When our family arrived in the tiny landlocked African country where my husband was to begin his work at the American embassy, Helga B. had already been living there for three years. I met her for the first time one night at a party. None of the guests that evening could have imagined that within two more years many of them would make their final, hurried departure from this capital city in an international hodgepodge of chartered and military planes to escape a war. In this region of Africa, our new home was reputed to be the island of stability.
The first words Helga ever spoke to me (after the usual preliminary introductions) were: “I will show you where to buy butter.” This wasn’t a place known for its easy living. Sometimes there were shortages of the basics– flour, sugar, eggs and…butter. Helga, like the virtuous woman of Proverbs had learned to “bringeth her food from afar”. She gave me my first lesson in bulk buying and laying in supplies.
Several days after the party, I was sitting beside her as she steered her big Land Cruiser down dirt roads, bumping over rocks and into potholes, until at last we arrived at a walled compound and turned in through its gates. The bare yard was a field of puddles and mud from the recent rain. Several chickens had taken refuge on higher ground, under the shelter of the verandah. As the car doors slammed, a small boy appeared in the open doorway, glanced in our direction, and quietly disappeared. We picked our way over the drier parts of the yard, up the front steps, and went inside. There was the same child, seated beside a young man at a long wooden table. Some books lay open before them and they bent their heads over one, reading by the dim light which shone through an open window. In a far corner, against the back wall stood two large freezers.
There was a scuffle of slippers and a woman came through the curtained door separating this room from the interior of the house. She greeted Helga (a steady customer), and in passing, to the child, “Pay attention–this tutor’s expensive.” We followed her into the corner of the room which was her place of business. A friend had come in from Paris on this week’s flight, she said, and we were in luck. In her suitcases she had brought in a big shipment of butter. She lifted the freezer lid to show that it was full of frozen French butter and asked how many we wanted.
Helga’s disapproval of my meager purchase of 12 pounds was not entirely concealed. She realized I wasn’t accustomed to this sort of shopping. But, if I didn’t mind a little advice, I should take advantage of this opportunity and buy twice that amount. She herself bought three times as much.
Here is what Helga did with a portion of her butter every few months: she gave an afternoon cake and coffee party. It always included five guests plus Helga, and began at 3 in the afternoon. This was a town of many expats–always going and coming. The guest list for one of Helga’s parties typically covered all these temporary living conditions. There would be a newcomer, someone leaving, and a few of those ‘in-between’.
The house where Helga lived sat high on the side of a hill, above the river which formed the country’s southern boundary. The road ending at her gate wound through a ‘quartier’ of thatched mud huts and ended at her door. A large unfriendly goose welcomed arrivals with a hiss. She adored Helga, heartily disliked everyone else, and earned her keep by diminishing the snake population in the garden.
Inside, in a corner of the living room a round table was set up, laid with china and silver and decorated with some pretty flowers. After pouring coffee, Helga brought out the cakes. There were always at least three of them, high rising, single-layered, and substantial, meant to be eaten all on their own–not as after-dinner dessert. Usually they involved fruit, nuts, perhaps some citrus flavouring, brandy or rum and always–butter. There would be, too, a bowl of whipped cream to add to the cakes or to a cup of coffee.
These afternoon coffees didn’t occur often but when they did the esprit was warmly festive. That is why they were called ‘parties’. When no one could drink another cup or touch another bite, bottles of cold, white wine replaced the coffee service on the side table. Helga’s husband came home from his day of work at the German embassy. Everyone shifted to the living room sofa and chairs and had an evening drink together.
People lingered, talking a little, gazing out the window that framed the evening sky. Down across the hillside ribbons of smoke rose from cooking fires in the quartier. The sun lowered over the water far below and the neighboring country on the distant bank disappeared into the night.
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- some Butter to grease the pan and some Flour to dust over it
- 8 large Quetsch Plums (about 1 pound or 550 grams), cut in half and pitted
- 1 cup of granulated White Sugar, plus 4 Tablespoons of Sugar divided into two equal parts (2 Tablespoons and 2 Tablespoons)
- 1/4 cup of Brandy or Cognac
- 8 Tablespoons of Butter, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon of Lemon Zest, finely grated
- 1 teaspoon of Vanilla Extract
- 1 cup of Flour
- 1/2 teaspoon of Baking Powder
- 1/2 teaspoon of Salt
- 2 large Eggs, at room temperature
- 1 ounce of Walnuts (25 grams), toasted, ground and cooled (or about 1/4 cup of ground, toasted walnuts, cooled)
- some Powdered Sugar to sprinkle over the baked cake
- a bowl of lightly whipped and sweetened Heavy Cream is nice to serve alongside the cake
- a Processor or Blender for grinding the walnuts
- a 9-inch Springform Pan, lined with Parchment Paper
- 2 Mixing Bowls
- a Sifter
- a Mixer, hand or standing
- a small Strainer for sprinkling powdered sugar over the baked cake
2. Place the halved and pitted plums in a bowl. Pour the brandy over them and sprinkle them with 2 Tablespoons of the sugar divided into two parts:
3. Cream the butter with 1 cup of sugar, the grated lemon zest, and the vanilla extract until the mixture is light and fluffy. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together and beat them into the butter.
4. Beat the eggs until they start to foam. Add them and the walnuts to the flour and butter:
5. Pour the batter into the pan. Arrange the plums on top in rings, cut side down. Sprinkle with any remaining brandy/sugar syrup and the remaining 2 Tablespoons of sugar. (The syrup may leak from the pan onto the oven floor. A piece of foil placed on the rack below the one holding the cake will catch the drips.):
…before removing the ring of the springform pan and transferring the cake to a plate. (It isn’t essential to remove the cake from the bottom of the pan and peel off the parchment. The cake is best when served warm and before it cools it’s difficult to remove the paper.) Put a little powdered sugar in a small strainer and sieve the sugar over the top of the cake…
A Note: Quetsch Plum and Walnut Butter Cake is especially good served while it is still warm. It is one of three desserts in the Occasional Menu: Helga’s Cake and Coffee Party…