Captivated by Caraway

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Cooking for one person is no easy task. Lately, my pantry has been getting precariously full and some of my perishable items were beginning to edge dangerously close to expiration. I needed a sweet recipe that involved zero new ingredients.

I settled on a scone recipe (because you can never have too many scone recipes) which called for fruits — great, I have blueberries that I bought for no reason — and a tablespoon of caraway seeds, which I also had and honestly never expected to use. Before making goulash, I had never used or even heard of caraway seeds. The goulash had so many flavors, mainly paprika, that I wasn’t really sure what caraway seeds would add.

I don’t know if this is a testament to caraway seeds or to the fact that I have no life, but that first bite of scone was the best part of my day. The seeds added an earthy, sharp flavor and a spice-y aroma that I instantly fell for. So of course I had to do a little research on the origins of caraway seeds. According to NPR, caraway was Europe’s oldest condiment and became a staple in Northern European cuisine before being spread by the Romans to Southern Europe. However, it was shunted aside in favor of exotic spices and because it appeared mainly in homier dishes consumed by the lower-class, it never garnered the same appreciation as cinnamon or even dill and parsley, members of the same plant family as caraway.

Funny how history works — I’d say more people know the flavors of cinnamon and pepper than the that of caraway. Traditional North European dishes like sauerkraut and pumpernickel bread and some Scandanavian spirit called aquavit still use it, but it has disappeared from the mainstream diet, while pepper is part of basically all cuisines.

Caraway deserves a comeback in a big way. It is no longer the spice of your German grandma; it imparts a truly unique flavor and adds texture to baked goods. I look forward to future forays with caraway seeds…though I guess I’ll have to wait until I clear out a couple more items in pantry :p.

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Oh man it’s July already.

IMG_1206_2Today, I finished Neil Gaiman’s newest book, The Ocean At the End of the Lane. When I first started reading it, I realized that I have subconsciously been emulating Gaiman’s writing style. I have always admired Gaiman’s writing – Neverwhere is one of my favorite (if not my absolute favorite) books. Gaiman possesses an imagination that allows him to create fantastical worlds with their own set of crazy rules that he somehow makes believable. On the other hand, I can only write in some realistic world – my mind cannot create something as lush and wonderful as London Underground, the fantasy setting of Neverwhere. 

Beyond Gaiman’s enviable imagination, his writing style is also beautiful. He does not use words in excess, but yet revels in the English language, which results in tightly, but beautifully woven stories. Whenever I write fiction, I actively try to make every word count. In Gaiman’s works and in The Ocean especially, I imagine that Gaiman is doing the same.

Though I think I write similarly to Gaiman, execution is only half of the process. No matter how beautifully I write, I can never attain the same magic as Gaiman because I lack the boundlessness of his imagination. Whenever I think, I put up mental barriers of what I can and can’t do, and I impose those on my worldview. Even in writing this, I’ve already consigned myself to my inability to be as creative as Gaiman.

The Ocean At the End of the Lane spoke to me not only because I realized I have a similar writing style, but because it was written from the perspective of a child. In my youth, I used to imagine kingdoms in my backyard, amongst my stuffed animals, and on the playground in grade school. Somewhere along the line, I realized that people saw me as “weird,” and I began to observe the social cues that would make me more “normal.” Looking back, I have learned the necessary social skills to appear “outgoing,” and yet, somewhere along the line, I began to believe in the boundaries of normalcy and became part of the system.

In a way, I owe it to Gaiman that some part of me still clings to childlike wonder in a world only half understood. For me, baking is similar in that I mix ingredients together, place them in the oven, and through heat and hidden chemical processes, gloppy batter somehow becomes a fine-crumbed cake. I cannot simply make up my own recipes, but I revel in making small tweaks in ingredients, each which allows me to understand baking just a little better. Writing and baking allow me to escape (at least temporarily) what is expected of me and to capture the tastes and imageries that exist in my mind.

I originally started this post as a kind of book review, so I’ll end it as such. Definitely read The Ocean At the End of the Lane (and Neverwhere and Stardust and, really, anything by Gaiman). In the afterglow of finishing the last page, you will see the world in a different light. I’ll leave a quote from The Ocean:

I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.

And on that somewhat morbid note, enjoy this blueberry cake with cream cheese icing. It’s fresh and sweet, with the slightest tang of buttermilk in the batter, the perfect dessert for a hot July night.

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