He had worn the same clothes, since.
The same khaki pants, too baggy below the waist. The same plaid shirt, red and brown and blue; buttoned-up but one button; slightly short in the sleeves. The same wooly socks; grey now, once white. He had worn in and out the same clothes, since: washing them each evening, putting them back on each morning. Everyday, because he didn’t know what else to wear. Every morning, because she had always picked and laid, ironed and folded his clothes for the day.
He got used to the quiet very quickly.
He found the house too big, yes, but never too quiet. The quiet of her lack was more comforting than the clamour of others’ conversation. He got used to the quiet and he even sometimes liked the quiet. As a principle, he did not like much.
He had liked her, of course.
Loved her, yes, but more importantly, liked her. He had liked who she was, how she was, what she did and how she did it. He had liked her smile, her laugh, her slight limp developed in the last of years. He was and had been madly in love with her.
But he liked that he liked her most of all.
Oh, how he had liked and loved her cooking. Words could not describe it; how could they? Her wonderful, never-ending, smelly, yummy cooking (they fell short, always). His creased lips smacked together, wet and dry at the same time, just thinking about it. Tongue out, licking and remembering. He had his favourites, of course: Shepherd’s pie with new potatoes, salmon (smoked, herself) with dill and red onion that tanged the tongue, bubbled rhubarb crisp with fresh cream from the road’s farm. She had always served his with more crisp than rhubarb, as he liked it, as he loved it. Smack-Smack, wet-dry; oh! how he missed her cooking.
He had not eaten much since she had been gone. He had not really been hungry. Had not really thought about food (she normally thought about food enough for the both of them). Though sitting there, in his chair, lips smacking and mind remembering what once ended so beautifully his days and evenings, he felt that his stomach really did start to rumble. He rubbed it, slowly, methodically, thinking and smacking and rumbling and wishing she was there. But she wasn’t. She would never be there, here, again.
He stood from his chair in a movement swifter than his old legs would normally allow.He strode to the kitchen. He turned on the light. It was just as she left it: perfectly clean and perfectly stocked. Pots and pans hung from the ceiling, facing and smiling at each other in the early evening light. Spatulas waved, welcoming him into territory he had long avoided. Standing there, sun just set, he wondered to himself why? Why had he avoided? Why had he avoided this place, her place? They could have cooked here together. He swallowed a lump and wiped his creases. He rolled up his too short sleeves and pulled a book off the shelf.
He made lasagna the first night. It seemed as safe as it was difficult. He wanted a challenge, to feel a challenge. He made comforting lasagna for two and left her portion out on the table as he ate, as he cleaned and as he climbed the stairs for bed. It was still there, of course, in the morning.
He made greek moussaka the second night. Like lasagna, but more… more something. He didn’t know, but he liked it more. Liked the way it tasted like cinnamon yet he couldn’t remember having added any. Her portion grew cold on a blue plate as the moon fell away among the clouds and the sun rose red.
He made shepherd’s pie the third night. His favourite, with the new potatoes he loved, he liked, just as she had always made it. It wasn’t as good, no; but he ate it happily and dished her a portion half the size of his own (as she liked it). He ate it the next day, room temperature and waiting, for his breakfast.
He made roast chicken and poached salmon and caramelized brussel sprouts and caramelized onions and caramelized carrots. (To caramelize became his favourite method). He made banana bread and homemade ice cream and yes, even rhubarb crisp. It was not as good, though: he didn’t know that she had always doubled the butter. He cooked and baked, always for two, and found himself enjoying his days and his evenings; forgetting to wash the clothes he always wore, he sometimes found others; anything to throw on to get into the kitchen.
He cooked and baked and she never came to join him.
And then, one morning, he remembered something vital. Something of her, of her energy and her spirit and all that she was. He remembered her favourite dish: Zucchini Cake.
She had always loved it: to bake it, to eat it, to serve it to others and see their full-mouthed smiles. Everybody loved it, everybody had to have it; but no one loved it like her. Every year, her birthday dinner found itself crowned with zucchini cake at midnight; a toast to another year and another perfect cake. A toast to her and her life. He couldn’t eat it without tasting her. She ate it for breakfast, always, the next day, getting up extra early to sneak down and finish off a soft, iced chunk before he awoke. He pretended not to notice.
He searched her books for the recipe. He searched and searched, skimming an old finger down batter-spattered indexes but her carrot cake went unfound.
He looked about the kitchen. Of course: it was her recipe. He would not find it among these stranger books. He flew to the kitchen drawer; a drawer long avoided; her notes and addresses and unattended appointment cards. He flew to the kitchen drawer and flung it open and found his hands rummaging among the notes of her own.
It took him much of the afternoon, to sift and squint, page to page, note to card; and yes, there it was. “My Zucchini Cake.” There it was.
He smiled to himself and swallowed another lump, a happy lump; it was hers.
He got to baking, taking his time, keeping in check the abandon he had learned to enjoy among the pots and pans and spatulas that he had come to see as friends.
He took his time and baked a perfect (he hoped) cake. Coated in thick cream cheese icing, not too sweet (“too sweet was never good,” she had always said); layers full of beautiful new zucchini and sweet cinnamon and sugar; stacked like bricks and handled with care. He cut two slices, carefully placed them on matching plates. This would be his dinner. Together on the table, he sat down to his own. He felt his fork cushion texture, sort and moist and rich and full; he felt it swipe the cream cheese frosting. He felt it in his mouth. He smiled; it was just as good; it was just like hers.
He washed his dish and turned out the kitchen light, crept up the stairs with a backward look at the lone slice. He slept soundly that night, more soundly than he had since the day. He awoke with a start and knew not to go down yet. Not yet: he would wait. Too early: he had always pretended not to notice.
When he went down some time later, he put on the coffee with a large smile. He looked out the window and poured his cup and smiled like he hadn’t since the day. He cleared her empty dish and was happy she had liked it, hoped she had loved it.
Zucchini Pound Cake with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Icing
Adapted from the Joy the Baker Cookbook
This cake is seriously amazing. The zucchini and cinnamon keep things humble while the icing makes this dessert celebration worthy. The recipe below is a for a 12-cup bundt pan but I don’t have one so I simple halved the recipe and baked it in a 9-inch round cake pan. Joy the Baker is my favourite food blog: I’m so happy to have her cookbook!
You will need:
3 cups all-purpose (unbleached) flour - *Note: I used half all-purpose and half whole wheat flour and it turned out fine
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 tsp ground cinnamon
8 ounces cream cheese, softened (room temperature)
2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 cups shredded zucchini
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp molasses
Pinch of salt
1 ¾ cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour 12-cup bundt pan.
Whisk flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon together in a medium bowl. In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, beat cream cheese and sugar on medium speed until well combined (about 2 minutes). Add eggs one at a time, beating to blend for 1 minute after each addition. Add vanilla and beat to incorporate. Turn mixer to low speed and add melted butter. Increase speed to medium-high and mix batter until velvet-smooth (about 3 minutes).
Reduce mixer to low speed once again and add flour mixture - beat until just incorporated. Remove bowl from mixer and fold in zucchini by hand.
Spoon batter into prepared pan and bake for 45-50 minutes or until a skewer-tester comes out clean. Remove cake from the oven and allow to cool for 20 minutes. Invert cake pan onto a wire rack to allow to cool completely before frosting.
Beat cream cheese in the bowl of an electric stand mixer for about 1 minute until smooth (no clumps). Scrape down sides of bowl and add butter – mix on medium speed until combined.
Add brown sugar and molasses and beat on medium speed for 30 seconds. Turn the mixer on low and add salt, confectioner’s sugar and vanilla. Beat until almost incorporated and then stop machine and scrape down sides of bowl. Beat on medium speed until velvet soft. Use immediately, spreading over entire cake.