Early in the pandemic, when our house was launching into renovation turmoil, I bought an archival print by my friend and artist Naomi Hill. It’s an image of water glasses, washed in pale greens, arranged on a table. In the background is a light switch on a cord, casting a thin shadow against the wall. She says it’s a nod to the Italian still life painter Morandi, to his tones, his compositions, and the subtle tension he achieves through shadow and tone.
Naomi initially had a different idea in mind for this piece, but something about it wasn’t right, so she left it alone. A year later she returned to it, she says, and noticed she was most drawn to the part she’d cropped out of the composition, the lamp cord.
I used the image as a touchstone for the renovation – it informed the colour of the walls and the mood I wanted to bring to our life.
The image is still a touchstone. It hangs in the laundry room which is also a bathroom, the calmest room in the house. There are chores to be done in there. Boys leave boxers still twisted into the legs of their trousers in the middle of the floor, sticks of deodorant and empty tubes of toothpaste on the edge of the sink, and their towels drip from the rack. But the walls are washed in a calm green, light pours through the south-facing window, and Naomi’s image, with the shadowy chord running off camera to somewhere we cannot see, reminds me that there’s a touch of tension in every good story.
When making a birthday meal that begins with Caesar salad and ends with a cake topped with crushed chocolate, it’s important to break up the chocolate in a mortar before you pound the garlic into a paste. When I was growing up my mother had a cutting board with one side used for slicing bread, the other for chopping garlic and onions. Morning toast, slathered in butter and raspberry jam tinged in last-night’s onion remnants, could spoil the day. Flip the board, she’d say, sometimes from the other room. So now I’m whipping out chocolate dust from the pestle, preparing it for the garlic. The tension of flavours here must come from a hint of chocolate in the salad dressing, not the other way around.
Not long after I hung Naomi’s piece on the wall, I looked for information on her process as an artist. I wanted to know how objects can make us feel a certain way. What is the secret? In an artist conversation series with Verity Burton, Naomi writes:
My still life and domestic documentary work is the outcome of making art as a mother, with the materials at hand, in the context of normal household chaos, but also in the context of how my own mind works. There’s a conversation about art and motherhood in there, but I wouldn’t want the work to be reduced to a metaphor for “Mom gets the crumbs to play with”. It’s not always easy or straightforward, but I enjoy caring for and being cared for by our family. And I enjoy the act of making art with the materials and remains of that care.
And when asked how the process of making images reacts with her daily life, she writes:
… Sometimes I set aside a certain day to work, but most of the time, my day is a mix of homeschooling with my daughter, photography, and laundry.
Art makes us feel a certain way – and moves us beyond its aesthetic value – when we find ourselves in the work. When we see our story in the crumbs, the laundry, the light and the shadow. That is when it resonates.
Cheap chocolate candy can be elevated into something special when reduced to crumbs. If you’ve been with me long enough, you’ll know that candy-topped birthday cakes are essential for my eldest, after I tried to serve him a ‘grown-up cake,’ with disastrous results, on his thirteenth birthday. (I can still see the tear slipping down his cheek as he blew out candles nestled in chocolate sour cream ganache.) The following year I wrapped his cake with Kit-Kat fencing and pooled a rainbow of Smarties over the top. It was a cheap sugar explosion of headache proportions, but he loved it. I know now how to find the balance: a very good chocolate cake topped with a dusting of colour from the candy aisle.
When he asked for Caesar salad to launch the meal, I also know that a head of crispy romaine can become a bowl of beauty when tossed with a simple take on that famous salad dressing. The recipe was passed on from a friend (one with her own trio of teenage boys) to my sister, and when asked what she could bring to the party, a mason jar of dressing was my answer. It was so good that I made it again the next day, tossed with mixed greens, sprouts and lots of grated parmesan cheese. I ate it in the kitchen beside the remnants of dishes from the night before, and as I ate, I noticed how the afternoon sun caught the cake crumbs on the glass stand and cast a pale green shadow across the counter. So I stopped to take a picture.
This cake comes from my friend Michelle. I love it for its tall, moist layers, and the rich, velvety icing (thanks to the secret addition – an egg yolk). She calls it “Book Club Chocolate Cake.”
For the cake:
Butter, for greasing the pans
1 ¾ cups all purpose flour, plus more for the pans
2 cups sugar
¾ cup + 2 tbsp of the best cocoa powder you can find
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk, shaken, or plain yogurt
½ cup vegetable oil
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee
Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter two 8” x 2” round cake pans. Line with parchment paper, then butter and flour the paper-lined pans, tapping out any excess flour.
Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low until well blended. In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs and vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry. With the mixer still on low, slowly add the coffee and stir just to combine, scraping the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 35-40 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool the pans for 30 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack and cool completely.
For the chocolate frosting:
8oz semi-sweet chocolate, the best you can find
½ lb (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 extra-large egg yolk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups sifted confectioners’ (icing) sugar
crushed Cadbury Easter eggs and smarties, optional
Chop the chocolate and place it in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Stir until just melted and set aside until cooled to room temperature.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium-high speed until light yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and continue beating for 3 minutes. Turn the mixer to low, gradually add the confectioners’ sugar, then beat at medium speed, scraping down the bowl as necessary, until smooth and creamy. On low speed, add the cooled chocolate to the butter mixture and mix until blended. Don’t whip! Spread immediately on the cooled cake.
A Caesar-like Salad Dressing
Sprinkle a pinch of flaky sea salt (about 1/4 teaspoon) over 1 clove of garlic and mash it into a paste.
Add 1 teaspoon dijon mustard (grainy dijon works well too) and a pinch of sugar to cut the acidity. Add a good shake of Worcestershire sauce (about 1 teaspoon ) and the juice of 1/2 lemon (1 tablespoon). Finish with 3 tablespoons of olive oil and whisk to combine. Finally, stir in a mound of grated parmesan to the dressing – about ½ cup.
Toss dressing with one head of washed and torn romaine lettuce (or a lettuce of your choice.) Finish with more grated parmesan and a few twists of black pepper.