at the farm stand

I'm writing at our dining table, having recently moved from one side to the other so as to catch more of the breeze from the open window (now) to my right. I can see across the house from this seat. I can see that out the front window the sun is shining bright like August while, weirdly, over the backyard the sky looks pale grey, dressed in the damp clothes of September.

Autumn's around the bend. That said, we're enjoying these days as we head in its direction.

On Saturday, we set out to snag some peaches; our fourth basket in under three weeks, if my tally is correct. That's the math of late summer. It's the season for a peach feast, and we're enthusiastically obliging. We took along iced tea sweet with lemonade and rugged with ice, because even the shortest of road trips deserve a beverage when the sun's out.

We were aiming for a fruit stand we can get to by taking the long way 'round; twisting through back roads and skirting woods and crossing fields. 

We needed the peaches, because there's a drink I've wanted to tell you about, a grown up one. It's a cocktail with peach and lime and mint, spiked with cachaça - the sort of sip that bounces across the tongue like a stone skipping on a lake. Flitting, flirtily, then ending with a splash. I like it a whole lot. 

That's not for today, because I got distracted. First, by the couple that owns the stand. They're older, with warm smiles, soft speech and a sharp wit. Their house is beside their stand, with their trees running behind both. She gently pointed out the fruit she thought best, and he talked to my eldest about tractors. We talked about how things are growing, about when the pears might be ready, and about the thermos of coffee stashed behind the baskets of fruit.

Then I was distracted again, this time by plums. They were lookers. 

In the case of pretty plums, we did what must be done. We bought a basket, one bigger than sensible. We ate a few in the car on the drive back, along with the blackberries and one of the peaches, because we bought them too. We stained our hands sticky with juice, slurped our tea through straws and then decided what was to be done with the bounty of our greed.

The endpaper to Canal House Cooking Volume No. 4 is a scene of summer's generosity; plums are laid out on a white platter with their emerald, curling leaves still attached; squat looking peaches cozy up to glossy nectarines, apples and pears are in the middle with their yellow-green skin; a punnet of blackberries shine like night from the corner of the frame, beside the matte navy of blueberries. The subtitle for the volume is "Farm Markets and Gardens", and it's a bullseye of an image - summing up everything best of the farm stand we'd visited, and fittingly, it's where I was reminded of the recipe that inspired the dessert we settled upon to celebrate the plums. 

In the pages between those endpapers, you'll find a recipe for a Berry Cobbler by Pam Anderson. It's the cobbler that got me started on cobblers, with basically a butter cookie as topper for a layer of vanilla-scented fruit. That's where I began with my thoughts on these plums, as there's a footnote that gives the gentle suggestion of Italian prune plums in place of the berries. I want prune plums for a cake my Mum and I were discussing, so the shockingly-hued reddish golden ones would be my chosen substition for cobbler.

I took some detours along the route to where we ended up, turning down brown butter boulevard for example, but Anderson's cobbler was where we set off from.

Brown butter was beaten with sugar, then an egg and vanilla added to that, along with a mix of flours and some ground almonds. It was basically a rustic shortbread dough - just holding together, gritty with nuts with flecks of brown from the whole wheat and almond skins showing through. It chilled while I set about preparing the plums. They were tossed in brown sugar, cornstarch and a discriminating amount of spices; cinnamon and ginger for a buzz of warmth underneath the plum's sweet acerbity. 

The dough was spooned and crumbled over the fruit, and we were ready for the oven. It felt a pie-dish kind of day, so that's what I used, and even though the syrup bubbled over and stuck to the pan, I didn't mind at all.

When baked, the dough crisps on top but soft underneath, with its belly sagging into the fruit. It tastes very much like a biscuit cookie has been crushed on top of a bowl of stewy, supple fruit. In halves and quarters, the pointed edges of the plums droop as they cook, while keeping some shape. There's luxurious weight to them still. The brilliant, fiery orange-pink of the skin seeps into the golden flesh and into the juice, so the colour ends up a mix of peaches and raspberry, though the flavour is plum through and through.

Acting like August or pretending to be September, whatever this day wants to be, wherever it leads, there's cobbler left in the dish and spoons in the drawer, and that's all I need to know.

Brown butter plum cobbler

Inspired by a recipe from Pam Anderson, from her book The Perfect Recipe (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001) via Canal House Cooking Volume No. 4 - a publication that inspires with every issue. The original recipe calls this a cobbler, with a cookie crust that slightly sinks into bright puddles of fruit. It's a grand dessert, and I urge you to seek it out and try it as written. In fact, try as many recipes as you can from Anderson's book, which is one I consider an essential to have around. Not only is she chatty, witty and totally approachable in her cooking, what's more is that her recipes work. Every. Single. Time. They're tested and then tested again, and she's generous enough to share the results of all that effort.

This recipe is on offshoot of one of her variations for cobbler that best fulfilled our craving yesterday. My changes makes this something different; it has a sandier topping that might tread into the definition of a crisp. But since I'm no expert, and Anderson surely is, I'm leaving her title intact. 

I should say that the sugar may be scant for some tastes and is dependant on the fruit; plums are sour and the amount I used kept the twang that hits the point at the back of your jaw right below the ear - it's not so much that the muscle clenches, but there's still a twitch. 

For the topping

  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons ground almonds, see note
  • 1/2 cup fine grained raw cane sugar
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the filling

  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar packed, or more, depending on your fruit
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 1/2 pounds plums, pitted, halved if small, quartered if large

Method

In a small bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, salt and ground almonds. Set aside.

In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter, swirling occasionally. Once the butter has melted, continue to swirl the pot, as the butter begins to darken and brown. When the butter is amber in colour and aromatic, remove it from the heat and pour into a medium heat safe bowl to cool slightly. Pour in the sugar, and beat with a wooden spoon until the mixture lightens in colour. Stir in the egg yolk and vanilla. Add the flours and stir until combined. Refrigerate the dough and preheat an oven to 375°F (190°C).

Combine the cornstarch with the brown sugar, spices and salt in a medium bowl. Add the plums and toss gently to coat. 

Tumble the plums into an 8-inch square baking dish. Drop the dough by heaped spoonfuls over the fruit, covering evenly. Bake in the preheated oven until the juices are bubbling and the topping is golden brown, about 40-45 minutes. Let stand to cool slightly before serving.

Serves 4-6.

Notes:

  • I think almond is a fine compliment to stone fruit desserts for its subtle, fragrant sweetness and, in this case, its texture as well. I used a handful of natural, skin-on almonds, pulsing them in a food processor to a fairly small, uneven meal. Alternatively, this can be omitted and use a few drops of almond extract instead. On cooler days, hazelnuts or walnuts might be my choice instead.

*******

Something to share:

  • My dear friend Tara Austen Weaver wrote a stunner of an ebook about Japan, to benefit Japan and the continued rebuilding efforts after the earthquake and subsequent tsunami last March. The book is now available for purchase, and she's written about her project here.
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Most often an optimist, my moments of pessimism sometimes pay off. Last week, not even an hour after we talked about melting snow and bare earth, it snowed. I just knew that would happen.

That night, we shoveled the driveway.

Then, starting two days later, it snowed for three days straight. We cleared and shoveled often. We almost broke a shovel.

With the romantic fancy of my burgeoning hope for spring, I'd be blameless in muttering a sailor's curse or three as I tromped up and down and back and forth across our driveway and up the garden path. Maybe it is the madness of midwinter, but I have, shockingly, embraced the snow.

And shoveling. I really like the shoveling.

I volunteer to shovel. Trippingly pulling my boots on, and with the words only halfway out of my mouth, I'm out the door. I try to wait until after dinner, so everyone's fed and happy; when the darkness has settled in and all the streetlights are on.

In that quiet, the scene that greets me is especially beautiful. The languid wind of our street, the glow of porches lit in rows, a car rolling slowly past with its wheels crunching the snow the plows haven't cleared yet.

Tethered to our house with the task of shoveling, it's a snow globe existence; a world contained by how far I can see around the bend of the road.

There is a deep satisfaction in the feel of a blade cleaving through the weight of snowdrift, the metallic scratch of the shovel against the pavement. There is a thought of productivity and industry, a chest-puffing pride in getting a job done.

And yet, moving back and forth across the drive, the pattern of my footsteps is simultaneously meditative. The imagined dome of my small world condenses my thoughts and clears out the rubbish. I come back inside, cheeks flushed and arms tired, my mind full of a hundred new ideas.

I'm an odd duck, I know. But it makes me happy and I always sleep well after.

Yes, I really do like shoveling. Not something I'd ever thought I'd say.

And, while we're on the subject of likes, I really like cakes made with tangerines and almonds. It's a like I think you'll find easy to understand.

I made this cake as an interpretation of Nigella Lawson's Clementine Cake from her book How to Eat, which as it happens is an interpretation of Claudia Roden's orange and almond cake.

It's made without flour; at its most simple the recipe only requires fruit, nuts, eggs, sugar and baking powder. I've fussed up the cake because of the ingredients I had, and appreciated the effect of those additions. Neither version disappoints though, so either way you're set.

It reminds me of marmalade, with the pith and peel used to their fullest. It is modestly sweet with a sourness you feel on your teeth. That devastating bitterness humming underneath the waxy fat of the ground nuts.

The exterior bakes to a glossily sticky bronze, with a blond crumb underneath. The scent of almonds and citrus is remarkable, smelling as you'd imagine wintertime should.

To eat this is to swallow the March sun, a beam of brightness on a snowy day. Or, if you're like me, it's just what you want when you come in from an evening of shovelling.

TANGERINE ALMOND CAKE

Adapted from Nigella Lawson. I use skin-on, raw almonds for colour and texture. Blanched almonds or pre-ground meal can be used as well.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 pound tangerines, around 4 medium, washed well
  • 1-2 tablespoons orange flower water (optional)
  • Butter for greasing a pan
  • 9 ounces raw almonds, see note
  • 6 eggs
  • 8 ounces granulated sugar
  • Seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

METHOD

Place the tangerines in a medium pot. Pour over the orange flower water if using, then fill the pot with cold water until the fruit is covered. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cook until the tangerines are quite tender, around 2 hours. Drain the fruit and set aside to cool.

Over a large bowl to catch the juice, split each tangerine in half horizontally, and pick out any seeds. Put the flesh, peel and pith to the bowl, and discard the seeds.

Preheat an oven to 375°F (190°C). Lightly butter an 8-inch springform pan, then line with parchment paper on the bottom and sides (with a collar of paper extending a little past the rim of the pan).

In the bowl of a food processor with the blade attached, grind the almonds to a fairly even meal. Add the tangerines, and process to a thick purée. Bits of nut and tangerine skin will still be visible.

In the large bowl used for the juices earlier, beat the eggs until blended but not frothy. Stir in the sugar and vanilla bean seeds, then the baking powder and salt. Fold in the fruit mixture.

Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake in the preheated oven until a cake tester inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean and the cake is pulling away from the sides of the pan, around 1 hour. If the cake is browning too quickly towards the end of baking, tent with foil. Remove from the oven and cool, still in its tin, on a wire rack.

Makes one 8-inch cake that's even better after a day.

One morning last weekend, Saturday morning to be exact, some unexpected news changed our plans for the day. It was nothing thing earth-shatteringly important, only an errand that would take us away from what we'd planned to do, and where we'd planned to do it.

The agenda was tinkered and 20 minutes later, we were out and about. Once arrived at our destination, the errand took only minutes and were left at loose ends. We had gone too far afield to revisit earlier plans, so now what to do?

We agreed upon a secondary plan, but then that fell through due to circumstances beyond our control. Back to the car and the drawing board.

In the end, all was well, and as of two o'clock in the afternoon, we were walking in the winter sunshine along the bustling main of a nearby village. Fed and full, warm despite the cold - which is surprising, as I'm usually the first to complain of a chill - stretching our legs after lunch at the pub.

We strolled to the bookshop, one where the books are piled high on every available surface, including the floor. I got lost a few times, behind student editions of Kim and Anna Karenina, and between rows of Penguin classics dressed in their multi-colour jackets, with that cummerbund of cream around each of their middles.

Next to the teashop. A wall of teas in glass jars faces you as you enter, a brass bell above the door merrily announces your entry. Everything inside is tiny and twee in a way that's very Alice in Wonderland, but charmingly so. It's a place I've been before, with Mom most memorably, most enjoyably for their High Tea.

The Mad Hatter himself would surely approve of the party the ladies of the shop lay out, a balancing act of treats perched on dainty plates, fragrant teas steeping in individual pots, silver spoons and sugar cubes. Most memorable and most enjoyable of all though, are their scones.

A cream scone by the most classic definition, palest white and with only its edge tinged with tan. Buttery, of course, but it is the sweetness of the cream that comes through most clearly. They are dense without heaviness, which I realize makes no sense, but it is the only way I can think to describe what it is like to bite into one of those lovelies.

In my humble opinion, it is the simplest thing that is the nicest thing about their scones, and that is their sugary top. Fresh and hot out of the oven, the scones are covered in flurries of granulated sugar. It sticks, but doesn't melt, bestowing each and every scone with their own glistening crown.

On Saturday, stuffed as we were, we weren't stopping for scones. And a shame it was. Such the shame that scones were not far from my thoughts for the hours after our departure from the shop. But, all was not lost. Scones, those ethereal scones, were still a possibility.

Through my unabashed cross-examination of the staff I have come to know some of the super-extremely-absolutely-top-secret details of their recipe. From there I have read and baked and cut and compared and tasted my way into a home version that visits at least outskirts of the realm of deliciousness in which their scones reside.

And, since you've all been so kind and embraced our project with more enthusiasm than we could have hoped for, I would so like to bake you some scones, and set a nice table with a pot of Devon cream and a jar of blackcurrant jam. We'd use my Grandmother's china.

Everything the best I could do, because as far as I'm concerned, you're just about the nicest thing, too.

SUGARED CREAM SCONES

The closest I've come to approximating the scones from the tea shop in the village we visited. Since I don't know your schedule, and we've not set a date for our tea, I'll share with you my recipe in the interim.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2-3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, see note
  • 6 tablespoons (3 ounces, 3/4 stick) cold unsalted butter
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream, very cold
  • Preheat an oven to 425°F (220°C).

METHOD

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Whisk to combine, then chill in the freezer while you proceed.

Cut the butter into small dice, then chill it as well.

Line a standard baking sheet with parchment paper and lightly flour a work surface. Locate the knife of your choice. Assemble a food processor fitted with the metal blade, or get out a large bowl, a pastry cutter and spatula.

Put the dry ingredients into the bowl of the food processor, pulse a few times to lighten. If doing by hand, whisk or fork the flour mixture to aerate. In the processor, remove the cover and evenly distribute the cubed butter over the flour mixture. Replace the cover, and use short, quick pulses to bring the mixture to something that resembles an uneven meal. If by hand, toss the butter into the flour, then use a pastry cutter or two knives to cut the butter into irregular, pea-sized chunks.

With the processor, add about half of the heavy cream then pulse a few times. Add three-quarters of what's left, and pulse maybe three times more. Remove the cover and take a look - the dough should be crumbly and light, but if you pick up some and squeeze it in your hand, it should stick together. If it does, stop. If it doesn't, keep adding a few drops of cream, pulsing once or twice, then checking again. Don't worry if you don't use all the cream.

If working by hand, it is much the same process, but using a spatula to fold and turn the dough to incorporate the liquid. Again, judicious is best with the cream, you don't want a soggy dough.

Turn the dough out onto the floured work surface and knead, gently and lightly, until the dough is fully together; you should still see dots of butter here and there. Pat the dough out into a rough round, and dust with a bit of flour. Divide the dough into three, and shape each ball of dough into a 4" round about 3/4"-1" thick. Cut each round into four wedges, and place on the prepared baking sheet.

Bake the scones in the preheated oven until lightly golden at the edges and dry on their cut sides, around 12-15 minutes. The tops should be puffed and they will feel light for their size. Remove from the oven and place on a cooling rack set over another baking sheet. Sprinkle liberally with sugar and cool for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Makes 12 smallish scones.

Notes:

• If you are serving the scones with something tart like a lemon curd, I would advise using 1/2 teaspoon salt. However, when paired with a heavier, sweeter accompaniment like devon cream and jam, I'm more generous in my measurement.

• Wanting some extra prettiness, I rolled the dough out with a pin and used a floured, fluted cutter to shape them. But, since scones are often finicky if over-handled, I usually use a 4-inch springform to form my them. I dust it with flour, then pat the dough into the pan, gently pushing it even. Pop it out, cut it into four and it's done. The springform gives the scones high, straight sides that cook evenly, and using a mold cuts down the handling and stretching of the dough.

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Date squares. Or do you call them bars? By whatever name, they were not a product of my childhood kitchen. My earliest association with these fruit-stuffed cookie sandwiches was elementary school bake sales, set up in the halls of our school for some charitable endeavour or another.

Those were exciting times, when our milk money was augmented with a few extra coins from Mum so that my brother and I could purchase a treat of our own choosing. Of our own choosing! I remember being giddy at the thought of such power. Upon arrival at school, all eyes would grow wide as the exotic array of baked goods emerged from backpacks. The riches were transferred to the careful hands of parent volunteers who laid them out on long tables in the hall outside our classroom. I don't know how I kept myself from swooning at the sight. Nor do I know how we lasted through what surely seemed an interminable wait until lunchtime.

A child of specific tastes, the exact moment the big hand and the little hand met at the top of the clock and that lunch bell rang, I'd make a beeline for the Rice Krispie treats. How do I love thee, you golden bricks of marshmallow-and-butter-bathed cereal. They were first-class sugar bombs, and a guilty favourite to this day. I vaguely recall date squares had their place on those tables, but they resided only on the edge of my awareness.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I had in my possession a stash of Medjools. I'd bought some for the specific purpose of a sticky-toffee-pudding-inspired cake; but when the matter of the cake was taken care of, a few handfuls remained, succulent and sweet beneath their sugar-flaked skin. In consideration of my previous nonchalance, it was surprising choice that I set about knocking together a pan of date squares. The first date squares I've ever baked.

I consulted various recipes, and took the best from the varied incarnations of date squares (bars?) I found. Some were with a shortbreadish base that had the butter and sugar creamed together before the introduction of the flour. A few had eggs involved, while most did not. There were oats and nuts to consider, and then there were dialogues in regards to the filling; sweeten or not to sweeten. Options galore.

I decided my treasures should be left as they were, so I stewed the dates briefly, then processed them into a dense, gungy purée that squelched pleasingly when spooned. The kicker in the filling was the few specks of floral-sharp clementine zest, which light up the mellowness of the dates like sparklers in the night sky. It was a modest elaboration that made all the difference.

The rest followed a simple method, you make the same sort of crisp topping I like for crumbles; cold butter is cut into a flour mixture to form irregular clumps, clumps which melt upon baking and crisp the surrounding dry ingredients into a rough and golden landscape. In this case the flour and oats are divided, with half patted into a tin to form the bottom crust. The dates slump in next, then the rest of the mixture is scattered over top.

When baked, the date filling sinks and seeps into the lower crust, so that the line between the two is blurred and what is left perfectly-bound strata of oats and fruit. The topping is not invited to their party and so turns sandy and delicate, crunchy only here and there. The perfect offset to the heft that lies beneath.

From the oven, the pan must rest, first on the counter and then in the fridge. The butter, and there is a good deal of butter here, firms up just enough to give it all some additional structure and the layers get a chance to settle into each other. All that's left is to cut the pan into bars (squares?) before you take a piece in one hand, a cold glass of milk in the other, and feel rather smug about your handiwork. There is something to be said for the act of slicing a tray of cookies that gives such a gratifying feeling of provision - a few swift swipes of the blade and you can feed a household for days. Happily. Handily.

I do not know what I was expecting with that first bite, but I surely wasn't expecting this. The skimpy serving of spices I had granted the crust had made their presence known in the most wonderful way; the squares were perfumed with the dark, deep notes of the wintry spices, and tasted of everything homespun and old-fashioned. And I liked it very much.

Now if by some rift in the space-time continuum third-grade me happens to be reading this, please take my advice and maybe give date squares a chance. And while we're at it, let me tell you now that our brief, torrid dalliance with crimped hair in the fifth grade is not a good idea. I don't care if all your friends own crimping irons, it's not a good look for them either.

Heed my words, younger me, you'll understand when you're older. And save your pennies for the next bake sale.

OAT AND NUT DATE SQUARES

Adapted from a variety of sources. I used some clementine to flavour the filling, but a few grates of orange zest would be just as good.

INGREDIENTS

  • 10 ounces (around 2 cups) pitted dates
  • 1 cup water
  • zest from half a clementine
  • 1/2 cup ground nuts, see note
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • a pinch of ground clove
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar, packed, see note
  • 6 ounces (3/4 cup, 1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter at coldish room temperature, diced
  • 1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease and line an 9-inch square pan with parchment paper so that the paper hangs over the sides of the pan.

In a small saucepan, pour the water over the dates. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, stirring often. Reduce the heat to medium low to maintain a simmer, cooking the fruit until all of the liquid has been absorbed and the dates become a soft, concentrated paste, around 10 minutes. Stir often. Set the fruit aside to cool, stir in the clementine zest.

Once the dates are cool, purée them in a food processor fitted with the metal blade attachment. Scrape out the dates to a bowl as best as you can, but don't worry if there's a bit left behind. Set the fruit aside.

Into the processor, add in the nuts, flours, salt, baking soda and spices. Pulse to combine. Add the sugar and pulse again. Using your fingers to keep the pieces separated, crumble in the butter into the dry ingredients. Pulse again a few times until the flour and butter mixture resembles a coarse, uneven meal. Pour the mixture into a large bowl and stir in the oats.

Press a generous half of the crust mixture into the prepared pan. Spoon the date filling over, spreading it to cover the crust completely. Sprinkle the rest of the crust mixture over the fruit. Bake in the preheated oven until the top crust is golden brown and crisp, around 30 minutes. Rotate the pan once during baking.

Cool the bars completely on a rack, still in the pan. Once at room temperature, chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to firm up. Slice as desired, serving them at room temperature or chilled.

Makes one 9-inch square pan, can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature or refrigerated (my preference).

Notes:

• You can choose the nuts to use here. I went with walnuts (robust), but pecans (buttery) and almonds (fragrant) are also good candidates. In the case of nut allergies (hi Hannah!), use an additional 1/2 cup of either of the flours.

• The kosher salt remains noticeable in the crust; if you prefer a less discernible result, use a finer-grained salt and possibly use less.

• I am tempted to try these again with 3/4 cup brown sugar and 1 1/4 cup of oats, but my family has said that they should be as they are. Just thought I'd mention.

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IMG_07752a

I have been thinking about this Buttermilk Pudding Cake for quite some time. When I saw it's photo, with those carmine-coloured berries all snuggled up against a cushion of tender, melting cake, the image stuck with me. It looked like all things dreamy, served up on a spoon.

Nevertheless, with such a short ingredient list, the skeptic in me raised a singular eyebrow - something the actual me cannot do without looking oddly quizzical or slightly pained. Could such a meagre collection of ingredients really amount to a dessert that lived up to its looks?

Oh my yes. If I was not blissfully married already, I would be writing Mrs. Tara Buttermilk Pudding Cake over and over in notepads, with hearts all around. I might whittle a million pencils down to the tiniest of nubs, and my hands could cramp, but I wouldn't care. Not at all. I am head-over-heels lost over this cake.

After getting all your bits and bobs in order, this is a cake that takes all of five minutes to make (with a mixer, a little longer by hand), but tastes exponentially better than the effort it requires. After stirring and whipping the disparate components, they are folded together into a marshmallow-tender batter. It sighs and slips its way into a pan, baking gently until pouffed on top and turned luscious below.

The only gentle suggestion I might offer would be to switch the raspberries for fresh peaches, as around here, raspberries are terribly last month. We live in peach-growing country, and at present the trees are heavy with their weight. For this, you want the ample-bosomed variety, full and soft, with a velvet skin that begs you to nuzzle in close and get a bit familiar. That yielding flesh mimics the softness of the cake's custardy belly, in delicious repetition.

And now that you have been formally introduced I do believe you should give this cake a thought as well.

If you require more reason than the case I have laid before you, you could be like me, and take my unabashedly shameless excuse, disguised under a flimsy veil of altruism. First, agree to make a recipe for a loved one that requires buttermilk, then accidentally-on-purpose purchase more buttermilk than said recipe requires. Wait a few days. Finally, choose a quiet afternoon to nobly bake the aforementioned Buttermilk Pudding Cake, as you wouldn't want the excess to go to waste.

Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Everybody wins.

On a personal note, I want to dedicate this post to the talented and breathtakingly-honestJess. She mentioned elsewhere that this dish took her fancy, and as she's been through more in her 28th year than many go through in decades, the least I could do is offer her something that might make her smile, as if to say - "We're so glad to see you on the other side."

IMG_07942A

BUTTERMILK PUDDING CAKE WITH MAPLE SUGAR PEACHES

From Gourmet.com, with minor changes. As you can see from the telltale marks on the dishes, this cake soufflés beautifully in the oven, but collapses quickly upon its removal from the heat. For the prettiest presentation, I would take the cake straight from oven to table in its fully plumped glory, then cruelly make your guests wait as it cools.

INGREDEINTS

  • 4 medium peaches, sliced into 1/2 to 3/4-inch wedges (or thereabouts)
  • 2-3 tablespoons maple sugar or equal amounts of maple syrup
  • Softened butter for greasing the pan
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/3 cups well-shaken buttermilk
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 3 large eggs, separated
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar, divided

METHOD

In a medium bowl, gently stir together the peaches and enough maple sugar or syrup to sweeten to taste. Allow to macerate at room temperature while preparing the cake.

Preheat an oven to 350°F (175°C). Lightly butter the inside of a 1 1/2-quart shallow baking dish. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. In another mixing bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, butter, egg yolks, and 1/3 cup granulated sugar until well combined and the sugar is pretty much dissolved. Add the liquids to the flour mixture, stirring until just combined. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, either by hand or with a mixer, beat the reserved egg whites on medium speed until frothy and opaque. Increase the speed to medium high, or if by hand beat faster, and start adding the remaining sugar a tablespoons at a time, beating well to incorporate each addition. Continue whipping the egg whites until they just hold a stiff peak. Do not over beat.

Working quickly but gently, stir about one-third of the egg whites into the prepared batter. Once almost combined, add another third of whites, this time folding the batter over the whites to incorporate thoroughly. Repeat with the last of the whites.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish, place this dish in a larger dish or roasting pan, and pour hot water from a recently-boiled kettle in the larger pan until it comes halfway up the sides of the smaller. Bake the cake in this water bath in the preheated oven for 4- to 50 minutes, until puffed and golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool 5 to 10 minutes before serving with the peaches alongside.

Serves 6, but I would really think 4, greedily, is the way to go. Sharing is difficult with this one.

Notes:

• I used Brien's superfine maple sugar, which has lighter taste than others I have tried, with an understated sweetness rather than that throat-warming hit associated with maple syrup. I further preferred maple sugar over syrup as it seemed to draw more juices out of the peaches, and thickened those juices only slightly.