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.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
We walked to the library last week and I had a strange realization standing in line watching Sam check out his usual massive stack of books: Will I ever have the time to read stacks of books again? I used to be much more of a reader than I am today -- a fact I'm not at all proud of. But when evening rolls around and the more formal workday ends, I find emails and other odds and ends creep in. Walking home from the library, I began obsessing over free time for reading, asking Sam if we'd ever be those two old people who study bird manuals and can recognize birds on walks. I want to have the time to read bird manuals someday. For now though, we're young and we're working a lot. We did sneak away on that one-night camping trip I told you about, and cooked some interesting, haphazard meals which I hope to share with you soon. For now though, for summer: a strawberry dessert recipe.
Much like friends, types of Sunday mornings, or books -- there are many different kinds of desserts. Sometimes you may be in the mood for a light French cake piled high with summer fruit. Other days, a thick slice of fragrant pound cake will do. And then there are those days when you crave a rich chocolate mousse that you share after a night of good conversation and a little too much wine. But let's be honest. When it comes right down to it, the most basic and unassuming dessert of all is sometimes the only one that will do. A good and simple affair. Vanilla ice cream. So I want to talk about that today--about a dessert that withstands the test of time, that will always be there for you. A dessert that is far from trendy, that doesn't play favorites or trick you into thinking it's something that it's not. It's a good foundation. A solid beginning.
[ Pie. if you've been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I'm particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.