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Nora Seed and the Brazilian honey cakes

Nora watched Joanne bite into one of the cakes and wondered how good any plan could be if it didn't involve eating something so clearly delicious as a Brazilian honey cake. She had no idea who Harley was, but she knew she didn't like them.

– Matt Haig, The Midnight Library

This is a story – or many stories  about possibilities. I've long been fascinated (possibly obsessed) by the idea of parallel lives, and I even did a photo series on the theme a few years ago. I suppose it's like FOMO, but a bit more complicated, and I wonder if we all have so much potential that will never be met simply because we are limited and we can only do so much at any given time. And every time we pursue a path, all other paths diminish and become invisible.

Brazilian honey cakes

In The Midnight Library, lives are chosen, which implies some agency. However, the idea that every single choice we make affects the outcome of our lives (and those of others) feels a bit heavy, somehow, because it leaves so much room for regret and berating. I found the concept very interesting, because I've often felt that I don't really have any huge regrets because I made choices based on what I thought was right at the time, and that's really all we can hope for. Haig illustrates this through Nora's many experiences, exploring how impossible it is to predict an outcome to any single choice or road we travel. (Don't worry, there are no spoilers.)

Food doesn't appear often in this novel. The only mentions of food until the Brazilian honey cakes appear on page 175 are a piece of dried rye bread and a protein bar, eaten out of necessity. The absence of food is telling – Nora doesn't have the heart or energy to do something that she requires for basic survival, though I'm not sure I would have noticed this had I not developed a food radar thanks to this project

Brazil seems perfect. Nora has fame, fortune and fans. She begins to believe this is the life she dreamt of and was destined for, until she realises she mustn't eat or drink anything of interest, at which point the first cracks in the illusion begin to appear. After all the lack, here is the mention of almost decadent food, but Nora still isn't its recipient. 

Don't suppose you'll be having any of these," said Joanna, taking one of the little delicacies from the tray. "Now you're on that new plan. Harley said I had to keep an eye on you.

The first time Nora has a meal is on page 199, in the gentle life, where grand ambitions and adventurous plans are boxed away and the result is, perhaps, time to sleep and eat and experience the everyday-ness of life. Admittedly a cheese and marmite sandwich doesn't sound great, but the black bean tacos are more promising, and nothing matters a whole lot anyway.

Her mind felt different here. She thought a lot in this life, but her thoughts were gentle.

I wouldn't say there's a "plot" to this book, and the outcome is predictable, as it needs to be. But I enjoyed the journey at a time when I sorely needed it. I liked the insights, especially philosophical ones (Nora has an interest in the subject), and some beautiful passages that helped me realise that a sense of constant "elsewhere-ness", as I like to call it, isn't helpful at all. I know this, of course, but it doesn't hurt to be reminded. That choices do need to be made and lived with, because the alternative is being like Hugo, "happily in limbo". 

Nora means light, which is interesting and reassuring in the context of the book. Not only this, her last name, Seed, points to germination and potential. We are constantly told not to "settle", but what does that really mean? Does everyone have the luxury of not settling? Does it imply constant dissatisfaction? How do you know if you're settling if you don't know the extent of your potential?

It is so easy, while trapped in just the one life, to imagine that times of sadness or tragedy or failure or fear are a result of that particular existence. That it is a by-product of living a certain way, rather than simply living. [...] And that sadness is intrinsically part of the fabric of happiness. You can't have one without the other.

(This reminded me of a conversation I had a few days ago.) 

Making Brazilian honey cakes, or paƵ de mel, was a labour of love, not because it's difficult but because of the time involved. I've certainly learned from this project that things can take longer than I might anticipate, so I made these over two days. Carefully following this recipe, I baked the spiced cakes first, using a muffin tin rather than ramekins, and they came out light and wonderful, somewhat like chocolate gingerbread. (No? Okay.)

The next day, I sliced each cake into two (much easier when they're cool) and slathered on some store-bought dulce de leche on each half before replacing the tops. Next was tempering dark chocolate, for which I was fairly confident, having done it earlier this year. I was slightly worried about successfully coating the cakes in chocolate, but Olivia's suggestion of using two forks to dip each cake worked liked a charm. They needed refrigeration to set properly, but I still can't believe I made something that delicious.

It's always empowering to learn that you have more potential that you ever realised.