In the Venetian countryside, autumn is a long season, it spreads over many months and it seems like it never ends. The flat land of the Pianura Padana is covered in a thick blanket of fog, every day and every time, constantly: everything is grey, everything is cold, heavy, and humid: the colours are softened, the sounds dimmed, and the smells amplified.
That afternoon, the large courtyard, that used to be my playground during the summer, in front of our house, was covered in fog. From October to December, it turned into an unknown, sort of mystical land. All the familiar and playful things disappeared into the fog.
That one was one of those afternoons when my great grandmother was sitting there, beside the red brick wood-burning stove, whispering her old song and always thinking of something magic to make or bake.
From outside, not a sound, just a distant barking from a dog and the cows mooing in the stables enjoying their quiet meal. Some water was leaking from the kitchen windows condensation, and the warmth of the fire filling the room as a woolen blanket, soft and sharp at the same time.
On the stove, the old coffee pot was brewing slowly, and some orange kinks were left to dry up, releasing a cosy zesty smell.
I was sitting at the table, all immersed in a drawing and waiting for my dad to come home from his work in the vineyard. I was waiting for something to happen and break the boredom of the afternoon.
My great grandmother soon realised I was bored. She could always read to me so very well. This time was pretty easy though, as I was all puffing away and launching wishful, impatient looks towards her.
- Do you want to help me with something? - She asked suddenly.
- I don’t know; I’m waiting for dad. We have something important to do later - but it was nothing important. I just loved to be praised perhaps.
- Good, so, you take the bowl and the scale - she ordered firmly.
The magic started once again, and the witch crafting began that afternoon too.
She opened the book, scrolled quickly through the pages, and opened it at once
-” Autumn Slices,” isn’t it a beautiful name for a cake? - She said
- Your grandmother used to make it all the time when I was only a child - referring to her mother, which technically is my great-great-grandmother, I guess.
- It is an ancient recipe you should know, it comes from a long time ago, before the war, when the cars or the television didn’t exist at all and when we have almost nothing to eat -
She always brought about the war and the old times when cars or television didn’t exist. This was her way of explaining to me that something was really old.
The ingredients for the dough:
100 g of All-Purpose Flour
2 Tablespoons of Raising Powder
250 g of Caster Sugar
200 g of Unsalted Butter
3 or 4 Tablespoons of Milk
1 Tablespoon of Vanilla Essence
1 Tablespoon of Grated Lemon Skin
A Pinch of Salt
For the Topping:
1 Kg of Apple or Pears
2 Tablespoons of Apricot Jam
1 Tablespoon of Boiling Water
Some Icing Sugar for decoration.
The oven was already quite hot, and some steam was puffing from its black iron cast door. One hundred and eighty degrees Celsius or about that. There wasn’t any science behind setting the temperature of that oven. It was old, reliable, but old. She knew it well, and she could tell the temperature just by looking at it and reading all the signals of the proper temperature.
From a little drawer in the table, she took out a big butcher knife and sliced the apples with quick adroit movements. She put it into a bowl to rest with a spritz of lemon to finish and avoid them to turn brown.
I was ready in my workstation just across the table from my great grandmother, waiting with another mixing bowl in my hands and the big wooden spoon.
The first thing first was the butter, then the sugar, and the vanilla essence.
- Mix it together till you get a soft cream – it was the instruction.
The butter was already soft as my great grandmother left it all day beside the stove: that was a sign that the idea of that preparation was brewing in her mind till the beginning of the afternoon.
The smell of vanilla was one of my favourites. It reminded me of my mother’s perfume, and as you know, the fragrance of “mum” is always so grounded in a child’s mind.
When the butter, the sugar, and the vanilla turned in a creamy yellowy mix, it was time for the eggs, one at a time, then the flour, and the rest of the ingredients.
Mixing wasn’t easy, but I didn’t want to ask for help. The dough was stiff and crumbly at the start. My great grandmother dropped a full spoon of milk into the preparation, and as a magic trick, everything started to soften up beautifully.
I put so much energy into that mixing activity that my arms became tired very soon. I think that was always the moment she took the spoon from my hands and gave the last good stir.
The dough was silky and soft but still thick, almost of the consistency of a stiff marshmallow.
A baking mould appeared on the table, and in that, she poured the dough, smoothing down the edges with a spatula to make it shiningly even.
She asked me to take a jar of jam from the fridge and to pour two spoonsful of that deliciousness into a cup. Then one or two spoons of boiling water were added, and the jam turned into a deep orange-colored shiny glaze. I dropped it into the dough, and with a little tap-tap of the pot, everything was once again even. Now the concoction looked as polished and marbled as a piece of stained glass.
Over the jam, my great grandmother layered the apple slices, in a particular, precise order. It was sheer art, not a slice was in the wrong place, all of them in a perfect round line like soldiers. My great grandmother seemed to have developed some internal caliber of sorts, every apple was equally far from the other and equally distant from the center. The result was a marvelous rose.
After 45 minutes in the oven, the cake was gold and brown, and the apple beautifully caramelized, sunk into the batter just a little bit.
I couldn’t wait any longer to taste a slice of that cake. But I was impatient, and we all had to wait for dad to be home from the vineyard. That was the moment in which the cake only could be sliced.
If there is one thing my great grandmother taught me, is that it is essential to make things memorable. To wait for a special moment to enjoy things, because they will be even more enjoyable that way.
It’s a complicated concept to explain, and my poor English is not helping. I will try and give you an example: for instance, when I was buying new shoes as a child, or a new shirt, or a new pair of trousers, I always had to wait for the Sunday Mass to wear them first. It was frustrating as a kid because, like every child, you want to use new things straight away. But that was the rule for new clothes: you have to wait for the Sunday Mass. And so was for the cakes. She never baked something without reason, just because she liked it. Every pie, every biscuit, and every dish were linked closely to an event, even something as simple as my dad coming back from work.
I find that the ‘waiting ingredient’ is one of the secrets of why the cakes she baked have always been much better than the one I make even if I follow the book’s instructions letter by letter.
Waiting and connecting things to a special occasion fills them with expectations, dreams, and looking forward.
Think about that and how our everyday life could change if we put this little magic into things?
You got a new phone, right? Try this exercise: wait and open it with your children or your girlfriend or a friend of yours. Don’t open it just out of the shop door. Isn’t that different? Isn’t that much more worth it? You don’t get to open a new phone box, but you share the moment, the experience, and expectations with someone you love. You make at least two people happy with that little thing, not just yourself.
Another exercise that you can try: you are having a dreadful day at work, and you decide to buy yourself an ice cream for lunch, because why not, makes sense right?! Don’t eat it straight away! Find yourself a nice bench in the park, close by a pond or by the sea, and enjoy the moment. Enjoy the waiting.