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.
Early Fall Baking
Last weekend we went apple picking up near Yakima, a good three hours east of Seattle. We drove over to Harmony Orchards with our friends Brandi and John and met up with many other groups and families to amble about the rows and rows of apples in the unusually warm sun. We missed the annual picking last year as we were on our honeymoon, but the previous year was the one in which we made the colossal mistake of picking over 70 pounds of apples. I've never made so much applesauce in my life. This year we practiced restraint in bringing home a cool 38 pounds and after getting them all situated in the basement, I started to leaf through a few cookbooks looking for a great apple recipe -- something, preferably, that used quite a few apples, wasn't too sweet and could double as breakfast or dessert (really, the best kind of recipe). And that's exactly what we have in these Custardy Apple Squares.
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 am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.
I rarely make muffins at home and never order one when I'm out and about as I find they're often far too sweet and never truly that satisfying. I realize, too, in looking back at my cookbook that there's only one muffin recipe throughout. Case in point: I'm tentative on muffins. But not these. We've been pretty thrilled to have this healthier version of Morning Glory muffins on the counter this week; they have little bits of apple, raisins, walnuts, and grated carrot and are cloaked in a buttery oat crumble topping -- quite the opposite of your boring coffeeshop fare. I thought long and hard about doing a Valentine's post, some festive cookie or confection that would be share-worthy this weekend, but the more we talked about what our weekend would really look like, it involved something special for breakfast instead. I don't remember the last time a Valentine's Day fell on a Saturday, so we have big plans to have breakfast in bed and if your plans are even remotely similar, these muffins would be a fine inclusion.
I generally work on weekends. It's something I've come to terms with only because I know it won't last forever. I write. I bake. But those two things don't always pay the bills, so I work retail on the weekends and dream of the day when I'll have a Sunday like this one: