This past week was one in which I found out that one of my good friends is pregnant with her first child, and another friend and her partner just bought a new home and moved to Oakland. A friend across town had thrown out her back and another was just returning from a long trip, exhausted and jet-lagged. It was time to bake a little something. Something that was equal parts celebration (a baby!) and ‘take it easy.’ Something with ingredients I had on hand and that I wouldn’t have to rush around to shop and prep for. Something like Harvest Apple Coffee Cake.
I like this recipe a great deal because I generally have apples laying around in the fall. Either friends have gone apple-picking, my mom picks some up for me at the farmers market, or I stumble across a too-good-to-pass-up deal at Berkeley Bowl, there’s generally a small village of them on my kitchen table. And buttermilk. Can we just say a word about buttermilk? I often buy a quart of it for something I’m baking and then have the rest just hanging out in the fridge–so this recipe takes care of that issue, too.
I’ve been doing some research on American cookery at the turn of the century for a small project I’m working on, and stumbled across this wonderful manual at the library called The American Frugal Housewife by Lydia Maria Child. It was first published in Boston in 1829 and reprinted through 32 editions until 1850, and is essentially a book of economical housekeeping hints ranging from reusing scraps of old bread to make coffee (what?!) to washing your hair with New England rum. A quote that I particularly like is when Child says, “The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments so that nothing be lost. I mean fragments of time as well.” That’s what this coffee cake is all about. It’s about using up the fruit and butter and sugar that you have at home, folding it all together, baking it, and delivering it to friends to say Welcome Home or I Hope You Feel Better. That’s all: gathering fragments into something greater than its pieces. And passing it on.
This recipe is very loosely inspired by a recipe in the new The Beekman Boys 1802 Heirloom Cookbook called “Company’s Coming Apple Cake.” Its named as such because it’s simple to throw together with ingredients you likely have on hand for nights when you find out last minute that neighbors are stopping by after dinner. I was inspired by the recipe but wanted to make a lightly spiced morning coffee cake instead of an actual cake, and wanted to use whole-grain flour and a different streusel topping (the same streusel I use on top of Marge pies at the farmers markets). This coffee cake will hold up beautifully for 2-3 days if wrapped well and left out on the counter. This makes it nice for slicing off bits for afternoon tea, too (wouldn’t want to waste any, after all). I think Lydia Maria Child would approve.
While I usually bake with Granny Smith apples, they tend to dry out a little in this coffee cake. Honeycrisps or even Golden Delicious are perfect here. You could also use pears instead of apple or walnuts or hazelnuts instead of pecans. I love baking with whole grain flours whenever possible; you want coffee cake to be pretty fluffy, so I opted to use King Arthur Flour’s white whole wheat flour along with a traditional white all-purpose flour. This combination works well and gives the cake a little more heft without verging on dry or overly dense.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking pan. With a stand-mixer or hand-beaters, beat the butter until creamy, roughly 1 minute. Gradually beat in the two sugars until fluffy, 2-3 minutes. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Whisk together with a fork or small whisk. Set aside.
Add the eggs to the butter mixture, one at a time, beating after each addition just to incorporate. Add the four mixture, alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the flour. Fold in the apples just until combined and scrape the mixture into the prepared pan. This is the point in which you really don’t want to overmix the batter: just fold and be done with it.
For the topping: Mix all of the dry ingredients together, pour in the butter and work the butter into the dry ingredients with your hands until crumbly. It should be clumpy, like large pebbles. If it’s too wet, add another sprinkling of flour.
Scatter the topping over the coffee cake batter in an even layer. Bake for 50 minutes, or until a toothpick is inserted into the middle and comes out clean or with just a few crumbs attached. Cool completely before serving.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.