October 07, 2006

The Ugly Duckling? - A weekend of kitchen therapy

Perhaps it's the cool crisp autumn air. Or the arrival of five luscious pears in this week's CSA box. Or the desire to put a stressful week behind me by getting busy in the kitchen. Or that my recently repaired oven keeps perfect temperature. Probably all of the above, that drove me to send John out to spend the evening with friends while I whipped out the trusty Kitchenaid and surfed my stash of cookbooks and the Internets for recipes.

I found inspiration in this creation from Southern Living Magazine, tweaking it a bit to fit my tastes and my pantry staples.

It was a night for nostalgia. For memories. For honoring some of the people who shaped who I've become.

Fruit-based spice cakes were one of Mo's specialties. Hell, retreating to the kitchen, combining culinary creativity with predictable process to escape his frustrations was quintessentially Mo. Ever kneaded bread dough and felt the tensions of the day melt away? Like father, like daughter.

As I creamed the oil and sugar with the eggs from my brother's farm, memories of weekends at Julie's flooded my mind. Julie was one of many icons of my childhood -- a strong personality with a gentle soul. Widowed and in her mid-seventies, Julie owned several acres in rural Vallejo and devoted her energy to her animals -- dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, and Kappy the goat. Long before local, sustainable and organic were buzzwords of the real food movement, my brother and I followed Julie around the yard helping distribute grain to the chickens and collecting the beautiful soft pastel-colored eggs they offered.

I also remember the first time I held a baby duck, maybe a few days old; the soft down of it's belly feathers and it's beak gently probing my other hand for feed burned in my memory. The reward after a morning of tending to the animals: some of the best "sunny side up" eggs I've ever encountered -- bright orange-yellow yolks and soft fluffy whites with a hunk of whole grain bread and a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice. Real work. Real food. Real friends.

And Julie's Easter Egg Hunts were legendary. Fifteen to twenty dozen eggs boiled, decorated and distributed across several of the pastures. One yard for the toddlers and small children with eggs practically in plain view. A second for the 7-12 set, and a third for the teens. Four BBQ grills fed hungry kids and their parents burgers, hotdogs, chicken and tri-tip. Everyone brought a dish or two to share -- the buffet table burst with salads, veggies and desserts. Some years upwards of 60 kids from all over Northern California hunted eggs at Julie's. When I was a teenager, some of the younger kids were second or third generation egg hunters. 1986 was her 50th hunt.

Julie showed us a simpler life was possible -- and enjoyable -- during the progressive 70's and 80's -- as long as you are willing to work at it. We occasionally drive by "Julie's exit" when we're passing through Vallejo. I haven't had the courage to take the detour by her home. If someone's turned one of my most treasured childhood havens into a business park or a block of condos, I'd just really rather not know it.

I've digressed a bit from my pear cake, yes? Yes. Welcome to my mind. During my digression I've added the flour mixture and folded in the pears and the nuts. I've let go of my concerns about work, about what selling the house we grew up in will bring. My blood pressure's probably dropped twenty points. The tension in my shoulders is nearly gone. Without drugs. Without expensive therapy. By letting go of obligation. Taking a recipe that intrigues me and a handful of kitchen staples, and following a simple time-honored process to turn a dozen or so raw ingredients into something more than the sum of their parts.

Thanks Mo. Thanks Julie. I get it. Stop. Create. Work with purpose. Enjoy. It *is* that simple.

Ginger-Scented Pear Cake
Very ripe pears make this cake ultramoist.

5 ripe Bartlett pears, peeled and diced (about 4 cups)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon apple pie spice (Penzeys)
3 large eggs
2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup pine nuts
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Mix 1 tablespoon sugar with ginger and apple pie spice.

Toss together pears and sugar-ginger mixture; set aside.

Beat eggs, 2 cups sugar, and oil at medium speed with an electric mixer until blended.

Sift together flour, salt, and baking soda. And add to egg mixture, beating at low speed until blended. Fold in pears, pine nuts, and vanilla extract. Pour batter into a greased and floured 10-inch Bundt pan.

Bake at 350° for 1 hour or until a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Remove from pan. Sprinkle cool cake with confectioners sugar, if desired.

Oh... one more piece of data. My father was a creative baker. While most of the products emerging from his oven tasted phenomenal, some of them looked... odd. Tonight despite a moderate greasing & flouring, my bundt pan chose to be difficult. What can I say? It's not cover art, but it looks like it tastes good. This one's for you, Mo.

Sunday update: Since I'm still trying to behave and an entire deconstructed cake doesn't fit into my weight loss plan, we took the cake with us to our dance group tonight. Got some odd looks to be sure, but everyone who tried it said they loved it. Sweet but not too sweet. Moist but with a pleasant crumb. Nutty in flavor but with a soft texture. And the pine nuts leant an amazing richness to the mix. Lots of empty plates. Okay Mo. Okay Julie. I get it. Success isn't always photogenic.

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wheresmymind said...

Ducklings and chicks are beyond cute...wish there was a picture of that :)