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.
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.