Pure & Perfect Soup, The Great Teacher

I’m going to share with you an old Italian soup recipe. It has only 5 simple ingredients and simmers for just 10 minutes. It costs less than a dollar per serving, yet is a life-changer! What are your expectations? I came across it on Food52 who labelled it ‘genius’ – opinions are divided.

The recipe is credited to the father of the legendary, Italian-American cookery writer Marcella Hazan. Marcella was born in 1924 in northern Italy, so we can confidently say that this recipe belongs to a certain era and tradition. It’s said, that from necessity as well as inclination, Marcella’s father, Giuseppe, was an extremely frugal cook. At the time, apparently the most expensive ingredient in this soup was the salt. The context is important and should be taken into consideration before we judge it.

Or on the other hand, we could decide to not judge it. We could just cook it and offer it with love and sincerity. Receive it with love and sincerity. Maybe it’s a bit bland, or maybe it’s heavenly, but we are a step closer to magnanimous mind. But it’s soooo hard not to judge, isn’t it?

In the Tenzo Kyōkun, Zen Master Dōgen taught that we should handle all food with respect, as if it were to be used in a meal for the emperor. ‘A dish is not superior because you have made it with choice ingredients, nor is a soup inferior because you have made it with ordinary greens,’ Dōgen teaches. Why is this attitude so important?

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The Story of a Cake

Here’s my gluten free coffee and walnut cake. It’s more than just a cake; it’s a trip down memory lane. It starts at a  cafe called UMU that I used to go to weekly up in Coromandel Town when it was my day off from cooking at the beautifully remote Mahamudra Retreat Centre… and takes in Milwaukie and NYC. Here’s the story;

A week ago, On Food52, I came across this recipe for a gluten free cake based on coconut flour and ground almonds. I’m always on the look out for GF cakes as I often cook for groups which inevitably these days include one or more people who say they are GF. The Food52 author, posting from New York, quite generously admitted that she took it from the back of a packet of Bob’s Red Mill Almond Flour (based and milled in Milwaukie)! I baked it a few days ago and thought the texture was brilliant, but it lacked oomph. (On the other hand, if you’re after a GF cake that tastes like cake – butter, sugar, eggs and hint of vanilla – here it is!!)

Then today, the memory of UMU’s cake that I used to adore, surfaced. It was a coffee syrup cake, loaded with chopped walnuts, amazingly moist and more-ish. I’d tried before to replicate it, but never with success. Until today!

The Bob’s Red Mill recipe calls for butter, but here I swapped that for coconut oil, and added the coffee and walnut elements, plus a wisp of cardamom. And Bob’s your uncle!

So… whose cake is it?!

Gluten Free Coffee & Walnut Cake


4 double shots espressoDSC02540

3/4 cup castor sugar, divided

3/4 cup of coconut oil

3 eggs

1/4 cup yoghurt (or milk, or dairy free milk)

1.5 cups ground almonds

1/2 cup coconut flour

2 tsp ground cardamom

2 tsp baking powder

large handful chopped walnuts


Heat the oven to 160c, and line a 22cm cake tin.

Make the coffee syrup by heating the espresso in a small pan on the stove with 1/4 cup sugar. Simmer until sugar has dissolved. Let cool.

Melt the coconut oil, then in a food processor blend with 1/2 cup castor sugar until well combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, then 1/4 cup of the cooled coffee syrup and the yoghurt. Mix well.

In a separate bowl, mix the almond flour, coconut flour, baking powder and ground cardamom. Add the dry ingredients to the wet, and stir in.

Scrape into your lined tin, and sprinkle over the chopped walnuts. Bake in a pre-heated oven (160c) for around 50 mins until a skewer comes out clean. Pour the remaining coffee syrup over the hot cake, and let it cool in the tin – this cake is deliciously moist! Store in refrigerator – it gets even better the second day. I liked it with a dollop of yoghurt on the side.

Thank you UMU – where it all started?



Step Away From The Recipes!

Rolling around my mind this week are two dharma stories. First, this line from Suzuki Roshi, who was commenting on how he got to a place with his American students at Tassajara where he didn’t want to give so many formal teachings. “It’s like giving you a recipe” he said to one student, “it doesn’t work. You cannot eat a recipe”. Instead he emphasised practise – zazen – living and working together, and investigating things for oneself.

When I began cooking, back in my late teens, I would come across a recipe that appealed, try it once and if it ‘worked’ and was tasty and enjoyable I would faithfully copy it down. If I wasn’t impressed by the result, it would be discarded and forgotten. I thought this was an absolutely acceptable and sensible way of ‘learning to cook’. But how much was I really learning, or was I just collecting recipes? Now when I look back at how I ‘learnt to cook’ I realise I wasn’t learning much at all. Which is the same mistake we can make with dharma too, memorising complex doctrinal teachings and profound buddhist psychology, without deeply knowing what we are knowing. Although of course, we all need to start somewhere.

suzuki2I think most of us study Buddhism like something already given to us. We think that what we should do is preserve the Buddha’s teaching, like putting food in a refrigerator. We think that to study Buddhism is to take the food out of the refrigerator. Whenever you want it, it is already there. Instead, Zen students should be interested in how to produce food from the field, from the garden, should put the emphasis on the ground. If you look at the empty garden you won’t see anything, but if you take care of the seed it will come up. The joy of Buddhism is the joy of taking care of the garden – Suzuki Roshi.

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The Perfect, Elusive Loaf

I came across this bread recipe last week, courtesy of Jim Lahey of New York’s Sullivan Street Bakery. Apparently it produces the most perfect loaf of bread, despite no special ingredients, techniques or skills. You don’t even have to knead it! They say even a 4-year-old could make it, and it’s got 5-star reviews by 1,286 people. It looks absolutely amazing, and I couldn’t wait to give it a go.

I’ve tried it 3 times already, and it’s been a failure each time.

Am I using stale flour? The wrong type of yeast? Maybe the recipe is missing some instructions… it must be Jim’s fault. Or maybe I’m using the wrong cooking vessel, the wrong temperature water? Am I trying too hard?! Not practising enough?

Why does something so seemingly obvious, simple and effective elude us?

I must just be my karma…. the conditions aren’t right…. I’ll keep trying.


(Bread photo by Liliana Fuchs)