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.
There’s absolutely nothing local about grapefruit, but you know what’s available locally right now? Turnips. There might still be a couple winter squash in my basement, but mostly it’s turnips. I’m not even sure I like turnips, so when a coworker mentioned that her daughter’s school was having a fruit fundraiser I succumbed to the siren song of citrus and ordered twelve pounds of grapefruit. Twelve pounds sounds like a lot of grapefruit, but it’s really not. The fruit was delivered last Friday and when I arrived at work the following Monday eager to chat with my friend and fellow grapefruit enthusiast Katie, she’d nearly run out. “What did you do with them?” I asked, hoping for a brilliant recipe I’d not yet discovered. “I just ate them,” she answered.
Oh. That honestly hadn’t occurred to me.