Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cornmeal Apple Cake

I have one gray hair. It rests at the top of my head, just slightly left of center, waiting patiently for its minions to arrive. I discovered it three or four years ago, back when I was desperately trying to finish school with a nineteen credit hour course load while working full time. To be exact, I found the gray hair in between Advanced International Economics and Cultural Geography, in the fluorescent lights of the Elliott School Building’s bathroom. I was scared.

Here’s the thing: I’d be vain if I weren’t so lazy. I like wearing makeup, but I can’t be bothered to spend more than three or four minutes on my face. The errant hair had me thinking I’d go gray by thirty, and just the thought of spending time and energy having my head touched up every few months had me exhausted.

This habit, vice, philosophy – whatever you might call it – extends, occasionally, to the kitchen. Today I cooked a cornmeal cake, with the idea of dressing it up in all sorts of classic, wholesome elegance. I’d slice it horizontally, see, stuff it with roasted apples, and ice the whole thing in some sort of spiced buttercream. As the cake cooled and the apples baked, I dreamt of the finished product standing high and mighty in the middle of our kitchen table.

As it happens, this was my second cake of the day; after a long run and a hot shower, in accordance with my approach to certain personal routines, I couldn’t bear breaking out the beaters again just to make the cake look very pretty. Instead, I took the easy way out: I sliced my cake, smashed up my apples, and topped it off with a simple glaze.

Oh, but it’s a good cake. The cake rises high in the oven, and then sighs back contentedly in its pan as it cools. This is not a moist, dense cake, but one full of sweet, soft crumbles. The cornmeal gives the cake a gently grainy bite, and the roasted apple mash provides a lovely contrast in both texture and flavor. The cake was delicious post-dinner, but I can’t wait to have a slice tomorrow morning, short beauty routine permitting.

Cornmeal Cake with Roasted Apples


(From Great Cakes by Carole Walter)

1¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup stone-ground cornmeal

1/3 cup (that is, 2/3 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces

2/3 cup sugar

2 large eggs, beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2/3 cup plain yogurt (Ms. Walter’s recipe calls for low-fat, I used regular fat)

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees; meanwhile, butter and flour a 9-inch cake pan.

Using a whisk, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cornmeal in a medium bowl.

In a separate, bigger bowl, cream the butter using electric beaters set at medium speed. Cream until the butter is smooth and light in color, about 1 or 2 minutes. Increase your beaters to medium-high and add the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time. This process will take about 4 or 5 minutes, until the cream and sugar are well blended. Scrape sides of the bowl as you find necessary.

Pour in the eggs, and beat for another minute or two. Blend in the vanilla.

And the home stretch: blending the dry and dairy ingredients. With your beaters set at low speed, add the flour mixture and yogurt alternately. This will take 5 steps: flour, yogurt, flour, yogurt, flour. Mix only until the ingredients are incorporated after each addition.

Dump the batter into your greased and floured pan, smoothing the surface with the back of a spoon. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown and a toothpick or chopstick comes out clean.

Let the cake rest in its pan on a cooling rack for 10 minutes or so, then gently remove the cake and let it sit directly on the rack until cool.

Roasted Apples

4 or 5 small baking apples

1 tablespoon butter, cut into small pieces

2 or 3 tablespoons light brown sugar, to taste

Keep your oven on at 375 degrees. Line a roasting pan with tin foil.

Peel and core the apples, and slice each into 1/16ths or so. Place apples in the roasting pan, dot with butter and sprinkle with brown sugar. Place pan in the oven.

The apples are done when they smell very good; that is, about 30 minutes or so. Once the apples have cooled, smash them happily with a potato masher.


Gently slice your cooled cake into two horizontal pieces. Baking cookbooks usually stipulate using dowels or toothpicks to mark your spot, lest you have crooked results. I find it’s quite easy to hold the cake upright, skinny part on the plate, and carefully cut around, rotating as I go. I don’t cut deeply, but rather once the cut is marked, I slice through with the cake back on its normal bottom. This cornmeal cake is sturdy, and forgiving of heavy hands.

Smear the apple mash on the bottom half of the cake, and replace the top. The glaze is nothing more than confectioner’s sugar, milk and a touch of vanilla. I never measure this type of glaze, but you could start with 1/2 or 2/3 cup sugar and a tablespoon or so of milk. You’ll need much less liquid than you’d think. Add a drop or two of vanilla to taste. Pour glaze evenly on top, smearing with a big spoon, and you are – at long last – finished.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Apple Pickers

There are a few certain experiences, annual signals, really, for the looming fall season, that are accepted without question, without heed, by the residents of rural north Jersey. These experiences are not exclusive to our small region, but they seem as inherent to our identity as it is for others who live in this varied state to claim they live off such-and-such exit of the Turnpike. Fall, thus, is naturally associated with activities like corn mazes, haunted hay rides and apple picking.

In an energetic, rosy-cheeked nod to our rural landscape, we went apple picking last Sunday. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun.

I can remember, though, the first time I went apple picking: I must have been in first or second grade, on a school field trip to a local apple orchard. I remember the trees being so tall, and the apples being so good. I tried verbalizing these memories to my mother during the long walk down the dusty dirt road to the apple trees last Sunday, and it came out something like:

“The apples were the best I’d ever tasted, so sweet and crunchy. Well, I don’t know if they were the best, but they tasted like the best. Which I guess amounts to the same thing.”

This time, the apple trees were a lot shorter, but the apples were still painfully delicious. Painful, really, because it’s the recognition that this open air and this soft dirt and this warm setting sun is what makes the taste of an apple so perfect, one that you will not be able to recreate later on with brown bag lunches and lazy afternoon snacks.

What you bring home, then, is no small mixed sense of exhaustion and exhilaration along with your bushel of apples. We have at least thirty stuffed into two large baskets on our kitchen table, singing of endless kitchen opportunities. I made apple cookies yesterday, but while their taste was pleasant their texture was off, so I will leave out the recipe. Instead, I give a wish list for our apple baskets, for recipes like applesauce and apple butter and apple tart cake and apple pancakes. I want to cook as much as I can before the picking season ends, when I can fill up a big bag of the promising fruit once more.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rainy Day Muffin Cakes

A disclaimer, by way of introduction: I am no professional photographer, not even an avid amateur; I am only a girl granted the use of her father’s fancy digital SLR in return for keeping our kitchen stocked with freshly baked goods. The camera is heartbreakingly beautiful to me, with so many buttons and lenses and possibilities, none of which my dad or myself know how to utilize.

I suppose I could read the instructions, or all sorts of helpful advice on the Internet, but I would so much rather read recipes for zucchinis and cupcakes, especially when the day is rainy and dark and cold. Hence the vaguely blurry, greenish photos, but I promise they’re good cupcakes.

Or muffins. I adapted mine from a recipe at MarthaStewart.com, which calls them Zucchini Cupcakes, but I think, frosting or no, these aren’t much more than dolled-up muffins. The difference? A fine explanation can be found here, with which I agree: cupcakes, like cake, usually call for certain methods of preparation, like creaming together sugar and eggs, before adding in the dry ingredients (often alternating with another wet dairy item, like sour cream or yogurt). Muffins are also two bowl deals, but the mixing involves much less hassle and there is, somewhere in the instructions, the inevitable “DON’T OVERMIX”.

Whatever you prefer to call them (I like “muffin cakes”), these are dense little guys, moist and chewy. Some zucchini-based baked goods are fine on their own, but I think these are much better with the classic contrasting tang of cream cheese. (Note: next time, add more nutmeg.) Sliced in the middle – carefully, coolly, with a serrated knife – and smeared with the firm icing, the cakes’ density is lifted to happy heights (though best stored in the bottom of your fridge).

(Yellow) Zucchini Muffin Cakes

Adapted from one Ian Young’s contribution to MarthaStewart.com

1 cup all-purpose flour

½ cup whole wheat flour

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground allspice

½ teaspoon salt

1 yellow zucchini, coarsely grated (to yield about 1½ cups)

zest and juice of ½ lemon

1/3 cup vegetable oil

2 large eggs

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Meanwhile, get on with butter-greasing and sugar-dusting your standard-sized muffin tin (that is, one that makes 12).

Mix together the dry ingredients: the flours, sugar, spices and salt. In a separate bowl, blend the grated zucchini, lemon zest and juice, oil, eggs and vanilla. Dump the dry ingredients into the wet. DO NOT OVERMIX OR YOU WILL OVERDEVELOP THE GLUTEN IN YOUR BATTER AND YOUR BAKED MUFFINS WILL BE SADLY TOUGH.*

Scoop the batter evenly into your tin. Properly speaking, you should fill it to about two-thirds full, but this recipe makes for a bit more. No worries; the muffins will rise and sink again a bit. (They’re imperfect looking, but quite good.) Bake for about 40 to 45 minutes, though it doesn’t hurt to start checking after 30 minutes. When done, a toothpick (or chopstick, whatever you’ve got on hand) will come out clean.

Cool the muffin cakes on a wire rack for ten minutes or so; then carefully jiggle each cake out of the tin and let cool on the rack, right side up. If you’ve got an inkling for icing, I recommend cutting them in half and smearing the soft, buttery, sweetened cream cheese inside.


*"Sadly tough" looks weird in all caps, doesn’t it?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Happy Sunday

A quick breakfast before a long and happy Sunday: a lagrima and a just ripe nectarine. Lagrima in Spanish means “teardrop”, in Argentina, it is a drink of hot milk with a teaspoon or so – a warm teardrop – of strong coffee. It is a drink, I believe, mostly for children: when adults take their late afternoon mate, kids in Argentina “tomar la leche”, that is, drink milk. Though frankly, the lagrima is featured on every standard Argentine café menu (like pizza and empanadas and the odd-sounding and odd-looking ensalada rusa), so perhaps there is a solid group of grown ups somewhere drinking lagrimas while watching soccer on flat screen TVs.

The recipe is hardly a recipe: it’s steamed milk (I heat mine on a hot burner in a small saucepan) with a spoonful or two of hot coffee. For sweetness, you could do as the Argentines do and dump in a hacky sack-sized packet of sugar, or take a smoother route: I like to add a bit of simple syrup, as to not have granules of stray sugar in my last teardrops of coffee.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hello, Gorgeous

Or, Let’s Try This Again

I first made this cake two weeks ago, an adaptation of an adaptation of a recipe originally posted by Clotilde Dusouiler of Chocolate & Zucchini. Hers is graciously called “Gâteau de Mamy à la Poire” with a lovely little delve into the name’s story; I’ve dubbed mine simply Stone Fruit Cake because, as much as I love the connotation of someone’s French grandmother’s hand in making my desserts, all I’ve got in way of real history is two versions: one with apple, and one with nectarines.

The first Stone Fruit Cake was a success, made with apples tossed lightly in brown sugar and lemon juice, but it was ugly. I mean, really ugly. Upon its exit from the oven, the cake was quite beautiful: I was amazed at how gracefully the batter rose to a perfect golden hue, and I was full of all sorts of love for the possibilities of French home cooking. Then I tried taking the cake out of the pan, and was terribly disappointed in my apples and myself as everything, batter and fruit, fell apart as I transferred the mess to a plate. Flipped over again (a neat little trick, and a nod to Clotilde’s Mamy), the cake was worth bringing to the table, but not worth bringing out the camera.

The cake’s taste, though, was delicious: simple and nurturing and just the sort of pastry that would make you want to sit down for a proper glass of tea or warm milk with a touch of coffee, even if you don’t normally do that sort of thing. I don’t, but I like that sort of feel in my kitchen, so I decided to try the cake again.

I changed two things about my second Stone Fruit Cake: I used nectarines and a light splash of heavy cream. This is because 1) nectarines were on sale, and 2) I used whole wheat flour, which seems to suck up an obscene amount of moisture (in return giving an extra chewy, tender bite). I often change bits here and there while baking, which I understand is a no-no, but it seems I can’t leave well enough alone. What’s great about this cake, then, is that it’s made for a bit of tampering: following the basic process and proportions of ingredients, you can tweak it to what’s in your kitchen cabinet without sacrificing the simple integrity of a homemade upside-down cake.

This time around, I made sure to grease and flour my pan, which made the removal process so much smoother. A few stubborn nectarines still stuck, but I showed them who was in charge by hastily eating them.

Stone Fruit Cake

1 stick plus 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter

4 to 5 nectarines, apples, apricots or pears – or a mixture of a few

juice of ½ lemon

1 generous tablespoon brown sugar

¾ cup sugar

2 eggs*

1 tablespoon heavy cream

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons whole wheat flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Grease and lightly dust with flour a 9-inch cake pan. Melt the butter and set aside to cool.

Peel, cut and core your fruit. In a bowl, toss the slices with the lemon juice and brown sugar. Lay the fruit at the bottom of your cake pan.

Mix the flour, baking powder and salt together in a small bowl. In a separate, larger bowl, cream together the sugar and eggs, then mix in the heavy cream. Add the dry ingredients to the wet, stirring until everything is well blended. Pour in the melted butter, and blend again.

Pour the batter evenly over the fruit in the pan. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the cake is puffy and proudly golden.

Here’s the tricky step: after letting the cake rest for a few minutes in its pan (preferably on a cooling rack), carefully invert the cake onto a plate. Its cooked, soft fruit will be face-up. Using another plate, gently flip the cake over again – the fruit will be at the bottom. The cake is tasty warm, delicious at room temperature, and at its best the next day, waiting patiently for you and your cup of tea.


*Baking rules generally stipulate that all ingredients should be at room temperature before you begin. I often don’t plan advanced baking, and as such don’t have a few eggs hanging out, shrugging off their refrigerator chill. I heat up some water in a kettle, though not to a boil, and pour it over my eggs in a small bowl. I let these sit for about ten minutes, and voila! I’ve mastered last-minute domesticity.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On brownies and Brussels sprouts

Three days before my twenty-seventh birthday, I woke up at nine, had brownies for breakfast, and read Harry Potter on the living room couch. Somewhere between spilling chocolate crumbs down the front of my shirt, and reading about a giant bank run by goblins, I became very self-aware -- that this was probably not, by proper standards, a very adult-like way to start one's day.

To be fair, I'm reading Harry Potter in Spanish, in my third novelistic attempt to improve my second language skills. I first started with Gabriel García Márquez's El General en su laberinto (The General in His Labyrinth). That proved to be too ambitious, no matter how much I carried the book around in my bag, from subway to Spanish class to museum. I decided to try something I'd read before, then, in English, so I picked up El Americano impasible (The Quiet American) by Graham Greene . . . but that too fell by the wayside, on the nightstand, collecting dust.

Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal is proving to be much more fun for me to read -- the only genuine reason I am eager to pick up a book, anyway. I understand, on average, about ninety percent of the prose, and continue to learn as I go along. In addition to developing a deeper understanding of the subjunctive, and the various uses of the various past tenses, I am learning vocabulary words like "varita" and "lechuza" and "hechicería" ("wand" and "owl" and "sorcery"), which I'm sure will be very helpful when I go back to the States and start looking for a job.

I came across a part this morning, though, that made me frown. It's the bit where Harry and Ron have just met for the first time, on the train ride to Hogwarts, and the snack-selling lady stops by their cabin with her cart. Harry is enticed by the Every Flavor Jelly Beans and Ron warns him that the candies are, truly, every flavor -- even spinach, and liver, and tripe. Ron picks a green one, and bits into it gingerly: "See? Brussels sprouts."

While I fully concur that it would be very weird to eat certain foods in jelly bean form (including jelly beans), why oh why are things like spinach, and liver, and tripe, considered gross from the get go? I think the author picked these foods not because they would be unsuccessful candy flavors, but for the gut reaction they get when mentioned at all. What's JK Rowling's beef with liver?

There are some foods that, even as children (as evidenced by children's books), we are supposed to just not like. We're supposed to cringe at the threat of cabbage, of spinach, of beets. Liver, though it comes in so many delicious sizes and shapes and flavors, is simply pictured as chopped, stranded and forlorn. And while it's true that many of these flavors may be a bit strong for children's tender taste buds, we so often grow into adulthood without giving them a fair chance.

So, I say, in defiance of brownies-for-breakfast and Ron Weasley, I will have beets for dinner. I have a dish already in mind: sticky, creamy risotto finished off with roasted beets and crumbled blue cheese. Not food strictly for adults, of course, but it will certainly make me feel grown-up.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A short study in duality: two partings/greetings

Less than a week before I left the States to go live in Buenos Aires, Argentina for an undetermined period of time, I had two very memorable partings with two people who had been, for a long time a long time ago, my closest friends. I use the word "partings" because these visits were effectively brought about because of my great move, my big goodbye. In actuality, though, I hadn't seen either of these two people in such a long time, that the visits felt like more of a welcome home than a sending-off.

I give you, then, two brief pictures of two good people, great women, best friends. Through food, of course, as it always has been and always shall be.


I can't remember if I told Liz directly about my move to Argentina, or if she found out through her mother. Liz's mom, Honi, and mine have been close ever since they met as working middle-aged, middle-class moms, sending their nine-year-old daughters to a daycare off of one of Pennsylvania's saddest excuses of a main street. Though growing apart once college rolled around, Liz and I have managed to stay more or less connected through our mothers' mutual hobbies of daughter-pride and familial gossip. Either way, when I left Liz a voice mail about Buenos Aires, she called back within hours to say, "I can come up tomorrow. Is that okay?"

Because she knows (Pleasant Valley High School Anatomy Honors aside) my heart is buried deep somewhere in my stomach, Liz came bearing a giant bag of soft pretzels from the factory in Philadelphia. For those of you souls unfortunate enough to be unfamiliar with the Philly pretzel, I give the following as a somewhat inadequate description. The Philly pretzel is a perfect street food, inexpensive and deceptively filling. The Philly pretzel is different from, say, the classic New York variety primarily in shape: instead of a stand-alone twist, the Philly version is smooshed up along a long line of neighbors. This makes it extra fun to pull apart, releasing hot steam -- gustatory experiences so often start with other senses. The pretzel is great plain, or, even better, doused with a fat line of tangy yellow mustard, the perfect contrast to the soft, slightly sweet dough. I also find the Philly pretzel to be a bit softer than street pretzels in other cities; its crust, somehow, is less crusty, its dough more doughnut than bagel.

When I opened the door to Liz, she had a big brown bag in her hand. "Chris and I visited the pretzel factory this morning," she told me, and I knew, just like she must have, it was going to be a good day.

We spent hours on my parents' living room couch, catching up, in between mouthfuls of pretzel and mustard. She told me the company she worked for was moving from Philadelphia to Atlanta, and so she was looking for other places to work. We discussed the merits of New York, of Boston. Of traveling for work, of traveling for pleasure. Of marathons and yoga. (I learned Liz is at, maybe even beyond, the stand-on-your-head stage! And I can barely stretch to reach my toes.) We talked about boyfriends, and about books. Later, we played cards with my parents, eating cookies my mother had made, the Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker ready-made dough kind, with the colorful shapes in the middle, which get squished as the knife slices down.

Liz left me with: a few good book recommendations, a present in the workings, and a big bag of pretzels I hid out in our garage, from which I would sneak snacks throughout the rest of the week, a treat I relished because I knew, dough and thought alike, there would be none of its kind where I was going.


It's hard for me to think of a time when I haven't eaten when I've been with Courtney. We're either on our way to get food, or in the middle of stuffing our faces, or resting on our stomachs to help heal the bloated-stomach pain (and help hurry along the next round of feasting). My memories of Courtney always seem to involve laughing with my mouth full, or spilling food on myself as I try to describe something with my hands, or spitting out a giant gulp of Coke when she says, well, almost anything.

So it was only appropriate that on my drive down to Courtney's apartment in Pennsylvania, just three days before I left the country, I got a phone call: "I'm at Dunkin' Donuts. You want anything?"

I showed up at her door with a bottle of Malbec, in celebration of my moving to Argentina. She in turn greeted me with a giant bag of Tostitos and a big jar of spicy salsa, in celebration of my arrival in Allentown. We tried, as best as two old friends could, to cram a few years into a few hours. We spoke quickly, leaving out certain details that may have been more important to those less in tune with one another, mortaring our broken pieces with hand gestures, and facial cues, and "ya know?"s -- laying a solid foundation, really, as any.

I drove away from Courtney's place very late, but much earlier than I'd wanted. Time, of course, nagging me all the while -- for what little time I had left, driving home a few hours in the dark, I spent thinking about how much time I had lost.