Perhaps this is what the stories meant when they called somebody heartsick. Your heart and your stomach and your whole insides felt empty and hollow and aching.
― Gabriel García Márquez
Michael's birthday has come and gone, again, without him. As I sat and stared at the photographs I had pulled out of albums and envelopes tucked away in drawers and dug out of boxes, I thought about that odd and inexplicable physical reaction we call heartbreak. Watch a sad film and our eyes well up with tears; we bite our lip hoping that those tears don't spill down our cheeks, pushing another piece of popcorn into our mouth in an effort to distract our own thoughts and redirect the brain signals. Yet the heart pounds, tightens in a painful grip and hurts. Talk about a long-ago tragedy, any one at all, and we choke up, the emotions that have been stored up and secreted away seem to rush at once to our heart, flood that part of our body, inducing a throbbing ache, a twinge that grows into a tenacious soreness. Yes, the heart produces no emotion yet how it reveals emotion.
The heart was made to be broken.
― Oscar Wilde
And so it is our duty, or maybe the chore of the brain, to soothe the heart, coddle and comfort the organ, the pump, the thing in the center of our chest. I try not to stare at the photos too long, carefully sliding them back into their secret hiding place, tucking them away back into the drawer of my nightstand. I turn to my son as he begins to chatter away about his school projects and his social plans, appreciating such a rare occasion, focusing on his words, admiring his good looks. My husband, needing a break, comes in and hovers, dancing around me, around my table, commandeering my attention. Tugging my heart in his direction. Easing the grip around the organ until it is, once again, calm, blood flow back to normal. The dark thudding turns to light pitter pat.
Michael and I baked together dozens of times. My very first venture into home baking was cranberry muffins learned in the Girl Scouts. The muffins, as I recall, came out light and tender, beautifully cakey at the Scout meeting, giving me the impetus to try them at home, on my own, proudly for my family. My brother hovered around the outskirts, coming and going as I excitedly scooped and measured, blending in tart cranberries to the batter. Disaster. My heart was broken as I stared at the resulting mess, the puddle of cake in each muffin cup, swimming in a pool of Crisco. I had added 3 cups, misreading the 3 tablespoons marked down in ink. Heart pounding, heart bleeding, I felt the fool. Never, I exclaimed, would I try to bake anything ever again. He comforted and encouraged me, laughed at my mistake and soon had me laughing, and trying the recipe again. Broken heart mended.
The last thing we baked together was a deep, dark chocolate red velvet cake with chocolate ganache frosting, his favorite cake, the cake he baked himself every year for his own birthday. My brother hovered around the outskirts, coming and going as I scooped and measured, stirred and beat, blending that batter until it was smooth and creamy. Yet, although this cake turned out perfect, moist and tender, chocolaty and rich, my heart broke, my heart bled as I knew then and there that this would be the last cake we ever baked together.
So on his birthday, I bake. I know he is hovering around me, encouraging me and laughing with me, trying, from wherever he is, to comfort my heartbreak. But this time it won't be so easy.
FRENCH FINANCIERS with blueberries or chocolate chips
Financiers are tiny, delicate French teacakes, very much like a sponge, a cross between a cookie and a cake. Financiers, unlike their chère cousine la Madeleine, are lightened and moistened with plenty of whipped egg whites and are flavored with plenty of ground nuts, whether almonds, hazelnuts or pistachios. Delicate and tender on the inside with a crisp yet chewy crust, financiers are rather rich and very satisfying – although quite addictive – so try not to eat too many at once. I prepared a simple almond batter adding just a touch of cinnamon and vanilla. I then placed either frozen wild blueberries or mini chocolate chips in each filled mold, allowing my men a choice.
1 cup (90 g) finely ground (powder) almonds or hazelnuts
5 Tbs (50 g) flour
¼ cup + 1 Tbs + 1 tsp (75 g) granulated white sugar
¼ cup + 1 Tbs + 1 tsp (75 g) granulated brown sugar (cassonade)
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
5 1/3 Tbs (75 g) unsalted butter + butter for molds
4 large egg whites
½ tsp vanilla
1 Tbs or more each mini chocolate chips and blueberries (I used frozen wild blueberries as fresh are unavailable)
Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Generously butter 16 traditional (approximately 3 ¾ x 1 ¾ -inch rectangular/ 9 ½ x 4 ½-cm) Financier molds – or 8 Financier molds + 12 approximately 2-inch (5 cm) round shallow molds. This is most easily done with melted and cooled unsalted butter and a pastry brush.
Slowly melt the unsalted butter over low heat and remove from the heat just as the last bit of butter is melting. Swirl a few seconds until the butter is completely melted and set aside to cool briefly. Alternately, this can be done in a heatproof bowl in the microwave.
Beat the egg whites with a few grains of salt until stiff peaks hold.
In a large mixing bowl, combine and whisk together the ground almonds, the flour, both sugars, the cinnamon and a pinch of salt. Fold in the stiff egg whites until just blended (begin by folding some of the dry ingredients into the egg whites, adding a few tablespoons of the dry at a time, then turn it into the remaining dry ingredients and folding in just until smooth; do not overfold). Fold in the butter a little at a time – in about 5 additions, slowly pouring the melted butter down the side of the bowl rather than right into the middle of the batter. Add the vanilla extract with the last addition of the butter.
Spoon the batter into the molds, filling each mold no more than ¾ full. Gently spread evenly in each mold if needed, or tip the mold back and forth so the batter fills the molds. Drop half a dozen mini chips or berries on top of each batter-filled mold.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until the Financiers are puffed and evenly golden brown. Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a few minutes and then gently pop the Financiers out of the molds and cool completely on cooling racks.