Many years ago, Pavlé Nikitovich, my father, saved four Frenchman he had never met before from a Russian death squad. It was a random act of kindness, perhaps a foolhardy act of heroism, but an act that rippled down through time and saved generations of unborn children.
As World War II drew to a close, the Soviets invaded Yugoslavia, which had already endured three years of brutal German occupation. After a two-day battle, the Soviets took Belgrade and soon drafted all able-bodied Yugoslav men into the Communist army. Just nineteen, my father walked the docks of Belgrade’s port on the Danube with the other recruits and watched as the Soviets forced the Germans, now prisoners-of-war, to unload Russian ships arriving from the Black Sea.
Sometimes the Soviet soldiers would pass around a bottle of vodka and play a macabre little game. They would force the German prisoners to walk up the plank to one of the ships while they took turns shooting. The officers cheered when one of them managed to hit a German in the head on his first try. As the body hit the water, the soldiers would laugh and toast the winner with another shot of vodka.
When a new batch of prisoners arrived, the Russian Communists would select the prisoners who had been there the longest and send them off to the firing squad in order to make room for their replacements.
My father had already witnessed what happened to German prisoners-of-war. On the day the Soviets marched into Belgrade, he watched from the window of his family’s apartment as more than 300 vanquished Germans walked up to a table where a Soviet soldier armed with a Kalashnikov stood above them and shot them one-by-one through the head. When the pile of dead bodies grew too big, the Russians would move the table. The Communist soldiers, wearing red armbands, then ordered a dozen young local men, including my father, to pick up the dead bodies and throw them into trenches in front of the church. In groups of four, they lifted the cadavers by the arms and legs and dumped them into the trenches, ignoring the brains spilling from shattered skulls and the blood gushing onto their hands and shoes.
But what my father remembered most clearly were the pictures and letters sliding from the left-side pockets of the dead soldiers’ uniforms when the bodies bounced and shifted, mementos placed on their hearts to remind them of love and give them courage as they bravely walked to their deaths. My father understood then that the German soldiers were just young men like him, obeying the orders of one dictator only to be murdered by the orders of another. There were no longer good guys and bad guys in those confusing post-war days, merely one horror following another.
It was before a scheduled execution day in October of 1944 that a young man in a German uniform approached my father and asked him if he spoke French. Why he asked Pavlé and not one of the other Yugoslav guards is a mystery. Perhaps he had tried others only to receive a blank stare in response. In any case, this was his lucky day. My father spoke fluent French.
Pavlé listened as the man, Pierre Ambiehl, explained that he and his three buddies were French, not German, and had been drafted into the German army after the Nazis occupied and annexed the French province of Alsace. Taken prisoners by the Soviets, they ended up on the docks of Belgrade awaiting death by firing squad. Since none of them spoke Russian, they had no way of telling the Soviets they were French, and thus allies, not enemies. They were scheduled to die the very next day, and Pierre pleaded for Pavlé to help them.
Vowing to try, my father went to a Russian soldier he had befriended and told him about the Frenchmen’s plight. The Russian said that since the four had fought with the Germans against his countrymen, they deserved to die. But Pavlé somehow managed to persuade him to ask his Soviet superiors to delay their execution by a few days.
Then he did what only the young, the fearless and arguably the foolish would do. He snuck out of the military zone with the French identity cards of all four men and walked to the French embassy, where General Charles de Gaulle had established a delegation.
The next morning, two French officials came to the port with all the necessary documents to free the Frenchmen. Right before they left, one of the embassy envoys had the foresight to take a photo of the four liberated friends flanking their hero, my father, a handsome young man with a dark mustache and a hesitant smile.
Pierre Ambiehl kept that photo for sixty-five years, knowing only the name of the young man in the middle, Pavlé Nikitovich. Now 84, Pierre asked his son André if he would help him fulfill his dream: to find the hero who had saved his life so he could thank him.
As serendipity would have it, André had worked at the Peugeot factory in Alsace for many years alongside his Serbian friend, Stanko Yotsitch, who subsequently moved back to Serbia. He asked Yotsitch to help him in his search. Yotstich told the story to journalist Mirko Prelevitch, who then wrote about it in Belgrade’s “Novosti” newspaper, asking readers to contact him if they knew what had happened to Pavlé Nikitovich, the man in the photograph.
Meanwhile, a few months after the Frenchmen were freed, my father and his sister managed to obtain fake documents and escape, first to Italy, then to France, and eventually to the United States. After a few false leads, and a little help from Google, Prelevitch finally found a Paul Nikitovich living in Englewood, Colorado. When my father received Prelevitch’s call and heard the story, he was stunned. While Pierre Ambiehl had lived with the memory his whole life, my father had forgotten the incident until that moment. His brave and generous gesture had truly been a random act of kindness, the kind that changes lives forever, even though at the time it had not registered as heroism to a young man who was merely following his human instinct to help those in need.
The story doesn’t end there. André Ambiehl invited my father to come visit the family in Alsace. He flew to France, and on October 27, 2010, attended a special ceremony for World War II veterans in Ensisiem, Alsace. Pavlé Nikitovich and Pierre Ambiehl were the guests of honor, two men whose destinies had crossed decades before and sent ripples into a future that would not have been possible otherwise.
My father recently celebrated his 89th birthday. André and his wife have visited him in Colorado several times, and he speaks to them and Pierre often. By choosing to help a stranger, Pavlé Nikitovich left a legacy of life, love, respect and gratitude. And he did it neither for personal gain nor to show off nor to curry favor with his captors. He did it because he is just that kind of man.
I see her often at the gym, a tiny old woman who limps from machine to machine in bulky orthopedic sneakers fastened with Velcro. One foot turns in and the other twists and lags behind as she walks, as if the thick black soles of her shoes were as heavy as bricks. She leaves her walker in the corner as she makes her way down the row of machines. Her face and neck, her arms and hands, are covered with wart-like bumps that disturb me even as I feel compassion. I try never to look at her, especially when I enter that empty space of depression, that black hole that suddenly sucks away all joy and beauty, all hope and gratitude, all faith and desire, leaving nothing of me but a thin phony shell.
If depression has never dragged you down and held you underwater for days, sometimes weeks, it’s hard to describe. When it strikes, sometimes at dawn, sometimes in the middle of an ordinary afternoon, I feel it first in my heart, like a sudden constriction, and in my fingers, which tingle with a nasty electric pulse. My head starts to constrict, too, and my eyes refuse to meet the eyes of others.
I know if I talk to anyone, I will either lash out in anger or mutely disengage from the conversation. No matter what is said, I will feel alienated, or attacked, or unable to stop my tears. I could simply be reading an article about a drive-by shooting, or watching a child laughing on a swing, when the enormous weight of life’s futility, its fleeting joys and mutilating failures, will suddenly crush my spirit.
I tell myself what not to do when I am depressed. Don’t call your children. Don’t see your friends. Don’t dwell on knives or razors or scissors. Don’t walk along cliffs or bridges or linger on high decks. Don’t drive fast on winding roads, especially those with a sharp drop. Don’t look at pictures from the past, especially of your children as babies. Don’t listen to music – the “wrong” song might make you break down for an hour. And, if you can help it, don’t ever look at yourself in the mirror.
When depression starts its slow strangulation, nothing tastes good any more unless it is extreme, like salty chips or mint chip ice cream. Nothing feels good, not even a soft blanket or a silky robe. Taking a shower seems pointless, as does putting on makeup or changing clothes. The goal is to fall asleep as early as possible and wake up as late as possible to minimize the hours of torture. And since depression saps you of all energy and desire, it’s imperative to take a lot of naps or at least lie motionless for prolonged periods of time.
If you have obligations to others while you are depressed, you are grateful for the routines that force you out of bed. Drive the kids to school. Make breakfast and dinner. Do the laundry. Clean the kitchen. But if you have none, why bother doing anything for yourself? You are not worthy.
Everything that you know is bad for you is what you crave when you are depressed, anything that will knock out the bleakness. Or hurt you. Alcohol. Cigarettes. Sleeping pills. Solitude.
You need to be alone in your misery, so you stay inside and hide or escape to where no one you know will be. Who would want to hang out with the person you have become anyway? And how selfish it would be to inflict your own sick sadness on the people you care for. But sometimes there they are, despite your efforts to hide, questioning you, bothering you, forcing you to tell lies in order to spare them.
Then one morning, after ten hours of sleep, you decide to go to the gym, wearing the same clothes you had on the day before, your hair unwashed, your face devoid of makeup. You can feel some crusty gunk in the corners of your eyes from crying, and you hope no one notices.
And who should be the first person you see as you settle into the inner thigh machine? Little old wart woman. She is making her slow, crooked approach to the chest machine that is right in front of you. For some reason, you force yourself to look at her, really look at her, past those strange ugly bumps that repel you. She is wearing a striped t-shirt and red lipstick. She smiles, and it’s as if God has smiled on you. Her smile is so sweetly bestowed, and her deep brown eyes behind their thick glasses radiate a kindness that cuts a small chink in your armor of despair.
And just like that a whisper of love sneaks into your heart. Oh, it’s not an instant cure. That could take a lot longer. But it’s a sign. Like finding a clean copper penny on the sidewalk when you are broke. Or seeing the shimmery red and green glow of a hummingbird as it whirs past your face. Or spotting the last cluster of blackberries on your hike and eating them, one by one, in the sun.
A sign that grace has come when you least expected it. And surely after grace must come healing.
My 88-year-old father is making Chicken Marengo for me. He has made it many times before, but these days it is a labor of love, effort and infinite patience. I watch as he slowly debones and slices the chicken thighs, his head stooped over so he can see.
“Why didn’t you buy boneless thighs?” I ask.
“I couldn’t find them,” he answers, with that quiet, resigned smile he uses so often now.
I don’t know if he means the store didn’t have any or he couldn’t find where they were. Shopping is a daily ritual for Pavle, one that can take several hours, and the meat and produce he sometimes forgets disintegrate in the refrigerator until someone throws them out without a whisper of the deed.
I offer to help, but Dad says he doesn’t need any help. He tells me to go outside and relax, as if I could when I know he is sweating in the kitchen alone.
In Denver today, the temperature reached 100 degrees, and in the cramped kitchen, it is still 100 degrees even though it is past seven. My father doesn’t believe in air conditioning. Actually, he doesn’t believe in home improvement of any kind.
The screens are ripped. The carpets are stained and shredded. The wallpaper is peeling in every corner. The curtains sag from one or two stalwart rings, while the rest of the fabric hangs like a sail from a broken mast.
And yet Pavle is the most elegant man I know, even at his age. He wears dark slacks and a pressed collared shirt every day, often with a cravat tucked in at the neck. He doesn’t own a pair of jeans or shorts, and his white hair is carefully combed back from his high forehead. He has always been a handsome, well-groomed man. How is it possible that someone so formal and meticulous with his person can tolerate such abysmal surroundings? Maybe because people are full of contradictions. Or maybe because many men without women lose their sense of order.
To get to the garden, I must pass through what used to be an enclosed porch but is now a wasteland of junk and broken furniture. Around the outside patio, huge untrimmed juniper bushes hide the balding lawn below, where mushrooms sprout with abandon. The patio chairs are torn or sagging. The white siding on the house looks gray, and the wooden roof shingles are all askew, just waiting for the perfect storm to fly far, far away.
Which I will do in a week, leaving the scene of a disaster that would make my deceased mother, a lover of nature and beauty in all things, wail.
What became of her carefully tended flowerbeds?
Where has her beloved glass dining room table gone?
Pavle lives at that table, now buried under bills, papers, magazines, newspaper clippings, containers of nuts and random piles of crackers and cookies. Sometimes he sits at his computer writing his memoirs or trying to access his e-mail. Sometimes he scrutinizes his pile of junk mail as if it contained the secret to immortality. Helter-skelter files surround his feet and precarious bookshelves lean from the wall behind him, where an abstract oil painting has tilted up to the ceiling, caught by a wayward curtain.
In this dark room, the wrought-iron chandelier my mother found in Mexico is always on, but the ugly coils of low-energy bulbs have replaced the pink candle-shaped lights she favored, and their harsh, unforgiving glare intensifies the dusty chaos below.
Sensing that Pavle would enjoy my presence, and knowing how slowly he moves, I insist on coming inside to help him. I chop the garlic and parsley and boil and peel the tiny pearl onions as he sautés the chicken.
Both my brother and my nephew, who live with my father, have gone out this Saturday night, and the house is unusually calm and quiet. Outside, if I look up through the circle of trees at the waning silver light outlining the blue-gray clouds of a Colorado evening, I can almost imagine I have traveled back in time. I am still married, and my husband is pitching to one of the boys. The other children are shrieking as they slide down the Slip‘n Slide. My mother is cooking inside. My father is leading baby Malia around the patio by both hands, trying to teach her to walk.
Today is Malia’s nineteenth birthday.
As I set the patio table, I try to recall how Mom’s pink and white Iceland poppies swayed in the evening breeze. How her off-tune voice seeped through the open doors from the kitchen, where she sang in French as she cooked for her children and grandchildren.
Only the rhythmic hum of crickets and the poignant calls of birds remain the same, enduring talismans of those summer days. The rest is ruin and loss, neglect and decrepitude.
But in the kitchen, my 88-year-old father is alive, cooking Chicken Marengo, just for me.
I gauge his progress while I refill my wine glass. Here, wine is a necessity, a buffer against reality. It is still unbearably hot inside, and Pavle is trying to cool off with his second whiskey and soda. Meanwhile, the chicken and mushrooms are swimming in a broth that won’t reduce to a sauce, and he is worried.
“Stop worrying,” I tell him. “Sit down and let it reduce by itself.”
He has been standing for at least two hours, and he looks weary.
The kitchen is in shambles. Dad has left all of the drawers and cabinet doors open, and herbs, onion skins, utensils and dirty dishes litter the chipped brown Formica counters. As I clean, I try to imagine what this once-beautiful house might look like if anyone still cared.
When I am sure Pavle has gone back to his dining room headquarters, I sprinkle Wondra flour into the soupy broth and stir until it finally thickens. Through the kitchen door, I can see him hunched over the New York Times, munching on pita chips.
As requested, I make a plain green salad with a simple mustard vinaigrette. Anything else, he has told me, “just doesn’t go with Chicken Marengo.”
The baguette is already hardening in the dry air as I slice it. My father never eats a meal without bread, preferably warm. Maybe it’s bad for his health, but he is the one who is 88 and still reading the New York Times!
I shut off the television droning in the background for no one, and put on a Norah Jones CD. Her mellow voice fills the heated air. “I don’t miss you any more,” she sings, over and over again. The CD is a cheap copy and skips repeatedly. I think of my mother and my ex, my grandparents and my children, my friends and family scattered everywhere. I will always miss everyone who once mattered to me.
Norah sings, “What do you say when it’s all gone away?”
Nothing, I guess. There is nothing left to say.
“I’m starving, Dad!” I shout, knowing he is going deaf. When he doesn’t move, I feel bad and walk to him, then touch his shoulder gently and ask if he wants to eat. By now, it is dark and nearly nine.
“Yes, yes, darling,” he says, smiling that familiar, resigned half-smile as he rises painfully from his chair.
He makes his way ever so slowly across the family room and down to the patio as I add the olives and pearl onions to the perfect sauce, pour it into a bowl and top it with chopped parsley. The air outside has cooled, and we sit down together to eat.
Before we start, Pavle tells me his version of the history of Chicken Marengo. On June 14, 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte won a narrow victory over the Austrian troops occupying Italy on the Marengo Plain. While he was waiting for the second half of his troops to arrive, late due to his own geographical miscalculation, he got really hungry. He sent his soldiers out to forage for food in the surrounding villages. They found chicken, olives, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes. Napoleon’s chef was on fire that night and created Chicken Marengo.
Fortified by a full belly and a second-wave of soldiers, Napoleon beat back the Austrians.
When he finishes his tale, my father takes the first bite and says, “Don’t you think it’s a little too salty?”
“Maybe a teensy bit,” I answer after I swallow, surprised that his taste buds are still as sharp as his memory for stories. “But I love it the way it is.”
And I do. Yet, as I sit under the infinitude of stars on this warm summer night, what I love most is not the taste but the sense of my father’s love in every delicious bite of Chicken Marengo. The dish he has made, just for me.
PAVLE’S CHICKEN MARENGO
3 TBS oil
6-8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, whole or in pieces
1 chopped onion
3 cloves of garlic
2 Bay leaves
1 TSP dry or fresh thyme
12-15 pearl onions or more, cooked and peeled
1 can chopped tomatoes or 5-6 fresh Roma tomatoes, chopped
1-3 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup black olives
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
3 TBS tomato puree or paste
2-3 TBS (or more) of Wondra flour
½ cup fresh chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste
Cook the onion until it is soft.
Brown the chicken in oil. Drain the fat before adding the chicken to the cooked onion.
Stir in herbs, broth, wine, garlic, tomatoes and tomato puree. Thicken with Wondra.
Add mushrooms and pearl onions and simmer for 30 minutes or until tender.
When the sauce has thickened, adjust seasonings and add the olives and parsley.
With due respect to my father, serve with whatever you think “goes” with the chicken!
And make sure to cook the dish with love for those who matter the most to you.
Passion is a gift, one that lends grace and meaning to life. It doesn’t matter what someone has a true passion for — art, dance, music, writing, science, sports, charity, politics, or even another person – it is the passion itself that transforms a journey into a quest.
Too impatient to wait for her due date, my sister, Vesna, arrived suddenly and full of passion in the back seat of a patrol car, summoned in panic by our mother. “Please don’t do this to me, lady,” the officer begged. “Please wait!”
Everything Vesna did as a child was intense, focused and all consuming. She didn’t have bad dreams, she had nightmares. She didn’t play with dolls, she chopped off their hair and redid their wardrobes with our cut-up curtains. She didn’t walk, she ran and twirled and jumped, a graceful sprite, who, if she fell, got up again with bleeding knees and kept right on going.
When she discovered ballet, her passion blossomed into an obsession. After school, she would head straight to ballet class. On days without a scheduled class, she would practice in our shared bedroom in her satiny pink toe-shoes, lifting a leg to her ear or balancing on one foot with the other foot pointing behind her, straight up to the sky. While I was going out with boys and getting into trouble on weekends, Vesna was taking the bus to New York City for more and more advanced classes. At night, she would do her homework and wash her tights no matter how tired she was.
I liked to watch my sister sleep: the perfect pale skin, the full lips, the lids of her big brown eyes trembling in dream. Her light brown hair, pulled in a tight bun during the day, flowed in waves around her long neck and thin shoulders. She was so very beautiful.
Our father made her attend Barnard College, even though by then she was apprenticing with American Ballet Theatre. She made it through a year before she stood up to him and declared, “I only want to dance.” College was holding her back from her true passion.
At night, Vesna worked as a waitress. An armed robber once broke into the restaurant and locked all the employees in the freezer. “Weren’t you scared?” I asked her. “No,” she said with utmost sincerity, “I was too worried that I wouldn’t have time to wash my tights!”
Her passion for dance led to a position with the Hamburg Opera Ballet under John Neumeier, whom she revered. She moved to Germany and toured with the company, but her body, always frail and prone to injury, began to betray her. For a year, she wore a back brace when she wasn’t on stage. She continued to dance no matter how severe the pain until, one sad day, she realized she no longer could. She was not yet thirty.
Married and settled for good in Hamburg, Vesna turned to Pilates, which she had discovered to be an antidote to the injuries common to dancers. She flew back to New York and trained with the formidable Romana Kryzanowska, successor to Joseph Pilates himself. Vesna’s Pilates studio, Studio fur Korper Training, was the first one in Hamburg. In the mornings, she would get on her bicycle, rain or shine, with her brown Labrador alongside, and ride to work with a smile on her face. She loved helping others get well, sometimes at her own detriment, lifting and crouching and bending and adjusting bodies for hours on end.
Vesna also became an avid sailor. She and her husband sailed the Baltic Sea in their boat, cruising around the islands of Denmark every summer. But just knowing how to sail wasn’t good enough for her. She had to prove herself and earn her captain’s license, too. After her son grew too big to be safely restrained while sailing, they sold their boat and bought a vacation home in Southwestern France.
Although she loved Pilates and sailing, nothing could replace her passion for dance. Nothing, that is, until she discovered dressage, the art of dancing on a horse. Vesna trained every day until she was skilled enough to compete. She bought one horse, then another, and drove to the country early in the mornings, sometimes in freezing rain or snow, to ride them and care for them.
I saw Vesna compete only once. In her black top hat and fitted jacket, her back straight and her lovely face lifted, she looked so graceful and composed, so calm and connected, that tears filled my eyes. My beautiful sister was dancing again.
The back problems that had plagued her earlier grew more and more painful until doctors told her the only solution was to insert a metal rod along her lower spine to hold the vertebrae in place. Then her right leg began to hurt. When I saw her in 1997, she shuffled forward in tiny steps, smiling through the pain. A hip replacement followed. Then another.
Still, Vesna kept riding, fearless and determined. When her husband retired, they took the horses and moved to their house in France, where she had installed a stable and a state-of-the-art riding ring. She hired no one to help her, hauling hay, cleaning the stables and exercising her horses every day. One day last month, during a dressage maneuver, her horse balked and she fell hard, harder than she had ever fallen before.
Vesna said she cried out for help but no one heard her. After what felt like forever to her, she crawled back to her horse, managed to get on, and rode back to the stable. I asked her why. “Because,” she said, “If you don’t get back on right away, you’ll be too afraid to ever ride again.”
Four weeks went by. Doctors said not to worry, that her leg couldn’t be broken if she could still walk on it. They obviously did not know her… She flew to Germany for a reunion of the Hamburg Opera Ballet. In ever-mounting pain, she finally went for an x-ray. Her right leg was broken clear through the thighbone, just two inches above where her implant ended. She would have to have another hip replacement.
On crutches, Vesna attended the anniversary performance of the Hamburg Opera Ballet just days before her operation. John Neumeier came over to chat with her at the after-party. “You always told me I needed to dance more with my legs than my heart,” she reminded him. “Now I have nothing left but my heart.”
And that heart, full of passion and determination, will carry her through her recovery and back to her beloved horses. No matter what anyone tells her. No matter what the risk. No matter how long it takes.
When I think of those I love who are no longer here, I often remember what they cooked for me, or what they liked to eat, or a special restaurant meal we shared. Not what political party they belonged to. Not what religion they followed. Not what they did for a living. No, I immediately glimpse a moment when simple sustenance was a quiet celebration of being alive, and being alive was a sensual sharing that needed no words.
My paternal grandmother, Mara Nikitovich, was born in Montenegro. She had worked as a science teacher, but after she married my politician grandfather and had two children, she devoted herself to the domestic arts. When the Communists took over Yugoslavia at the end of World War II, they all managed to escape, first to Paris, then to the United States. My grandparents eventually settled in New Jersey, where a life of struggle awaited. But one thing never changed: food in all its delicious guises held the family together.
Baba had hands that could do anything, hands as strong and nimble as mine are weak and clumsy. Knitting. Crocheting. Embroidery. Gardening. She could do it all, but she never scolded me for failing at them and not really caring.
Of course, Baba was also an excellent cook. Even when she came home after a grueling day crocheting silk ribbon dresses in a New York City sweat shop, she somehow found the energy to prepare djuvec, a chicken and rice casserole, or passoulj, a white bean and pork stew, or sarma, cabbage stuffed with meat and rice. I watched as she put cabbage leaves in a barrel of brine in the basement so she would have them all winter, made jam out of plums, rose petals or sour cherries, and cultivated her own yogurt, sour cream and caymac, a cross between butter, yogurt and cheese that required layers of cheesecloth and infinite patience.
My Baba made rich Eastern European meals every night, and after each one, my grandfather would kiss her hand and tell her it was the best meal he had ever had.
I inherited her ability to cook in all ways but one: the art of baking. (Okay, I don’t make jam or yogurt either, and you will not find a barrel of brined cabbage in my basement…) She made her own filo dough, stretching it across the kitchen table before cutting it into thin sheets. I was mesmerized. Brioche, bread, meringues, jam-filled butter cookies. It seemed there was always something baking in her kitchen. When I think of her, the scent of butter and vanilla fills me with warmth.
But it is my Baba’s cakes I remember best. Watching her create them while I sat with my book at the kitchen table was like observing an artist at work. These were not simple two-layer American-style cakes. No, they were masterpieces, with six or eight or more layers, each layer smothered in butter cream, crowned by caramel or chocolate or coffee glazes. In addition to nine or ten egg yolks, the batter might call for finely ground almonds or walnuts, with no food processor to help grind or mix or whip. When Baba said beat the eggs and sugar until light, she meant for half an hour by hand until the mixture was almost white. She would sometimes split the cooked cake layers evenly by deftly pulling a thin string through them in one quick sweep, a maneuver that to me seemed worthy of a surgeon.
I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, especially not for cake, but Baba’s cakes were the exception. One in particular was so complicated, and so delicious, and so very beautiful that some day, maybe, I might try to make it, even though I lack the patient, rule-obeying temperament such a feat requires. This Empress of Cakes is called “Rosa Torta” because of its rose-pink glaze. Just remembering biting into a piece makes my mouth water.
My sister and my cousin, my mother and my Aunt, all mastered it (or so they claim). Even my dad has made it (or so he claims). Somewhere out there is a brave reader who will succeed and, I hope, send me a picture, a story, and, if at all possible, a small piece. Here is the recipe for Rosa Torta, courtesy of my cousin Vesna in Holland and edited a bit for language. I am sure there are other versions out there, but if the cake is not pink, it cannot be the Empress.
5 egg yolks
20g vanilla sugar or 2tsp vanilla
Around 700g of flour
A pinch of baking soda (the recipe says “on the tip of a knife”)
250g butter at room temperature
With a mixer, whisk together the eggs and sugar. Add the butter and whisk until incorporated. Add 500g of flour, baking soda and milk and whisk until the batter just comes together. Put aside the mixer and work in 100g of flour with your hands. The dough will be sticky and should just come together. Do not knead it as you would bread dough or punch it down. This dough needs gentle handling.
Now place the dough on a work surface and sprinkle it with the remaining 100g of flour or less. Use the palms of your hands to stick the flour to the surface of the dough and fold it in. The dough should stay soft and a bit sticky but should form one compact mass. Do not add too much flour or the layers will be hard. Weigh the dough – it should be about 160g – and divide it into 7 pieces by forming it into a log shape and cutting it into discs.
Cut out 8 rectangles of baking paper, 24x30cm. . The dough will be sticky and should be that way. First just place one disc on the paper and press it with your hands into a small rectangle. Then roll out each disc so it covers the entire surface of the paper. If the rolling pin does not stick to the dough, you have used too much flour. Sprinkle just enough flour on the dough so you can roll it to fit the paper. Cut off extra pieces and stick them to places where the dough was not enough. Keep rolling, cutting, and sticking on pieces. When you are done with one layer place it paper-side down on a baking pan.
With a fork make around 50 pricks on the surface of the layer so that bubbles will not form during baking. Have two baking pans ready so you can rotate them, and never put a layer on a hot pan. Put one pan in the lower middle half of a preheated oven at 160°C (320°F and no fan!) for 6 minutes. Bake one layer at a time, and stack the cooled layers with the paper one on top of the other, covered with a kitchen towel, while you make the filling.
Creamy Walnut Filling
400g finely ground walnuts
20 tablespoons hot milk
250g butter at room temperature
5 egg whites
200g powdered sugar
20g vanilla sugar
Pour hot milk over ground walnuts so you get a nice, thick, creamy paste. You might need a little more milk depending on how dry the walnuts are. Whisk the butter and add it to the walnuts. Whisk some more. Beat the egg whites into stiff peaks, and then slowly add in the sugars. Fold the egg whites gently by hand into the walnut cream.
Assembly and Softening of the Layers
Divide the walnut filling into 7 equal parts. Take a serving tray and place the first layer on it, removing the paper. Warm a cup of milk and sprinkle the layer with drops of milk. Not too much, or it will be soggy. Cover the layer with filling, then place the next layer over it. Repeat the process. Cover the last layer, smooth side up, with paper and put a tray over it. Now comes the trick. Place something heavy over the entire torte and place the torte like this in the fridge for 12 hours or more so it evens out.
Pink Sugar Icing
250g powdered sugar
2 egg whites at room temperature
8 teaspoons sunflower oil
Juice of one lemon
A couple of drops of red food coloring
Take the torta out of the fridge 3 hours before placing the glaze on it. Whisk the egg whites into stiff peaks. Set 2-3 tablespoons aside for later. Add half the sugar, the lemon juice, the sunflower oil and the food coloring and mix well. If the mixture is too dry, add in the reserved egg whites. Using a long and wide knife that you have run under hot tap water spread the pink glaze over the top layer of the cake. You will probably have some icing left over, but that’s better than not having enough. Place the torta in the refrigerator for 2 or 3 hours or until the next day before serving. Cut off the uneven sides before carefully cutting the cake on a 45-degree angle into small rectangles.
With a smile masking your fatigue, serve perfectly cut pieces of Rosa Torta to your coterie of friends and admirers and hope that they realize what an amazing person you are.
When they finally leave, praising you effusively, of course, take a long hot bath, have a glass of wine, then fall, satiated and exhausted, into a soft bed and dream of an all-inclusive tropical resort where sun and service rule the day. Or, if you have not been fazed at all (I hate you!), try your hand at Dobos Torta or Walnut and Coffee Torta or Raspberry Torta. After the Empress, those will seem like a piece of cake.
I heard an awful story the other day. A mother, on her deathbed, whispered to her daughter, “You came into this world to make my life a living hell.” I cannot imagine how terrible that daughter must have felt, or just how cruel the woman who uttered those words had to be, with no chance to ask for forgiveness or to make amends.
As mothers, we have all made hasty and thoughtless comments to a vulnerable child. Perhaps we regretted it and later apologized. Perhaps we live with the memory, like a thorn in the heart. Or perhaps we don’t remember what we said at all because we were too busy doing a million other things. But the child always remembers.
My mother, who was unusually kind, once remarked that my new very short haircut looked like a Brillo pad (it was a terrible mistake for someone with curly hair…but the bleached greenish blonde disaster before it was even worse). I wore scarves for months, going for the gypsy look. Now when I see pictures of myself I think I actually looked kind of cute. The comment still hurts, though, even if I admire the young teenager who, on pure impulse one stifling day in New York City, let a student at Vidal Sassoon cut off all her hair.
But that impulsive streak has worked against me with my own children. I wish I could take back so many things I said and did. I am sure each of my children could tell a horror story or three that would bring tears to my eyes and a raw clenched feeling to my heart. And I am truly sorry for the damage done.
We mothers spend a lot of time feeling not good enough, no matter how much we do for our kids. We drive them to piano and swimming and soccer and gymnastics. We arrange play dates and overnights and birthday parties. We take them on family vacations and read to them every night. We cook their favorite foods and get up at dawn to pack their lunches. When my first son told me he hardly remembered anything before he was ten, I was shocked. All that work for nothing?
But I don’t really care if they remember or not, or if they thank me or not. When they were happy, I was happy, and I never thought of those duties as sacrifices. They were blessings because they gave my life meaning. I am convinced that what you do for and with your children makes them better people. The trouble starts when you do too much and expect too much, packing their days with so many activities that you rob them of dream time. I was guilty of that at the beginning, but by child number five I had realized that trying to mold children into society’s model of perfection — studious, attractive, athletic, artistic and ambitious — was misguided and usually backfired. After all, we didn’t order them from a catalog, and they didn’t come with instructions.
When my youngest said “no thank you” to soccer, ballet and piano, I admit I was relieved. She liked to read and write in her journal and play in her room. Nevertheless, I did feel a wee bit guilty, as if it were my fault for not encouraging her enough.
Sunday is Mother’s Day, but if you are a mother, every day is mother’s day, whether you are lauded or not. Of course you make mistakes. Sometimes you nag. Sometimes you say the wrong thing and hurt a young soul without realizing it. Sometimes you over-schedule your child and create anxiety rather than pleasure. Sometimes your children do put you through hell. But if you love them, and if they feel it, you have done your best at a very difficult job. And in the end, knowing that you loved and were loved is all that really matters.
Natalie. Writer. Photographer. Etc.
p 1 o 2 e 3 m = Four By 4 By Four