Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo? Well, it’s Valentine’s Day so really, what other tale of star-crossed love, murder and suicide could I possibly blog about on this day of hearts and romance than Romeo and Juliet? Seriously though, during my recent move, I finally found my huge book of Shakespeare’s plays which had been lost for awhile, and decided to browse through it and see what culinary inspiration I could find.
I’d forgotten what a beautifully written play it is, and for a tale filled with men fighting, bloodshed, poison and death, it’s actually quite hilarious in certain parts. The Nurse, for example, is a marvelous comedic foil to Juliet’s drama, and I never truly realized how wonderful the character of Mercutio is, by turns witty, sarcastic, declamatory and with some really humorous lines, though he is also pretty crass at times, especially at the Nurse’s expense. There is also that underlying hint of homoeroticism from Mercutio toward Romeo, though maybe that’s just reading it from a modern perspective or from way too much literary theory left over from my grad school days.
Anyway, for the maybe 5 people in this world who haven’t heard of Romeo and Juliet or weren’t forced to read it in high-school English class, the basic story is that of two young – and I mean teenagers – lovers from warring families who see each other at a party, and it’s love at first sight. Romeo is part of the Montague family of Verona, and Juliet’s family, the Capulets, are another leading family. The two families are sworn enemies, so you see the complication when Romeo and Juliet declare their mutual adoration and passion and are secretly married. Juliet’s cousin Tybalt threatens to kill Romeo and Romeo refuses to fight him since he considers Tybalt family due to the secret marriage. Romeo’s best friend Mercutio (mentioned above) is furious that Romeo won’t fight, so he in turn duels with Tybalt and is killed, uttering that famous line “a plague o’ both your houses!” Romeo is enraged at his friend’s death, fights and kills Tybalt in turn, and is banished from Verona.
Before he leaves, he and Juliet consummate their marriage, and the next day, Juliet’s parents betroth her to Count Paris. Obviously they don’t know about her marriage to Romeo. Juliet doesn’t know what to do, so she goes to the priest who secretly married them, Friar Laurence, who offers her some kind of potion that will make everyone think she has died, and during the time her family thinks she is dead, Friar Laurence will send for Romeo to come and claim Juliet as his wife. Well, the best-laid plans of mice and men, as the saying goes. Romeo, of course, doesn’t get the message, returns to find Juliet “dead,” is heartbroken and poisons himself, lying next to Juliet’s body as he dies. She awakens, sees him dead, and stabs herself in the heart, thus joining him in the great hereafter. The two families reconcile when they discover the bodies of their children, but what a price to pay!
In researching the origins of this story and how Shakespeare came to write about it, I discovered a few interesting facts about the story. First off, there are mentions of the Montague and Capulet families in Dante Alighieri’s Purgatorio, or rather, the Italian (and genuine) versions of these Anglicized surnames: the Montecchi and the Cappeletti, which I thought was bitchin’ cool. Supposedly, this story was also based on a true story of two medieval teenagers in the city of Verona, which was considered a city-state at the time, who fell in love, were not allowed to marry, and killed themselves. Kids, I tell ya! Talk about taking dramatic to the ultimate level! I suppose it’s understandable, though. Teenagers have all those raging hormones and when you’re growing up and learning about love and sex, it’s pretty much all you can think about. And when you’re told you can’t have something, what makes you want it more than knowing it’s forbidden? That ol’ forbidden fruit always tastes the sweetest, even when you’re an adult.
Speaking of fruit, there is the food in Shakespeare, which I find fascinating. Cakes and ale, the funeral baked meats of Hamlet (see my blog post on that here), junkets and possets, marchpane and sallets, and in this particular play, Act IV, Scene IV, gives us another fun foodie reference when the Nurse is presenting the menu for Juliet’s wedding to Count Paris to Lady Capulet and tells her “They call for dates and quinces in the pastry.” Well, quinces are not easy to find here in the dry Southwest, though after a thorough search of Whole Foods, I did find quince paste, also called membrillo, which I remember fondly from my time living in Spain. I also found some dates, and after additional baking research, I decided a quince paste-date-and almond cake was in order. In a heart-shaped pan, no less. Well, it’s Valentine’s Day, and as my idol Nigella Lawson said about this holiday in her marvelous cookbook Feast, if you’re going to get wet, you might as well go swimming.
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Zest and juice of 2 clementines
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cup plain flour
1 cup finely ground almonds
1/2 cup almond flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup finely chopped dates
4 eggs, room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 5-oz container of quince paste (membrillo), cut into thin strips
Pre-heat the oven to 350F and mix the zest and juice of the lemon and clementines together with the sugar in a mixing bowl. This infuses the sugar with the citrus oils and adds to the flavor.
Add in the flour, the baking powder, the ground almonds and the almond flour, the cinnamon and the sea salt, and mix well to combine.
In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs and vanilla and add this to the flour mixture.
Chop the dates and add them to the batter. Mix until smooth.
Oil your cakepan and spoon in about the batter. It’s quite thick so you may need a spatula.
Lay the quince slices on top of the batter and press them in so they are embedded.
Bake for approximately 45 minutes, or until the batter sets and a toothpick inserted in it comes out clean. Allow to cool completely before upending the cake pan and turning the finished cake onto a plate. Admire before applying to face.
A very Happy Valentine’s Day to all you star-crossed lovers out there!