up another piece of bread and reached for the butter.
To her credit, my mother never acted up again after that incident, which was probably for the best. Aunt Dora was fast becoming my idol. If my mother was sweet, my aunt was salty, with few smiles, a sense of humor as sharp as browned garlic and bad moods as bitter as seawater. More than provide a refreshing contrast to my mother’s personality, she taught me to stand on my own feet, and more importantly, to make bread and all that went with it. If I learnt to make phyllo pastry, we made Baklava. Short crust, steak pie. (However much Dora insisted, I was still my mother’s daughter, and refused to even touch a kidney.)
Within months, Selene’s Patisserie had a bakery section where I dealt with the customers as much as I could. Dora said that yeast was the only living thing she had the patience to deal with—apart from me. But then, I was just as quiet and probably even less volatile than a bubbling glass of yeast mixed with water.
I didn’t really mind the extra work. I would pop back to the shop during lunch breaks, don an apron, and smile for my classmates who were in to buy lunch. I found that selling food was the perfect opportunity to flirt—to touch a hand lightly when handing over a Cornish pasty, or to lean across with a square of focaccia just enough for a boy to smell my lavender perfume. I’m not sure my mother entirely approved, watching from her perch at the patisserie counter, but Dora encouraged me.
"Have fun before you’re old and bitter like me. Just remember to check whether your fiancé can tell the difference between pita and lavosh before you marry him."
The months passed quickly; my graduation from school came and went, along with a letter of acceptance to a famous culinary institute that arrived on the eve of my eighteenth birthday. It was in a city up North, far from my mother, and far from Aunt Dora. At first the thought brought tears to my eyes, but Dora shook her head and pressed a handful of silvery coins into my palm. "Go. Buy a head of garlic, please, and a pound of butter."
We made melt-in-the-mouth garlic bread and sat beside the hearth. Aunt Dora closed her eyes in the firelight, and I saw the features I had once scorned as ugly for what they truly were: hair the exact shade of dinner rolls, and eyes the color of dark poppy seeds. She caught my stares and smiled, as if she knew my secret. I blushed.
Before I headed to bed that night, she hugged me close. It surprised me, but I didn’t resist; she smelled like yeast and rosemary, like flour and butter.
Aunt Dora smelled like home.
The next morning I awoke to a strangely empty house and my mother at the kitchen table, a mug in one hand, a muffin in the other. When she noticed me, she gestured to the counter top. "She’s gone. She left you that."
Aunt Dora’s battered loaf pan sat on the granite, a piece of parchment paper tucked inside.
"Celeste," it said, "If I had tried to say goodbye, I could never have left. You’ve changed so much in these last two years—from a delicate girl into a beautiful woman. I wish I could stay, but this is your time to blossom, and I can’t do that for you. In the meantime, use my loaf pan often and think of me. All my love, Dora."
I cried for half an hour, and then I made a rosemary loaf and ate four slices. Ten days later, I kissed my mother’s cheeks and left for the institute. I arrived a few weeks before lessons were due to start, but they let me set up my room. I got an afternoon shift at the institute's bakery that served students, under a cheery old woman called Madame Rosaline. She was nothing like Aunt Dora, yet helped fill that particular gap in my heart.
One Sunday I had just placed a tray in the oven when a man walked in—a boy, really—with molasses hair and eyes the color of crushed mint. He smiled. "Do you have any ciabatta?"
"Of course," I said, "But no cupcakes? Someone as sweet-looking as you must be up for a few of those."
He grinned, but shook his head. "Cake…is such a lonely food. You can pair it with icing, and that’s it. Bread’s for company. It’s friendly."
Sourdough starter fizzed in my blood and my heart rose like a braided loaf when he touched my hand to take his package. He paused for a moment, then. "Forget cupcakes. You’re sweet—can I have you?"
His name was Marc, and though he was only a novice baker by my standards, he was an expert at romance, taking every excuse to brush a thumb across my cheek to wipe off imaginary specks of butter, or to spell my name in flour across my counter. The first time I made him apple pie he told me that he loved me (and then assured me that it wasn’t just because of the pie) and I told him that I loved him, too.
We were married almost as soon as we got our diplomas. When we walked out of the church hand in hand I found Aunt Dora at the wooden doors, her eyes teary and a folded apron under her arm, as if she’d barely remembered to take it off. After I reacted in an appropriate fashion (I’ve missed you!) and she responded (I’ve missed you too, my darling) she turned to Marc and narrowed her eyes, her arms folded across her chest.
"Now, what is the difference between Pita and Lavosh?"
Marc swallowed and fiddled with his tie. "Um, lavosh is a flatter, thinner…" he trailed off, helpless, and peered at her hopefully. "I may not be able to explain it, but I do love your niece."
Her severe expression faded, and as she patted his cheek she laughed, the first time occasion that I could remember.
"He’ll do, Celeste... he’ll do…"
I grew up on cake, but bread rescued me. Bread taught me independence; bread found me love. Bread helped me find my identity.
Strangely enough, none of my children would touch anything but cake—not even the youngest, who we named Dora.