Except when something does happen. Occasionally, the smallest of moments, the quietest of gestures, the most humble of offerings return later in ways both unexpected and delightful.
Years ago, while he was in college, my brother dated a fellow student named Marilyn. At some point, she brought (or mailed?) a walnut bread to my mother. I didn't bake much back then -- cookies, brownies, that was pretty much it -- so to me, this gift was both homespun and unique. I can't recall what my mother thought of it, but I was still living at home, and I thought it was wonderful. And I adored Marilyn. And then I finished the bread and went on with my life. Days came and went, I moved around, got married, bought socks, had babies, swept the floor. Just kidding! I hate sweeping!
My point is that the bread didn't exert a conscious pull on me. It was one moment, one item, in a lifetime of tastes and gestures and moments and banalities that all strung together in a long chain, a chain so filled with moments that each one became almost invisible.
Marilyn and my brother have remained close friends for decades. She's an absolutely lovely woman, a pediatrician, and leads a rich, full life with her husband and two sweet children.
A few months ago, she emailed me after seeing a recipe here for my mother-in-law's date nut cake. She'd made it to bring to her family in Boston, and wanted to say hello. "Dates always make me think of your mother, the person who introduced me to good dates."
My mother introduced her to good dates?!?
One of the moments on my momentchain started twinkling. It buzzed and jostled, clinked and swirled. Marilyn's resonance with my mother-in-law's date nut cake rekindled her memory of my mother's love for dates, which, in turn, rekindled my memory of Marilyn's own walnut bread, which, it turns out, was her German great-grandmother's recipe. Our chains were linked, across generations of women, across continents, across all notions of improbability.
She shared her recipe with me, and I, in turn, am sharing it with you. We are now linked, you and I.
We are linked.
Brown Sugar Toasting Bread with orange peel, clove, and honey butter
This recipe is lovingly adapted from my friend Marilyn's Great Grandmother Oehler's Nut Bread, a very simple recipe with only 7 ingredients (white sugar, milk, egg, flour, baking powder, salt, nuts). I've added some additional flavorings and made some tweaks as you'll see below, but the spirit of the bread remains the same. This is a hard, rustic, craggy-topped quick bread, meant for toasting rather than for eating straight up. I slather my toasted slices with honey butter. Marilyn likes hers with butter and salt. It keeps for several days wrapped in foil.
Makes 2 squat (1-1/2-inch high) loaves
For the bread:
Soft butter, for greasing the pans
1 scant cup dark brown sugar
1-1/2 cups milk
1 egg, beaten
2 to 3 tablespoons honey
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Zest of 2 oranges
1 cup chopped walnuts
For the honey butter:
Additional softened butter, honey, and sea salt
To make the bread: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease two standard-size (9"x5") loaf pans very well with soft butter. In a large mixing bowl, stir together all the bread ingredients, except the nuts. No fancy equipment or techniques are necessary here, but make sure the ingredients are fully incorporated, especially any floury bits at the bottom of the bowl. (I sometimes find it easier to whisk the honey into the eggs, but the choice is yours.) Stir in the nuts at the end.
Bake for 50 to 55 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. Cool completely.
Meanwhile, blend the salted honey-butter together with a spoon. I make a little at a time, using a ratio of 2 tablespoons soft butter to 1 teaspoon of honey, plus a generous pinch of salt, scaled up as you like. You can always make more later.
When the bread is cool, slice it, toast it, and slather it with honey butter.