Darkness And Light And Four Quarters Cake

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Okay, so, a mini-onslaught of camera experiments, as promised. The same picture (more-or-less) taken with different camera settings. As I’m being extremely scientific about the whole thing (ahem, not), I can’t precisely specify what settings yielded what pictures. For the moment, I’m just trying to get a feel for things.

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The utter basics…like if I make the aperture small enough, I can take a picture in low daytime light that comes out almost back. I’ve spared you any of those. Also, that if I open the aperture and increase the shutter speed, I can get decent light even at night, but um…things get blurry real fast. I’ve subjected you to one of those.

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I’ve been able to take passable photos of the candle offerings next to the stupa for the first time ever, and I’m overjoyed. This spot at Dhagpo is one of my prime comfort-seeking locales, and I envision a whole ton of candle pictures that are basically the same but ever-so-slightly different in our future.

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I’ve stalked all over the Lama House searching for the best mid-morning light window. Does it figure that it appears to be the window just outside of Karmapa’s room?

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As I play around with being behind the camera, the metaphoric nature of taking photographs becomes ever more evident. I used to think of a photograph as just a freeze frame of the immutable, physical world. But I stopped thinking of the world as immutable or objective a while ago now, and taking photographs only affirms that understanding. What the eye sees is not objective. The shots that we choose, how we frame them, tones, depth of field, angle. No two photographers would take the same picture, even of the same subject matter. Our images reveal our interests, our views, our bias even.

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It’s funny, I think of myself as a big picture person, developed frontal lobe as the brain scientists would say. And yet I like taking pictures of small-things up close, like a way of becoming intimate with the details of the world. I seek out low light and warm light because they feel cradling and haunting. This last is not so easy in the Dordogne, and here I start to see my Californian-ness. I can deal with the cold in the winter, but the grey wears me down and I get lonesome for sunshine and frequent hugs and high fives.

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Maybe this is what the camera is for though, I can’t help think. It is a way to talk to oneself, to say, “Ah yes, this is what my solitude looks like,” and make peace with that. This is my hope anyway, and where all my fumbling clicks and winding of the gears and geared toward taking me. Another tool on the path, you know?

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In other notes, cake. This one I made for my friend Tokpa, one of my prime inspirations for finally daring to get behind the lens. He and his camera are leaving for Nepal tomorrow. His journey was originally planned to document the inauguration of Sherab Gyaltsen Rinpoche’s new monastery and the anniversary of Shamar Rinpoche’s passing away. When the earthquake hit, he decided to go anyway, to help fix up an orphanage run by friends and well, take pictures, because sometimes that’s what there is to do.

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And so I made cake, because that’s what there is for me to do. A French pound cake, what they call a quatre quarts, or “four quarters,” because it’s one quarter butter, one quarter eggs, one quarter sugar, and one quarter flour. You’d hardly know it’s pound cake, as light as it is from whipping the eggs and sugar. I added a teaspoon of baking powder, but if you want a more typical pound cake texture, you can leave it out. I also browned the butter, for that special savory something, and threw in a chopped pear because leftovers and why not, and it was delicious. This cake is remarkably easy to put together and incredibly refined when finished. For the moments when words don’t suffice, but we still need something.

Browned Butter Quatre Quarts

1 2/3 cups (200 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teapoon (5 mL) baking soda
14 tablespoons of butter (1 3/4 sticks, 200 grams) salted butter
4 eggs
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
1 pear, chopped into 1/2-inch (1 cm) chunks, optional

Preheat the oven to 350˚ F (180˚ C)

Butter two regular-sized loaf pans.*

Sift the flour and baking powder together. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter on low heat. Continue cooking until the butter solids are darkened and a caramelly, nutty aroma is achieved. Be careful not to burn. Set aside to cool slightly (do not allow the butter to resolidify).

Crack the eggs into a medium sized bowl. Beat slightly, then add sugar in a steady stream while beating. Continue to beat on high until pale and fluffy, about five minutes. Fold in flour mix. Add the butter in a slow stream, beating gently to combine.

Distribute evenly into baking pans. If adding pear, sprinkle chunks on top of batter.

Place in the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Keep an eye on the color. The top is meant to be quite dark, but if it starts to go too far, cover the pans with tin foil for the remaining cook time.

*Note: I baked this in two regular-sized loaf tins for two shorter cakes that cooked faster but made more individual parts. You could also bake it in one single full-size loaf pan, but the bake time will be considerably extended, closer to an hour or an hour and fifteen minutes.

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