May-June-2017_flipbook Revised

the Coffee issue

Coffee & Sympathy by Crescent Dragonwagon + photo by Romney Caruso

T here’s a scene in my friend Mara Novak’s unpublished first novel (I have the privilege of being one of her early readers). Something devastating has just happened to Ellen, the female protagonist. In the wake of this unlooked- for tragedy, she finds her way to the kitchen of Ginny, her best friend. “Ginny’s kitchen is like a warm cave, a secret den. The dark beams make the low ceiling feel even lower, and the walls are covered with baskets and bunches of herbs and pictures of chickens. The kettle is just coming to a boil when Ellen steps into the steamy banana-scented air. Ginny hugs her, while the kettle works itself up to a scream, and they both ignore it. “‘How are you doing?’ Ginny asks as she pours (the) water… “Ellen has given several answers to this question over the past week: ‘We’re hanging in there,’ and ‘We’re taking it one day at a time.’ “But toGinny she says,‘I can’t remember anything I’ve done this week. I don’t think I’ve eaten.’ “‘You don’t remember, or you really haven’t eaten?’

“‘I haven’t been hungry.’ “‘ You’re going to eat this.’ Ginny slices off a slab … (of banana coffee cake…)” How is Ginny so sure? What makes the offer of something sweet, warm, homemade, served in a kitchen still fragrant from baking, so deeply comforting? Why is its “ there, there, it’ll be okay ” nature enhanced when served with hot, dark, strong coffee? First, let’s consider a more basic question. What makes a particular cake a “coffee”cake? First off, confusingly, it’s not a cake that includes coffee in its batter. Rather, it’s a cake specifically intended to be served with coffee. In its batter are the commonplace ingredients of most cakes: butter, sugar, flour, eggs, milk (or another liquid), leavening, vanilla and/or other flavorings. And coffee cakes as made in this country almost always include cinnamon. A perfect American-style coffee cake combines these ingredients in proportions that yield a single-layer cake, exceptionally moist and tender, sweet but not crazy- sweet, decidedly buttery. It’s quickly mixed,

leavened with baking powder and/or soda (we leave the yeast-risen varieties to the Europeans, who evidently have more time on their hands than we do, or at least are better at planning ahead). And, American coffee cake is not frosted. The lack of frosting (okay, sometimes there’s a little decorative squiggle of white icing, but not generally) is, I think, supposed to fool you into thinking it is less “cake” than it actually is, so therefore you can eat it with impunity as a mid-morning or afternoon snack, or at breakfast, as you would not, say, a layer cake covered with chocolate frosting. (I would advise not being fooled; coffee cake is definitely cake and, alas, there is no such thing, nutritionally and calorically speaking, as eating cake with impunity. Sometimes, however, I think there is a psychological immunity, as when Ginny serves her friend Ellen, in Mara’s still-untitled novel.) In lieu of frosting, coffee cakes are usually sprinkled with streusel, a baked-on crumbly topping. The streusel, besides giving the characteristic crunch, is inviting and interesting, but not all that showy. However,



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