2020 has certainly been a year of soul searching about the intent and meaning of life amid a pandemic. Many have compared it to a horror novel at worst or a fantasy fiction at best.
Matt Haig’s new fantasy novel, “The Midnight Library” (Canongate Books, 2020), is a worthy read for anyone contemplating a life they might have led, if they had chosen a different path or conditions had been altered. At midnight on the night Nora decides to take too many pills, she wakes up in a library filled with endless shelves of books. Overseeing the books is her old elementary school librarian, Mrs. Elm, who serves as her guide.
Nora is granted the opportunity to pick a book of her possible life, of which there are thousands, and explore it until she knows it doesn’t fit. She then returns to choose other books, revisiting all the things she could have been if she had made other decisions. With themes of love and acceptance of oneself and finding the courage to fully live, this is destined to be a mental health classic. Haig believes that books are our maps and his work is truly an atlas on the power of story, especially the one we tell ourselves, to change our lives. This novel has been optioned for film. Lest we think life exploration is only for the young, a good pairing to read with it for deeper meaning is Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illyich.”
In one of Nora’s lives, she is lead singer for a sensational band, The Labyrinths, a path she had pursued in her real life, but quit on the cusp of stardom. As she tries that life out, she is presented with a silver tray of luscious cakes while on concert tour in Brazil. Kudos to Haig for introducing us to these delicious little spice cakes.
Brazilian Honey Cakes
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 cup ground walnuts
1/2 cup honey
2 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
1 cup whole milk
1 jar dulce de leche or caramel sauce
4 bars Baker’s semisweet chocolate, chopped
Paper baking cups
Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat to 350 degrees. Spray a muffin tin with baking spray, add baking cups; spray again lightly. Set aside. In a large bowl, sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Add the ground walnuts and whisk until well combined.
In another large bowl, whisk the honey, eggs, sugar, vanilla, oil, condensed milk, and whole milk.
Pour the liquid ingredients over the flour mixture and fold with a rubber spatula until thoroughly mixed. Spoon the batter into the prepared cups. Bake until the tops start to crack and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 30 minutes.
Transfer to a wire rack and let cool for 10 minutes. Remove paper cups and cool completely.
Slice the cakes horizontally in half. Assemble the cakes by placing a tbsp. of dulce de leche on one half, topping it with the other. Repeat until you have sandwiched them all.
Place the chopped chocolate in a glass bowl and microwave in 30 second increments until smooth, keeping the heat at about 80 on a candy thermometer. Drop each cake into the chocolate glaze and flip to cover the entire outside. Using a wide fork, lift them out and let the excess glaze drop off. Place on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Repeat the process until all are covered. Allow chocolate to set up before serving.