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.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I had every intention of starting a new tradition this year and hosting a cookie swap with some of our local friends, but somehow the season really got the best of me and it just hasn't happened. But! That hasn't stopped me from getting a head start on holiday baking; I posted a photo on Instagram the other day of some of my very favorite holiday cookbooks, and asked if there was a way we could all just take the whole week off to bake instead of work. Judging from the responses, it seems I'm not the only one who thinks this would be a really great idea. But back here in reality, cookie baking is relegated to later evenings or, I hope, this weekend we'll find some time to eek in a few batches (the recipe for Sam's mom's Nutmeg Logs is up next, and I'm set on making gingerbread men to take with us down to the Bay Area). Right now on our countertop, we've got a batch of these crumbly, chocolatey, whole grain shortbread that have proven to be a big hit. The ingredient list is small and simple, the technique foolproof, and I think they're a real standout in a sea of holiday cookies.
Hello from the other side! I realize we haven't been back here for a few weeks, and I'm sorry for dropping into a little black hole. My cookbook deadline was Monday, so I've been a writing and editing machine, stepping away from the computer to occasionally clean the house like a crazy person or throw together a most random lunch or dinner. But somehow it all came together although there was something strangely anti-climactic about sending it off: In the days when you'd print out your manuscript and have to walk to the post office and seal it up carefully to send to the publisher, I imagine it would feel much more ceremonial and important --you could stroll out of the building and do a cartwheel. Or high-five a fellow customer on your way out. Instead, I was sitting in our dining room on an incredibly rainy, dark Monday afternoon unable to hit "send." My sister Zoe told me to just close my eyes and do it. Sam gave me the thumbs up. So around 3 p.m. that's what I did. With the click of a button, just like that: it was finished.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
We've been waking up early these days with baby Oliver. I've always been a morning person, so this isn't particularly challenging for me -- although the middle of the night feedings have proven to be really tough. There has been a lot of finessing of sleep schedules and figuring out how Sam and I can both get enough to function well the following day. And just when we think we have it down ("gosh, aren't we lucky we have a baby that sleeps?"), everything changes. When I was in the final weeks of pregnancy and would talk about how I couldn't wait for the baby to be here, all of my friends with kids would advise me to sleep as much as possible -- and now I get it. I should've napped more. I should've listened. In getting up at odd times throughout the night with Oliver, I've had the chance to occasionally see some really brilliant sunrises (although not this past week which has been a particularly dark one in Seattle); I've made up some wacky baby tunes that I'm happy no one else can hear; and I generally have a good hour in which I can put him in the sling and walk briskly around the house trying to soothe him back to sleep while also putting away a dish or two or making a quick cup of coffee. In that hour, I can usually get something productive done and this past weekend that something was pear gingerbread.