There’s something about a store display of school supplies that can make the most antique of alumna wistful for a new pencil case. Rows of folders, six packs of pens, index cards, spiral notebooks—oh If only I had a reason to buy a Mead Trapper Keeper! That’s all I wanted as a kid—all those folders and compartments, organized bliss. Just like Buster Brown shoes and Sears Toughskins, the Trapper Keeper was something I only saw on TV (nostalgia fans click here to watch the commercial) but never had an opportunity to purchase. I went to a school that issued special pygmy size, black loose-leaf notebooks, thus robbing us girls of the chance to stuff our back packs with assorted 8 ½ x11 inch accoutrements.
Regardless of whether you celebrate Rosh Hashanah I don’t think you ever get over thinking of September as the start of a new year. And in many ways I envy students who are headed back to school. Imagine sitting in a classroom and learning something completely new. That’s so exciting. And if it weren’t for homework, testing and grades I would have been happy to stay in school forever. Unfortunately, back in the day I often greeted the first day of school with jitters and some dread. Now when I take a class it’s because I’ve chosen to explore something that I think might be interesting and the whole experience feels more on my terms.
Over the years I’ve taken a variety of courses and what at first I couldn’t get over I have now come to expect: no matter how old we all are there is always a clown, a know-it-all, a dimwit and a teacher’s pet. Once I thought I might like pottery and spent ten Sunday evenings in the fluorescent basement of the JCC turning out misshapen vessels that looked a bit like my five year-old niece had had some fun with clay. There was one girl in the class who had a speech impediment and at our first class I decided I felt sorry for her, how hard it must be to be her, to speak in such a strange way. By the second class I hated her. Despite her hollow speech and lisp she was bossy, obnoxious and filled with a simmering rage at having to do our first few pieces by hand before ultimately being eased into working on the potter’s wheel. “You know, I’ve worked on the wheel before!” she snapped at the instructor who was so patient when, if I were her, I would have choked that student with a wire clay cutter. Not to mention, during my semester exploring ceramics, the horrible girl stared back at me blankly when I said “hi” at the supermarket.
But it wasn’t until I went to pastry school that I really got to sink my teeth (a little nod to Grandpa Sol’s propensity for bad puns, sorry) into something I knew I was interested in. Our afternoons were spent learning the hows and whys of baking: a bit of a lecture, a demo by our chef instructor and then off to put it to practice, usually in teams of two. What could be better? And of course the usual archetypes emerged. There was the know-it-all; a guy who brought his own infrared instant-read thermometer from home because the one the school provided wasn’t accurate enough. There was the teacher’s pet who offered to volunteer at every school function while making sure we all knew she was also holding down two jobs. There was the clown who actually wasn’t remotely funny and then there was the dim wit. She was like the love child of Charlie Brown’s dirty friend Pig Pen and Lindsay Lohan. Her apron was consistently smeared with chocolate, her fingers stained with raspberry puree, her shoes spattered with egg yolks (Pig Pen’s side of the family). One day she left a message for our instructor saying she was sick with the flu and wouldn’t be in class. The next day she walked in and her mouth looked like someone had punched her. Clearly her illness had driven her into the syringe of a sympathetic dermatologist who decided shooting her lips up with collagen was a sure way to lower her fever (LiLo’s side). Thank goodness for the woman who had become my bff (another must when you’re in school) because I would have burst if I hadn’t had someone with whom to exchange glances. Which brings me to another great thing about adult education; you get to know people from so many different walks of life you otherwise wouldn’t have had the good fortune to meet. Bff Meg had been a New York City cop—how cool is that? As tough as her prior career choice demanded she be she has the biggest heart, rescues kittens, was a wiz at decorative cake work and now she and her mother own Oh Sweet Day Marketplace, a lovely, crafty store in Westchester.
But there was one student who was obviously headed to the pastry big time. She was the most committed and talented in the class and so it was no surprise when I opened the July issue of Food and Wine and saw Jennifer Shelbo featured in the article, “The Year of the Pastry Chef.” After tours of duty in other Danny Meyer restaurants Jen is now dessert queen at his newest place, Maialino. (She also contributed a recipe for cantaloupe sorbet in this week's New York magazine. I don't have an ice cream maker so a trip to the restaurant for a taste is on my to-do list.) This incredibly moist olive oil cake is hers and it couldn’t be easier. It is an example of the “One Step” or “Dump” mixing method; you mix all the dry ingredients together, you mix all the wet ingredients together, and you add the dry to the wet. The olive oil gives the cake a mellow fruitiness that is offset so beautifully by the acidity of the blackberries while the infusion of orange perks the whole thing up. This recipe is definitely one for my files; I think I just found a reason to buy my first Trapper Keeper!
Note: I found the recipe made more batter than I needed to fill my cake pan 2/3-3/4 full so I wound up using up the leftover by making four little cupcakes as well. My 9-inch pan is 1 ½-inches deep, if yours is deeper that’s great. If it’s not either use a larger pan, waste the extra batter or do the cupcake thing. If you go with the cupcakes you won’t need one hour for them to bake. Mine were done in about 30 minutes.
Back to School Olive Oil Cake with Blackberries
From Jennifer Shelbo, Food and Wine, July 2010
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2 cups all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/3 cups extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/4 cups whole milk
3 large eggs
1 1/2 tablespoons grated orange zest
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup Grand Marnier
2 cups blackberries
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest
Preheat the oven to 350°. Spray a 9-inch cake pan with cooking spray and line the bottom with parchment paper.
In a bowl, whisk the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and powder.
In another bowl, whisk the olive oil, milk, eggs, orange zest and juice and Grand Marnier.
Add the dry ingredients; whisk until just combined.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, until the top is golden and a cake tester comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a rack and let cool for 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan, invert the cake onto the rack and let cool completely, 2 hours.
Meanwhile, in a bowl, toss the blackberries, sugar, oil and zest. Let stand, tossing occasionally, until the sugar dissolves and the berries release some of their juices, about 30 minutes.
Cut the cake into slices, plate and top with berries.
Yield: 8 servings