Sandy runs the Asian Market downtown. I think of her as my Thai doppelganger. We're the same size and shape, and about the same age. We have small oval faces that square at the jaw, and similar haircuts -- dark bobs with bangs. Her studious, black-rimmed glasses could be exchanged for my own.
Her English is limited, and she often speaks in oddly phrased declarative questions. Her standard greeting is, "Hey! Why you here?" She says it with a wave and a smile that lets me know she means "What do you need today?" rather than "What in the hell are you doing here?"
"Just looking," is my usual response. There are always treasures to be found. Every little packet or tin is a culinary experiment, a mystery. This market is a magic shop for cooks, or it is for one particular cook who has never traveled far and whose mother thought yogurt was exotic, strange, not for us.
On my last visit something new caught my eye, a cellophane envelope of "Sweet Basil Seeds." They looked like poppy seeds, and I thought they might add a hint of Thai basil flavor to baked goods, or that I could sprout them and we'd have Thai basil sprouts for sandwiches and salads.
At the register, Sandy held up the packet of seeds, frowned and said, "You don't want?" Her worried expression gave me pause, but also made me want them even more. "I want!" I said.
Back home, a Google search revealed the purpose of the seeds -- a drink reported to aid with weight loss. Now Sandy's expression made sense. Over the years I've gone soft, but not heavy, and I wonder if on my next trip Sandy will look me up and down for signs of an eating disorder.
The drink is prepared by mixing the seeds with water and sugar and then letting the seeds expand until they look like tadpoles. The resulting concoction is said to be "filling" and "refreshing." Gamely, I mixed up a batch and sipped cautiously. Not half bad, definitely filling, though the squishy texture took some getting used to. I downed a large glass, feeling pleased with my adventurous purchase. If my exoskeleton wasn't much of a traveler, at least my digestive system was an experienced globe trotter.
It wasn't long before I felt a disturbance within the river of my intestines, as if the tadpoles were continuing to develop, sprouting arms and legs. They jostled for space as they swelled to full-grown size, too many for such a confined area. I made it to the bathroom just as the levy exploded with enough force to pull memories from behind my eyeballs. The name of my first puppy? Gone. Did I ever learn to ride a bike? I don't know. Things sped up after that. In quick succession, I unstole a plastic baby doll from the Five and Dime, undrank the vodka from my dad's stash under the kitchen sink, unfilled the bottle with water, unlied about it and reclaimed my virginity just before I fell to the floor in a light-headed heap. When I came to, I believed in Santa Claus and I wanted a pony in the worst way.
My daughter came home from school to find me lying on the couch, limp, sweaty, gray as a newborn, and – yes – five pounds lighter. "Mom? You okay?" she asked.
I looked into her concerned face and asked, "Who are you?"
For a while after that, I followed a diet my mom would approve of – white foods, bland foods, overcooked foods – but it didn't take long for me to pine for another unfamiliar, potentially magically delicious, ingredient. I found it in my regular grocery store, amid the "ethnic" foods: guava paste.
How many times had my eyes skimmed over the rose-colored bricks of jellied guava without alighting? Had it really been there, between the cans of sofrito and the prayer candles, all this time? I didn't know much about guava paste, had never eaten it, yet I knew instinctively it wasn't going to grow frogs in my intestines and with that certainty, I was sold! Having been so recently betrayed by Google (that basil seed drink was not "refreshing") I decided to go with my newly routed gut and use the guava without internet consultation.
My next door neighbor's dad had just passed away at the age of ninety-five, and I had laid out the ingredients for a cream cheese pound cake. If your dad dies, your cat dies or your prize-winning camellia bush dies, this is the cake you'll get from me. I've made this cake so often I could make it for my own funeral, while laid out on a mortician's slab.
Since the cake was already underway, I simply cut the guava paste into small cubes and added it to the cake batter. Unlike the sweet basil seed experiment, this experiment worked perfectly and with that triumph I regained my culinary mojo, just as surely as I regained my childhood memories (the name of my first puppy was "Happy"), remapped my daughter's dear face and refilled with sin.
In cooking as in life, I like to focus on my successes and not my failures, and I'll keep experimenting, but I will never again ignore Sandy's "You don't want?" I'll say, "No...I mean yes! I do not want!" Unless she's talking about a pony. I still want a pony in the worst way.
Cream Cheese Pound Cake (with Guava)
This is an old-fashioned, very dense, pound cake. The variations are limitless. I've made it with blueberries, dried fruits, candied lemon and orange peel, with a cinnamon streusel swirl and pecans, with mini chocolate chips...
I discovered how to get a crispy crackle on the top by accident, and now I use the technique on all pound cakes.
1 and ½ cups salted butter (three sticks), at room temperature
8 oz package of cream cheese, at room temperature
2 and ½ cups granulated sugar
6 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp almond extract
2 and 3/4 cups cake flour + 1/4 cup cake flour
6 oz guava paste, cut into small cubes the size of chocolate chips (about 1 cup)
3 or 4 Tbs turbinado (coarse) sugar
Preheat your oven to 325. Grease and flour, or use a baking spray, one 10 inch tube pan. (Because dense pound cakes are baked at a fairly low temperature for a long period of time, the pan needs to be of a light-colored metal or enamel. Darker pans tend to overcook the exterior before the interior is done.)
In the bowl of your stand mixer -- or in a very large bowl, using a heavy-duty hand mixer -- cream the butter, cream cheese and sugar on medium-high speed until it's light and fluffy, about six minutes. Add the vanilla and almond extracts. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly between each addition. Add the 2 and 3/4 cups flour a cup at the time.
In a small bowl, toss the remaining 1/4 cup cake flour with the guava paste cubes. The coating of flour will make sure they don't clump together and are dispersed evenly throughout the cake batter.
Add the floured guava paste cubes to the cake batter and blend briefly to incorporate. The batter will be very thick.
Spoon the batter into the prepared tube pan. Tamp the pan on the counter and shake from side to side to break up any air pockets. The top of the cake will probably still be uneven, and if you leave it like this, the top will crack and split unattractively as the cake rises. Moisten your hands with water and use your wet hands to smooth out the top of the cake. Sprinkle the turbinado sugar over the moistened surface. This water/sugar mixture will create a crispy, crunchy top on the cake.
Bake at 325 for between 80-95 minutes (wish I could be more specific, but this cake is somewhat unpredictable when it comes to cooking times), or until the top is golden brown and a skewer inserted at the center comes out clean. Start checking at 80 minutes and at five minute intervals thereafter. It IS worth the babying!