Blood Orange Vanilla Bean Pound Cake is my contribution to Cook the Books for January. The December/January pick for Cook the Books was Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home by Jessica Fechtor. Stir is a memoir that chronicles Jessica’s experience with having a sudden aneurysm while on a treadmill at a hotel at a conference and her subsequent surgeries, and slow recovery. Throughout the memoir, memories of food abound and it is cooking and food that Jessica credits for helping her come back to her self after her trauma. Jessica includes many recipes and food memories – so there was ample inspiration from the book. I ended up with a full page of notes of all the various foods described. But for whatever reason, the thing that stuck with me when I went back to my notes was vanilla bean pound cake.
I have to say that this wasn’t a book I particularly enjoyed reading. It’s a well written memoir and there’s no doubt that Jessica Fechtor is an amazing woman who came through a traumatic experience and is inspirational because of her determination to get herself back on her feet, back in the kitchen, and back into life. It’s just that her descriptions of her trauma were hard for me to read. I don’t watch medical shows and I try to avoid books about medical anything. So the book itself was something that definitely stretched my boundaries for what I would normally read.
Here’s the thing, though, and how this book came to be inspiration for this particular blood orange vanilla bean pound cake recipe. I read the book over the holiday break and set it aside. I got busy with other blogging work and other projects. I had my notes and the general intention to make a vanilla bean pound cake and then got the idea to incorporate blood oranges in some way, as I had just received the tremendous gift of 40 pounds of blood oranges from a friend in Arizona. I had everything planned out to make this recipe the weekend before last. And then that Friday night, one of our much loved kitties, Grace, passed away, very unexpectedly. She was just going on ten years old and had been with us since we found her in our garage in Tularosa, New Mexico. When we found her, over nine years ago, she was only eight weeks old, weighed 2 ounces, and was incredibly dehydrated and sick. I absolutely babied her – came home from work to bottle feed, kept her in a soft-sided carrier to sleep on the bed with me so I could watch her at night. If you have pets, you know how this goes. She wrapped her furry grey self around my heart. Unfortunately, as a moderately feral stray, she was always tightly wound, and we are pretty sure she had either an aneurysm or a stroke. It was positively devastating for us, our three other cats, and even for Daisy, our lab mix, who was accustomed to sharing under the bed space with Grace.
How do I tie this all to Stir and to pound cake? Here’s how: by Sunday, I was back in the kitchen. I don’t exactly remember what I cooked, but I know my first recipe turned out fine. Then I decided I would try to make a blood orange vanilla bean pound cake. I created a version of a recipe I’d found, adding in Greek yogurt and eggs and reducing the sugar and just generally trying to be my normal bad ass cooking self. The pound cake cooked in an astonishing 30 minutes (should have taken an hour). I knew something wasn’t quite right when one edge of it rose up to the side of the pan while the rest of it sunk low. It was the perfect metaphor for how I was feeling. I knew when I took it out of the oven it was an unmitigated cooking catastrophe. I cried – but not for the pound cake. I cried because that’s all you can do when you are on the edge of being broken, but know that healing is somewhere out there in that dark void. I know enough about grief and trauma to know this – healing is like baking a cake. Sometimes you look done around the edges, but the middle is still as soft as it can be.
I also knows that, at least for me (and for Jessica Fechtor as well), cooking is a great vehicle for healing. Somehow, I felt better for that catastrophically gooey pound cake. I could set aside the recipe, the planning, the blog calendar and just spend some time taking care of me, my husband, my other pets. Holding those little wakes that we do for pets who have passed – remembering all the good times. In Grace’s case, the good times included dunking her favorite toy in the water dish when she was a kitten, getting super excited about Salmon Temptations, and spending lots of time at night snuggled up to my hair and kneading it.
This weekend, I tried again. It’s a different week. I’m better rested. The other cats are filling in the spaces Grace left behind. The Blood Orange Vanilla Bean Pound Cake is a different recipe (no Greek yogurt – that was just a bad idea – and this time I added salt – that might have made a difference). I’m a little more healed around the edges. So while I have mixed feelings about the book Stir I think it’s only because I’m sometimes not so thrilled by trauma and healing and all the work it entails. I hate being reminded of what hard work it is to heal, but then again, maybe I needed to be reminded.
- ¾ cup softened unsalted butter
- ½ cup white sugar
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- 3 eggs
- ¾ cup milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Seeds scraped out of a vanilla bean pod
- 1 ¾ cup all-purpose unbleached flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Zest from a blood orange
- 2 tablespoons blood orange marmalade (or regular marmalade)
- Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Butter a bread pan and set aside.
- Cream the butter and sugars in a medium sized bowl. Add the eggs one at a time and mix until they are incorporated. Add the milk, vanilla extract, and vanilla beans and mix. Add the flour, baking soda, salt and zest and mix until all the dry ingredients are incorporated.
- Pour half of the mixture into the prepared bread pan. Dollop the blood orange marmalade in a line down the middle of the mixture in the pan. Top with the rest of the mixture.
- Bake for an hour or until a skewer or knife inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool completely and remove from the pan. Enjoy!