The winter winds are finally howling in New York, and I’m in mind of dark things…in a good way. I named this cake partly for the cathedral bundt pan I love best to make it in, but mostly because of the way the spices lurk wickedly within the velvety devil’s food. I’d be happy to curl up with a slice of this and read the more macabre tales from the Brothers Grimm to the strains of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” but you needn’t get as carried away.
On rather short notice, I’ve hit the road for a few days and headed to Ferrara, Italy. Last night, I found myself the only patron of the Ristorante Buca San Domenico (Piazza Sacrati, 22) without a hand to which I could weld my own. But that didn’t stop me from ordering the Valentine’s Day special, which my genial host described to me, spinster-with-a-novel, as roast beef, and to the lovers at the next table over as rosso passione (red passion). Indeed it was. The gorgeous beef, barely seared and sliced paper-thin, was drizzled with a rich olive oil and sprinkled with black, pink, and green peppercorns, each with a distinct perfume and piquancy. Chopped arugula decorated the margins of the plate.
I don’t know what it is about Sambuca, the colorless anise and elderflower-flavored liqueur. The ancients believed anise to be an aphrodisiac, but I don’t set much store by such things. For me, a sip of Sambuca is something of an amorous madeleine, causing scenes of love both chaste and profane (profane but profound) to unfold in memory. Of course, to have such a Proustian moment, one needs the original experience. Without risking further indiscretion, I’ll say only that I’ve made these cookies for my family at Christmas and for one or two very small, very successful dinner parties.
There’s a learning curve here, so don’t be afraid. It took me about six oysters and a few choice vocabulary words to get the hang of shucking. Take your time and persevere.
If you’re choosing your own oysters by hand, select ones that feel heavy and full. Tap the shell firmly with your fingernail. This should make the oyster close up tightly. Don’t buy a hollow-sounding oyster, or one with a cracked or gaping shell. The smaller an oyster is for its variety, the tenderer its flesh will be.
“Septimus, what is carnal embrace?”
“Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.”
Tom Stoppard, Arcadia
So here I embark on a month-long exploration of the deadly sin of Lust as it is evoked, expressed, encouraged, and pursued through food and drink. Long hours of practical research were involved, and I hope you enjoy the fruits of my endeavor.
But before fruit comes flesh. Few foods so vividly conjure the animal passions as red meat. When we lust, it’s the flesh of another we’re after for the satisfaction of our own, and when we eat meat, we’re reminded of our own carnality. That reminder is particularly vivid when the meat is served raw in thrillingly lurid red ribbons, or quickly seared over a high flame–for who hasn’t once felt similarly seared by desire? There’s even some sharing of vocabulary between boudoir and butcher-shop: consider, after all, the word beefcake.
Voluptuaries through the ages join me in proclaiming the oyster the nonpareil of erotic foods. The reasons for its reputed aphrodisiac powers are numerous, and many of them are obvious. M.F.K. Fisher sums it up tidily in Consider the Oyster: “Most of them are physiological . . . and have to do with an oyster’s odor, its consistency, and probably its strangeness”.
It’s true that the very act of prizing open an oyster and looking at the mysterious creature, frilled and translucent in its saline habitat, might induce the same voyeuristic flush, however unintended, as a moment in front of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde. And if you ask me, there’s something inherently lusty about slurping a live creature from its shell with all its liquor–which is the only way to do it, really. One would have to eat a great many oysters to benefit from their nutritional content (the oyster is rich in zinc, which boosts testosterone production), but the great seducers of yore seemed to have no trouble polishing off a hundred at a time, to allegedly great effect.