French Baking and Swedish Poetry: Céline and Transtromer

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It’s a scorcher, the temperature rising into the nineties, the humidity dragging along. A double-whammy sure to leave everyone feeling out-of-sorts. Where better to catch a breeze than over by the river? One of the nice things about living in Manhattan is that you’re never far from a river. Walk east to the East River. Go west and you come to the Hudson, "the river that flows both ways," according to the Lenape, a local tribe of Native Americans. Trek north and there's the Harlem River. Best of all, take a Circle Line cruise around Manhattan Island, and you will have navigated all three.

Channeling my Audrey Hepburn, I put on a hat, the shades and a colorful choker. After all, anyone who hopes to be a flaneuse and a bloggeuse, needs to cultivate a certain -- je ne sais quoi -- air of mystery and detachment. Given the disguise, I’ll be able to observe the passing scene unobserved.

Shortly after crossing First Avenue, I walk into a damp cloud laced with vanilla coming from a small shop that has a bright orange storefront. Bright orange, how cool is that? Orange is one of my favorite colors, second only to coral. A sign overhead reads: Canelé by Céline. Okay, but what are canelé and who is Céline?

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With my curiosity piqued and the door ajar, I enter. Three young women are busy at their chores: the baker with her head in the oven; a clerk arranging chocolates on a tray, and a third member of the team, the one I suspect is the proprietor, thumbing through a stack of papers. A lovely hum fills the shop.

Bonjour, Madame, I say, taking a chance with French Lite. The shop is charming. How long have you been here? With a smile and an unruffled manner, she hands me her card --   Céline Legros, the founder and CEO -- saying they’ve been here seven months.

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Are these the canelé? I ask, pointing to a tray of glazed bite-sized pastries. No, the canelé are baking. We make them fresh every day. The canelé (kah-nuh-leh), she explains, is a specialty of Bordeaux. She makes both sweet and savory -- the  sweets in any one of a dozen flavors and the savories with cheese, chorizo, truffles or pesto. All crispy on the outside, moist and tender inside. Chorizo? pesto? Yum. Maybe one -- but, no, I'm too early. The first batch won't be out of the oven for twenty-four minutes and needs an hour to cool. Could I come back later?

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In no hurry to leave this taste of France, I order an iced-coffee with milk and dawdle, asking permission to take a photo. On the top of a glass counter are two small trees made with canelé and mini-glass bell jars, each filled with three tiny pastries. To find this sweet slice of France a few blocks from home is a gift of the gods, the ones in charge of baking.

Au revoir, I say, hoping to return.

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If I'm too early for canelé, I’m in the nick of time to commandeer a bench of my own, one with a river view. Carl Schurz Park is a leafy gem with a promenade running along the river and the 200 year-old Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the mayor of New York City. After a while, with little traffic on the river, I pull out Selected Poems by Tomas Transtromer. By chance, the book falls open to ‘By The River."

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This Swedish poet writes beautifully about commonplace things -- about wide-open spaces where one can be alone with one’s thoughts; about a cold winter’s night; about ice on the roads and solitary Swedish houses. Reading him transports me to less complicated times and places -- cooler places. When you stop to think about it, on a muggy day, what better than canelé baking in someone else's oven and cool Nordic breezes coming down from the north? By the way, for those interested in good reads, my friend and former classmate Andrea -- we met in a Gotham Writers' on-line blogging course -- has a wonderful blog inspiredbybooks.com with a literary bent.