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.
Healthy Comfort Food
People describe raising young kids as a particular season in life. I hadn't heard this until we had a baby, but it brought me a lot of comfort when I'd start to let my mind wander, late at night between feedings, to fears that we'd never travel internationally again or have a sit-down meal in our dining room. Would I ever eat a cardamom bun in Sweden? Soak in Iceland? I loved the heck out of our tiny Oliver, but man what had we done?! Friends would swoop in and reassure us that this was just a season, a blip in the big picture of it all. They promised we'd likely not even remember walking around the house in circles singing made-up songs while eating freezer burritos at odd hours of the day (or night). And it's true.
Oliver is turning two next month, and those all-encompassing baby days feel like a different time, a different Us. In many ways, dare I say it, Toddlerhood actually feels a bit harder. Lately Oliver has become extremely opinionated about what he will and will not wear -- and he enforces these opinions with fervor. Don't get near the kid with a button-down shirt. This week at least. He's obsessed with his rain boots and if it were up to him, he'd keep them on at all times, especially during meals. He insists on ketchup with everything (I created a damn monster), has learned the word "trash" and insists on throwing found items away on his own that really, truly are not trash. I came to pick him up from daycare the other day and he was randomly wearing a bike helmet -- his teacher mentioned he'd had it on most of the day and really, really didn't want to take it off. The kid has FEELINGS. I love that about him, and wouldn't want it any other way. But, man it's also exhausting.
I just finished washing out Oliver's lunchbox and laying it out to dry for the weekend. My favorite time of day is (finally) here: the quiet of the evening when I can actually talk to Sam about our day or sit and reflect on my own thoughts after the inevitable dance party or band practice that precedes the bedtime routine lately. Before becoming pregnant for the second time, I'd have had a glass of wine with the back door propped open right about now -- these days though, I have sparkling water or occasionally take a sip from one of Sam's hard ciders. Except now the back door's closed and we even turned on the heat for the first time yesterday. The racing to water the lawn and clean the grill have been replaced by cozier dinners at home and longer baths in the evening. You blink and it's the first day of fall.
I'd heard from many friends that buying a house wasn't for the faint of heart. But I always shrugged it off, figuring I probably kept better files or was more organized and, really, how hard could it be? Well, I've started (and stopped) writing this post a good fifteen times which may indicate something. BUT! First thing's first: we bought a house! I think! I'm pretty sure! We're still waiting for some tax transcripts to come through and barring any hiccough with that, we'll be moving out of our beloved craftsman in a few weeks and down the block to a great, brick Tudor house that we wanted the second we laid eyes on it. The only problem: it seemed everyone else in Seattle had also laid eyes on it, and wanted it equally as much. I'm not really sure why the homeowner chose us in the end. Our offer actually wasn't the highest, but apparently there were some issues with a few of them. We wrote a letter introducing ourselves and describing why we'd be the best candidates and why we were so drawn to the house; we have a really wonderful broker who pulled out all the stops, and after sifting through 10 offers and spending a number of hours deliberating, they ended up going with ours. We were at a friend's book event at the time when Sam showed me the text from our broker and I kind of just collapsed into his arms. We were both in ecstatic denial (wait, is this real?! Did we just buy a house?) and celebrated by getting chicken salad and potato salad from the neighborhood grocery store and eating it, dazed, on our living room floor. Potato salad never tasted so good.
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Porridge is not the sexiest of breakfasts, it's true. It doesn't have a stylish name like strata or shakshuka, and it doesn't have perfectly domed tops like your favorite fruity muffin. It doesn't crumble into delightful bits like a good scone nor does it fall into buttery shards like a well-made croissant. But when you wake up and it's 17 degrees outside (as it has been, give or take a few, for the last week), there's nothing that satisfies like a bowl of porridge or oatmeal. It's warm and hearty and can be made sweet or savory with any number of toppings. The problem? Over the years, it's gotten a bad rap as gluey or gummy or just downright boring or dutiful -- and it's because not everyone knows the secrets to making a great pot of warm morning cereal. So let's talk porridge (also: my cookbook comes out this month! So let's take a peek inside, shall we?)