Last week there were two obituaries that ran side by side in the Times that seemed like two parts of a whole. Murray Lender, who with his brothers helped turn their father’s small bakery into the Lender’s Bagels we all grew up with, died at 81. Samuel Glazer, the co-founder of the company that gave us Mr. Coffee, died at 89. If you poked your head into an American kitchen circa 1977, I wonder how many contained both of these modern conveniences.
We always had a package of Lender’s in our freezer which is kind of crazy since we lived in New York and had access to freshly baked, authentic bagels. But for some reason we never stocked any of those at all. There was something about the pre-sliced Lender that leant it an ease not associated with one from say, the defunct H & H. As a child, you needed an adult to cut your bagel in half. But with a Lender’s we could reach into our side by side freezer/fridge and toast one up without assistance. They also made those mini versions which were so cute and the ideal after-school snack, topped with cream cheese and jelly or made into a tiny pizza.
But when forced to choose among Jewish breads, I favor the bialy. It’s like the slim cousin of the chubby bagel. The mouth feel is more akin to an English muffin and the bits of onion sprinkled in the center give it so much flavor. However, other than at the Yom Kippur break fast, I stay away from them as well, but for a reason unrelated to nutrition. Years ago I thought I was dating a guy who was living in Boston and had recently broken up with his live-in girlfriend. We’d had an argument over the phone and because I felt bad about it, I ordered a dozen bialys to be sent to him since, believe it or not, he’d never tasted one. (Yes, he was Jewish.) Between placing the order and their arrival, he left me a voice mail telling me his grandmother had taken ill and he was flying out of town that night. Oh no, I thought, what about the bialys? So I called the concierge at his condo and explained my dilemma; a perishable package was going to arrive and please just throw it out since the recipient was going to be gone for several weeks. “Oh, don’t worry,” the concierge reassured me. “His girlfriend just took them up to their apartment.” Um, excuse me?! So, there went my love for him and for bialys.
Meanwhile, what I learned in the Mr. Coffee obit was electric drip coffee makers weren’t available for in-home use until 1972. I had no idea. I knew my grandmother had a percolator and I remember my parents used one of those Chemex hour-glass shaped carafes but I didn’t know it was because those were the only choices they had. That and Taster’s Choice of course. It’s so funny to think about life before coffee became foodie-ized. When we didn’t know even know what a barista was and no one made cappuccinos in their $300 Nespresso machines at home. Coffee was just a beverage. There is a scene in Strangers on a Train in which Farley Granger's character orders a cup of joe and a hamburger, something completely normal in 1951. Isn’t that crazy? Can you imagine a more disgusting combination? I’ll just wash down this greasy beef patty with some java. Yuck.
And just like the bloated bagels of today, our servings of coffee have swollen too. Did you know that the little cup markings on the side of your coffee maker are for only a five ounce serving but a Starbucks “tall” (aka “small”) is more than twice that? When did we go from sipping from a small cup to guzzling from a giant mutant vessel? I have to say, I prefer to drink my hot beverages from a mug, but there is in fact something kind of civilized about the cup and saucer routine. Watch this commercial and see Joe Dimaggio chatting with the ladies at their Tuesday bridge club as they sip from a pretty coffee set. Such a slice of time.
And speaking of slices, what happened to people coming over for coffee and cake? I have such cozy memories of the sound of a cake server making its way through the cake and gently hitting the plate, the scrape of the server pulling the piece out, the thump of the cake plate being placed on the cloth covered kitchen table. Except, whose memory is this? In reality, I’m not sure I was actually there because I’ve never had anyone over for coffee and cake nor did my mother ever have a table cloth covering our kitchen table. It must have been a scene I saw played out in Kate Martin’s Pine Valley kitchen. Clearly I watched way too much All My Children, but I do like that idea so much. Can you be nostalgic for a simpler time you weren’t a part of? Were the times in fact simpler? I don’t know, but I do know all this coffee talk made me crave, of all things, an apple cake—very surprising since I don’t even really like apples. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I wanted a warm cinnamon smell to take over my apartment, and not the fake kind you get from a Glade plug-in. Yet each recipe I found was pumped up with so much more butter, sugar and even apples than I wanted. I didn't have any desire to caramelize anything or bake it in an enormous bundt pan or arrange apples in concentric circles. I was in the mood for something slightly sweet, very basic and truly homey. Someone else’s home, but still.
While simultaneously getting a manicure and mulling over my recipe problem, I spotted pastry guru Carla Hall from ABC’s The Chew getting a pedicure. How could I resist the opportunity to introduce myself to a fellow sweet tooth, even if her show replaced my cancelled daily visits to Pine Valley? She immediately understood my apple cake problem and we commiserated over the preponderance of the fussy and the overwrought in the dessert world. Her support gave me the strength to keep up my search which concluded with this recipe from Joanne Chang’s Flour cookbook. I didn’t use the raisins and I tweaked the spices a bit, but the result was just what I was after. Chunks of Granny Smith apples surrounded by just enough gently spiced buttery cake with the toasty taste of pecans to give the moist crumb a little crunchy life. And although the coffee I made came from my Cuisinart four-cupper, not a Mr. Coffee, the combination was perfect. But how am I supposed to really recreate my fantasy coffee and cake memory when I don’t like having other people in my house? You know, maybe I should join that bridge club. That is, if I can bring my own mug. And someone teaches me how to play.
Simpler Time Apple Cake
from Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston's Flour Bakery & Cafe, 2010 Joanne Chang
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1 cup (140 grams) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (90 grams) cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 1/2 cups (300 grams) granulated sugar
3/4 cup (1½ sticks, 170 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 cups (450 grams) peeled, cored and chopped apples
1/2 cup (80 grams) raisins (optional--I didn't use them)
1 cup (100 grams) pecan halves, toasted and chopped
confectioners’ sugar, for dusting (optional--I didn't do it)
Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 10-inch round cake pan.
Sift the all-purpose flour, cake flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and ginger together into the bowl of a stand mixer (or into a large mixing bowl, if you’re using a hand mixer). Add the granulated sugar and softened butter to the bowl and, using the paddle attachment, beat on medium speed for about one minute until the butter is fully incorporated into the dry ingredient, stopping the mixer several times to scrape the paddle and the sides of the bowl to make sure all the butter is mixed in.
Add the eggs and mix on low speed for 10 to 15 seconds, or until fully incorporated. Then turn the mixer to medium high speed and beat for about 1 minute, or until the batter is light and fluffy.
Using a rubber spatula,fold in the apples, raisins (if using) and pecans. The batter will be very stiff and thick. It will look like too many apples and not enough batter, but that’s okay. Scrape all of the batter into the prepared pan, then spread it evenly.
Bake the cake for about 1 hour and 20 minutes, or until the cake feels firm when you press it in the center and the top is dark golden brown. Let the cake cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.
Invert the cake onto a serving plate, lifting away the pan, and then invert the cake again so it is right-side up.
Slice and plate, the dust the slices with confectioners’ sugar if you feel like making the effort.
Yield: 10-12 servings
COOKBOOK NOTE: The cake can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days. Or, it can be well wrapped in plastic wrap and frozen for up to two weeks; thaw overnight at room temperature for serving.