My Ama (grandmother) turns 90 next year but you wouldn’t know it by looking at her or talking to her. She still drives (even though she probably shouldn’t), cooks (although she has left the burner on a few times…), and her memory is in tip top shape. And when I say in tip top shape I mean she refers to dates and years when she recalls memories from the past. And when I say the past I mean all the way to her childhood days and everything in between. She remembers every single one of her grandchildren (there are 15 of us) and great grand kids’ (she has 9) birthdays. It’s really quite remarkable because I’m horrible with dates but my grandma, she remembers not only dates but minute details of her memories.
I love to listen to my Ama’s stories especially about her childhood days growing up in Gu Lang Yu, a small island off the coast of Xiamen in China. She tells me stories all the time of the struggles she had to go through growing up through 3 wars back to back. What it was like lining up for rations, how she sewed pants and shorts to barter for sweet potatoes, how she would walk to and from school in fear as she passed Japanese soldiers roaming the streets towering over the children with glaring looks and guns. This is why when she eats fish she always leaves behind the tiny bones and skeleton licked so clean one might think it was eaten by a cat. And when any piece of clothing of hers is torn, she will mend and sew it because buying something new was never a luxury she had. She lives simply and takes nothing for granted.
She tells me all the time how lucky we are and how things are so easy for us. She has 5 children, the first 4 born a year apart, so she was constantly washing cloth diapers and clothes by hand because washing machines and diapers didn’t exist back then. On top of that, her husband passed away when my Dad was only 10 and she had to venture out and get a job in a foreign country where she did not speak the local language. After work, her evenings were spent hand washing laundry and ironing her children’s clothes (which she sewed herself) for school the next day because it didn’t matter how little money they had, it was important that her kids always left the house looking tidy and neat in freshly pressed clothes and newly shined shoes.
A few years back we set up a gmail account for my Ama so that she could stay in touch with all her grandkids who are scattered around the world. She has an iPad and uses it to FaceTime, like last week when my cousin in California gave birth to a new baby boy. She is constantly learning and improving herself even in her old age. She keeps herself in shape by exercising every morning with a group of seniors at the mall and she reads the newspaper everyday to keep herself abreast of the changing world around her.
Even her dreams are so vivid. Last year she stayed with me when her toilet was being renovated. We shared a bed and one night I woke up to the comforter being tugged. I watched Ama roll off the bed and onto the floor and I panicked and shouted out, “Ama! Are you ok?” She looked up at me in a daze on the floor, the comforter wrapped around her like a giant sausage, “I just had a dream, I’m ok!” She told me the next morning that she had dreamt that she was driving down a street in Binondo (aka Chinatown) in the Philippines and that my closet were shops that had once lined that street. As she was driving, she said a bus was coming towards her and there was a girl crossing the street so she swerved to avoid hitting her. That’s when she rolled off the bed!
Ama has a sweet tooth (that’s where I get mine!), and while she is extremely disciplined about her health and what she eats, she can’t help but keep a snack drawer in her room with chocolates, little sweets and nuts to munch on. One of the things she snacks on guilt free is dark chocolate. She says it’s good for the heart and the mind and I don’t care what anyone says, my Ama is always right.
Here’s a decadent dark chocolate cake recipe that my sister Karla shared with me. It’s called WHAM (Winning Hearts and Mind) from Molly Wizenberg’s memoir, “The Homemade Life.” It is luscious, rich, and so luxuriously smooth that there is no possible way that something this good could be bad for you. Besides, Ama is living proof that dark chocolate improves your memory. Pick the best dark chocolate that you can find (preferably with 70% cacao, I used Theobrama’s dark chocolate) as this cake with few ingredients is all about the chocolate. It only has 1 tablespoon of flour so it’s an ALMOST gluten free recipe. So easy to make, so gorgeously chocolatey, so soft and billowy on the inside like the chocolate clouds that fill your dreams. Oh yes, this is what my dreams are made of. And if I eat enough of it, I may just make it into my 90’s with a memory as sharp as my Ama’s.
WHAM Cake (Winning Hearts and Minds Cake)
What you need:
7 ounces (200 grams) best-quality dark chocolate
7 ounces (200 grams) unsalted European-style butter (the high-butterfat kind, such as Lurpak or Beurre d’Isigny), cut into ½-inch cubes
1 1/3 cup (250 grams) granulated sugar
5 large eggs
1 Tbs unbleached all-purpose flour
What to do:
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, and butter an 8-inch round cake pan. Line the base of the pan with parchment, and butter the parchment too.
2. Finely chop the chocolate (a serrated bread knife does an outstanding job of this) and melt it gently with the butter in a double boiler or in the microwave, stirring regularly to combine.
3. Add the sugar to the chocolate-butter mixture, stirring well, and set aside to cool for a few moments.
4. Add the eggs one by one, stirring well after each addition, and then add the flour. The batter should be smooth, dark, and utterly gorgeous.
5. Pour batter into the buttered cake pan and bake for approximately 25 minutes, or until the centre of the cake looks set and the top is shiny and a bit crackly-looking. (I usually set the timer for 20 minutes initially, and then I check the cake every two minutes thereafter until it’s done. At 20 minutes, it’s usually quite jiggly in the centre. You’ll know it’s done when it jiggles only slightly, if at all.)
6. Let the cake cool in its pan on a rack for 10 minutes; then carefully turn the cake out of the pan and revert it, so that the crackly side is facing upward. Allow to cool completely. The cake will deflate slightly as it cools.
7. Serve in wedges at room temperature with a loose dollop of ever-so-slightly sweetened whipped cream.