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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

A cake baked all at once

Blueberry Cake with Coconut Streusel 3

It’s a question that keeps coming up: Who is this person in my dryer?

I don’t mean there’s actually a human being in my dryer, of course. That would be mean, and very cramped (although not impossible, if the college story my friend tells is true).

I mean that every time I take clothing out of our dryer, I have a bit of an identity crisis. There are burp cloths tangled around maternity t-shirts, tiny diaper covers Velcroed to the thick seat of my bike shorts, and bras with much more infrastructure than previously necessary. I must look like a beginning stargazer, squinting sideways, mouth agape, as I try to identify each article: Mine? Graham’s? At least Jim’s clothes are all the same. But I keep wanting to ask: Who are we now?

The process of getting our clothes clean does seem to represent motherhood perfectly, though. I can almost always start a load of laundry, but the follow-through is inevitably not so hot. I’ll shove everything in and forget to turn the machine on, or put all the wet clothes on the line to dry and forget they’re there when it starts to pour rain. Or I’ll wash and dry everything just fine, and leave it smashed in the hamper for four whole days. It’s always something.

This is my new life. It doesn’t really bother me, all this underachieving in the laundry department. I’m getting used to not ever completing a single task all at once. I wash my hair in one showering, and condition it in the next. I water one half of the plants on the back porch, and hope I can return for the other half. I start a sentence and can’t quite . . .

The thing is, I really like seeing baby clothes on the line outside. I like that I never finish an email in one go, because there’s always something I’m more compelled to do. That something is my son. It’s cheesy, but it’s true. I’m happy for the distraction.

What does bother me is how the laundry concept translates to the kitchen – or doesn’t translate, as the case may be. You can’t start cooking chicken, get busy with a baby, and just serve the chicken raw. Dinner is not usually delicious half-cooked.

Oh, that? Honey, that’s a cake. I made it just for you, only I never got around to putting the batter in the oven. Sorry the candles don’t quite stand up.

Luckily, I have enough common sense – barely – to know that starting in on a batch of homemade ravioli is a really bad idea these days, if I actually want to serve it for dinner. Ditto for anything that requires attentive browning, or baking, or even a stir-fry that requires too much chopping. Or, for that matter, anything that has to be cooked by me, as opposed to my husband, who often swoops in mid-meal when Graham gets hungry or cranky. Simply put, I have abandoned the old kitchen Jess and developed a new persona there.

The new kitchen Jess has been doing things in 5-minute chunks. I’ll marinate chicken for the grill at 9 a.m., or cook wheat berries at 10 p.m., just because I know that chances are good our kid will be asleep at 11 p.m., when I need to take them off the stove. I cook simply, relying mostly on olive oil, salt, pepper, and good basic ingredients. I rarely make more than one thing that requires more than 10 minutes of my time, and – here’s the kicker, the biggest change – I almost never add additional tasks while I’m cooking, because putting the knife down to coo at Graham is way more fun (no offense) than, say, scribbling down a recipe for this here blog between stirs. Herego, the scrumptious recipes I do want to share, like the orrecchiette I sautéed last week with Swiss chard, tomatoes, and summer squash and drizzled with a goat cheese cream, never get written down. (Okay, so that one wasn’t so simple. Delicious, though.) Like the laundry, it’s not that I mind the new program, but it does take some adjusting.

The most basic problem with the new deal in the kitchen is that I don’t always get to eat what I want to eat. I’ve been eating cherries, but with the time required to pit the things, cherry pie is definitely out. The hubby has been requesting ribs, but I’m not sure I can hack the incessant basting required of my favorite recipe. My yearly batch of raspberry jam? Yeah, right.

Last weekend, when the glossy leaves of the huckleberry bushes we encountered on a hike reminded me of the Trafton family birthday cake, I started hankering for a fat, fluffy cake with berries buried in the bottom. I didn’t have to have the exact birthday cake – my birthday’s a month away still, after all – but something similar was in order, something rich but still light, made with the blueberries rolling out of our local markets right now. I needed a ten-minute blueberry cake. I assumed it would be weeks before I could get to it.

Then my Friday afternoon plans fell through. Exhausted by a 45-minute stint as Mr. Personality at my doctor’s office, Graham started rubbing his eyes – a first for him, talent-wise, and a sign I decided I shouldn’t ignore. I tucked him into his crib, and by the time his eyes were closed for good, I’d slid a cake into the oven. It took 15 minutes, to be honest, because at the last minute I snowed it with a coconut streusel, on a whim.

Graham stayed asleep for another hour. While the cake baked, I wandered around the house, collecting the sheets I left on the line outside overnight, putting away dishes I’d meant to put away that morning, replenishing the dog’s water. . . Then I just sat at the kitchen table with a glass of water, breathing in the scent of a cake baked from start to finish without any major distractions.

It’s a new kitchen, but it feels good to know that sometimes, I can make the same things. And some day, I know, baking a cake won’t seem like a big deal at all.

Blueberry Cake with Coconut Streusel
Blueberry Yogurt Cake with Coconut Streusel (PDF)

Made with honey-flavored Greek yogurt (I used the “Greek Gods” brand from Seattle), this cake is a tangy, airy, crunchy-topped celebration of summer. I like it best at about 4 in the afternoon.

TIME: 15 minutes active time
MAKES: 9 servings

Vegetable oil spray
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus 1/4 cup for streusel
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (packed) brown sugar
1/2 cup large flake unsweetened coconut
1 cup sugar
1 cup Greek yogurt, preferably full fat and honey-flavored
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups blueberries

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8” square (or 9” round) cake pan with the vegetable oil spray and set aside.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan and set aside to cool.

Whisk 1 1/2 cups of the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a small mixing bowl and set aside.

In another bowl, make the streusel: stir together the remaining 1/4 cup flour, the brown sugar, and the coconut, and set aside.

In a big mixing bowl, whisk the sugar, yogurt, eggs, and vanilla together until blended. Add the melted butter in a slow, steady stream while whisking, then fold the dry ingredients in with a spatula until almost all the white is gone. Gently fold in the blueberries. Scoop the batter into the prepared pan, smooth it flat with a small spatula, and top with the streusel.

Bake the cake on the middle rack for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the cake is browned and firm in the center. Let cool 15 minutes in the pan before cutting into squares and serving.

Blueberry Cake with Coconut Streusel 2

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Filed under Cakes, fruit, recipe