My younger brother and I grew up in a large split-level bungalow in the suburbs outside of Montreal. It didn’t have a white picket fence, but it was flanked by tall weeping birches, big swaths of grass and a cherry tree that bore bright red fruit right around mid-July. From the time we were born, until the time we each turned eighteen, it was the one and only house we’d ever lived in – the one with the family room fireplace and the secret cedar closet disguised as a bookshelf; the one with the damp-ish basement that always gave us the creeps and the “GARDE AU CHIEN” sign on the garage door left by the previous owner (which we kept, despite never owning a dog).
A few short years after we’d flown the coop, my parents decided to sell the split-level bungalow for the same reason most empty-nesters do – too much space for too few people. It was a process that I’d been largely removed from, having just moved in with my college boyfriend at the same time that I’d started my first desk job out of university. But we did come back to the house from time to time, for dinners and birthdays and for the occasional dip in the pool. Once the house went on the market, though, it suddenly became a very different place to be in. This space that was once ours would soon belong to another family, with new sets of feet padding the floors, new laughter, new smells. It was an odd thing to consider, but it was something that would float into my thoughts with every visit, when I’d sink my toes into the grey carpet of my old bedroom, or hear the antique clock chime in the dining room with that deep, guttural bong, bong, bong – both familiar and foreboding.
The house stayed on the market for several months. I want to say that it was close to a year, but my recollection of the exact time frame is a bit fuzzy. I do remember there being a pyrite problem that was discovered late in the game, changing the terms of the sale and the balance in negotiations. I remember that it was a year in favour of buyers, not sellers. I remember that the first real estate agent was a total nightmare and that there were times when the sale of the house felt like it would be in perpetual limbo. But I also remember that, throughout the highs and lows of the house-selling process, my mother baked. And baked. And baked. Before every open house, she’d have something sweet rising in the oven – a lemon loaf, a coffee cake, a pan of blueberry muffins. Initially, I thought it was mom just being mom – the ultimate hostess – but as it tuns out, her objective was strategic. By her logic, filling the house with the warm aroma of baked goods would encourage prospective buyers to – at least subconsciously – feel at home.
It was quite the trick.
The house did eventually sell – to a young family with two kids, a boy and a girl, mirroring our own family unit of four. And while there’s no way of knowing if their choice was influenced by the scent of buttered scones or a batch of oatmeal cookies crisping up in the oven, I suspect it couldn’t have hurt.
All this came to mind a couple of weeks ago, when I was staring slack-jawed at all the boxes on the floor of our new apartment, overcome by that uneasy, post-move feeling where no place feels like home. I knew that if I was going to wrap my head (and my heart) around this new space, I had to take a cue from my mother and – for lack of a better word – “trick” myself into making it feel like home. And so, one quiet evening after work, I plunked my purse onto the floor, flipped on the radio, threw on an apron, and started fiddling in the cupboard for some flour, sugar, walnuts and dried figs – the few ingredients that had made the trip from the old apartment. I also happened to have a Goliath-sized zucchini on hand, recently excavated from Sophie‘s garden; that got shredded and tossed into a bowl alongside two eggs, some yogurt and a bit of brown sugar. The batter was stirred together and scooped into a greased loaf pan, then slid into the oven, where it baked low and slow for the better part of an hour. As the apartment gradually filled with the heady scent of sugar caramelising in the oven, things started to feel a little more familiar and a little less alien. Having something ticking away in the oven made everything inside these four walls feel more like home. My home. Our home.
There might still be dozens of books on the dining room floor and old wine-boxes filled with miscellaneous cooking gear. But we’re getting there. And the kitchen turned out to be a good place to start.
Fig Zucchini Walnut Bread (makes 1 loaf) – adapted from A Brown Table
- 1 lb zucchini
- 1 cup dried figs, chopped
- 2 large eggs
- 1/4 cup minus 1 tablespoon olive oil*
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
- 4 1/4 ounces all-purpose flour
- 4 1/4 ounces whole wheat flour
- 1/2 teaspoon dried ginger powder
- 1/8 tsp nutmeg (optional)
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher sea salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
- 6 whole figs dried, thinly sliced across their length
*1 tablespoon olive oil + a little all-purpose flour for coating the loaf pan
1) Place a wire rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350°F. Coat a 8 1/2″ x 4 1/2″ loaf pan with a little oil and dust with a little flour.
2) Trim the ends off the zucchini and grate them into fine shreds. Transfer the zucchini into a larger strainer lined with cheesecloth or muslin (or, my personal favourite – a Du-Rag!). Bring the ends of the cheesecloth together and squeeze the zucchini to release as much as liquid as possible. Discard the liquid (or freeze in an ice-cube tray for later use in a vegetable stock) and place the shredded zucchini in a large mixing bowl.
3) Add the chopped dried figs to the zucchini along with the eggs, oil, vanilla, sugar and yogurt. Mix with a wooden spoon until combined.
4) In a separate bowl, whisk the flours, ginger powder, nutmeg, salt, baking soda, and baking powder. Gradually combine the flour mixture into the wet ingredients. Fold the walnuts into the batter and then transfer the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Place the thinly sliced whole figs in a single center row on top of the batter in the pan.
5) Bake for about 45-50 minutes, rotating once during the baking process. To test for doneness, stick a knife in the centre – if it comes out clean (with a few crumbs), it’s done. Allow the bread to cool for 10 minutes in the pan and the run the edges of a knife around the cake. Remove and allow the bread to cool on a wire rack. Keeps for 3-4 days at room temperature.