Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dear Aimee Bender, I love you.


I admit it, I have a deep, unadulterated love for Aimee Bender. This is not one of those deep, dark confessions, like when I had a crush on Doogie Howser. It is no secret that the kind of schoolgirl crush Bender inspires seems natural, if not obligatory. Readers of her work come to see Bender as the girl you want to pass notes with, the girl you want to drink peach schnapps under the bleachers with, the girl you want to build a tree house with because she always has the best stories and she always, always allows you to be a  grown-up and a kid at the same time.

In her short story collections The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures (you can find her stories in numerous journals and anthologies, my favorite being Tin House), Bender doesn't just show us how to write a solid magical realist narrative, she shows us that everything is fluid. For Bender, every character has the capacity to be the virgin, the whore, the knight, the damsel in distress, the child, the lover, the beloved, the deformed, the wicked, and the good witch all wrapped in to one massive ball of moments. In short, Bender is one cool chick and if I wrote her a note I'd sign it, "Your BFF, Rachel."


The stories I cooked and drank from were "Lemonade," "Bull," and "Marzipan." I know, I know, it seems like too many, but did I mention Bender is my long lost best friend for life! Anyway, the reason I love each of these stories is because they demonstrate the fluid connection between the physical and the emotional in a way that makes you understand the human condition in an incredibly visceral way. In "Lemonade," our main character is in that painful stage between being a little girl and being an...older little girl (because let's face it, we're all just little girls until maybe the age of 20). This story adequately portrays puberty as hell and teenagers as ferocious beasts with secret, hot pink claws.

We love these kinds of coming-of-age narratives because teenagers tell us a lot about ourselves, they remind us that we are human, that we have the potential for change, and that we are really, really happy to no longer be one of them. The lemonade in the story indicates the complexity of tween narratives, which are just as nice and satisfying as they are awkward and painful (I guess I'm trying to say they are bittersweet without having to say the word bittersweet). And yes, this story made me happy that the "when are my boobs coming in" question is finally settled.

Similarly, the story "Marzipan" takes us through the mind of a adolescent girl who has some quirky parents (a father with a large gaping hole in his stomach and a mother who gives birth to her own dead mother). After the main character's mother gives birth to her own mother, they all sit down to share an incredibly dense marzipan cake (frozen/unthawed from the grandmother's funeral). Although I'm sure it would be strange to eat the cake from your grandmother's funeral with your grandmother, after your mother has just given birth to her, this scene is interesting because of what it tells us about families. And it has everything to do with distance.

The ritual of eating the cake is disrupted by the fact that the presence of the grandmother, although unsettling, doesn't change anything. There are no tears, no joyous hugging. You are here now and all I have to show for it is this fat stomach. Does it matter if your mother comes back after you've let her go? Would we love her more for the knowledge of that loss? The marzipan cake represents the relief we find in our main character and her grandmother. They both love the cake together, eat it together, and perhaps that is connection enough for us, a mutual indulgence.


The story "Bull" is fascinating because of the way it understands our relationship to what we want and what we know to be true. The narrative follows a woman who comes to realize her burglar boyfriend is boring and Spain's largest treasure, the bullfighting arena, is all a sham.There are no real bulls anymore, just puppet-like costumes of bulls that actors stand inside squirting out sangria every time the matador stabs them.

Confused? Well, the heroine of our story is too. To reconcile (or confound) this situation, she steals a bull-suit, acts like a bull, squirts some sangria, and, in order to prove this flawed system wrong, she squirts milk out with the sangira (interesting collision of the maternal with the masculine), everyone freaks out, and she runs to the closest farm where two real cows realize that this bull is...well, fake.

The problem is that the real cows can see inside the fake bull-suit, it's tangible, they know it's there, and maybe that is refreshing, to have it all out in the open. The reality is that we want the bulls to be bulls and the boyfriends to be the boyfriends and the loves to be true loves, but sometimes they aren't, sometimes they are just regular people dressed up like super heroes. So what makes the bull a bull? Does the shell, the symbol of the bull mean more to us? If so, why should it matter? I have no idea. I'm not a life coach.

Superheros and symbolism aside, my Aunt Judy's "Poorman's Sangria" will make you feel like sunshine and glitter. My Aunt spent most of her life in Brazil, Mexico, and Spain, where she learned how to cook and drink like the locals (which adds a nice touch of street-cred to my recipe, I hope). The ingredients are cheap and the result is a perfect blend of tart and sweet. I should add a small, but urgent warning, this sangria is far too easy to drink...if you know what I mean.


Poorman's Sangria
Yields: As many servings as you'd like...
Time: 10 minutes

2 Parts Cheap Merlot
2 Parts Cheap Cabernet Sauvignon
2 Parts Orange Soda
Sliced Oranges
Sliced Limes
Sliced Lemons

Pour wine and orange soda into an extra large pitcher (leave room for ice and fruit). Add several cups of ice.
Then add equal amounts of sliced oranges, lemons, and limes until the pitcher is full. Save slices to add to pitcher later or to use as garnish. Place in refrigerator.


As I explained earlier, "Lemonade" captures the awkward vortex that is our teenage years. Although my "drunken" versions of lemonade may seem a bit grown-up for this story, I just couldn't pass up a valid reason to make a cocktail. And if I'm being honest, my teenage years were not particularly sober ones.


Lemon Mojito
Yields: One cocktail
Time: 10 minutes

Start with a large glass and...

Add 2 shots of Light Rum
Add 8-10 Mint Leaves
Muddle or gently mash the contents (I used the butt end of a knife)
Add 3/4 shot of Lemon Juice (or Lime Juice for purists)
Add 1/2 shot of Simple Syrup
Fill glass with Crushed Ice
Top off the glass with Sparkling/Soda Water

Sidenote: Some recipes call for a splash of ginger beer or gingerale, personally I don't think it's necessary.


Black and Blue Lemonade
Yields: One cocktail
Time: 5 minutes

Start with a medium glass and...

Add 1 shot of Limoncello
Add 2 Mint Leaves and muddle very gently
Add 2-3 Blackberries
Fill with Crushed Ice
Top off with Sparkling/Soda Water


Although I didn't use true marzipan in this cake, I used it's lighter cousin almond paste. Both marzipan and almond paste lend an intense almond flavor and tend to make the cake more moist. Almond paste and marzipan have an acquired texture and taste, allowing me to see the grandmother and granddaughter's shared love for the marzipan cake as a unique connection. Kind of like cake soul mates.

Layered Almond Cake with Lemon Curd Cream
Adapted from Martha Stewart Living and Southern Cooking

Yields: One 8-inch cake
Time: Don't even ask...

1 cup (2 sticks) Unsalted Butter, room temperature
6 ounces Almond Paste, room temperature
1 cup Sugar
4 large Eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon Pure Vanilla Extract
1 cup Flour
1/2 teaspoon Baking Powder
Pinch of Salt
Lemon Curd Cream (see recipe below)
Strawberries, with leaves/stems cut off
Limoncello (optional)


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 8-inch cake pans VERY well (this is a very sticky cake).

2. Cut almond paste into small chunks, then beat almond paste and butter on medium speed until fluffy.

3. Beat in sugar until combined. Add eggs and vanilla extract, beat until combined.

4. Slowly add flour, baking powder, and salt, beat until combined.

5. Divide batter between pans and spread evenly with spatula. Bake at 350 for 22-25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove cakes from oven and cool completely.

6. Place the 1st cooled cake in a 9-inch springform pan. Spread 3/4 of Lemon Curd Cream on cake and cover with 2nd cooled cake. Place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours.

7. When you are ready to serve cake, remove from springform pan and transfer to serving plate. Place strawberries, cut side down, on top of the cake. Then place blueberries on top of the strawberries.

8. Using the remaining Lemon Curd Cream, pipe dots in the spaces between the strawberries. Brush Limoncello on tips of Strawberries (for sanity's sake, take a swig of Limoncello because you deserve it). See it wasn't that hard...

Lemon Curd Cream

2 jars of Lemon Curd
1 cup of Cool Whip or whipped cream

Fold Cool Whip or whipped cream into Lemon Curd until combined. Add more cream if necessary.



  1. rachel, you are a marvel! this all looks absolutely out of control amazing!! i'm so impressed with the fact that you made such a beautiful looking cake in that teeny tiny oven you have.

  2. "I don't know. I'm not a life coach," is going to become my favorite stock answer to questions I receive.


  3. I was privileged to have a small slice of the beautiful Layered Cake and it was truly amazing....melting in my mouth and slowly permeating the senses. What a joy. Photos are juicy, wonderful and fun! And who doesn't need to know how to make Poorman's Sangria. Should be on the "Top Ten Survival Skills" list of any half-way decent life skills coach!

  4. You are very right Naomi. If I decide to hone my life coach skills, priority # 1 will be to find new and interesting ways to use orange soda. Glad you enjoyed the cake!