On the beauty and restlessness of solitude + a layered walnut cake with Italian meringue & mascarpone frosting, figs, and salty caramel

I think I have become less tolerant.
I cannot say why, if it is a matter of growth or rather an attitude that – from a certain point onwards – has been more convenient for me to adopt, but the fact is that I have come to believe that one who learns to feel good with himself will be no longer fully satisfied by anyone’s company.

I personally no longer accept as “normal” a whole series of things that once I would have simply borne by rolling my eyes.
The fact is that being demanding no longer embarrasses me; I am not ashamed to express my way of being in the world, even when this may perhaps be considered inconvenient.
This does not mean being less patient, available or without an adapting attitude, but just cherishing self-respect and always protecting it.
Someone may object and consider it a form of selfishness, but let me say what I think, while I distract you with the pictures of what is undoubtedly the best cake I have ever made.

Listening and giving importance to your needs is an extremely altruistic act. Let me tell you why.
Focusing on yourself is the fundamental and indispensable condition to be yourself, in the world and with others. When you are fully in tune with your needs or desires, you are able to respond to them. This is the basic prerequisite for doing the same with others. If you are not yourself, you cannot be with others.
I always thought I was solitary by nature, but what I did not realize is that I actually love being with others – not with anyone, though.
Savoring solitude to me is a good way to learn to value time, which in turn becomes extremely valuable.
Many people seek contact with others, believing that  they will feel less lonely if they are surrounded by other people, but most of them just don’t think that loneliness – the suffering feeling of being alone, as opposed to beauty of solitude – is actually the paradoxical consequence of continuously searching outside of oneself (and in others) for what we believe we need.

Loneliness is an incredibly actual theme, especially for my generation, who grew up with the world at hand: we have social media but we still feel alone, it is a paradox that I think most of us know all too well. Dramatically well, I would say.
At least half of my closest friends are melancholic. They say they are melancholic because of their lifestyle. Most of them are creative, freelancers, spending many hours a day alone doing what they love to do. Sometimes I get vocal messages from them that sound more like podcasts, considering how long they are. They talk to me about everything, and I listen with pleasure, always replying with equally long messages that I record in my garden (walking among zucchini, where there is silence), sometimes feeling a bit like a psychoanalyst of the poor.
Vocal notes are the ideal means of communication of this time. You can clear your conscience having a freewheeling talk more to yourself than with someone else. There are neither pauses nor interruptions in the conversation, you can talk at any time of day or night, precisely when you most need to talk to someone, without surprising anyone at the wrong time, without risking being told: “I can’t talk now, call me later”.
I kinda like vocal notes.
It is like delivering a bomb in a lock box: you’re only going to know that it has exploded when the WhatsApp flags turn blue.
What is certain is that my neighbor, the old one, watching me walking and talking alone in the middle of the zucchini field, thinks I am nuts…. but, who cares. What do they know, the aged, about blue flags and social media anxiety disorders??

Anyway, soaking ourselves into hyper-activity and hyper-stimulation is a good way to avoid giving space to our unconscious and to avoid dealing with the big mess that almost everyone has inside. It might be scary to slip through the dark meanders of solitude, when you’re not ready to face it. Getting into an endless spiral of commitments is certainly the most effective way to fill that space – a frightening space, for someone – where you can be alone with yourself and with all that comes with it. Both the good and the bad part of it.
Friedrich Nietzsche said that the value of a man is measured by the amount of solitude he can bear. I have a theory, though, that sounds a bit like the opposite of what has just been said. To me, it is not solitude that must be borne, but the quantity of mediocre relationships that we establish over the course of our lives and the amount of precious time we dedicate to them.
Knowing how to choose the people I spend time with, what kind and how many people to surround myself with, is a task that I entrust to my current degree of tolerance which, as I said before, I have positively refined thanks to the time I spend in solitude and, as a consequence, it is no longer as wide as it used to be.

Loneliness can lead to extraordinary forms of freedom. It can lead to introspection and free our creative genius. It does not embarrass me to express my solitude also through what I do, because this is precisely how communication actually takes place.
When we make our most fragile humanity available, we can raise our awareness about our existence … and isn’t perhaps also Art a means to understanding it?
Loneliness is a great human contradiction, a disquiet from which we want to escape, but it is necessary to know ourselves intimately, to evolve, to appreciate others, to be in the world. Much better with a cake to enjoy, alone or in company, it’s fine just the same.

Recipe type: sweet - dessert
For the cake:
*(2 x 16 cm / 6.5 inch diameter pan)
  • 250 g flour 00
  • 150 g of walnuts
  • 4 eggs
  • 150 g sugar
  • 200 ml milk
  • ½ sachet of instant yeast for cakes
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 2 ml natural vanilla extract
  • 1 pinch of cinnamon
  • 1 pinch of nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa
  • ¼ glass of Nocino*
  • A knob of butter to grease the molds
*Nocino is a traditional Italian liqueur made with green walnuts – You can alternatively use another liqueur such as Amaretto, or you can just skip it.
For the frosting:
  • 30 ml of water
  • 70 g of egg white
  • 140 g sugar
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 250 g mascarpone
For the salty caramel:
  • 200 g granulated sugar
  • 200 g heavy cream
  • 100 g salted butter, room temperature, cut into cubes
  • 1 pinch of pink salt
To decorate:
  • 10 purple figs
  • 1 handful of nuts
  1. Begin with salted caramel that can also be prepared the day before. Place the sugar into a medium saucepan over low-high heat, and let it caramelize without stirring until it has turned into a deep-amber fluid sticky liquid. Meanwhile, warm the heavy cream in a small saucepan without bringing to boil.
  2. When the caramel is ready, slowly pour into it the warm cream, stirring with a whisk and simmering the mixture for a minute until well combined and perfectly smooth.
  3. Remove from the heat and add butter (at room temperature) continuously stirring with the whisk, then add a pinch of salt. Pour the salty caramel into a glass jar. Caramel thickens as it cools. Cover tightly and store for up to 1 month in the refrigerator. Reheat in the microwave or on the stove to desired consistency.
  4. Proceed with the cake, first buttering the molds and preheating the oven to 180°C. With a kitchen mixer, grind the walnuts to get a coarse flour and set aside.
  5. In a bowl beat with the electric whisk two whole eggs and two yolks (keeping aside the whites into another bowl) with sugar and a pinch of salt until the mixture is puffy and frothy. Slowly pour into the mixture the milk, the vanilla extract and all the spices, stirring to combine. Sift the flour and baking powder directly into the bowl, mixing well, to avoid lumps. Add the walnut flour you have previously obtained.
  6. Beat the two egg whites you have kept aside until stiff and incorporate them into the mixture, stirring very gently. Pour the mixture into the molds by dividing it into two equal parts, and bake the cakes for 20-25 minutes at 180°C . Allow the cakes to cool into the oven without opening it, and once cold, remove them from the molds and cut them in half to get four identical discs.
  7. Proceed by making the frosting by preparing the Italian meringue. In a small saucepan, combine sugar and water. Heat over high heat and cook until sugar syrup registers 121°C on a kitchen thermometer. Meanwhile, beat the egg whites with an electric whisk until soft peaks form. With the mixer running, carefully and slowly drizzle in hot sugar syrup. Increase the whisk speed to maximum and whip until you get a stiff and shiny meringue.
  8. Separately, beat the mascarpone with the whisk, and with a spatula, add the Italian meringue a little at a time, stirring gently until well incorporated. Place the frosting in the fridge for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, wash the figs and cut them in half, or into slices.
  9. Lay the first layer of cake on a cake stand, and using a kitchen brush, slightly wet the surface with a bit of Nocino. Spread some frosting with the spatula, and cover with the second layer, then repeat until all the levels are completed.
  10. Use the remaining frosting to cover the cake, also on the sides, removing the excess cream with the back of the spatula.
  11. Pour a few tablespoons of salted caramel onto the cake, and let it drip onto the edges. Decorate with chopped figs and walnuts. Put the cake in the fridge 10 minutes before serving to let the caramel lightly thicken.

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1 Comment

  • Avatar
    Reply Jeffrey Diamond 16/10/2019 at 1:38

    I’ve really appreciated this blog Zaira, as my feelings about loneliness and valuable solitude are very similar. I have lived alone for most of my adult life, after being unsatisfied with mediocre or hurtful relationships, my circle of close friends is small but precious. I don’t watch tv though do take in a tv series occasionally which I watch online. I read. I draw, I photograph, I journal my dreams. Keep up the good work. I adore your photos, and know that were I to meet you and your partner I would like you both very much. I traveled through Venice and Italy back in 1978, before you were born 🙂

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