Sunday, August 03, 2008

Guava Cake Memories

I spend pretty much every afternoon at a local café/patisserie. It’s my friend Gesine’s (pronounced ga-zee-nah) place and it offers the most elegant and tasty pastries, richest café and loveliest staff— including her papi chulo husband Ray—but I’m coming to realize that it is not only the goodies or the people that bring me back day after day. Many people go there because her sister happens to be Sandra Bullock. You can always tell the type, their eyes dart behind the counter, peering through the two-way glass to get a glimpse of…of what? Celebrities crouching behind the mixer? Brad Pitt spooning out macaroons? I don’t know what they expect to see, but aside from being delusional I think they’re missing the point. For me there is something about the history behind what Gesine bakes that adds another level to the experience. I’m coming to realize that’s why I go.

If you talk to Gesine, or read her fabulous blog Confections of a Master Baker, you know that almost every delectable item in her store has a history. Some were her dearly departed mother’s favorites, others were served every Christmas when she lived in Germany. Earlier today as I bit into a small piece of Gesine’s pecan pie I was thinking about my favorite thing to bake. Yes, if you read my earlier posts you know I hate to cook, but baking has always been different for me. And I love to bake guava cake. Even the smell of the freshly opened can of guava paste is enough to make me swoon, but I found myself wondering why? For Gesine baking is a connection with the mother she misses so much, with a culture whose ingredients run through her veins, but my mother never baked. I mean never. Inspired by Gesine I wondered if there was meaning in this ritual for me.

I tried to think back to the first time I ate guava cake in Puerto Rico. It was a trip when I was 29, yes, then I remembered. Did I go alone, I wondered? It was then that it hit me. It was when my sister Ellen and I brought our mother down to visit Puerto Rico. She was very ill with heart disease, and her health was such that my sister suggested the warm break from the icy Vermont winter might be good for her. My three year romantic relationship was ending, so I agreed to go and left with a heavy heart and a carelessly packed suitcase.

The trip was subdued, Mom stayed with her aunt and Ellen and I with our young aunt Georgina. Mom had to rest quite a bit, so my sister and I tried to have some fun in between caring for her. We drove around the island (Anatia was scandalized! Two women driving around alone was not safe!) and went out on the town with our cousin Carlos. But I was taken aback when on the third night family members began to arrive for a dinner at our Aunt Concha’s house. We saw many of our family whenever we were down, but the logistics of a Davila gathering of this type meant it never happened. Never. When my great uncle Carlos arrived (he was well into his late 80s and as a retired Supreme Court judge and the patriarch of the family we always came to him, never him to us), it really hit me: this was really her last trip. Mom would never come down to visit again.

I tried to keep my emotions in check—rather un-stereotypically the Davila side of my family is very reserved emotions-wise—but it got harder and harder as the night wore on. Oh there was laughing and family stories, but also an underlying sadness. After a dinner I had merely pushed around on my plate, Concha sat a large platter of pastries in front of me. I could see the buttery richness as the edges of the yellow cake crumbled in moist petals, the deep hibiscus red of the guava centering each piece like a heart. I could hear my mother’s melodic if breathless voice riding in from the porch as I grabbed a piece. I bit into it without thinking, and stopped short as the tastes reached my tongue. It was incredible. The rich yellow cake was moist and elegant, the sharp sweetness of the guava like an unexpected kiss after an embrace. It was literally the best thing I had ever tasted. I proceeded to eat four pieces as my Tía Concha smiled at me from across the room. “Perhaps you can bring a piece to your mama,” she suggested. I gathered a small square in a napkin and brought it out to my mother who was rocking on the porch as usual, chatting with my tíos and tías, primas and sobrinos. As she ate I sat in another gliding chair, and joined the conversation about my Tio Victor’s farm and his old jalopies, the Bayamón air heavy around us, the coquis performing their chorus from the trees that wreathed the property.

Mom lived for another 18 months after we returned, but she was never well enough to make the trip again.

This afternoon, as I pulled out the round can of guava paste (hard to find in northern Vermont, let me tell you!) from the cabinet, I decided I will make a batch tomorrow. Perhaps I’ll even bring a plateful into Gesine’s. I have to wonder…maybe the reason the shop is so busy all the time is that we all have versions of Tia’s cake that tastes of memories. Though the guava cake is not something I had as a child, or that generations of my family made (truthfully, Concha was the only good cook in the family), the heavenly aroma of it baking brings a different kind of feeling to me. One of comfort and family. Of warm summer evenings and rustling palm leaves. So even though Gesine’s pastries are reflective of her memories, not mine, they were made with hands that folded in layers of emotion and meaning along with sugar, butter, eggs and flour. These baked goods are infused with the feeling of home, and it doesn’t even matter whose. Within her Mandelhoernchen is the same love and affection, its ingredients infused with the same abilities to conjure memories of home for anyone who eats them.

Do you have a guava cake or Mandelhoernchen in your life?

Concha’s Guava Cake

½ lb. butter (melted)
2 cups of sugar
4 eggs
4 cups self-rising flour sifted
½ 12oz. can guava paste

Slice thin pieces of guava paste.

Mix sugar, eggs and butter (cooled). Mix for one minute. Add flour in three stages. Grease pan with butter.

Pour half of batter (will be thick like bread dough) in bottom of pan. Place ½ of guava slices on top of batter with pieces arranged evenly. Then spread remainder of batter (carefully) over top, and arrange remaining guava slices on the top.

Bake at 325° for 50-60 minutes.

¡Buen Provecho!


msedano said...

Alligator Bread and Angel Food Cake compete in my memories. Up in Carmel California, Hector De Smet's bakery was a mandatory stop when taking family vacations. Angel Food cake was my birthday preference. The alligator was a french loaf shaped like a gator, the crust cross-hatched and shiny from egg white. A marzipan frog propped open the gator's jaws. When I was in AIT at Ft. Ord, my wife & I continued the tradition of Sunday alligator bread from Hector De Smet's. One birthday/vacation my mom packed an angel food cake. It had grown hard during the trip, still, it was the most delicious birthday treat of my life, crunched on sitting in the shade of Big Creek Bridge alongside the surf of Highway 1.

A couple years ago, my wife and I take a sentimental journey to Monterey and the site of Ft. Ord, now a university campus. We locate the last Hector De Smet's still open, a stone's throw from our hotel near the aquarium. We draw a blank look from the clerk when we ask if she has alligator bread.

It's all a ni modo now and past tense. I've become gluten intolerant and consume neither bread nor cake. But I know what you mean about that cake de guayaba. Mmmm, i can taste the guyaba crunch now. said...

Ann Hagman! This piece about guava cake is one of the most beautifully written little pieices about anything, that I have ever read. I hate you, Ann Hagman Cardinal! But, really you know that is the best compliment you can get from one New York woman to another.
Peace out!