Two Cakes for Any Season

We go to a lot of potlucks. And lucky for us, most of the time there is a pretty diverse selection of food that arrives in the arms of our cohorts, friends, neighbors and the like. Of course there is the occasional dinner of tortilla chips, salsa and apple pie, but no one seems to complain…I, for one, totally vote yes to apple pie for dinner anytime. And usually the next event’s bounty makes up for the imbalance. But there is certainly an art to potluck fare, and perhaps some of us just innately understand that and some don’t. Rule number one is to bring something. Rule number two is to bring something that you have made yourself that has some flavor…salt and seasoning are good things. And rule number three (there can always be more rules, but I’ll limit my potluck regulations here to three) is, in the event of a time shortage that makes it necessary for you to just pick something up at the store on your way, make it something interesting. Don’t just bring a bag of chips. Why not a good cheese that you haven’t tried before with some fancy crackers or seasonal fruit? Or if the drive from the store isn’t too far, what about bringing some ice cream and a package of cones? That would probably make you the most popular person of the day.

Being a baker, my mind wanders to a dessert contribution upon accepting a potluck invitation. But I also tend to desire simplicity and ease of preparation. Most of us don’t have the time, energy or inclination to devote to making multiple stepped recipes for a potluck, and why should we? That’s the beauty of the potluck, to allow for equity of labor so that we can have fun on a random weeknight. It’s about community and sharing a meal, not slaving over something to prove your skills and make yourself stressed out. Save the gateau de crepes for a really special occasion.

I’m so happy to have found not one, but two new cake recipes in the last month that are perfect for potlucks, or really for any impromptu purpose. They both are easily adaptable to any season since they feature fruit and come together with just a few ingredients that you most likely have lying around. The first is an upside down cake, originally using ground almonds and apricots, but I’m envisioning pistachios and figs or even ground coconut and pineapple. I made it for my daughter’s first birthday using hazelnuts and figs and it was pretty great. Us grownups topped it with whiskey spiked whipped cream. The second cake, actually called a Kuchen, is an easy two-egg base that can be topped with pretty much any cut up fruit. I swayed from the original plums and subbed in pears and it was awesome. Cherries, peaches, anything would be great. And what I love best about both cakes is the room for seasonality. I look around at the heaping bowls on the counter and decide from that. “Use it up!” I say!

Upsidedown Hazelnut Fig Cake for Hazel's First Birthday!

Upside-Down Hazelnut Fig Cake for Hazel’s First Birthday!

 

Apricot Almond Upside-Down Cake

(Adapted from Sweet Times at Emandal)

1/2 cup brown sugar

8-10 fresh apricots, figs or plums, halved or quartered depending on size

2/3 cup flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup butter (1 stick), softened

2/3 cup sugar

3/4 cup nuts of your choice, finely ground

3 eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 tsp almond extract

 

Preheat oven to 325F. Grease a 9-inch cake pan. Scatter the brown sugar on the bottom of the pan, patting it into a thin, even layer. Arrange the fruit, cut side up, in concentric circles until the pan is filled.

In a bowl or mixer, cream the butter and sugar. Add the ground nuts until combined, then the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add extracts. In a small bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder and salt, then fold into the egg mixture just until blended.

Pour the batter over the fruit arranged in cake pan. Spread evenly, being careful not to disturb the placement of the fruit. Bake for 45-55 minutes or until the top is golden brown and firm to the touch, beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan. Cool 10 minutes, then invert onto a serving platter. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream if desired.

 

Hungarian Kuchen

(adapted from A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking)

CAKE

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup sugar

2 eggs

1/4 cup sour cream (or Greek yogurt)

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 tsp almond extract

11/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 tsp salt

1 tsp baking powder

 

TOPPING

6 cups pitted, thickly sliced stone fruit or pears

Juice of 1 lemon

3 Tbsp sugar

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1 Tbsp butter, in bits

 

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a 10-inch spring-form pan. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, then the sour cream or yogurt and extracts. In a small bowl, stir together the flour, salt and baking powder, then fold into the egg mixture just until combined.

Spoon the batter into the prepared cake pan. Arrange the sliced fruit in a spiral, starting in the center and moving out, to cover the surface of the cake. Drizzle the lemon juice and sugar, then dust with cinnamon and dot with the butter bits. Bake until the fruit releases its juices and the cake is browned on top, about 35 minutes. Cool well before removing from the pan. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream if desired. Serves 6-8.

 

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Harvest Time

I just harvested a baby. Picked after 40 weeks plus five days of ripening, she weighs in at a whopping 9 pounds, 1 ounce and stretches 21.25 inches long. Her genus is Sonial Stimpson, but commonly referred to as the “Hazel” variety. There really couldn’t be a more perfect example of her species, and we are tempted everyday to just eat her up!

The special “Hazel” variety

Preserving her takes a lot of preparation and work, though. And unfortunately there isn’t really a recipe for success…mostly trial and error to get it just right. We are two weeks into the testing phase, preliminary research and development did not provide comprehensive guidance into the project and we are working overtime to say the least. Lots of sleepless nights, but all worth it. In fact, the brevity of this field note entry is a testament to our time constraints and level of activity poured into putting up Hazel. I’ve learned by now that caffeine doesn’t adequately fuel the energy needed for this type of work, and can have disastrous secondary effects on the specimen. However, highly nutritious fuel is required to keep the project moving forward. The following recipe, with room for adaptation to suit anyone’s preference, has proven to be a great start to each day.

Hazel’s Harvest Time Granola

4 cups rolled oats

2 cups unsweetened, wide flake coconut

2/3 cup chopped dried fruit (currants, apricots, cherries, etc.)

1/2 cup nuts, seeds, or combination

1/2 cup unsalted butter, oil, or combination

1/2 cup sweetener (honey, agave, etc.)

1 egg white

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp vanilla (optional)

Preheat the oven to 300F degrees. In a large bowl, combine the oats, coconut, dried fruit, nuts/seeds and salt.  In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the butter (if using). Stir in the sweetener and remove from heat. If using oil, mix in a small bowl with sweetener. Add the vanilla (if using) and pour into the dry ingredients, stirring well until everything is combined. Whisk the egg white in a small bowl and add, stirring well to coat. Divide the mixture between two rimmed baking sheets and spread into a thin layer on each.

Bake, stirring occasionally and then re-spreading evenly, for about 30-40 minutes or until deep golden brown. Rotating the pans is a good idea to ensure even baking. Remove from the oven and press down with a spatula. Let cool completely before transferring to an airtight container. Makes about 8 cups.

Spring Chickens

Our Cochin named "Salad"

Bellina and Fluffy were my first experience of parental responsibility. I had raised them from eggs in an incubator at school, waiting impatiently for the first cracks to appear on the shells and the little beaks to bust out. My heart was bursting as they blinked up at me for the first time, and my devotion to their safety ran deep as I transferred them home. My parents had agreed to my request for two, one more chick than most of my classmates, and I was proud to be accountable for the extra responsibility. That spring I may have been the luckiest kid on Earth, having two baby chicks and two baby kittens at the same time, hopping around in bliss on a sunny Easter sunday. That single holiday might be the sole reason I continue to like Easter (being Jewish it doesn’t really hold much significance for me besides an excuse to eat candy).

But the joy began to fade as we discovered that Fluffy was a rooster. Instead of snuggling and petting and laying eggs for the family, he tore around the yard, puffing up his wings and charging like a bull at anything that moved. My brother instilled the strategy of going out the door first, distracting Fluffy by running around and waving his arms as I darted to the car, avoiding the violent pecks and gouges that would ensue if my bare little legs were otherwise discovered. My brother’s courage still envokes in me deep gratitude for this valiant and protective daily deed.

"Red" perched for first time.

Things got even worse. Bellina, who consistently displayed a rare mix of patience, sweetness, and prolific egg laying as she grew into a plump hen, was discovered late one night by the neighbor’s dogs. There was no saving her. I still remember a fleeting, teary glimpse of bright red blood on pure white feathers as my dad quickly removed the evidence. Fluffy on the other had, survived with might. Not only did he receive the same treatment from the pack of dogs that delivered Bellina’s demise, but he uncannily displayed little if any residual harm or torment from the literally scarring event. He went on to live an unusually long life, surviving two more attacks, one of which was a coyote bite that left him barely hanging on.

The babies getting used to their new home.

And so it is with a combination of excitement and trepidation that I enter into parenthood once again. Our ten little chicks arrived almost three weeks ago, small, fragile and chirping with need. We have since gone through the scares of pasty butt, the thrills of a first perch, and the pride of aphid eating. All ten are still holding strong, spreading out into their expanded three room cardboard suite. Our living room glows demon red day and night and our electric bill is most likely growing just as rapidly as the chicks are. A deluxe coop, crafted of scavenged wood and repurposed materials from our property, is in the works. And it will be a fortress, double dug and fenced to fend off the array of mountain preditors waiting in the wings. Soon the day will come for the babies to venture out into the wide world, and I am trying my hardest to imagine the task of letting go and accepting what fate will provide for them.

"Red" might be the next Fluffy...we are hoping she's just a really big hen.

Vines

Roots

We just started a vineyard.  Or what might become a vineyard, a micro vineyard at best. Closer to reality is that we just dug up eleven dormant Syrah grapevines and transferred them to a small patch of our garden for the next several months, ultimately hoping their roots will develop enough to transplant into a row at the edge of our property. A mountain neighbor and fellow wannabe homesteader contacted me after reading one of my articles on Civil Eats. His garden gets too much shade and he was looking for a good home for these grapevines. Of course, we couldn’t say no to the prospect of home-crushed projects and proceeded to traipse up the road to his place.

 

Contrary to how most of these manual labor undertakings pan out, the grapes took much less time than expected to give up their hold on the earth and uproot. We rolled them up in burlap and hurried home to soak them down and snuggle them back up into soil at their new, yet temporary, plot.

Syrah

After lots of recent rain and wind, they remain perky and secure, giving me hope that one day we will harvest their bounty. Year number one may only result in juice running down our faces from fresh picked clusters…the wine might take a bit longer to deliver.

Bonanza Springs Farm


So here it is everyone, a blog to capture the layers of what makes Bonanza Springs Farm a real place in time.  This piece of land, blurred a bit around the actual property lines into about two acres, holds a rich history.  A woman named Margaret moved here in the 1940’s all by herself, working as a sculptor within the art colony on this mountain.  She was a Jane of all trades, building by hand a ten by ten adobe structure in which she lived for eight years before expanding into a “modern” 400 square foot home built a few feet away.  She paid an extra $50 because of the flat and sunny plot down below, now a jungle of an orchard and our little farm.  Her days were spent making stained glass, harvesting, preserving, and tending the natural world around her.  The remnants of her cultivations are seen in the sixty year old Japanese Maple tree, the hundreds of varieties of plants and flowers, and flocks of birds that came to know this piece of land as a welcoming habitat.  She is known on the mountain as a legend, stories told as if she were a myth, all of which infuse this land, our home, with a sense of magic and reverence for what grows and lives here.  The homesteading shoes are big ones to fill, and in our bumbling, aching, and oft ill-tempered way we are trying our hardest to do her proud.  And so, this blog is an attempt to catalog our successes and failures, to document the projects, meals, celebrations, and defeats that continue to transform our lives.