At Night

[Moon along the border, Gaza, January 2009. Photo by my friend Donny P.]

Before last week’s — much needed — rain began, the sky was clear at night, hot and clean. When I went running Tuesday after work (6 miles, unexpectedly, but I just couldn’t help myself) the stars were amazing, shining strong and bright out of all that blackness. Inaugural stars? I wondered. I don’t know much about the constellations really, but I do know enough to always be able to identify Orion, its three stars in constant, belt-like alignment across the wind-swept darkness. Lately the night sky has been so thick with stars you could almost forget you’re living in a city; during my run I last week I was so taken with them I flopped down for a few minutes on the grass in the Panhandle just to look up: les etoiles, toujours.

This morning when I left my parents’ house, sleepily tying my scarf down against my coat (my dad informed me it was 33 degrees, pointing out that at least it wasn’t 33 degrees below) in the pre-dawn darkness, I glanced up to see the morning sky packed tight with stars. Oh, I exclaimed involuntarily, oh stars. In that early-morning hour when I’d usually be sleeping (the commuter bus waits, alas, for no reluctant riser) and warm tucked up in my bed there was at least all those good stars glowing bravely out from the inky sky to ease my sleepy head. Just that one glimpse made my wake-up call nearly worth it.

The thing I love about stars — and the moon too, if we get down to it — is: we all see them no matter where in the world we happen to be. For example, I first learned to pick out Orion when I lived in a little basement apartment in Maryland and would sit on a ledge outside our front door of an evening talk to whomever had dropped by for a visit. From my perch there I was directly underneath that sparkling belt and now, years later, though I have not been in that apartment for almost a decade nor have I even visited College Park in almost that long, the constellation anchors me and provides an orientation point. Now I run through Golden Gate Park in a city so vastly different from the one in which I lived for so long yet: those same stars burn here, too. And the moon I love to watch rise because when I am lucky enough to see it near the ocean I am reminded to think of it shining over many other oceans across the globe (some of which I have been fortunate enough to see). It lights the cool sand of deserts on other continents, illuminates white-washed buildings and brings out their pale shadows, cuts wide swaths over dormant rivers I may never swim in — and yet, it is my moon, still.

I think of food as the connecting point, but maybe the stars and moon are also a universal resting place. Something to think about, anyway.

[Tea and cake, December 2008.]

Here we are in deepest, darkest January, the time of year when August and gorgeous tomatoes seem impossibly far away. Though every day the light lingers just a little bit longer, there are still six long weeks to go until March and Daylight Savings Time again (oh, hold on) and I try not to count the days down on the calendar. For isn’t that the beauty of the seasons? That asparagus are only really the best for a few scant months in spring? And squash is greener and more flavorful after the Summer Solstice than at any other moment of the year? And in February we dig deep into the pantry for good chocolate and leftover cookies?

When I tire of winter’s staples of potatoes, carrots, legumes (tonight I made an enormous pot of lentil soup, along with buttermilk corn muffins), I turn, inevitably to cake. Wouldn’t you? Sweet potatoes are delicious of a chilly evening, baked with a bit of olive oil on low heat in the oven and paired with white or black bean stew, as is a pile of roasted leeks draped over creamy polenta, but at the end of a long day when even the warmest sweater can’t ease the cold bite of mid-winter, a slice of dreamy, tender cake is really the only remedy for the January blues.

I love this lemon cake because it’s both tart and sweet, smoothed out by sour cream and sugar. I suppose you could substitute clementine (nearly done now) or orange zest and juice, but here in Northern California lemons are reaching their prime (especially because of the recent warm spate) and it would be a shame to waste them. I’m still mildly obsessed with rooibos tea (can’t be helped; have you tried it yet?) and a bit of lemon cake with a cup of hot tea makes any winter afternoon more than bearable.

At night the darkness looms large. But the moon a sails away across the sky like a shining ship across places I may never visit but can only imagine and long for a little, bringing comfort and safety in its pale light. In my imagination there is peace scattered in its wake as it unfurls its canvas to catch the wind. When I go to sleep, too late as is the case most times, you are waking up many time zones away and the moon may stay a bit into the day; as when I walk to the bus in the mornings and see it still through the gray San Francisco fog it may do the same for other lands (the Mediterranean lapping against stone walls would perhaps provide the perfect mirror). All of you living so far from me: this moon, these stars, this food — of it we share, even if we are not always fully aware of it. The world is perhaps smaller than it first appears.

The truth is I may only know one constellation out of all in this vast universe, and I hardly have the time to sit still enough every night to watch the moon rise, but I do know how to bake a good cake — and maybe that’s enough, just for tonight.

And so I shall leave you with this reminder, from the estimable Mark Twain:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

As facile as it may seem to set down the words, the sentiment is true. If I can do the tiniest little bit of this in my life I will consider myself lucky that I was brave enough to try. (Preferably with lemon cake, and a cup of tea.)

Lemon Cake, adapted from

2 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter, room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar
3 eggs
grated zest of 1 large lemon
1 cup sour cream

Lemon Glaze:
1/4 cup melted butter
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar

Preheat oven to 325°. Generously butter and flour a 10-inch bundt pan.

Into a bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.

In a mixing bowl with hand-held electric mixer, cream 1 cup butter and sugar; beat at high speed until mixture is very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Beat in eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down side of bowl frequently. Blend in lemon zest. Add flour mixture to the creamed mixture alternately with sour cream, adding each in 3 additions. Scrape sides of bowl frequently. Pour batter into prepared cake pan; bake in the preheated oven for 55 to 65 minutes, or until a cake tester or wooden pick inserted near the center of cake comes out clean. Cool in pan 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine lemon glaze ingredients in a bowl, blending until smooth. Carefully turn cake out onto a platter; drizzle evenly with glaze.

Serves 12 or more.

Join the Conversation

  1. The Mark Twain quote pairs perfectly with the idea of the stars connecting us all for me. I’m heading away from home for an (I hope to be) adventure and I find it comforting that I’ll be connected to everyone who I love by sharing the same sky.

  2. That’s why I feel this way, I have not had any cake!

    The stars are always so great in winter here. It’s like the freezing, still air is clearer or something.

  3. Your writing never fails to inspire me. And make me hungry for cake. But mostly the inspiration. XOXO, D

  4. Oh I’d give anything for rain… and a piece of that cake! All we have is snow and below-zero temps. I can always count on your blog for great writing, fantastic recipes and brilliant photography. Would love for you to check out my newly launched food blog!



  5. That quote from Mark Twain melted my cold heart this morning. Thanks for the gentle reminder that now is the time. not tomorrow, not next year. NOW.

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