On Misremembering

[Coconut bread, and tea, January 2010.]

Quite a few years ago I read a book that would become one of my very favorites — My Dream of You

, by the Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain — and which I subsequently have passed around to various loved ones. I first read it one long weekend in Ohio; it was lent to me by a family friend who has uncannily similar reading taste to my own, and when she told me she was half-way through and could hardly put it down I knew I must read it, too.

It was bitterly cold, that weekend; I think the temperature hovered around 5 degrees, which for a Northern California girl by way of Washington DC was cold (DC gets cold but it’s a rare day the temperature dips below 10 — or at least, that’s what I remember). The wind whipped energetically about and it was fantastically invigorating, if I wished I’d brought about five more sweaters. There were a few walks in the afternoons to see a frozen waterfall, and I missed my brother terribly (it was the strangest thing; every time I’d look over at my then-boyfriend in front of the fireplace I was slightly startled, expecting to see my brother there instead as he would have been all throughout childhood. Sense memory, I suppose.). There was Australian-Open watching and fires in the fireplace where I planted myself in order to stay up late to read and a small tragedy, too: one of the dogs got awfully sick and didn’t survive (vodka-and-cranberries, homemade soup, and a bit of piano-playing helped mediate the sadness the tiniest bit). There was also a lot of tea.

But mostly there was that book. I could hardly put it down either. And in it, there was a particular scene in it that lasted throughout future readings and hovering around the peripherary of my kitchen ever since. It was not — though it came close — the part about the neighbor’s cat and how Kathleen, the narrator, never once knew its name or even touched it yet would return from a trip looking for it immediately, and when she moved from her apartment she knew the cat was the one thing she would miss. That was beautifully written and achey-lovely (and there are many more like this besides), but it is not my favorite part. No: my favorite bit involved coconut cake.

It is just gorgeous and perfect and sums up so much about this book in just a few paragraphs and here it is:

I smiled, going back up to my room, thinking about Roxy. She had been the first secretrary to stay with TravelWrite — the others always found our isolated attic too lonely. But … Roxy settled down with us, and from then on the office always smelled of West Indian food. Every day, she brought in a basket with the lunch her mother had cooked for her. A basket! And her mother would have had her in white ankle socks, too, if Roxy hadn’t been so very large. Her mother used to send us in wonderful cakes. There was a winter day, once — I rememer the yellow-grey sleet on the skylight — when I came back up from having a smoke in the basement with the messenger boys, and I stood in the doorway of our office and named it an enchanted playground. That was in honor of the particularly wonderful smell of Jamaican coffee and sugary coconut cake.

I got a call, Roxie said that lunchtime, from the new Human Resources guy to say he wants you two to fill out a questionnaire about prioritizing your goals.

My God! I said. We’re expected to have goals!

My goal, Jimmy said earnestly, is to spend every morning at the gym and every afternoon at lunch and to have my paycheck sent round by messenger.

I want a flat stomach and a heart-shaped face, I said. And a perfect love. And my life given back to me so I can live it again better.

Jimmy looked at me, but he let it pass.

What’s your goal Roxy? he asked.

To see you do some work for a change, she said, and he sprang across to her and began to tickle her.

We were eating the cake and licking our fingers and going mmm! And okaay!

(, by )

[On the table, January 2010.]

This passage has stuck and stuck with me — something about that “okaay!” there at the end, maybe. Or actually just the idea of that coconut cake. I imagined that one day I’d also make a coconut cake (though, err, I think in memory it transposed to coconut bread, hence last weekend’s slightly erroneous baking project — I made coconut bread, not cake!) and would serve it with hot, milky coffee on a weekend afternoon (in my vision it must be savored on a weekend afternoon for some reason). It would probably be a winter afternoon, in a nod to my initial reading and the frozen Midwest; it might even be raining. And it would be marvelous, the best coconut cake ever tasted.

Basically, I built up the idea of this cake so much in my mind it would be nearly impossible for anything to even come close to the ideal.

Still, on Sunday I finally decided to give it a try. My first mistake was that I made a coconut breadwhich, while good, alas did not satisfy my hopes. This is entirely my fault and I shouldn’t even complain because hello! Could I not have reread that passage to refresh my memory? (Sigh …) Still, once I got over the initial disappointment-with-self I still found it lacking a little something (chocolate chips, I think). Or perhaps it was because I wasn’t sitting around my office with my feet up with my colleagues drinking strong, sugary coffee and talking about birthrights and class issues. Or maybe it was because a) my office isn’t in London to begin with b) my office also is not on the top floor of a row-house in said lovely city c) I wasn’t at home eating amazing coconut cake but was instead eating coconut bread whilst chained to my desk

. Or maybe it’s because, oops, it was bread and not cake. (i.e.: it was my bad.)

It’s funny what the mind keeps, isn’t it? This and not that. That but not this. (Oh, but this.) Who knows if I’d come across My Dream of You at the library; would I have liked it as much (probably) and remembered that specific passage to acutely? Was it the combination of being with California friends-who-were family in Ohio, watching tennis and remembering a black lab and eating vegetarian lasagna, that made me gulp it down so greedily, as if the book itself were a slice of that elusive coconut cake?

Anyway, I suppose it doesn’t matter. Happy accidents and all that. Though I still do need a good coconut cake recipe — and when I find it, by god, I will sit down with a pot of coffee and drink the whole thing while re-reading this book and saying okaay! while I eat my perfect cake. It will be glorious.

(This is not to say you shouldn’t make this bread — you should. My coworkers loved it. It is dense and moist without being heavy, and run through with delicious unsweetened coconut. I think if I made it again I might — gasp! — up the amount of butter, maybe add some chocolate chips, definitely serve with slices of fresh pineapple alongside. I think the problem here is that I wanted something more cake than bread; to that end, as a coconut bread , this recipe is quite delicious indeed.)

Coconut Bread, via the , via Bill Granger

8 to 10 servings

2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups flour, more for dusting pan
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup superfine sugar
5 ounces flaked coconut (about 1 1/2 cups)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Vegetable oil or nonstick cooking spray
Butter, optional
Confectioners’ sugar, optional.

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, whisk together eggs, milk and vanilla.

2. In a medium bowl, sift together 2 1/2 cups flour, baking powder and cinnamon. Add sugar and coconut, and stir to mix. Make a well in the center, and pour in egg mixture. Gradually mix with dry ingredients, until just combined. Add melted butter, and stir until smooth. Do not overmix.

3. Oil and flour an 8 1/2-by-4-inch loaf pan. Pour batter into pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Cool in pan 5 minutes, remove bread from pan, and finish cooling on a rack.

4. To serve, cut into 8 to 10 thick slices. If desired, toast lightly, spread with butter, and dust lightly with confectioners’ sugar.

Join the Conversation

  1. Okay…I settled on the bread. No cake. I added slivered almonds and some chunks of chocolate. Yum. Thanks!

  2. I so ordered it right away as well. Got a discarded library copy — i LOVE having those, the crinkle of them, do you know what I mean? It just arrived today. I can’t wait. Also, I want coconut bread. Or cake. Either will do.

  3. I have been planning on making this exact bread, but now I want cake, and your book. This was such a pleasure to read.

  4. just a note to say that i really, really liked this entry. i am about ready to run out to the library (can i read this instead of re-reading Catcher?) and the grocery store, and oh, maybe even the midwest, or at least the east coast, where the 2+ feet of snow on the ground today seems particularly conducive to parking oneself in front of a fireplace with coffee and a good book.

    (i should mention that i tried to read nuala o’faolain’s memoir and couldn’t really get into it, but do like how she writes and so ought to give this book a chance, coming so highly recommended by you.)

  5. Aaaannnnd, ordered the book before I even got to the third paragraph. :) Thank you!

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