Reading one of M.F.K. Fisher's books is like listening to a marvelous story-teller: you lose yourself in her stories and lose track of time. How to Cook a Wolf, published in 1942, is my favorite among the books by Fisher that I've read so far.
James Beard described it as "her brilliant approach to wartime economies for the table," but that description, notwithstanding the adjective "brilliant," only describes the surface. As usual with Fisher’s books, the food at hand provides the springboard for reflections on topics ranging from the balanced diet to the choice of a drinking partner.
Nine years after the book's publication, Fisher went back to it and annotated it. The notes, printed within square brackets in the North Point Press edition, provide a running commentary on her earlier ideas and assertions. Sometimes she stands by her words:
In other words, never throw away any vegetable or its leaves or its juices unless they are bad; else count yourself a fool. [That’s right!]
Sometimes she amends her previous opinion:
There are two ways to boil rice correctly. [How arbitrary can you be? I should have said: 'I think there are...!' I still think so, but am open to persuasion now, being older and hopefully wiser.]
And sometimes she admits that she has changed her mind:
When you are really hungry, a meal eaten by yourself is not so much an event as the automatic carrying out of a physical function: you must do it to live. [I now disagree completely with this, and could and probably will write a whole book proving my present point, that solitary dining, no matter what the degree of hunger, can be good.]
Each chapter of How to Cook a Wolf presents Fisher’s thoughts on a topic: "How to Boil Water," "How Not to Boil an Egg," etc., and includes some recipes. In the chapter "How to Comfort Sorrow" there is the famous War Cake, in which bacon grease can be used, "because of the spices that hide its taste." I was never tempted to try it.
The recipe that follows, on the other hand, Tomato Soup Cake, sounded quite intriguing:
This is a pleasant cake, which keeps well and puzzles people who ask what kind it is. It can be made in a moderate oven while you are cooking other things, which is always sensible and makes you feel rather noble, in itself a small but valuable pleasure.
As the name suggests, tomato soup is one of the ingredients of the cake. Please, suspend your disbelief. Read the recipe and my experience realizing it, and then decide for yourself whether you want to give this cake a try.
The ingredients I used:
- 1 cup chopped mixed dried fruit : figs, dates, plums, apriums
- 1/2 cup (2 oz. / 56 g) chopped toasted walnuts (the way I prepare walnuts for use is described in the recent post on walnut cake)
- 3 tablespoons (1.5 oz. / 42 g) unsalted butter, softened
- 1/4 cup (50 g) sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
- 3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 cup wholo-wheat pastry flour
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 can (14.5 oz.) low fat and light in sodium cream of tomato soup
- 1 teaspoon soda
The most important change I made to the original recipe (if you follow the link, then scroll to the bottom of the page to get to the recipe) is a drastic reduction of the amount of sugar, from 1 cup (200 g) to 1/4 cup (50 g): the dried fruit (frutta secca), in particular figs (fichi) and dates (datteri), provide enough sweetness to the cake. I was concerned that the batter would end up slightly dry because of this amendment, but that was not the case.
I listed the dried fruit first because you want to prepare that before you start working on the cake. Fisher is not specific in the choice of dried fruit ("raisins, nuts, chopped figs, what you will"): choose according to your taste and what you have available.
My instructions (a bit more detailed than those provided by Fisher):
Preheat the oven to 325 F. I used the convection option.
Cream the butter, then add the sugar and blend well.
Sift flours and spices in a bowl.
Open the soup can, place it in a bowl, add the soda and stir. The mixture will bubble up and that is why you want to place the can in a bowl.
Add some of the soup to the butter and sugar, then some of the flours, stirring after each addition. Repeat until all the soup and all the flours have been added. Finally, stir in the dried fruit and walnuts (noci).
Spoon batter into a loaf pan lined with parchment paper or greased (mine measures 9" x 5" at the top). Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. In my case, it took 75 minutes for the cake to bake.
Place loaf pan on a rack to cool slightly, then remove the cake from the pan and place it on the rack to cool. Slice and enjoy.
Fisher states that the cake is good
plain with coffee, or frosted with a covering of cream cheese and powdered sugar and a little rum if possible
I ate some with tea. I have a fundamental objection against frosting, so I did not consider that option. This cake is good as is. It is moist, has the color of gingerbread and a flavor that, though it reminds me of gingerbread (pan di zenzero) because of the spices, is all its own.
And believe me, it is quite sweet, but not overly so, basically, my idea of a cake. After dinner, as I was cleaning up, I had a morsel of my homemade Manchego cheese left on the plate. I cut a sliver of the cake and ate the two together: they were perfect. I wished I had some fresh chèvre on hand. I will update the post as soon as I have the chance to verify my hunch that the two will get along well.
If you have never read anything by M.F.K. Fisher, I recommend How to Cook a Wolf as the best introduction to her writing. And if you have, I recommend it with the same fervor: Fisher writes about food and the scarcity thereof, about war and peace, about life and living it fully no matter what the circumstances are, and she does so with grace of both words and feelings.
I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy, and ever-increasing enjoyment. And with our gastronomical growth will come, inevitably, knowledge and perception of a hundred other things, but mainly of ourselves.
This post contains the roundup of the event.
And I am submitting this recipe, bookmarked in M.F.K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf to Bookmarked Recipes #26, an event originally started by Ruth of Ruth’s Kitchen Experiments and now hosted by Jacqueline of Tinned Tomatoes.
This post contains the roundup of the event.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the torta alla zuppa di pomodoro audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]