I had not intended this humble walnut cake to be a topic of discussion. It was the fulfillment of a request of something simple to end a mid-week lunch ten whole days ago. No bells or whistles or sugarplum fairies required. No ballyhoo to be had, nothing to talk about here.

And good gracious, it was yet another walnut recipe. And not only that, it also represents not one, but another two recipes from Gourmet magazine, the apparent alpha and omega of my kitchen exploits. I assumed that my fancy, and our conversation, would move on to other things.

Silly, silly me. Despite the days that have passed the charm of that uncomplicated cake is still peerless in my estimation.

The preparation was as simple as can be. It all came together in a food processor, where toasted walnuts are left with butter and sugar to whir on their own for a while. Once smooth, they become what I can only imagine akin to what peanut butter wants to be when it grows up - a smooth blend of butter and nuts, intensely flavoured and sharply aromatic. Next it's just eggs, flour, baking soda and salt, and it's done, off to the oven.

What emerges is a cake that's fairly thin and mostly flat, with the gentlest of swells at its middle. Medium brown with darker flecks throughout, it is resolute in its plainness and yet exceedingly appealing. For the sake of fuss I improvised a frosting of one part cream cheese to equal parts soft, unripened goats cheese and butter, with enough icing sugar to sweeten and a splash of vanilla to round out the flavour. But the gilding was hardly necessary; the cake itself was memorable, moist with a tender, springy crumb.

I offered an Apple-Fig Compote at its side, fruity and jammy and tart to counter the resonant nuttiness of the cake. The combination was gorgeous.

So gorgeous in fact, I'll probably still be talking about 10 days from now. Maybe more.

WALNUT CAKE WITH APPLE + FIG COMPOTE
 

Recipes

Walnut Cake (omit the topping)

Apple-Fig Compote (see note below)

Notes:

• For the compote, I omitted the lemon juice and zest, and used maple syrup in place of the sugar. I popped a 1x1/4-inch piece of peeled ginger into the pot while simmering the fruit, removing it before cooling.

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November. It's been here for twelve days already, and I've yet to give it the appropriate welcome.

You'll find it standing just outside my door, arms laden with luggage full of fallen leaves most likely, softly tap-tap-tapping its foot as its waits with reserved impatience. Inside I'm running around frantically, with my hair in rollers and dirty dishes in the sink, not yet ready for its visit.

Those dirty dishes were for good reason I assure you, I've been making apple tartlets. Not just sweet but savoury-ish, with a mound of goat's cheese the tuffet for thin slices of apple, enamelled bronze by thyme-infused honey. They are mostly a task of assemblage, with little to do but cut, stack, brush and bake, but the opportunity to get out a rolling pin makes it seems as though you've done a some cooking. A fine dusting of flour across the hands always makes me feel I've been productive.

The tartlets came from the oven raised grandly at the edges, such is the miracle that is puff pastry. The layers of apple were curled and tanned lightly at their tips, finally adorned with ivory petals of Grana Padano. Though I'd intended something autumnal in spirit, this was almost downright festive. November, consider yourself greeted.

We tucked into these for a mid-afternoon snack, as is, full stop. Nothing more was needed. But if you were so moved, a crunchy pile of lightly-dressed bitter greens would be suggested my addition alongside.

But then, that would mean more dishes.

APPLE AND GOAT'S CHEESE TARTS WITH HONEY

A more savoury spin on a recipe from Bon Appetit. Even though I have scaled back the original quantities of honey and butter, I still had more than enough - in fact, there was an excess. If I had to offer a guess, I would think that 1/3 cup of honey and 1 tablespoon of butter would suffice, but I have included generous quantities below in the case of the desire of a more luscious result.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 package of frozen puff pastry (2 blocks or 2 sheets), thawed
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/3 cup dark honey, divided
  • 2-3 small thyme sprigs, plus more for garnish
  • kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup (around 4 ounces) fresh goat's cheese at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar or white balsamic
  • 3 small Empire apples
  • shaved Grana Padano to serve

METHOD

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. If not ready-rolled, roll out the puff pastry block to a 9-inch square on a lightly-floured work surface. Use a 4-inch cookie cutter or ring to cut 4 rounds and place on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the second block, cutting 8 rounds total. Using the blunt end of a 3-inch cutter firmly press into each round, without going through, to form a border. Freeze for at least 30 minutes to firm up.

Preheat an oven to 375°F (190°C). In a small saucepan over low heat, start to melt the butter. Once it's about halfway there, add 1/2 of the honey, the thyme sprigs and a pinch of salt. Stir gently until all the butter has melted and the honey is warm. Remove from the heat and leave the honey to steep while you get everything else ready.

In a small bowl, stir together the goat's cheese and the vinegar, seasoning again with a pinch of salt. Peel, halve and core the apples, then cut into 1/8-inch slices. Remove the chilled pastry from the freezer and use an offset spatula to spread a scant 2 teaspoons of the cheese mixture within the demarcated border. Top the cheese with a stack of apple slices. Brush the honey butter mixture over the apples and sparingly on pastry edge.

Bake in the preheated oven until the apples are soft and the pastry is golden and puffed, around 30 minutes. To serve, drizzle the tartlets with the reserved honey, the shaved Grana Padano, and some picked thyme leaves. Serve either warm or at room temperature.

Makes 8.

Notes:

• In the photograph, I toasted a meager 4 or 5 pecans and (as my Grandmother would say) "bashed the blazes out of them" for a final, crunchy flourish. They're not essential, but make a fine addition. Walnuts would be tasty too. If you have them on hand, bash away.

• Although I have not tried it, I am tempted to substitute a blue cheese for the goat's cheese, omitting the vinegar.

A cabbage is not one to command an audience. Sure, it may tart things up a bit now and again, boasting some frilled leaves or turning scarlet for a spell, but that is the end of its attempts at razzle dazzle. Instead, it is a head down, hard working sort, like most cruciferous vegetables, happy to sit, unassuming and staid, waiting for your attention.

Growing up, I took cabbage for granted. We ate it either in the Indian fashion, sliced thinly and sautéed, punctuated by spice and dyed golden with turmeric, or it was presented as coleslaw - that ubiquitous backyard barbeque attendee, often overly sauced and unnaturally green.

It was only some time in the last few years that I began to appreciate cabbage. While I had liked it just fine, I cannot say I had previously been one to ardently seek out the brassica's company.

Maybe I have mellowed or maybe I have learned to look for quality, but just like how the flashy boy in highschool would not garner a glance from me these days, cabbage with its homely appeal, is now what catches my eye. Pickled, roasted, boiled and braised, I adore it it in all its ways.

Shredded fashionably thin, cabbage loses its burly quality; in a warm pan its broad shoulders slouch and soften, relaxing. Its curls become mussed, and once the succulent strands are tangled with sweet onion and apple, napped with bacony, vinegar-tinged juices and freckled with black specks of mustard seed, its subtle charms are fully realized.

Sautéed cabbage is far from new, and some might not consider it the most exciting of dishes. But, dear reader, in these flannel blanket days of February, I do not want the sharp, clean edges of the new. I want full, rounded flavours that comfort, not challenge. This is a dish with boy-next-door appeal; seemingly plain, but once you get to know it, you will be won over.

SAUTÉED SAVOY CABBAGE WITH APPLES

Although deeply-flavoured, this dish plays well with others; it can be served alongside all manner of roasts, or as here, with some grilled sweet garlic sausage.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 rashers of thick cut bacon, cut into horizontal strips
  • 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • scant 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 large onion, halved and sliced thinly
  • 2 small apples, halved and sliced thinly (I like Galas)
  • apple cider vinegar
  • 1 medium savoy cabbage, cored and sliced thinly
  • 1/3 cup water
  • salt and freshly-ground black pepper

METHOD

In a large sauté pan over medium heat, cook the bacon until crisp. Leaving the rendered fat in the pan, remove the bacon to a paper-towel lined dish to cool and drain. Set aside.

Still over medium heat, fry the mustard seeds and cumin until the seeds begin to pop and the cumin is aromatic. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is soft and lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Add the apples, and cook for about 2 minutes; the apples should have picked up some colour.

Splash in a good bit of vinegar to deglaze, about 2-3 tablespoons, scraping up any bits of food that may be stuck to the pan. Tumble in the cabbage, tossing it to coat with the onions, apples and collected juices. Add the water, continue to cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, and the cabbage is wilted and just tender. Sprinkle in the reserved bacon, tossing to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.

Serves 4-6.

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I am stuck in a monochromatic palette; mounds of pristine snow and a bleached-out sky offer a pale landscape out my window. The much-appreciated sunshine is bright and clear, but with none of its summertime golden hue.

While still beautiful, late winter makes you work just that little bit harder to feel welcomed. Whether it be wardrobe choices (layers are key), weekend plans (more layers) or what to eat (layers of flavour), these last few months of the season seem to require more effort than those preceding.

Late fall brings excitement over the return of slow-cooked braises, the opportunity to fill the kitchen with heat and heady smells of herbs and spice. Winter follows with resplendent holiday celebrations, with tables groaning under grand feasts. But now, in the doldrums of early March, the mornings dawn gray and pale. The sun valiantly attempts to stay awake for dinner, but often fails.

It is amongst all these pallid hues that we must still attempt to eat our greens. Spring and summertime salads can be made seemingly without thought; all I need are some sparingly-dressed tender young lettuces, or some grilled asparagus or sugar-sweet tomatoes freshly plucked from the garden.

Late February and March are a bit more challenging. Hardy winter leaves are often rather unyielding in their assertiveness, and can require equally dominant accompaniments to temper their influence.

That is not to say that the effort is unrewarded; milk-coloured Belgian endive, paired with pungent Roquefort and pears is a wonderful balance of bitter, savoury and sweet. Juicy grapefruit segments are the classic counterpoint to aromatic slivers of shaved fennel. Or, as in here, the wild, barely-green curls of sharp frisée compliment salty Parmesan and a honeyed vinaigrette. The lively layers of texture and taste (almost) make one forget the winter lurking just outside the door.

Epilogue: I should mention that I started writing this post over the weekend, when we were blanketed under snow and dealing with temperatures in double-digit negative degrees Celsius. Mother Nature was evidently in a benevolent mood, as today the sky is positively robin's egg blue and we have been granted an absolutely balmy 15ºC. The snow has melted, and I even have some windows open.

Tomorrow is going to be -4ºC.

Salad of frisée, apples and Parmesan
My own simple creation. Candied nuts can be used instead of the roasted, and pear substituted for the apple. White balsamic vinegar, albeit untraditional, adds an interesting character to this vinaigrette. If unavailable, Champagne vinegar would be my recommended choice.

Ingredients
1 teaspoon grainy Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
2 1/4 teaspoons white balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
12 pecan or walnut halves, unsalted
1 small head frisée, washed and dried, root end removed and roughly torn
1 small apple, gala or cameo preferred, thinly sliced
A few shavings of Parmesan cheese, to garnish

For the vinaigrette; in a small bowl whisk together the mustard, honey and white balsamic until combined. Whisking constantly, slowly add the olive oil until the vinaigrette becomes emulsified and thick. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a dry skillet over medium heat, lightly toast the nuts until fragrant. Remove from pan, set aside. In a bowl, toss together the frisée, apple and nuts. Pour over about half of the vinaigrette and toss gently. Check for seasoning.

Divide the salad between two serving plates, garnish with Parmesan shavings. Drizzle additional vinaigrette over the plates, reserving some to be served alongside if desired.

Serves 2.

I wish I could say that every dish I made had a fabulous backstory. Something compelling, or educational or even enticingly tempting. Heck, I would even settle for vaguely amusing sometimes. But sadly, that is not the case.

In truth, most of the dishes that reach our table do so out of a straightforward need to stop the grumbling of our bellies. And more often than not, there is an emotional whim attached.

Such was the case with the menus we have enjoyed this week. A bitterly cold spell and some particularly heavy workloads took their toll by Tuesday, by which time we found ourselves in need of sustenance of both the body and spirit. That afternoon I called my dear Mum, not only for a bit of cheer but also for her minestrone recipe - a dish I have not had for years.

Preparing it for Sean and Benjamin brought instant comfort. All it asked of me was some idle chopping, followed by lazy stirring now and again. Just the sort of demand I could handle. The pot gently simmered on the stove, filling the kitchen with a heady steam. A mere half-hour later we were rewarded with a hearty meal, all slurped up with a spoon. I had meant to take a photo but we were far too impatient to allow for such an interruption.

On Wednesday the mood continued, though we were buoyed by the meal the night before. In anticipation of another late evening for Sean I set about making one of his all-time, desert island desserts - a crumble. Without enough produce to make the preferred apple version, I nosed my way through our pantry to assemble this apple and mixed berry hybrid. The frozen berries, a direct violation of my commitment to eating seasonally, add a bit of brightness to a dreary month with their luxuriously velvet juices coating the apples beautifully.

My finished product was what I had hoped; a buttery crust that gave way to a filling more subtle in its sweetness than other versions, with just enough spice to add some resonant warmth. An offering that was everyday but just a bit special, and altogether satisfying.

I wish I could say that this dessert was ground-breakingly interesting, but it is not. It is simply familiar, uncomplicated and good. Sometimes, that is more than enough.

Apple and mixed berry crumble
My own recipe. As laziness is an integral part of comfort cooking, the version pictured used frozen berries and their juices; resulting in a luscious sort of fruit slump on the plate. If you prefer a less juicy version, defrost and drain the berries before adding to the filling.

Ingredients
1/2 pound cold butter (2 sticks), diced, plus more at room temperature for pan
2/3 cup blanched, sliced almonds
1/3 cup unsweetened flaked coconut
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup rolled oats
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 pounds tart baking apples, preferably Granny Smith, peeled, cored and cut into medium dice
1 1/2 pounds frozen berry mix, see note above
Juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger

Preheat oven to 375ºF (190ºC). Lightly butter a 9"x13" baking dish and place this on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

In a large bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, combine almonds, coconut, brown sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, oats and flours. Using a pastry cutter, or the mixer on its lowest speed, cut in 1 3/4 sticks (14 tablespoons) butter into the dry ingredients. When finished the mixture should resemble a coarse, uneven meal. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine apples, frozen berries, lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, cornstarch, spices and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Toss gently to combine well. Pour fruit mixture into prepared baking dish and dot with the reserved butter.

Sprinkle topping evenly over dish, leaving a bit of the fruit peaking out at edges. Bake for 55-60 minutes, until the filling is bubbling and the top is golden brown. Allow to stand 5-10 minutes before serving.

Recipe Notes:
• You may want to adjust the sugar depending on your taste and the sweetness of the fruit.
• The coconut is an addition I always enjoy for textural contrast, but is not essential.
• The spice measurements are an approximation of "one good pinch" of each. Again, adjust as you see fit.

Sidenote:
• I our house this is a crumble, but I do see that some would call it a crisp. What would call it?