Monthly Archives: July 2011

Spiders

Apricot Yogurt Cake

Yesterday morning, I saw a teensy orange spider crawling up an invisible ladder through the air, speeding toward the edge of my kitchen counter. Just when he reached the underneath corner, he fell down about four inches and bounced a little, right in midair. He climbed again, and dropped again, over and over. He tumbled enough times that I found myself staring at him, coffee cup caught halfway to my lips, saying, “Buddy, I get it. I’m right there with you.” I laughed a little. Then I caught myself having a heart-to heart with a spider, so I drank my coffee.

It’s been a fall-and-climb-back-up-again kind of time around here. It’s been shingles and coughs and sad family times, mixed with summer and Not Summer and snails eating my strawberries. The spider reminded me that we’re not always climbing up. We have to fall sometimes. That’s nature. But a few hours after my wildlife encounter, my sketchy biology knowledge came screaming in, and I realized Mr. Spider had been building a web. I don’t typically take my life lessons from eight-legged creatures, but in my desperate attempt to make sense of his daily endeavors, it occurred to me that maybe I should think of life as more of a web than a one-way trajectory. We build, then we fall, and someday, the pattern supports us when we need it.

That cake up there has had some up and down days, too. First, it was an apricot upside-down cake, still made with yogurt, but crowned with a swath of fire. It looked nice enough, until we ate it, and discovered that with apricots just on the top, there wasn’t nearly enough fruit flavor for the thickness of the cake itself. So I toyed with it, and gently folded the apricots right into the batter—and used more of them. I guess in name, the dessert was demoted from upside-down cake, which sounds somehow special, to just cake with fruit (not to be confused with fruitcake). So it’s no wonder it didn’t look quite as spiffy. In fact, when it came out of the oven, all puffed up about the apricot slices being inside, I could see it sort of pouting, despite the extra sparkle I put on top. It’s hard to tell a cake it was never meant to be prom queen.

But she is what she is. This is not a cake that struts across the table. And as I learned, this is not a birthday cake. (Although I should have known better, I’d hoped to put fancy candles in it for my sister’s birthday, but when it came out of the oven, I knew it wouldn’t be right.) This is the cake that stands quietly in the corner while the pretty girls get picked, until someone realizes that under humble crumb and awkward flecks of orange, there’s a bite that pits the tang of the season’s first apricots and tart plain yogurt against the sweetness of sugar in just the right way. This is the cake that eats just as well after two days as it did after two hours—whether you’re up or down or somewhere in between. It’s made with whole-wheat pastry flour, but it’s not dry or too, uh, healthy tasting. You could use regular all-purpose flour, of course. Either way, she’s the kind of cake you make when other things just aren’t going all that well, because you know she’ll be there for you.

The next time I feel like I’m on the downside of web building, I’ll make it again—maybe with raspberries, or blueberries, or plums. I’ll spoon a mascarpone whipped cream on top, because I’ll remember it, next time. Then I’ll sit down with a fork, and a cup of coffee, and watch for spiders.

But for now, I’m up, because an advance copy of my first cookbook just arrived on my doorstep. And the cover is puffy, people.

Apricot Yogurt Cake (PDF)

Topped with a flurry of turbinado sugar, this cake has a bit of a crunchy top, like a muffin—the perfect counterpoint to its moist, tender texture. The apricots make it rather delicate, so be gentle as you flip it out of the pan (or scoop the slices right out when the cake is still hot). This cake would love a scoop of mascarpone cheese-spiked whipped cream.

Active time: 15 minutes
Makes one 8-inch cake

Butter and flour for the pan
2 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 medium firm-ripe apricots, pitted and cut into 8 slices each
1/4 cup turbinado sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch cake pan with the butter and coat with a thin layer of flour. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar until blended. In a small bowl, whisk the yogurt, melted butter, and vanilla, then stir it into the egg mixture.

In another bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the dry mixture to the wet ingredients, and fold them in until all the flour has been incorporated. Gently fold in the fruit.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and pat down any wayward apricots. Sprinkle the turbinado sugar in an even layer over the batter. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes on the middle rack, or until the cake is puffed, golden, and beginning to brown at the edges. Let cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then carefully transfer the cake to a serving platter, and serve warm.

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Filed under Cakes, fruit, recipe

An off week

IMG_6447

You could say last week was an off week. It started with a really sick kid, and failed pie, and moved slowly downhill toward a shingles diagnosis. For the record, shingles is not fun. The disease is the physical embodiment of the word annoying. And though it’s reached great milestones treating myriad evil diseases, our modern medical machine has no sure-fire cure for annoyance.

I’m trying to work through it the old-fashioned way–with food. I started with pasta slathered in a spinach-garlic sauce, simply because I had over a pound of spinach to use and garlic is a natural disease fighter. I sautéed the spinach until it was perfectly limp, splashed it with cream, and whirled it up with raw cloves until it turned the kind of green that tells you in no uncertain terms that these days, there’s a lot growing outside. I piled it into bowls from the dishware set my parents had when I was growing up. Then somehow, I dropped one. When the bowl shattered, my first instinct was to scoop as much as I could up off the floor, avoiding the little ceramic shards. (Nothing improves shingles like a shredded esophagus, right?)

And so it went. A friend helped me clean up the entire mess, and gathered bowl-free food for our kids. She placed a dish of twirly green noodles in front of me, and snowed it with Parmesan cheese. My child ate three or four bites of his own dinner—a major improvement over the rest of the week—and I ate too, imagining the garlic spreading into each cell, appreciating the combined power of a good dose of spinach and a generous friend.

Last night, my son slept in his own bed for the first time in a week. Today, I simmered up more spaghetti, simple as it gets, gussied it up with the rest of the spinach and garlic sauce, and ate it without dropping the bowl. Today, I’m eating Jill’s kitchen sink cookies with iced coffee and deciding that tomorrow, things will be better.

IMG_6488

Spinach and Garlic Spaghetti (PDF)
In Seattle, when things grow, they grow. More than one friend has complained recently about an overabundance of spinach, so I created an answer: sauté it in olive oil until it’s limp, whirl it smooth with fresh chopped garlic, and slather it on hot pasta. With a showering of Parmesan cheese, there’s nothing better—unless you feel like adding chopped toasted pecans.

Time: 15 minutes active time
Makes: 4 servings

3/4 pound spaghetti (or other long pasta)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound baby spinach (stems removed if long)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 or 3 large garlic cloves, smashed
Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

Bring a large pot of water to boil for the pasta and cook to al dente according to the package directions.

Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil, then the spinach, a little at a time, and cook and stir, adding more spinach as each batch wilts down until all the spinach has been added. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then add the heavy cream and cook until the liquid is almost gone, 5 to 10 minutes.

Transfer the spinach and any remaining liquid to a blender or food processer, add the garlic, and whirl until completely smooth.

When the noodles are done, set aside a bit of the pasta water. Drain the noodles, then toss with the spinach sauce, adding a bit of pasta water, if necessary, to loosen the sauce. Serve immediately, garnished with plenty of cheese.

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Pieless

failed cherry tart

Here’s the hard truth: I don’t like cherry pie. I do like pie itself, and I adore cherries, but hot cherries encased in crust defy the concept of summer, because when they’re wet and gooey like that, they’re very hard to eat out of your hand, the way you’re supposed to. If the logic followed, I would also dislike blueberry and blackberry pies, but neither is the case. The pop of hot blackberries makes me swoon, but warm cherries always seem too meek to be pleasurable. There’s just no snap to them, first of all; in a crust, if you want that good gooey fruit gel, the fruit, by nature, sags a little. Unless you use real tart pie cherries, which are both more difficult to find and priced more astronomically, the balance between sweet and tart just isn’t there. Not for me, at least. So while the rest of the country sits idly by, smug in their relationship to cherry pie (and by extension with their identity as Americans), I twiddle my fresh-picked cherry stems in my hands, and go pieless.

Life is just a bowl of cherries

It’s a good thing, then, that pie is infinitely flexible. Last weekend, we trekked out to Curlew, WA for our (now) yearly weekend of fun and adventure. It’s essentially a potluck that lasts 3 days, so instead of bringing, say, some pork, one might bring an entire pig. One woman brought a savory tart unlike any I’d ever tried. It was made in a tart pan, but it had both a top and bottom crust. Inside, she’d tucked sautéed greens and onions, and there was something about raisins as well. I clearly don’t remember the particulars (to be honest, I didn’t taste it because I got distracted carving up a pig), except that the crust was made with eggs and olive oil, and that she said she picked the crust recipe – which browned extremely evenly – because it advertised complete forgiveness. (It was dairy-free, but she’d brushed the top with butter, for good measure.) I decided I’d love to be a human as forgiving as a good piecrust.

Jean's savory tart

As we wound our way back through the state last night, more or less oblivious to the holiday after celebrating it, once again, at the Chesaw Rodeo, my friend’s nicely tanned little tart kept peeking back into my thoughts. I decided that if I could make an interesting, flavorful tart crust for this here pie party and fill it with cherries—but somehow differently, avoiding the soggy cherry problem—then I might change my mind about cherry pie. Chuffed, I plotted a cherry tart with an emmer flour and olive oil crust, and a blended cherry filling that had all the flavor of a good cherry pie but none of the textural issues. I’d pile fresh sliced cherries and whipped cream on top, and I’d get the snap of summer and whipped cream and that good, flaky crust all in one big fantasy cherry bite.

cherry tart with olive oil crust

But today didn’t start the way I expected. Today started with a two-year-old with a 103-degree fever, and mountains of laundry, and snuggles, and tears, and real life where there might have been more time for cherry pie-ish things. I set aside lofty goals of productivity and decided my single task for the day was this tart. Sure, I had a sick kid – but I also had our nanny to myself for the day. She and I took turns stirring while the other doled out a fire hydrant’s worth of liquid hug, until somehow, part way through the day, a tart entered the oven. Chuffed, indeed.

Then it came out. It looked nice, I think. The crust was patted beautifully into place, and the filling – just the perfect amount, I might add – baked up beautifully. I let it cool with more patience than I characteristically have, and cut into it mid-afternoon, thinking I’d have the perfect snacking slice. But it wasn’t perfect. There wasn’t enough cherry to balance out the crust, and the emmer flavor overtook the cherry flavor, and dammit, people, I didn’t like the taste of the cherry filling, even though the texture was so much better.

I’m not sure what to say. I just wanted to make a pie today, a good version of cherry pie that would make me feel like an honest Washingtonian, and I failed. I don’t like cherry pie. I will never be anyone’s cherry pie. I don’t ever really want to make cherry pie again, and for some reason, this makes me feel incredibly guilty. I’m not always the Debbie Downer of the pie party, I promise – see, I’ve even texted my sister, who’s coming for dinner, and asked her to bring a pie, because I do like pie sometimes, I promise. Just not this one. Forgive me?

(The crust, though. You’ll see this crust again.)

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