Category Archives: food and cooking

Fire and cake and cloudy days.

Yesterday I made a successful cake in my Nordic Ware honeycomb pan. My first attempt a couple of weeks ago didn’t work out; it was a honey-and-lemon cake recipe not designed for the pan. There wasn’t enough batter to fill it properly, so the pieces of cake that were supposed to be pull-apart on a plate, instead fell apart coming out of the pan, having no foundation, you might say.

I put the lemony glaze on some of them anyway, and gave most of the little ragged pieces away.

 

This week I found an earring that I had given up for lost forever, so I decided to bake a cake in honor of St. Phanourios. I noticed that the recipe called for three cups of flour, and that is the amount I had deduced I needed for a honeycomb cake, so I tried it in my pan, and it came out perfect. I substituted honey for the sugar, because I want every cake I bake in this pan to honor the honeybee in every way. I was going to a study on the book of Romans at church last night, preceded by a potluck, so I took my cake to share.

Today I had a load of firewood delivered, half a cord only. Last December I had bought a whole cord, and we used most of it. I don’t know why I didn’t do that again… some deep psychological reason, I’m sure, having to do with — what else? — this remodeling project. The electricians were working upstairs all day, by the way.

I didn’t have a plan for who would stack my wood. In the back of my mind I had the idea that I might just cover it with a tarp right there in the driveway because anything beyond that was too much to think about. But it wasn’t raining, so I thought I might as well put a few logs where I wanted them before covering it. I carried some into the house, filled up the wood rack in the garage, began a neat stack in the utility yard… and before long, I had stacked it all! I had also covered the stack outside with a tarp, and swept up the driveway. And it only took two hours. Just as I was finishing I felt some raindrops on my head.

Truly cold weather isn’t forecast to return as long as the rain is hanging on,
but when we’re ready to get cozy by the wood stove, we’ll be ready!

Gingerbread Philosophy

“The great gingerbread war has heated up in San Francisco, and it all comes down to one eternal question: Is it a gingerbread house if you can’t eat it?” So asked an article in the Chronicle newspaper a few years ago. Just as I also wondered this morning, when I heard from two young women who for years have used a hot glue gun to put theirs together. I had never heard of such a thing. Their children have started asking when they can eat the house, and the mothers remind them that they always only eat loose candy while they are assembling it.

At our house, we’ve had two gingerbread construction events that I can remember. I wasn’t the instigator. I prefer to provide background support in the form of dishwashing and photography, because cake and icing have always seemed like the most unlikely media for art or architecture, and near certain failure doesn’t sound like fun.

These first photos are from 25 + years ago, when young people could do things solely for fun without having to spend time on their phones taking pictures to share worldwide. My kids and their friends were making two houses, and one never would stay standing. I think the siding was hopelessly warped from being baked on a thin cookie sheet.

In San Francisco, it’s been traditional for the chefs at the Fairmont Hotel to make their large Christmas gingerbread house (top picture) out of completely edible components. Because a gingerbread house is the last thing that should be purely symbolic, right? When my friends and I had a tradition for a few years, of a trip to San Francisco at Christmastime, we appreciated being able to break off pieces of the house to eat. Nibbling was discouraged, true, but every day the house was quietly repaired, and sometimes a repairman chef would hand a child a piece of candy from his kit in hopes that it might mean one less candy cane broken off.

“Go ahead, have a piece,” said Tom Klein, Fairmont hotel’s regional vice president and general manager. He was handing out gingerbread shingles to startled hotel guests in the lobby. Technically, eating the Fairmont’s walk-through gingerbread house is not allowed, but Klein had a point to make about the edibility of the building materials, and the kids he was handing the gingerbread to were not complaining.

“Meanwhile, at the St. Francis, its fanciful baked house was more of a medieval castle, lavishly and intricately decorated by chefs with tweezers. It’s a smaller, more intricate creation, exhibited behind a sturdy metal fence designed to keep grubby little fingers at bay.”

I have seen the St. Francis castle, too, but I don’t  think I knew that it was gingerbread. I read that they recycle the gingerbread from previous houses to make it; that would seem to make it inedible right there. On the other hand, I liked getting a whiff of the Fairmont gingerbread:

I’m not saying that the mothers mentioned above were aiming for Instagram perfection. Probably they just feel the way I do about my Christmas cookies; I enjoy the creative project and like doing it alone. And if a recipe calls for a really messy or difficult ingredient, I just won’t use it. That’s why I don’t make gingerbread houses. Even the most precise and well thought out ones, with slabs of sturdy cake baked on unwarped cookie sheets, must be accepted as “the best we could do with the materials.” Here are my pictures of the more recent one built in my house, spearheaded by Pippin and the Professor.

This year the gingerbread house at the Fairmont is bigger than ever, and you may rent it for “private” dining. Up to ten people can sit at table inside, starting at $300 for two hours. I’m really curious about who will be enjoying that luxury. (It doesn’t sound appealing to me, to be on display to every holiday gawker passing through the opulent lobby, while partaking of such a gimmick.) The population of San Francisco is notoriously low on children, but maybe some well-to-do ladies will stop by with their grandchildren on the way back from seeing “The Nutcracker.”

I do love everything about edible gingerbread houses — their colorful and aromatic, candy-laden selves, and their fairy-tale connections — as long as other people are building them. How unlikely! How extravagant and wild. My style is to let the people get old enough to want to try culinary architecture on their own, and to have the patience to see the project through to the end; until then, I’m happy to make a mess in the kitchen with children of any age, baking gingerbread cookies. And when they’ve had enough of that, and run off after a while, I will also love finishing up on my own!

From this house, what I’d like is a few puffs of malt-ball smoke. ❤

I take succour from pudding and poems.

Sunday there was a big bowl of dead-ripe bananas in the parish hall, for the taking. Maybe they had been left from our church’s monthly hosting of the overflow from the local rescue mission. The program started up again last week for the fall and winter.

I couldn’t resist bringing home a couple of bunches, which I put in the fridge while I hunted for a fast-friendly recipe to use them in. Since then I have very much appreciated the pudding I made, eaten as warm as possible as I try to shake the chill that has descended on me and my house.

Do I never weary of writing about my shivering? Evidently not. My flesh and bones are crying out, “Do something!” And I occasionally respond in new ways… but I suppose it is typically a variation on a story of sun and food.

On my outing to the library I was able to shed my wool sweater. I was picking up a collection of poems by Les Murray, whose name has popped up here and there for months now; I see that he died just this year. When I eventually checked, what do you know, I didn’t have to search farther than my neighborhood branch to find New Selected Poems. It was lunchtime when I got home, so I took a little bowl of Vietnamese Banana Tapioca Pudding and some other snacks out front to eat on the bench. And I sat longer, to be warm, and perused my book.

In the garden the sun is shining, and I can even get hot in my flannel shirt. But indoors this morning I had carried my breakfast on a tray up the stairs to one of the temporary storage rooms (a.k.a. bedrooms), the eastern one where I could sit with the sun on my back. I have been reluctant to turn on the furnace, because of all the empty spaces in the walls and ceiling of the room that is still not out of its demolition phase. I didn’t want to try “heating the great outdoors,” as my father used to put it.

In my library book a surprising number of poems got my attention by their accessibility and themes, and then made me happy by the evocative images and philosophical musings that are so satisfying. Which to share first? By now you will know why I chose this one to end today’s story:

SUCCOUR

Refugees, derelicts – but why classify
people in the wreck of their terms?
These wear mixed and accidental clothing
and are seated at long tables in rows.

It’s like a school, and the lesson
has moved now from papers to round
volumes of steaming food
which they seem to treat like knowledge,

re-learning it slowly, copying it
into themselves with hesitant spoons.

~Les Murray

It’s a mistake to rush through this cake.

My friend Timothy told me yesterday that the only people he knows who can truly multi-task are mothers of young children. It’s true, when you are a mother, you often are solving their problems, teaching them, or nurturing their souls more generally even while sweeping the floor or cooking, etc.

But if like me you are often alone and can fully focus on one thing at a time, that is best. One of my favorite quotes on this subject has long been from St. Seraphim of Sarov: “Whatever you do, do it gently and unhurriedly, because virtue is not a pear to be eaten in one bite.” And this morning I read on Lisa’s blog this good word from Fr. Jacques Philippe:

“To live today well we also should remember that God only asks for one thing at a time, never two. It doesn’t matter whether the job we have in hand is sweeping the kitchen floor or giving a speech to forty thousand people. We must put our hearts into it, simply and calmly, and not try to solve more than one problem at a time. Even when what we’re doing is genuinely trifling, it’s a mistake to rush through it as though we felt we were wasting our time. If something, no matter how ordinary, needs to be done and is part of our lives, it’s worth doing for its own sake, and worth putting our hearts into.”

When I read that, I had just finished eating a piece of the most delectable cake — while reading at the computer. Everyone knows that is a bad thing for an overeater to do! But the other unfortunate thing is, I missed the full experience of this cake, which I don’t exactly want to put my heart into, but which I do want to receive “gently and unhurriedly,” in a way that promotes the greatest thankfulness and encourages virtue.

I’d been wanting to try this cake to make use of my fig harvest; I think of it as an autumn cake because it is now that the figs really come in. The recipe is from Martha Stewart, but I combined the figs with dried apricots instead of fresh plums, because I had just bought the wonderfully rich Blenheim apricots from Trader Joe’s, and did not have plums on hand. The apricots were both more flavorful and colorful than plums would have been. Also I cut down on the sugar.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a more buttery cake, but the flavor of butter was even lovelier — is that possible? — by being in combination with the almonds and fruit. As it turns out, the fruit and nuts and eggs are all products of California farms or gardens, and perhaps the butter as well? So mine is a California Cake, but yours might be otherwise.

You start with a cookie-like crust that gets pre-baked, an eggy almond-flour paste spread on top, then the fruit over all, before it goes in the oven again for a long time. I added a little water to the fruit to make up for the apricots being dried. I definitely had to give the whole process my full attention.

AUTUMN FIG CAKE

Trying to warm the butter a bit.

2 sticks unsalted butter, cool room temperature, cut into pieces, plus more for pan
1 pound fresh figs, halved or quartered
6 oz dried apricots, preferably Blenheim variety, sliced
1/4 cup water
1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided
Almost 1 cup sugar, divided
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup finely ground almond flour
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch square cake pan; line with 2 wide pieces of parchment, leaving a 2-inch overhang on all sides. Butter parchment. Toss fruit with 1/3 cup sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. If you are using dried fruit add the 1/4 cup water; set aside and stir occasionally.

In a food processor, pulse 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1/4 cup sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon salt to combine. Add half of butter and pulse until fine crumbs form. Transfer to prepared cake pan and use floured fingers to press dough evenly into bottom of pan. (If too soft to easily press in, refrigerate 10 minutes.)

Bake until crust is light golden in color, about 20 minutes; transfer to a wire rack and let cool 15 minutes.

In food processor, pulse remaining half of butter, 1/2 cup sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon salt with baking powder until combined. Add almond flour, remaining 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, eggs, and almond extract; process until smooth.

Spread batter evenly over crust. Gently stir fruit to reincorporate sugar mixture and arrange on top of batter (cut-side up). Bake until fruit is bubbling and filling is firm, about 1 hour and 5 minutes (Mine took 10 minutes longer). Let cool in pan 15 minutes, then use parchment overhang to lift cake out of pan and transfer to a wire rack. Let cool 1 hour and serve. Cake can be stored in an airtight container up to 2 days.

Wouldn’t the base of this cake be good with just about any fruit topping? I think it would.

Whatever you make of it, when you do partake,
I hope you can do it with attentive thanksgiving. 🙂