The Golem and The Jinni by Helene Wecker

This book, The Golem and The Jinni, is the literary equivalent of being in an opium dream. Strange creatures, lyrical and unusual prose, mad leaps of logic, fantasy oases in the desert, and food descriptions that are so real you can almost smell the scent of cinnamon and yogurt and herbs.

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The premise, a woman named Chava who was created to be the perfect mate and formed out of earth and water – the clay golem of ancient Jewish tradition – and a jinni – an Arabic creature imprisoned for 1000 years in a brass jar, calling himself Ahmad and made of desert fire – cross paths in 1890s New York City. Both are immortal creatures created from the elements – fire and earth – and both completely out of their elements. The novel is fascinating in its details of turn-of-the-century industrial New York, and clearly delineates the class differences, as well as the strong clash of culture, religion and ethnicity that defined this era, and still does define us, to this day. It makes a powerful political statement as well, given the current state of affairs between modern-day  Jews and Arabs, and indeed the current state of affairs in American politics, as well as the fact that I found myself reading it during Lent. With all that, it seemed very appropriate given the Judeo-Christian-Arabic-centric world that we seem to live in these days.

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What I liked is the hope inherent in the book. The hope that, no matter what, our differences can all be overcome because we are all the same in our hearts. We seek knowledge, we seek companionship, we seek self-improvement, and we seek love. Perhaps we worship our god or gods differently, perhaps we see the world in a certain way, perhaps how we were raised to view the world around us strongly colors how we perceive ourselves and each other. But, and I truly believe this in my heart and soul, we all are the same under the skin. We are all human, we all want and desire and need and strive for the same things. This book demonstrates that, even with two main characters who are not human. But their wants and needs and desires mirror those of the humans around them, and their subsequent actions make them far more human than many real human beings. The language is lyrical and dreamlike, yet grounded in the harsh reality that was 1890s New York City -and that reality that is probably similar today.

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Chava’s master dies on the ship that brings them to America, and she is found and taken in by Rabbi Avram Meyer, who instantly sees what she is. She doesn’t sleep, doesn’t eat, yet is a creature of industry, so he gives her (in one of the cutest passages of the book) a copy of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book and instructs her to learn to cook, but doesn’t specify that she doesn’t need to make lobster or vichyssoise or or gnocchi a la Romaine. She is just told to cook, and boy, does she! Mountains of cake, pastries, bread. muffins and cookies soon pile up on his counter and the Rabbi tells her instead to bake him a simple coffee-cake. Chava, being what she is, of course bakes him the most marvelous coffee-cake ever in the world, and it’s the description of her sheer pleasure in the baking process, inspired me to try it.

“She baked the coffee cake, following the directions with fervent exactitude, and was successful in her first attempt. She was pleasantly surprised at the ease of the chore, and at the almost magical way that the oven transformed the thick batter into something else entirely, something solid, warm, and fragrant. The Rabbi ate two slices with his morning tea and declared it one of the best cakes he’d ever tasted.”

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For the record, I don’t like baking. I hate following the rules, as anyone who knows me can attest to. Screw the rules and do your own thing, is my motto. You can do that with cooking, toss in some spices here, salt there, herbs here, olive oil over there. You generally end up with something quite good. But holy hell…….baking. Kill me now. If you get crazy with the baking soda or add in one too many eggs, you have a mess. Possibly a delicious-tasting mess, or perhaps a lovely-looking and horrible-tasting mess……but you still have a mess. I don’t like mess, but I love coffee-cake and so wanted to make this dish, so I researched, read and said a few rosaries, then I set my hand to baking a coffee cake with walnuts and cinnamon, because there is nothing that cinnamon doesn’t make better. Essentially what I did is tweak my grandmother’s plain old cake recipe, used brown sugar in place of white, used my round springform baking pan, and a few other interesting little things, which I detail below.

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

For the streusel layer and topping:
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 cup chopped walnuts

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For the batter:
3 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup butter, preferably unsalted and softened
1 1/2 cup brown sugar
3 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/2 cup milk or half-and-half
2 tablespoons vanilla

METHOD

Pre-heat your oven to 350F. In a small bowl, combine the streusel ingredients, mix together well, and set aside while you assemble your batter.

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In a separate bowl, combine the 3 cups of flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt, and mix together well with a wooden spoon.

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In yet another bowl (did I mention you’ll be washing a lot of dishes after this cake is done?), combine the 1 1/2 cups of brown sugar and the butter. Make sure your butter is softened, because you’ll get funky little lumps that you’ll need to mush out with your fingers and that just makes more of a mess. (Not that this happened, I’m just SAYING it could happen if your butter isn’t sufficiently soft.) Once the butter/sugar mix is combined and creamy, add 1 egg at a time and mix. Don’t put in all three egss at once, or you’ll get a big lump of batter, instead of a smooth, creamy, mocha-colored texture. Like this.

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Once your wet ingredients have been amalgamated into a nice, smooth, creamy ointment, gradually add in your bowl of dry ingredients, stirring at intervals to incorporate. Alternate the dry ingredients with the Greek yogurt, the half-and-half, and the vanilla. Stir together with a wooden spoon. It may take a few minutes, and your batter might get stiff and seize up as you add the flour mixture, so keep stirring steadily and as you add in the yogurt, half-and-half, and vanilla, you’ll see it loosen up again. The final batter will be rather thick, like this. But it’s supposed to be that way…….I think.

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Add the cake batter to a buttered cake pan. I know a coffee cake should be made in a ring shape, with a hole in the center, but I don’t have a ring cake mold, so I used my tried-and-true springform round pan, lining it with a parchment round of paper, buttering the sides and then adding the half the batter and spreading it around the base and a bit up the sides.

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Sprinkle half of the walnut-brown sugar-cinnamon mixture over the batter, then add the remaining batter across the top and the rest of the nut/sugar/cinnamon. Put the springform pan onto a rectangular baking sheet in case of any drips (I learned this tip from the domestic goddess Nigella Lawson, who I want to be when I grow up), and put into the oven. Bake for 45 minutes, then remove from the oven and let cool. Serve with a strong cup of coffee or tea, as the mood suits you.

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I must be honest and ‘fess up that my cake was somewhat dry, though it did taste very good. Well, I am not called the Baking Goddess for a reason. I think baking at high altitude requires adjustments, so going forward, I would use 2 1/2 cups of flour, increase the Greek yogurt to 1 1/2 cups, a half-cup of milk, and increase the butter to a full cup. It is still very good, but with these adjustments, hopefully will be excellent next time!

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Maybe, she thought as she fastened her cloak, there was some middle ground to be had, a resting place between passion and practicality…….Any path they chose would not be an easy one. But perhaps she could allow herself to hope.

 

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