As I write, Gunner sprawls at my feet, his chin pressed to my foot, his long legs draped on either side of my chair. He swipes at my right hand with his paw, pulling it away from the mouse. As my hand goes back to the keyboard, he swipes at me again. He's bored, and wants to go out to play.
A portrait of Gunner. Photo by Jack Fenn.
If you've been reading here for awhile (and thank you, by the way), you may have seen Gunner and his sidekick Rosie bounding across fields in search of game birds, chasing me through the woods on my mountain bike, and waiting at the top of a ridge while I skin up the snowy slope.
Rosie and Gunner wait for me near the summit of Edelweiss, on Teton Pass.
There are no adventures planned this morning. I am working, thankful to have projects and deadlines keeping me busy, and Gunner--recently diagnosed with bone cancer--is resting, trying to ignore the pain in his leg.
I take a break from my writing so Gunner and I can have our merienda,
or second breakfast, a habit I picked up in Mexico. Mine: half an avocado drizzled with pistachio oil, sprinkled with flaky salt. (Read here
about how avocados are a mood elevator.) His: a barbecued pig's ear, the last of the 4H pig purchased last summer, the ear thoughtfully saved by my butcher for a dog like Gunner.
Gunner is famous for his long-limbed luxurious lounging about the house.
And we are baking a cake. I say "we" because Gunner is my constant companion in the kitchen. As I move from my office to the kitchen, he follows. As I stand at the stove, he lies at my feet, favoring the heated tiles between the sink, refrigerator, and stove. I step over and around him as I grab baking powder from the cupboard, an orange and a lemon from the fruit basket, and I move his rear end to access the cupboard that houses the measuring cups.
Gunner likes to be in my way; he often gets a little scratch on his tummy with my foot as I pass by, or a rub behind the ears when I take a break.
Gunner's favorite spot to watch me cook.
The kitchen always draws me in when I am sad. Even though my appetite has been drowned out by the grief that sits in my stomach, I want to cook. I find solace standing in front of the stove, stirring a big pot with a wooden spoon, folding together the ingredients for a cake, and rubbing Gunner's head with my foot.
Gunner has that unique quality of making every human in his life feel special.
Baking a cake, I have found, is especially consoling. I chose this Marmalade Cake because it requires several aroma-inducing steps. An orange and a lemon are boiled for half an hour, then whizzed in a food processor until they are the consistency of thick marmalade. The heady aroma of citrus is released into the air, soothing my nerves.
I toast the almonds just a bit longer than usual just so I can smell them that much more intensely as I pull them from the oven, and grind them in the food processor.
This cake will dirty a few bowls, but it's worth it, I promise.
I choose my youngest, spiciest olive oil for this cake--a Californian olio nouvo with a grassy bite. Then almonds and flour are folded into sugar and eggs, followed by the "marmalade" and the olive oil.
Gunner is also famous for always needing to be touching someone, dog or human.
As the Marmalade Cake
bakes, I join Gunner on the floor with my book. He is happy to have the company, a dog who always needs to be leaning and pressing against one of his favorite humans. I am happy to have my book, Pukka's Promise--The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs
, which by serendipity landed in my post office box this week, as a gift from my friend, the author Ted Kerasote
. His new book about dogs is not meant to be a tearjerker, yet I find a passage in each chapter that makes me cry.
Ted with Pukka. Not only is Ted a great writer, he is one of Gunner's top ten favorite humans.
Ted's book is the story of his dog Merle, the famous free-thinking dog in Merle's Door
, and his quest to find a new dog after Merle passed away. It's about how we take care of our dogs, and why so many are dying young. But the part that makes me cry, as I sit on the floor with my beautiful dog and his horrible prognosis, is the way Ted writes about how we love our dogs.
It's a lot like being in love. We create our own special world, the two of us. We communicate with glances, tone of voice, touching, and in Gunner's case--lots of staring and swiping with paws. When the dog is gone, that world is gone forever, never to return, even if there is another dog that wins us over.
Gunner is famous for his big brown eyes; he wins every staring contest.
"Let's check on our cake, shall we?", I ask Gunner. He likes the sound of my voice and rallies to standing as I peer into the oven. "It looks good, and it smells nice, doesn't it?" The sweet smell of lemon and oranges and toasted almonds poofs from the oven, and Gunner's nostrils twitch to get a whiff. He lifts one eye, and then the other, wanting to keep the conversation going.
Just baking the cake has lifted my mood, but my appetite is still flat. I'll take the cake to dinner tonight with friends; seeing friends who know and love Gunner, having them cook me a nice meal, having a little red wine--that will be sure to galvanize my appetite.
Gunner still has plenty of adventures ahead--soon there will be pheasants to chase, leisurely days spent floating and fishing the Snake River, and all sorts of good-smelling things to dig up in the yard. Radiation therapy will shrink his tumor so he'll be able run and play without pain. In the meantime, I'll be baking a lot of cakes.
Gunner bounding down the Hagen trail, Cache Creek drainage, Jackson Hole.
This cake is adapted from a recipe by Molly Wizenberg, author of A Homemade Life
, and creator of the blog Orangette
. Olive oil cakes like this can be tricky at high altitude; they always seem to sink in the middle. I've made this cake at least a dozen times, tweaking it as I go, and I finally have a version that is perfect enough to share.
If you haven't read Molly's blog or book, please check it out! I adore how she writes about food and life, and her recipes are keepers. She has another book coming out this year, and there is a chance--fingers crossed--that she'll be visiting our community in the near future to give a talk.
Adapted for 6500 feet; if you are baking at sea level, use the amounts in parentheses. Use organic lemon and orange since you'll be eating the rind.
- 1 organic lemon
- 1 organic orange
- 6 ounces raw almonds
- 1 1/2 cups flour--I use 1 cup all purpose flour and 1/2 cup almond flour, but you can use all all-purpose flour if that's what you have. (At sea level, use 1 cup)
- 1/2 Tablespoon baking powder (use 1 T. at sea level)
- 4 eggs, at room temperature
- 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 1/4 cups sugar (use 1 1/2 cups at sea level)
- 2/3 cup fruity olive oil
- confectioners' sugar, for sprinkling on top
- Preheat the oven to 325ºF.
- Place the lemon and orange in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 30 minutes. When done, drain and cool the fruit. Cut the lemon in half and scoop out and discard the pulp and the seeds. Cut the orange in half and scoop out any seeds, leaving the pulp intact.
- Spread the almonds on a baking sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until they are toasty brown and smell really good. When cool, pulse in a food processor until they are the texture of coarse sand. Remove from the food processor and set aside.
- Increase the oven temperature to 355ºF (350ºF at sea level).
- Without cleaning the food processor, add the lemon rind and the whole orange. Pulse until it resembles a thick marmalade. Breathe in the citrusy aroma of the "marmalade".
- In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, almond flour (if using), and baking powder.
- Combine eggs and salt in a mixing bowl. Beat until foamy, then gradually add the sugar. Fold the mixture into the flour. Add the "marmalade", almonds, and the olive oil. Combine gently by hand taking care not to overmix.
- Pour the batter into a 9-inch springform pan that has been generously rubbed with butter.
- Bake for about an hour, or until a toothpick placed in the center of the cake comes out clean. Once cool, release from the pan and sprinkle with confectioners' sugar. Share.
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