The wrapped box remained on the kitchen counter for two days. Its oblong symmetry holding the secret of its contents, its gilded ribbons drawing me in. I'd pass by it on my way to get a glass of water, shoot a furtive glance at the doorway, and then deftly take up the box in my hands, shake it a little, and be none the wiser.
My birthday came, and the license to open presents. The box came down from its roost, with E looking on. The ribbons fell in tendrils on the counter, the cardboard rustled free of its contents. I pulled forth from crinkly tissue paper a handsome clay teapot and its companion saucer. Thrown on a potter's wheel in Tunisia, they evoke a Moorish sensibility in their design and colors.
It was fitting then that I inaugurate my new teapot by brewing a black tea in it. Aromatic chai or Moroccan mint, either would be thematic with my Tunisian teapot, evoking bustling souks and their Eastern spices. Instead, I opted for the Organic Yunnan Black Tea that I have been lukewarm about in a previous post. I would give this tea yet another go; for the last several mornings, I tried drawing out latent flavors in the tea by varying brewing times, amounts of leaves used. The results were variable. On one day, the tea first burst on my palate with an astringency, followed by a complexity of other flavors. Burnt molasses? A hint of sour artichokes? But underlying all these - the scaffolding of the tea - was a blandness that I could not overlook. I really wanted to embrace the tea, to bring it into my repertory of beloved blacks where Keemun and 1st flush Darjeeling reside.
So after a quick warming of the teapot with hot water, I steeped the tea in the new teapot, scooping out three loosely packed teaspoons of leaves into 8 ounces of boiling water. This time, I brewed the tea for four minutes and twenty seconds (a new permutation in brewing time I had yet to use).
Steam swirled as I waited, the pain aux raisins (a fortuitous find from a local bakery, reminding me of past sweet-soaked days in Paris) laid out for tea. I poured the dark liquor into my cup and settled into my chair.
I wished I could say that the new teapot imbue this tea with a magical aura, supplanting its lackluster undercurrent with a robust mouthfeel. This was not the case. Nevertheless, enfolded into the moments of tea time was the essence of a cup of tea, whose leaves I envisioned plucked by hands lined with toil, this human connection infusing with warmth, my tea-filled kitchen nook.
The grass, flattened by layers of snow, lies nearly bare, dull. The ground, scattered with patches of snow, squishes beneath my boots. These splotches of white provide contrast with the somber hues of a still sleeping earth. Each day, there is a fog that hazes over the outlines of trees, the facades of homes. I welcome the dewiness on my winter-parched cheeks.
The walk is bracing, the briskness generating a pleasant warmth despite the thinness of my jacket. No doubt, my sense of well-being enhanced by the company and the stack of blueberry pancakes I had for a late brunch.
I arrive home and am greeted by the expected appearance of our gray cat sauntering to the back door. As usual, our black cat next appears on the scene to give his companion a peevish swat on her flicking tail with his brindled paw. The chiding is heeded, and she retreats into the kitchen to cede her spot. After sufficient cooing and petting - given equitably to both felines - I get ready for tea.
A new Japanese tea awaits me, an ureshinocha from the Green Teaist. The scent of its dry leaves is one of freshly mowed grass. I brew it like I would a sencha - briefly and in cooler water. I take the first sip and note that the vegetal nature of sencha here is milder, more honeyed, lacking the initial bitterness present in an asamushi sencha. The subsequent palette of flavors of the ureshinocha is a full one, richly satisfying.
And then there is the accompaniment to the tea. A variation on the lemon yogurt cake I have made many times in the past, its incarnation now a lime yogurt cake made with ground almonds and fresh vanilla seeds. These tweaks give the cake an added piquancy - the vanilla taste fuller, the almond imparting a pleasant nuttiness, melding well with the inherently crumbly nature of this loaf cake.
The streetlights come on, and there is an otherworldliness to the gray mistiness outside, zigzagged with branches. A black and white photo dreamily rendered of the coming evening, I am reminded of Stieglitz's cityscapes.
I am content to be indoors, the lamplights now flicked on for the night. I brew the second infusion of the ureshinocha and have another slice of cake. Both of these, variations on a theme, subtle changes wrought, ripple the evenness of routine.
The cats stir, sated with sleep. Their anticipated meal of uniformly-shaped pellets deferred, they revel in the unexpected sprigs of catnip I lay at their paws.
Baking notes: For other variations on the loaf cake, I have used orange zest and the juice of one orange, or grapefruit zest plus the juice from one half the fruit. Adding a dash of rosewater gives this cake a piquancy. You can also use 1/2 the sugar called for and less olive oil (1/3 cup instead of 1/2) with impunity.
They are dun-colored, the first buds of the season. Discreet, clustered on trees, I see them on my walks, the snow now slushy and slippery on the ground with the warmer weather. This is hardly spring, I know from experience, but there is no mistaking this whisper of novelty - dormant for months - in the air. A lull in the gray monotony of winter, the birds seem to chirp a little louder, the cats indoors more restive.
There are the daily routines, renewed each morning by the variable light from the kitchen window. I sit with my cup of tea watching the steam rise. Each time, I marvel at the wispiness, impalpable and delicate.
Lately, my morning tea has been sencha. I crave its vegetal austerity which veils a complexity of taste beneath a mantle of sameness. I take the first sip gingerly, not quite knowing what this time will yield. The first infusion is assertive, barely bitter with the initial taste; then, this lilts into a mild sweetness.
I have my tea with a plate of almond cookies. They are doughy, in a pleasant sort of way, aromatic with flecks of cardamon. They subvert the notion of what a cookie should be; they have a spare sweetness and lack the heft which butter or oil usually imparts. Nevertheless, their singularity is pleasing, and I find myself eating quite a few.
We go on our walks, a little less bundled, avoiding treacherous slicks of black ice. We look up and see filigreed branches, interlaced and intimate. I feel a restiveness that yearns to move unfettered by layers of wool and clunky boots.
We take our first salsa classes, reveling in movement. A clumsy step here, an unwonted swivel there. Stockinged feet strive to beat in time to rousing Cuban rhythms. The novelty exhilarates me in the bright light of the small room, its wooden floor scrubbed shiny from use. There is the satisfaction in the mastery of a few simple steps, a pliant understanding between body and thought.
Later at home, fueled by sencha and more cookies, with the cats our audience, pairs of human feet again tap to the strains of the Buena Vista Social Club.
Baking notes: I used 1/2 the sugar called for in the recipe, substituted egg whites for whole eggs (3 egg whites for 2 whole eggs). Orange water can also be used instead of rosewater, with good results. I also halved the entire recipe. This yielded 35 cookies.
I saw the banana tree of my childhood when I went back to Vietnam for a visit. It stood tall and shading along the walkway leading to the house where I once lived. The sky-blue gate was still there, creaky but secure. It opened noisily on its hinges, chains rattling, onto the leafy path that did not seem quite so winding as I remembered it to be. The low-lying shrubs flanking the pathway were now replaced by large, ornate planters. But the banana tree, with its lush canopy, was where it should be, venerably bent over all other greenery as you neared the main house. Peering up, you saw the fruit, unattainable and clustered, on the bisected trunk.
The banana tree stood sentinel over my childhood games. Pedaling my little bike down the path that stretched on forever, coaxing my little sister to race me to the house, or rollerskating headlong over treacherous cracks; my world abounded with possibilities.
I walked on the path decades later, noting the changes around me. My adult's eye tried to drink them in: a well-used moped propped against a tree, the blue gate with its new coat of paint, the banana tree with its fronds and its fruit, a little less imposing that it once had been.
Now, I sat down for my late morning cup of tea. A banana bread was in the oven, transmuting the cloying scent of the overripe into a warming aroma of baking. This was serendipity, in the form of four bananas riddled with black splotches that had sat on our counter a little too long.
These bananas differed from those of my childhood. The ones I remembered were smaller and sweeter - I could easily eat half a dozen of them at a time. That enthusiasm soured when we moved to the States and I bit into my first Chiquita-labelled banana. My disappointment was great as I realized how insipid it tasted. Since then, only bananas past their prime - the substrate for a loaf of banana bread - could redeem themselves for me.
I chose a new tea, a Chinese black from Yunnan. As I waited for the tea to brew, I cut slices of the bread, barely out of the oven.
The tea lacked the satisfying depth of Keemun, my favorite black. I kept hoping for an unexpected heft of complexity to emerge, but I didn't find it. The banana bread, however, was airy, its tops like a souffle, imbuing some magic again to my childhood memories.
Baking notes: I used much less sugar than the recipe called for, omitted the chocolate altogether, and substituted 1/4 of the all-purpose flour with almond flour.