Tundra Mysticism and a Basil-Topped Cake

Sometimes I pick at old wounds, open them up.  I do it when I'm bored; I can smell the copper hang dully in the air.  It reminds me of the pennies I used to throw in the creek behind my house.  We used to see how far we could toss them before they were eaten up, lost.  Our own wishing well, a whole brook full of secrets.  We'd have fishing poles rust next to us, the line tangled and the worms dug up in the morning left unharmed.  It was a dirty game we played on those days, we played God on those days.  We left small obols for Charon at the bottom of the creek bed.  In the fish's mouth, away from our small clenched fists.  The creek didn't have a name to use, and neither did God.

I was never good with money, throwing it in creek beds or spending it on breakable things, lost things.  I never felt comfortable with it.  It left a copper taste in my mouth and on my hands, burned holes in my hand-me-down jeans.  Even now, change lingers in the pockets of old jackets in closets of apartments I'll never live in again. I look for it between seatbelts and fast food wrappers when I need to pay the meter.

When I moved to Italy, I had less than a thousand dollars to reinvent myself.  I lost it all by October and found myself going home with someone from a bar just to have a place to stay that night.  I had even less when I moved to Texas.  California was built on loans, promises to Nolan that I'd be good this time, that I'd be better than the last time I said that.  That progress was slow but we were young and I'd remind him that I overdrafted in Italy and somehow I still had enough for coffee in the morning.  That we could make it.  I remember thinking that if flights weren't so expensive, I'd sift all the pennies out of the creek bed and buy my mom something nice for Mother's Day.  I remember buying her pearls on three different credit cards that Christmas.  I remember drinking my coffee black in an old rented apartment, so I didn't have to pay for gas to go to the 7-Eleven to buy more.

I remember how foolish I felt for not staying in Italy and working through the bad.  How running away and being alone seemed better than working through what was wrong in front of me.

I woke up last night and stared at the ceiling.  We have an old air conditioner screwed into the window.  It hums nonchalantly in the night and a thick white cord hangs by my bedside.  I wanted to be anywhere but in that bed and I thought of the islands in the Pacific that are every climate at once and none at all.  I wish I could be like that, attractive and transmutable.  Made of more elements than the hair that sprouts on my chest in patches and the nails that dig deep into the scar tissue on my body. 

I'd want to be a tundra. I'd want to echo someone's name against the mountains in the distance.  Carve it in the soil, not harmed for another thousand years. Arctic willows of self-doubt bloom like gunshot wounds. There's a northward migration, the cottongrass surrounds you.  I'd want to be a tundra, because there'd be no promise of escaping me.  I'd want to be a tundra, prostrate on a bed of lichen, saying prayers to all the gods I've met over the years--the creek who ate those coins, the worms who wriggled in their own filth, my mother when she held her first pearls up to her neck, Nolan with his black coffee, the Belgian who said he loved me after our second drink.  I'd lay there in the bloody arctic willows and think of who I've worshipped the most.

I remember all these moments while the cake rises, while the buttercream softens, while the basil leaves harden.  I remember all these moments and wonder if Charon ever got his coin, if my mother ever wears her pearls when she does her yard work, and if Nolan can ever trust me when I promise I've changed since we first moved to California so many years ago now.

Three-Tier Vanilla Buttermilk Cake with Buttercream and Candied Basil Leave

1 - For the cake (yields 3 6-inch round cakes or 2 9-inch cakes)


  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 3/4 cup sugar
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup shortening
  • 1 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 3 eggs + 1 yolk




  1. Preheat oven to 350* and prepare cake pans with butter and parchment paper
  2. Sift all dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl
  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat shortening and vanilla with the paddle attachment until light and fluffy (about 1-2 minutes on medium speed)
  4. Alternate between adding dry ingredients and milk, mixing on low
  5. Add each egg and yolk one at a time until batter is ribbony on paddle attachment
  6. Pour into thirds in prepared pans
  7. Bake at 25-30 minutes until puffed, golden, and a toothpick comes out clean
  8. Allow to cool before assembling

2 - For the Buttercream, use Wilton's recipe

One of the best resources for icing a cake is Molly Yeh's tips over at Food and Wine (ya'll could have guessed this shoutout was comin')

3 - For the Candied Basil Leaves


  • 1 cup whole basil leaves, washed and patted completely dry
  • 2 cups sugar, separated
  • 1 cup water



  1. In a saucepan, prepare a simple syrup by dissolving one cup of sugar into one cup of water on medium heat
  2. Allow to cool to room temperature.  While cooling, lay out a cooling tray with a paper towel underneath or a sheet of parchment paper
  3. Pour remaining sugar onto a plate
  4. Now, take a basil leaf and dip into the simple syrup and then dip each side of the leaf into the sugar (I think a flavored sugar such as sugar mixed with lemon zest would be great here). Make sure to not clump sugar on the leaves or they will not dry (or look that pretty!)
  5. Lay out onto the parchment paper and repeat with remaining basil
  6. Allow to dry until crisp, 8-14 hours


Another great idea is to pair this cake with some pitted dark cherries with a little honey drizzled on top to compliment the candied basil.