6 May 2010

"Quality baked goods for festival people"

Last year, I beefed about what madness, at least from a sober pedestrian’s perspective, Amsterdam becomes on April 30th – Queen’s Day – when seemingly everybody in Holland pours out onto the narrow cobbled streets of this tiny city with seemingly one purpose -- input and output of all things alcohol. I don’t imagine what I would do this year for Queen’s Day if Anthony, a bright-minded man with a habit to burn spinach gratins and some other dishes, didn’t come up with an idea to set up a stand for Queen’s Day and sell, quote, “quality baked goods to festival people”.

It’s a good thing that Queen’s Day is the only day around here when one does not need official permission to go out and sell things after one’s own heart. As long as you don’t sell animals, weapons, works of art, or perishable goods, you are most welcome, says the City Hall of Amsterdam, to try your luck in commerce on said day. Somehow we reasoned that it’d be more of a social event filled with fun than an earnest business endeavor. We were not exactly right. The whole thing would actually call for proper thinking.

We started brainstorming what to make for Queen’s day weeks before the event. Besides ten calls Anthony had to make to his carpenter friend to ask, and then to remind, if he could please get us some rickety table we’d later set our goods on, our “business plan” included multiple visits to a kitchen equipment store where we’d get needed baking forms, bowls, electronic scales and a hand-mixer. It was in that crammed shop with old dark wooden cracking floors that Anthony saw this man-shaped cookie cutter and got a brainwave -- to make, quote, “men-shaped cookies covered in orange icing to look like the Dutch Nation football team”.

Dutch national colour is orange, so it was imperative to make something orange-y on Queen’s Day. Next, we agreed that we should also make cocoa brownies (because they are always a crowd pleaser and such an easy-peasy thing to make), white wine cake (because it is my favourite!), and orange marmalade cake (because it has orange in it, which, we thought, would appeal to Dutch). For a while, I also got obsessed with what tablecloth to use for the table. I wanted a checkered tablecloth of mild colour, something like light blue. Anthony disagreed. We should look festive and bright, he insisted.

We got a red checkered tablecloth in the end.

Another thing to think of was a place where to set up our stand. What location would make us stand out from the crowd? A small arching bridge, a few meters off a main artery clogged with human traffic, seemed to be just fine.
Anthony, being a graphic designer, also developed clasps for cookie bags with Godful Food logo on them. Tons of effort, time and energy -- plus, a bit of our money -- was put in the “quality baked goods for festival people” campaign, is all I’m driving at.

I should as well tell that I don’t own the oven, still. Neither does Anthony. So we took over the kitchen at Rene’s. Rene is a very, very, very patient person; he is a friend of Anthony. Actually, Rene is a saint of patience. He did not mind us baking non-stop for two days in a row before Queen’s Day. He didn’t say a word about how uncomfortably hot it became in his small-enough-for-one-person studio apartment after we’d told him not to open the windows because of the flies. Sipping on cold dark Belgian beers, he just jokingly referred to this whole bonanza as “a sweating bakeshop”.
As to the oven, it was a microwave contraption with a function of the convection oven. And in that oven, from the inside slightly bigger than two shoe boxes put together, Anthony baked four hundred and thirty five man-shaped cookies that he’d later have to ice in orange.

In that oven, I baked five white wine cakes, one after another; four batches of brownies, one after another (eighty brownies in total); and one orange marmalade cake. Funny, how little, in comparison to the rest, of that orange marmalade cake we made. Its orange-ness seemed fitting for Queen’s Day. It was unusually delicious, zingy, moist, and bright. For some reason, we didn't see it as a best-seller.

We were very wrong. Please stay with me; I will get back to that in a minute.

Before, I just want to tell you what a disaster our “quality-baked-goods-for-festival-people” enterprise turned to be. On the Queen’s Day eve, the weather made a U-turn. It started raining, pouring even. And it did not stop until late afternoon the next day. And who would want to buy sweets which one could not even see because they were all wrapped up in foil to protect them from soaking? I’ve got the answer for you: n.o.b.o.d.y.

A few hours into rain, Anthony got, quote, "a brilliant idea" to wrap the brownies and the slices of the cakes in plastic film individually. This way “we could showcase what we’d got”.

After what seemed like a century, we got our first customers: two Italian ladies. They went for two pieces of orange marmalade cake. The ice was broken. For a moment, though. We couldn’t know those Italian women would be our only customers well until late afternoon. Not that there were no people on the streets to buy our sweets. It was just that those who were passing by weren’t interested. Plain as that. It being Amsterdam, people kept asking us if we were selling hash brownies and everything. Having learned that no, it was normal sweets, they sniffed and walked away.

It kept drizzling on and off. I was wearing a woollen dress, body warmer and raincoat; Anthony had on a flimsy orange t-shirt and hoody. Both of us were cold. My back and my feet hurt from standing for hours. At some point, I remember, I even wanted to pack everything back and leave. We should stick out and be patient, Anthony insistently suggested, his teeth chattering. But me, I could take everything with thin tolerance by the time. Anthony gave me a few of his orange cookies to cheer me up. I squashed the cookies. I did that on purpose. Knowing how much effort he had put into baking and icing each one of them, on the spur of the moment I figured that to squash a few would be a fireproof way to upset him. I became bitter.

Around 1 pm the sun broke out through the thick layer of clouds the colour of quick mercury. Boats loaded with people wearing orange and drinking something strong or other had filled up the canals’ waters. Some boats even had a dj playing live onboard. Everybody was waist-length deep in fun. Sadly, I didn’t feel jovial. I told Anthony as much, put my sunglasses on to hide betraying tears, turned and went away. I folded.

The rest of the day I spent sipping hot Earl Grey with lavender and nibbling on white wine cake I’d kept for us. I felt ashamed to go back. In a way, I let Anthony down. I gave up on our plans. I failed, I kept thinking.

In about an hour after I’d left, Anthony gave me a call -- he was still talking to me, blimey! -- to say that there was this young Italian couple who bought a piece each of orange marmalade cake, white wine cake, and a brownie; and that after a while the guy came for more orange marmalade cake. We had a repeat customer, I was told. “Think for a moment how amazing that someone, at a citywide fest like Queen’s Day, took the time and effort to weave back though all that madness just to get another piece of your orange marmalade cake! You should be immensely proud of that”, said Anthony.

Although it pains me that I didn’t see that guy’s face, it’s still better that way. I think it will do for me to simply know that there is somebody who loved what we’d made and showed that in deed. No matter how bumpy the road, it is the people you travel with -- those you know for long and those who are there just for a moment -- that make it less hurtful, less uncomfortable to keep going.

(Anthony spelled "marmalade" wrong!)

Orange Marmalade Cake

Adapted from Molly Wizenberg

Like I said, it was the cake we had the least of for sale. We had even less after I’d had one piece as my lunch, standing there in the drizzle. I even wished, in secret, it wouldn’t sell at all. I wanted to keep it for myself (I am a fox!). But it so happened it was a hit. That Italian guy, our repeat customer, said that he had “to have another piece of this orange marmalade cake. It is the best”. I don't know if that was what the quy really said, or Anthony exaggerated a little. But anyway...The cake is truly something else. Imbued with fragrant orange and lemon and toasted almond, all moistened by olive oil, it does really taste of summer -- a great thing to have on a rainy day, on any day! It probably explains why it sold well on that gloomy Queen’s Day. That and the fact that it is undeniably delicious.

1 medium orange
1 small to medium lemon
180 gr (6 oz) coarsely ground almonds
110 gr (1 cup) all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
4 large eggs, at room temperature
½ tsp sea salt
340 gr (1 ½ cups) sugar
2/3 cups olive oil
Powdered sugar for serving (optional)

1) Preheat the oven to 180 C (350 F).

2) Put the orange and lemon in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, cover. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the fruit is soft, about 30 mins. Drain and let cool.
3) Spread the ground almonds on a clean baking sheet and toast until the almonds slightly take on colour. I learnt that it is a way more convenient to toast already ground almonds; whole almonds become quite oily once toasted, which makes them much messier to grind.

4) Once the fruit is cool, deseed the orange. Cut the lemon in half and scoop out the pulp and seeds. Discard. Put the deseeded orange and lemon rind in a food processor, or a blender, and pulse until finely ground, almost like a puree. Set aside.

5) In a small bowl, sift the flour and the baking powder. Whisk.

6) In a medium bowl, combine the eggs and the salt. Beat until foamy. Keeping beating, add in the sugar. Add the citrus, almonds, and olive oil, and beat on low speed after each addition. Finally, add the flour and with a spatula, or a wooden spoon, mix it in until just incorporated. It’s ok if there are streaks of flour; they will dissipate while baking.

7) Pour the batter in a buttered 9-inch round springform pan; an 8*8-inch square baking pan will work here too. Bake for about one hour, or until a toothpick plunged into the center immerges clean. If the top of the cake browns too soon, cover it with aluminum foil and continue baking until ready. Cool the cake before unmolding.

8) Serve, if you wish, with the dusting of powdered sugar on top.