Pity Party Of One
plus a recipe for Aperol Cake
The plan: fly to Italy on Saturday, May 13, with my husband and daughter, arriving Sunday morning. We would meet up at Fiumicino airport with our son and his girlfriend, who were traveling from Vermont. We would spend two glorious days at the Internazionli BNL’ d’Italia tennis tournament in Rome, then travel to Abruzzo for a family vacation.
What happened: On the Monday before our scheduled departure, I came down with a cold. Which turned out to be Covid (thanks, Kentucky!!!). As Saturday approached, it became clear that I would not be taking in any tennis matches at the Foro Italico, and a decision was made to delay my trip by a few days. The good news (for some!) was that I had not passed along my cooties to either my husband or daughter, so they were free to go.
The way I saw it, there were two ways to handle this. I could smile through my gloom, pretend everything was fine and send my family on their merry way. Or, I could keep feeling sorry for myself, unjustly singled out by fate and abandoned by my loved ones. I chose the latter.
On Saturday morning, as I wallowed beneath the covers, I listened to my husband and daughter surreptitiously (or so I imagined) packing their suitcases and hauling them down the stairs while trying to make as little noise as possible. Did I resent them? No! Yes! No! I resented the fact that I, who had dreamed about this tennis splurge for years and had planned and organized it, would not be taking part. I managed a sulky good-bye, waving them off from a safe distance. “It’s just a few days,” my daughter offered, encouragingly. Easy for you to say, I thought, uncharitably.
I was relieved when they drove away in the Uber because it meant I could come out of my room, where I had been quarantining, and move about the house without worrying about giving someone the plague. Other than a massive buzzing headache I was starting to feel better, and for a split second I thought about using the extra time I had been “given” to get ahead on some work. Then: nah. I sat in the family room and read a handful of catty Dorothy Parker stories and then determined that, in the spirit of proper wallowing, I should instead binge-watch TV. I blew through six episodes of Love & Death, a highly watchable Texas murder scandal (true story) starring Elizabeth Olsen and Jesse Plemons.
But sitting around was starting to make me feel like a slug. I don’t do it well. Having been out of the kitchen for the better part of a week, I missed cooking. I had no appetite, but I rummaged around for something to make. I found eggs, half a dozen young zucchini in the vegetable crisper, and a hunk of semi-stale bread in the bread box. In a little while I had a pot of my Zia Gilda’s Pancotto (cooked bread soup) simmering quietly on the stovetop. (I shared the recipe here last year.) At the end of cooking, you stir in beaten eggs, a handful of Parmigiano cheese, and fresh basil. It’s humble and wholesome, one of my all-time favorite comfort food dishes.
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You’ve probably guessed the punchline, which is that when I sat down to eat this bowl of perfect comfort food, I could not taste it, even after throwing in an extra handful of cheese and more torn basil leaves. It was strange; it was like all the flavors—the savory cheese, the sweet perfume of the basil—were so close, I just couldn’t quite get to them.
Earlier, while mindlessly scrolling Instagram and feeling sorry for myself, I had come across a recipe for Aperol cake with orange zest on the Olive Magazine feed. “Bitter, aromatic and mellow, Aperol is just as delicious in cakes as it is in cocktails,” the caption read. I wonder if I can taste that, I thought. Also, doesn’t every pity party need a cake, even if you can’t taste it?
So yes, I made this cake, and I’m certain that if I could have tasted it, it would have tasted lovely, aromatic and mellow, just as advertised. It’s a clever cake, similar to a pound cake in that it has lots of butter and no artificial leavening—just the air you whip into the eggs. It also has a thin, sugary crust, made by mixing Aperol and lemon juice with sugar and pouring this syrup over the top of the baked cake. The sweet-bitter carapace forms as the cake cools and the syrup hardens.
It was time to wrap up the pity party. When the cake was ready, I cut myself a thick slice and sat down to eat it Although I could really only detect “sweet” and “bitter” in the way of flavors, I enjoyed every bite. It was time to clean up the kitchen and turn my attention to packing. I had a family to apologize to.
RECIPE: Aperol Cake
Aperol drizzle gives this cake a sweet-bitter tinge and a comely blush. The texture of the crumb is fine and tender. Baking it improved my mood greatly. I only wish I could have tasted it better. If you do make, it, please let me know whether it lives up to its description! (Recipe from Olive Magazine)
Makes one loaf cake, to serve 10
For the cake:
1 1/2 sticks + 2 tablespoons (175 g) unsalted butter
1 cup (225 g) superfine (caster) sugar
1 tablespoon Aperol
1/8 teaspoon pure almond extract
Zest of 1 large orange, plus 3 tablespoons fresh juice
2 medium eggs (1 whole, 1 separated), plus 2 medium egg whites
2 scant cups (250 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (75 g) almond flour
For the drizzle:
5 tablespoons (75 ml) Aperol
2 tablespoons (30 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons (125 g) granulated sugar
1. Heat the oven to 325-330° F (170° C). Use 1 tablespoon of butter to coat the inside of an 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch (900 g) loaf pan. Line the pan with parchment, allowing for some overhang, and butter the parchment.
2. Melt the rest of the butter in a small saucepan (or in the microwave) and let it cool slightly. Then combine the cooled butter, superfine sugar, Aperol, almond extract, and orange zest and juice in a mixing bowl. Drop in the whole egg and one yolk. Beat with the whisk attachment until the mixture becomes pale in color and light and fluffy in texture. This could take up to 5 minutes, and the ingredients will be soupy at first. Keep going and you’ll see everything thicken and transform to a fluffy cream.
3. Stir together the all-purpose and almond flours and add them to the bowl. Whisk on low just until incorporated.
4. Combine the three egg whites in a separate bowl and whisk them to stiff peaks (don’t overdo it, or the whites risk becoming ‘grainy,’ which makes them hard to incorporate evenly into the batter). Fold 1/3 of the whites into the batter; then gently fold in the rest, taking care not to deflate the whites. Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan and gently level the top. Run a knife down the center of the batter—this will help the cake rise and form a center split. Bake for about 1 hour and 10 minutes, until a cake tester or skewer poked into the center of the cake comes out clean. If it’s not quite baked, return it to the oven for 5-minute increments before checking again.
5. While the cake is baking, combine 3 tablespoons Aperol with the lemon juice and granulated sugar, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
6. When the cake is done, remove it from the oven, and immediately poke deep holes all over the top of the cake with a skewer. Drizzle or spoon the remaining 2 tablespoons Aperol over the cake. Then spoon the Aperol-lemon juice-sugar mixture all over the cake. It will pool all around the top of the cake in the pan; this is fine. Leave the cake in the pan until it has cooled completely, and the topping has set to a sugary crust. Cut into thick slices and serve.
PICTURE ITALY: Chieti, 2023
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