Saints, Cakes, and Redemption

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I’m hardly what you’d call devout. Baptized Presbyterian, despite being Greek on my mother’s side, I know next to nothing about saints. I do, however, know a thing or two about cakes—including the fleeting, unhealthy way they can fill an empty ache in your life, something I admit I felt as I sat in my parents’ house last summer, listlessly paging through a Greek cookbook while my kindergartener slept down the hall.

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The problem wasn’t just that August night. This time last year, things weren’t going well. Work was scarce, household finances unstable. But even money woes seemed preferable when set against my emotional state. Drained and depressed, I’d sunk into a lingering malaise. Maybe it was the realization that I was turning 40. Maybe the role of Restaurant Widow was taking its toll: I almost never saw my husband, a sommelier. Come Sundays, we were too exhausted to connect or even care that we didn’t. Plowing through the weeks with something akin to single-parent status, I sat alone most nights feeling irrelevant and irritable, full of too many thoughts and too much hunger.

Searching for comfort, I immersed myself in the desserts section of the book. A simple spice cake caught my eye. The ingredient list was nothing much—it included the walnuts, cinnamon, and cloves typical of Greek pastry—but the name of the recipe intrigued me, as did its legend.

Called a phanouropita (pronounced “fan-oo-RO-pee-ta”), the cake honors the Greek Orthodox Saint Phanourios, a martyred soldier whose icon, lost for centuries, was found in perfect condition under the rubble of a ransacked church in Rhodes in the early 1500s. Since then, worshippers, mostly women, have followed a tradition of baking and giving away this cake when they want to locate something missing. Phanourios, whose name relates to the Greek verb “I reveal,” apparently will find things for you, but you have to ask him. Sweetly.

Phanourios appealed to me. In his icon, he holds a lit candle, the promise of revelation, and I was sick of sitting in the dark. In truth, I felt lost. Maybe this saint and his cake could help.

The phanouropita should have been easy to make. It’s a dump-and-mix recipe, and traditionally there are only nine ingredients. Chopping nuts looked like the biggest challenge. I was okay with that. I carefully measured oil and orange juice, added sugar. I splashed in the right dose of Metaxa, its deep, dried-fruit aroma reminding me of the gravelly voices of rural yiayias, women with hard-knock lives who needed the shot of brandy more than I did. I watched tawny streaks of spice disperse through the flour as I cranked my sifter. And then I started mixing, by hand.

According to the recipe I used that day, custom required beating the batter with a wooden spoon for nine full minutes. (Nine, I found out later, are the levels of holy angels in the Church.) After two or three minutes, I was losing enthusiasm. At six minutes I started equating the task with penance. By the nine-minute mark, I figured I’d atoned for a lifetime of sin but found myself in hell anyway. My arm was on fire.

The batter had a strange consistency, gummy and dense. I coaxed it to the corners of a loaf pan. I figured it was a flop but couldn’t know unless I baked it. First, however, some ceremony was in order. I placed a printout of Phanourios’s icon on the counter and searched my mind for something the saint could retrieve for me. My husband wasn’t exactly missing; I hadn’t lost my keys or wallet. I could use another paying job, but that seemed too ambitious to start with.

In the end, I failed to ask for anything. I did, however, crouch in front of the oven to make a timid sign of the cross. When my son wandered into the kitchen and asked what I was doing, I quickly straightened and stuffed my hands in my pockets. “Nothing,” I said. “Baking a cake.”

The cake smelled like something from my grandmother’s kitchen. Cutting the traditional nine slices (those angels again), I ate one to be sure it tasted good, then bagged the others. On Sunday I planned to visit Manhattan’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral, where I’d never been before. I had no idea who I’d give the cake to, but it turned out not to matter—encountering a man begging in front of the church (he almost seemed planted there to test me), I realized I’d forgotten to bring the cake along. I gave him a dollar, sat through three hours of service, and went home. I did venture out with the cake later on, but gave up after the first homeless person turned it down.

Even giving the cake away was harder than I’d imagined.

I’m not sure what compelled me to make a full-blown project out of the phanouropita, why I couldn’t just let it go. Maybe it was stubbornness. More likely, I harbored some masochistic hope that if I kept pressing the sore, hollow spot I felt—if I kept making the cake—eventually I’d discover what was missing. I gave away cake after cake, sometimes leaving them next to sleeping homeless people, other times donating them to the church or giving them to friends. I tried different recipes and meditated on more specific prayers: perhaps the saint could find me a new client after all, or a magazine willing to take a story. I started keeping score: cakes baked, prayers answered. I prepared the same recipe in a purgatorial loop, sifting and mixing week after week, waiting for something to happen.

While I waited, I decided to take classes in food writing and offered my services as a recipe tester. I began developing and sharing my own recipes as well, wading slowly into the blogging community. I got to know the owners of Greek bakeries and specialty shops, and wherever I encountered Greeks, I made sure to ask about the cake, unearthing anecdotes about the mysterious saint. I found women who swore that Phanourios had found them a husband, or health, or a tenant for an empty apartment. Salt cellars appeared, as did wayward legal documents. The secondhand testimonials were inspiring and only intensified my craving for an outcome I could call my own.

During the first weeks of 2010, the scorecard for Phanourios stood at 11–0. I’d baked 11 cakes and none of my prayers had been answered.

Sure, the repeated act of baking and giving away a modest cake had brought me a keener sense of purpose. Yes, its traditions shoved me out into the world again, where I was interacting with people who shared my interests, especially food. And it was true that I wasn’t exactly alone anymore, rattling around inside a disconnected life. I’d found—or had been shown—new ways of engaging with others, ways that went beyond the confines I had assumed were inevitable for a stay-at-home mom, a home-alone wife, and a freelance professional whose desk was the dining table and who worked, next to piles of wrinkled laundry, on assignments for clients I never saw.

Suddenly I was stunned by my lack of insight. I’d been waiting for something that hadn’t arrived. Yet the saint had delivered the one thing I’d been missing most of all: connection. He’d done this even when I didn’t know to ask for it by name.

As for the things I did request, from that moment, they started coming, too, fast and furious through the rest of the year. New clients in the city, lucrative projects, recipe contests, and publication—Phanourios and I went on a tear. I began to think of this mysterious martyr, this solider with a sweet tooth, as my patron saint. I continued to haul his cakes around town, making them for charity events and giving them to strangers down on their luck. But the quid pro quo was over, and I stopped keeping score. There was no need to think about it anymore. Baking the cakes was now just something I did, often on Sundays—something that fed my spirit at the end of a rewarding week’s work.

There’s a deliciousness to my days now that wasn’t there before, a gratitude for the many ways I now connect with others and make a more significant contribution to the world around me. I bake the cakes less frequently, that’s true. Writing, recipe development, family life, and a full client load take up most of my time. Tomorrow, though, August 27, is the feast day of Saint Phanourios. Tonight I will bake the twenty-sixth cake in his honor. I’ll sift powdered sugar gently over the top, slice it, and have some in the morning with coffee. When I do, I’ll say a grace for all the ways my life has changed in the past year. As for giving the cake away, with my recipe for phanouropita—and a sense of what’s possible—I give it to you.

Comments

  1. Hi,

    What a great article, thank you so much! This cake will be my weekend project. I can’t wait! As for donating food, this is going to be difficult. I’ve tried to do this w/ restaurant leftovers, when the homeless gentleman declined my offer he said, “No, thank you. I have my peanut-butter crackers.”

    Those were probably better than my meal.

    Oh well.

    Thanks again!

    1. Yes, I am very surprised at times, how difficult it can be to give things away—even food to the homeless, who we assume to be also hungry.

      I’m thrilled you want to make this cake, though. Even if you don’t give the whole thing away, find someone to share it with, even one slice given to a neighbor or friend. And do let me know how you like it!

      Hopefully, whatever you seek will come to you. Thanks so much for reading the article and taking the time to comment.

  2. Allison, I LOVE this!!! Thank you so much for sharing this incredible story. If everyone in the world would bake a cake and pass it on I believe things would be very different!!! As you know I am a devout Greek-O-Phile and I am very proud to call you my friend!!!! Congratulations on a year of self discovery that has come full circle and brought boundless self fulfillment!!!

    1. Victoria, thanks so much for reading the article and taking the time to comment. I was thinking of you as this article was going to press, knowing you were probably still in Greece at the time. Next time you’re there, you’ll have to ask around to see if you uncover any stories about the phanouropita! You’re sweet to congratulate me, and I do believe you’re absolutely right about the difference it would make in the world if everyone baked and gave away even one cake. Among all the things I’m grateful for, your friendship is right up there at the top of the list. Thanks again for stopping by!

    1. I, too, am happy to take a cake-baking hiatus during this hot and humid weather. But I do hope that you’ll give the phanouropita a whirl when things cool down. And of course I hope it brings you any- and everything you’re looking for! Thanks so much for your comment, Marcela.

  3. AL,

    It is so incredible to see that you have brought your two passions together: writing and baking. What a wonderful, well-written article that I am sure has touched many people in more ways than you could ever imagine. Thank you for sharing! I am so proud of you!

    1. Karen, thank YOU! You’ve always been so supportive, such a great friend. It’s great to see you here in this space. I hope you’ll return to Leite’s for more writing and recipes (not just mine). Meantime, thanks again for reading and for taking the time to leave a comment. You’re the best.

  4. thanks for writing this. it did me a lot of good to read it. I love how at first nothing changed on the outside, but inwardly there began sort of a profound shift. I needed some inspiration, and reading your story has helped me.

    1. Claire, thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment. I’m so glad if any part of my story was helpful to you. I hope you find inspiration everywhere.

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