I know: it sounds weird. I thought the same thing the first time I encountered grapefruit pudding. It was at a cookbook club meeting, one that I’d helped plan, around The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook. The meeting was in October, which made Apple Upside-Down Cake the logical choice for dessert. To me, at least. “But that’s so expected,” my planning partner lamented, “let’s do the grapefruit pudding.”
“It’s a seasonal cookbook,” I insisted with my trademark self-righteousness. Self-righteousness never wins. It’s a clinically proven fact.
I was a little miffed about the grapefruit pudding, to be honest. But then I remembered that the whole point of joining a book club is to stretch and grow, to expose yourself to ideas and viewpoints and preferences that are not like your own, to challenge your beliefs and assumptions, to become A Better Person. Plus, I ate that grapefruit pudding and it was damn good.
I think of it often at this time of year. Of all the seasonal transitions, winter to spring is the weirdest. Last weekend we got 18 inches of snow — big, fat flakes of heavy wet snow that knocked down trees and power lines. On Monday morning when I left for work, it was 0°F; driving home on Wednesday evening the thermometer read 57°F. Then more snow, and now back to balmy. She’s a fickle creature, that Mother Nature.
I, however, remain steadfast in my devotion to grapefruit as a bridge from winter to spring, and grapefruit pudding is especially lovely for these fickle in-between days. It’s soft and warm and comforting, with a reassuring richness that’s beautifully balanced by the refreshing zing of grapefruit. The top bakes up light and airy, and the tender, cake-like crumb gives way to a bright citrus-y custard with a pleasant — almost amusing — springlike jiggle.
recipe from The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook, by Michelle & Philip Wojtowicz and Michael Gilson with Catherine Price
Here’s what happens when you work for a jam company: you open your refrigerator one afternoon to put away a six-pack of beer and discover that you can’t, because there are thirteen jars of jam in the way. (Also, you get to attend fancy award ceremonies in San Francisco and personally sell jam to Alice freakin’ Waters. No biggie.)
I eat a lot of jam—in the mornings with yogurt and granola and, often, for dinner with cheese and rustic crackers. Still, I don’t eat enough jam to prevent my refrigerator from being overrun by half-eaten jars of it on a fairly regular basis.
And that’s when I start baking. I make a fantastic jam tart, but lately I’m partial to these crumble bars. They start with a tender short pastry base bulked up with oats and almonds, then comes a thick layer of jam nestled under crumbled bits of the same short pastry. The crust bakes up golden brown and nutty, with a soft, sandy texture that gives way to the bright fruitiness of jam. The combination is classic and homey, and these crumbly little jam bars are a perfectly lovely way to make use of even a brand new jar of jam.
recipe adapted from Baking Illustrated, by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine
It started with the pan. Last year, around this time, I added a lovely swirled bundt pan to our wedding registry and Chris said what he always says when I attempt to acquire something new: “Don’t we already have a bundt pan/sofa/shower curtain/cat?” In this case, we did already have a perfectly serviceable bundt pan, but I hypothesized — on the actual registry — that I’d bake five times as many cakes in such a pretty pan.
And then, a few days before our wedding last August, Chris’s mom gave him the bundt pan for his birthday, with the understanding I’m sure that it would soon be filled with cake batter. Preferably chocolate. Since then, I’ve baked exactly zero cakes. Much to his credit, Chris hasn’t said a word about the superfluous pan or the lack of baking. That man really deserves a cake — a pretty cake, a cake filled with the sweet, mapley promise of spring.
I know most people associate maple with autumn, but maple is now. Sap runs as snow melts in the early, barely-warm days of just-spring. Before buds burst on branches, before blades of green poke up through the soft muddy ground, before watercress and wild leeks and asparagus and morels there is sap, the Earth’s first gift of spring.
The pure, clear sweetness of maple syrup is the perfect flavor to build a cake around. Here, the syrup is mixed with butter, flour and chopped pecans to form a sweet filling that bakes up crunchy and gooey inside a surprisingly light cake with a moist, tender crumb.
It’s exactly the kind of cake you want to eat in the pre-green days of late March — light but not fluffy, moist but crumbly, rich and golden and tender with a sweetness that whispers of the coming spring.
For the Filling
1 c. all-purpose flour
2 T. butter, softened
1¼ c. chopped pecans
½ c. grade B maple syrup
½ t. cinnamon
For the Cake
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 t. baking soda
1 t. baking powder
9 T. butter, softened
¾ c. superfine sugar
1 c. sour cream
1) To make the filling, place the flour in a medium bowl and cut the butter into the flour using your fingers or a fork. Add the pecans, maple syrup and cinnamon and mix to form a sticky paste. Set aside.
2) Preheat your oven to 350°F. Sift together flour, baking soda and baking powder. Cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, then add flour mixture. Beat until incorporated and then fold in sour cream. The batter will be thick and sticky.
3) Grease a bundt pan and spoon a little more than half the batter into the pan. Spread the batter up the sides and funnel about an inch – you’re creating a little indentation in the batter to keep the filling from leaking out. Spoon the filling into the indentation as evenly as you can. Cover carefully with remaining batter and smooth out the top.
4) Bake for 30-35 minutes until golden brown. Remove from oven and cool for 15 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a rack and cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar to serve.
Grade B maple syrup is darker and more flavorful than Grade A syrups, which results in a stronger maple flavor here in the cake.
Superfine sugar is often used in cake baking to yield lighter, more tender results. If you don’t have superfine sugar (or don’t want to buy it for just one recipe) plus regular granulated sugar a few times in a food processor to grind it more finely.
When I discovered beets in my CSA basket this week I figured I had two choices: toss them directly onto the compost heap or bake them into a cake.
I don’t like cake and I don’t like beets, so I’m not sure what made me think I would like a cake made out of beets. Possibly it was the assurance that “even confirmed beet-bashers will love this cake” in the introduction to the recipe or the fact that my foodie friend Katie mentioned that she’d tried it and liked it, but I suspect it was the chocolate. Of all the ingredients on this earth, chocolate seems the most likely candidate for transforming beets from a mouthful of musty dirt into something that people might actually want to eat.
On an unusually warm afternoon in the summer of 1980, my sister and I wandered into a little thicket of shade created by enormous ruffly leaves curving out from bright red stalks just tall enough for little girls to play beneath. Elated at such a discovery, we raced home to collect our buckets and shovels and then, for reasons intelligible only to little girls, spent the rest of the afternoon happily digging in the cool dirt amid those leafy stalks. I’m not sure if this memory has stuck with me for nearly thirty years because that patch of shade was such a lovely place in which to play or because of the boatload of trouble we got into when our favorite digging spot turned out to be the rhubarb patch of a neighbor lady whose Navy husband significantly outranked our father.
On a typical weeknight Chris and I like to watch Jeopardy and then, once I’ve finished kicking Chris’s ass, Alton Brown’s Good Eats. Such is the exciting life of nerds. Truth be told, I only beat him at Jeopardy about half the time and Chris only tolerates Good Eats because AB occasionally talks about bacon. We mostly watch because I kind of have a thing for Alton Brown, what with his geeky culinary evangelism and his cheesy impersonations of historical figures. But the other night instead of Good Eats we caught a very old rerun of the first ever episode of Feasting on Asphalt, in which AB meanders through Georgia and the Carolinas sampling collards and pinto beans, fried chicken and pickled pigs’ feet, and cornbread and biscuits.
It was the biscuits that got me.
You know those furrowed-brow-type people you see in the grocery store picking up packages of this or that, frowning at labels and then returning the offending products to the shelf with a disgusted little shake of their heads? I am one of those people. I like to think I’m not the only one of those people, but it stands to reason that if there were more of us the labels wouldn’t be quite so full of unpronounceable bullshit. Which brings me to the puff pastry.
Unless you live near a Trader Joe’s or a Whole Foods (I don’t) and are comfortable spending six or seven dollars on a sixteen ounce package of crap-free frozen puff pastry (I’m not), your choices are limited: Pepperidge Farm in all of its partially hydrogenated glory or nothing at all. I’ve generally gone with the nothing at all option, but after years of rejecting scads of perfectly delicious-sounding tart recipes, I had a puff pastry epiphany. “How hard can it be?” I thought, and set about gathering the necessary ingredients.
Last Sunday, after recommending cooking and gardening books at my favorite local independent bookstore’s holiday soiree, I returned home to find a hungry Chris. The soiree had involved wine and books and food and, well, conversations about wine and books and food, so naturally I’d lost track of time. I had not, however, lost track of the leftover muffins I’d baked in order to charm people into buying Jamie Oliver’s new cookbook, and I kindly offered one to hungry Chris. “What kind of muffins are they,” Chris scoffed, “squash?”
First of all, Chris may be the only (hungry) person I know who can conceive of an ingredient one might normally put in muffins that he would be unwilling to eat. I mean, unless the muffins are filled with pickles they’re likely to at least be edible. But second of all — and more importantly — the muffins in question were, in fact, made from squash.
“I think squash is your new zucchini,” Chris decided, at which point he was treated not just to a muffin but also to a fairly lengthy and very interesting oration on the differences between summer squash and winter squash.
He’s right though: we have been eating a lot of squash. The winter kind, because it’s winter. And by winter I mean that until today, when it reached a balmy 36°F, there was about two and a half feet of snow on the ground. Regardless of what the calendar says about the upcoming solstice, it already feels pretty damn wintry. Locally grown produce consists of squash, potatoes and — through some sort of lovely greenhouse magic — leafy greens. While I adore leafy greens in the abstract, I rarely know what to do with them once I’ve gotten them home, so I’ve been stocking up on squash. It’s wonderfully versatile, keeps well and, as it turns out, makes an awful yummy muffin.
I live in the sort of place where a casual mention of your fondness for rhubarb is likely to land you in somebody’s brother-in-law’s mother’s field with an armload of rhubarb stalks and an abiding gratitude for midwestern neighborliness, which is how I came to have several quarts of diced rhubarb in my freezer. Naturally, I would have preferred the rhubarb to end up in a pie rather than in the freezer, but Chris can conceive of few things more repulsive than cooked fruit and I can’t eat a whole pie by myself.
I can, as it turns out, eat quite a lot of hand pies by myself, and I can eat them in the car on the way to work. For breakfast.
Although there are still a few days left before the Autumnal Equinox officially ushers in fall — with its crisp days and crunchy leaves, summer has been quietly fading for weeks now. The days have grown increasingly shorter, the sunlight itself seems softer, and the smell of wood smoke from neighbors’ fireplaces has replaced the quintessentially summertime scent of sunscreen. All of which leaves me feeling restless and wistful.
I begin to realize that afternoons squandered in tidying up the house or running errands might have been better spent lounging on the beach, and to regret those nights I succumbed to the siren song of takeout pizza rather than avail myself of summer’s abundant and delicious fresh produce. I’m disappointed to discover that I did not pack enough summer into my summer.
So when my favorite corn farmer warned me last weekend that we could expect only three more weeks of corn, I might have been just a teensy bit overzealous in my purchasing. (sensing a theme here?) Not to worry. Corn freezes beautifully and easily, plus I’d recently run across a piece by a corn-obsessed columnist in The New York Times and was itching to try her cornbread.
I have a tendency to cling to summer, soaking up late afternoon sun on the beach, scowling at reddening leaves, and refusing to wear shoes despite my cold toes. Eventually though, I give in, and one sure sign of this acceptance of fall has traditionally been the replacement of my evening gin & tonic with a bourbon & ginger. While I’m nowhere near ready to make the annual gin to bourbon transition, the other night I did have a dream about bourbon.
More specifically, I dreamt of a dessert my friend Jess and I once shared — a chocolaty, bourbony dessert that, as I recall, was ridiculously good. So good that we talked about it for weeks afterward and actually considered holding happy hour at a restaurant with no happy hour specials simply so that we might order dessert to go. So good that one slice shared two years ago now sends visions of chocolate and bourbon dancing in my head. So good that since awakening from said visions, I’ve been able to think of little else. And so good that despite there being a nearly-full bottle of gin in the freezer and a solid month of gin-drinking weather to go, I broke down and bought a bottle of bourbon.
Just for the chocolate though. Well, and the pecans. But not for me. It is, after all, still summer. Just so we’re clear.