Simpler Time Apple Cake

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
two eggs
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.


Spring Vacation Rhubarb Berry Pudding Cake

The other day I got caught behind a family of four stretching across the narrow aisle of produce and prepared foods that greet you when you enter Citarella, a specialty food store in my neighborhood. As I tried to bob and weave my way around the mother, pushing the sleeping daughter in a stroller, and the father, holding the hand of the six year old son, the whining refrain of the boy was like a hammer in my ear. “Mom, can we take a taxi home? I hurt my foot.” No response. “Mah-ahm, can we take a taxi home? I hurt my foot.” Now he was limping and dangling from his father’s grasp. “Mah-ahm, can we take a taxi home…” honestly, this kid was like an IPod on Replay and I would have kicked his injured leg if he hadn’t caused a passel of witnesses to pile-up behind me. I was irate on two counts. One, that I hadn’t contracted the sudden onset of complete hearing loss that seemed to be plaguing his conveniently deaf parents and two, that this kid was whining about taking a taxi. When I was his age we took the bus, unless there was a dire emergency or an incredibly fancy event to get to. Even when I was a teenager my parents weren’t doling out $20’s so I could take a cab safely home after a Saturday night. I may be the only person you know to have stood shivering at 2AM, waiting for the M104 bus on 8th Avenue and 54th Street after a pretty pathetic night at Studio 54 years after it was cool. But that’s not the point. The point is that not only did I not have the fare but I also didn’t assume that a cab was a transportation option.
When did things that were reserved for special occasions become expected? How did the question morph from, “Are you going away over spring break?” to “Where are you going over spring break?” It makes me a little bit sick and it wasn’t the atmosphere in which I was raised. Growing up, vacations were what my parents took to get away from their children. I hated it when they went away, not because I wanted to join them, but because I didn’t want them to leave in the first place. Their departure meant my grandparents’ arrival and that was a big drag. My grandfather would drop me at school and invariably, right as we were approaching the big double doors, call up every drop of phlegm circulating in his respiratory system—making a sound both disgusting and mortifying—spit the sputum into the gutter and then lean over to give me a good-bye kiss. Yes, I will accept your pity.
Sure, I had some classmates who took family vacations, jetting off to the Caribbean in December and Vail in March, but it was never like the city emptied out and I had to scrape the bottom of the barrel for a play date—apparently a cause of great stress for the parents of school-age kids who tragically are spending their spring holiday home in New York City.

Unfortunately the presumed vacation isn’t a completely new phenomenon. One January when I was in the 4th grade, my homeroom teacher at my slightly snotty school asked all the kids in the class to report on what we’d done over Christmas. As we went around the room, many girls had exotic travels to share. As it got closer to my turn, my best friend Emily leaned over and whispered, “Don’t forget! You visited your cousins.” She was trying to protect me, which was very sweet, but isn’t it sad we were in an environment where she felt that she had to? So when we got to me I piped up, “We went to Dayton, Ohio!” triumphantly. (Okay, it wasn’t Round Hill but hey, I got to take a plane and sit in an Olde Timey fire truck in a shopping mall.) But if I hadn’t spent a long weekend with my family and grandparents at my aunt and uncle’s house, I would have easily filled up my days and probably wouldn’t have been disappointed. As it was, the trip to Ohio involved lots of hushed tensions among the grown-ups and my aunt’s surreptitious and passive-aggressive hiding of assorted pork products in almost every one of her gourmet meals. Not good when her father-in-law was going through a kosher phase.
Regardless, as the years passed I did have a few adventures over school breaks, none of them very successful. When I was ten I was sent to visit my mother’s father and step-mother in Palm Beach. They’d been married since my mom was 17 and Nanny was the only woman I ever knew to be married to Grandpa Sol. She really rolled out the welcome mat as any good Step-Grandmother would. As we walked around their building’s pool she introduced me to every face-lifted old biddy as, “Sol’s grand-daughter.” I couldn’t wait to go home. There was also the trip to Key West when I was the guest of the above mentioned Emily and her family. Let’s just say Em looked a lot better in a bathing suit than I did in the ninth grade and it didn’t take long for the boys on the beach to offer their sunscreen application services. She got an even tan and my back practically peeled off. Then there was my first trip to Mexico when I tagged along on a business trip with my mother. I temporarily lost the hearing in my right ear on the flight there (too bad I couldn’t recall that trick when I was at Citarella last week) and my mom was ready to kill me when my complete lack of participation in conversations with her colleague and his wife made every meal feel like there was a big black hole at my side of the table.
And so here we are and it’s spring break time all over again. Some of my friends and their kids have fled for the snow capped mountains out west, some are headed to the Bahamas, and some are staying put, finding ways to keep their children engaged and out of trouble. But a tropical idyll wasn’t an option for me and I have to say I couldn’t care less. The weather has been gorgeous, even if my allergies don’t appreciate the premature buds, and the abundant red stalks of rhubarb, my favorite spring fruit (actually, it’s a vegetable) are stacked high at Fairway. I made the most delicious pudding cake with it, taking the edge off its inherent sour with strawberries and blackberries. Seeing all the bright colors swirled together made me feel hopeful and excited for our next two warm seasons and I didn’t even need to leave town or go into credit card debt. That is the perfect spring vacation.
Rhubarb Strawberry Pudding Cake
Adapted from Gourmet, April 2007
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1/4 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/3 cup plus 1/2 cup sugar
1 cup chopped fresh rhubarb stalks (no leaves)
1 cup blackberries, halved if large
1 cup chopped fresh strawberries
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1/2 cup whole milk
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 400°F. Butter an 8-inch square glass or ceramic baking dish. Set aside.

Stir together water, cornstarch, and 1/3 cup sugar in a small saucepan, then stir in rhubarb. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly, then simmer, stirring occasionally, 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in strawberries.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a bowl.

Whisk together egg, milk, butter, and vanilla in a large bowl, then whisk in flour mixture until just combined.

Reserve 1/2 cup fruit mixture, then add remainder of fruit to baking dish and pour batter over it, spreading evenly. Drizzle reserved 1/2 cup fruit mixture over batter.

Bake until a wooden pick inserted into center of cake portion comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 5 minutes before serving. (Pudding cake will still be warm and juicy, serve using a large spoon.)Yield: 8 servings


Fudgy Stout O'Brownies

Sometimes I think it’s a wonder I don’t have a drinking problem. I come from a long paternal line of pretty impressive tipplers, which sounds odd since you don’t hear a lot about excessive Semitic imbibing. Over-eating? Sure. But tying on too many? Not as much. And yet my great-great grandfather was an alcoholic rabbi. The idea of more than one glass of kosher wine is pretty sickening to me, so I hope his drink of choice came from some of the grains or potatoes grown near Tykocin, his Polish village. Then I had a great-grandfather who on a night out on the town with his fellow Russian cavalrymen ate such a hot pepper that he tried cooling off his burning tongue by downing a giant glass of vodka. The booze only made things worse so he ran outside into the wintry streets of Kiev and shoved a handful of snow into his mouth. I think that’s a fantastic visual. Much later in life he lost a leg and when he moved in with my grandparents when my dad was a kid, he often spotted his grandfather's fake leg propped against the chair in his bedroom, next to the glass that held his teeth on the bedside table. When I was a child I had assumed he was one-legged while still in Russia, although I suppose that would have negatively impacted his effectiveness as a horse riding soldier. Regardless I liked the idea of his hopping out into the streets with his mouth on fire. (I’m awful, I know). But my grandfather was the only one of these men I knew and he was a legendary drinker. Not sloppy and slurry mind you, just low-grade and pretty consistent. He was of the “I’ll have what he’s having” school. Meaning he drank whatever everyone else was drinking, just a lot more of it. Thankfully he was a happy drunk because when he was sober, he was pretty unpleasant.
And then there is my father. My earliest memories are of him coming home from work and pouring himself a glass of Cutty Sark out of one of the sparkly crystal decanters that stood on the bar. The golden liquid was so pretty I begged for a taste. That tiny drop was such a shock to my palate that I couldn’t imagine why he seemed to enjoy his drink so much. He’s still a scotch man. And gin. And vodka. In addition my parents always had (and have) wine with dinner and if there’s company, a little post-prandial cognac. It's not like they lived The Days of Wine and Roses. They didn’t overindulge with any scary regularity or anything. It’s just that alcohol was served and enjoyed and no one made a big deal over it.
I was given sips of my father’s beer whenever I asked, even when I was five years old. My grandmother thought it was hilarious. What kid actually likes the taste? But I did. I also liked the taste I took from the tall-boy can of Colt 45 my 7 year-old classmate Patsy packed for our second grade picnic—it was just like Dr. Pepper! But all of this was just child’s play. Drinking never held a big mystique for me in general and because I showed no signs of an addictive personality and certainly wasn’t a risk-taker, there was no cause for parental concern. When I was a teenager the drinking age was 18 in New York and getting served when you were just a year or two shy of that birthday wasn’t an issue. I remember favoring tooth rotting concoctions I could never stomach today involving liqueurs and fruits, but I didn’t have a go-to drink that seemed “grown-up.” That put me in an incredibly uncomfortable position when I was set up with a visiting fancy 19 year-old English guy staying at the home of one of my parents’ friends. We were to meet at the friend’s apartment for a drink before going to dinner. When I got there, decked out in my favorite olive and gold Fiorucci pants (majorly pleated, tapered at the ankles and tucked into cuffed olive boots) he stood by the mirrored bar and asked me in his posh accent what I’d like to drink. I became paralyzed, although I had the presence of mind not to blurt out, "a pina colada" which was what I really wanted, and all I could think to say was, “white wine.” “Really?” he said. “Before dinner?” I’m still not sure why he found my request worthy of any sort of a comment, but the result was that I felt like the 16 year-old I actually was at the time and not the woman of the world I was pretending to be in the company of such “sophistication. “ What a jerk.
Anyway, it wasn’t until I got to college that I learned how many kids had been raised in really restrictive environments. They were thrilled by and unprepared for their new-found drinking freedom and spent much of their Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights in the bathroom. Meanwhile, my parents brought me a big bottle of Beefeater on Parents’ Weekend. So funny, I’m not even sure if I ever finished it. But what I did finish were many red Solo cups of draught beer. I think four years of those stupid plastic cups, and the keg party din of guys playing Whales Tales against the soundtrack of The English Beat, Depeche Mode and Prince, ultimately left a bad brewskie taste in my mouth for a long time.
I didn’t realize what a shame my non-beer drinking ways were until recently. And for this revelation I have to thank Margot, she of the same “Princess and the Pea” sensitivity to certain cuisines, restaurant atmospheres and table placement as me. Over a dinner of moules frites she introduced me to La Chouffe, an unfiltered blonde Belgian ale. It is fantastic! I have been denying myself a refreshing, delicious, slightly fruity, hoppy and a tiny bit spicy treat for way too long. Actually, over the years I have stared curiously at the micro-brewed specialty beers my brother favors or the draught Hoegaarden Rich often orders. But it is the black and tan that I’ve been most intrigued by. It appears at once so dark and mysterious and also like a frothy chocolate egg cream. Maybe that’s why it seems so appealing to me? It looks like a soda fountain sweet treat!
With St. Patrick’s Day coming up this weekend I didn’t have to look far for a fitting recipe to mark the occasion. These decadent brownies from last months' Bon Appetit are made with the black of the black and tan, Guinness Stout, and they are so good! The brownie itself is insanely fudgy and rich and because most of the alcohol is cooked out, the result is just a wonderful infusion of malty earthiness. The stout also gilds the four leaf clover just enough, adding a boozy kick to the gooey dark chocolate icing. Are they for adults only? That’s up to you. I’m sure my mother would have given me one if I’d asked and I probably still would have turned out fine-ish. Even with a drunk rabbi for a great-great-grandfather. And with that let’s raise a brownie and toast, “L’chaim Erin go braugh!”
Fudgy Stout O'Brownies
From Bon Appétit February 2012

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1 cup Guinness stout
16 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped and divided
2 1/4 sticks unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon real vanilla extract
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a 9x9x2" metal baking pan with foil, leaving a 2" overhang and set aside. Bring stout to a boil in a medium saucepan; cook until reduced to 1/2 cup, about 12 minutes. Let cool. Divide the stout into two 1/4 cup portions.
Melt 12 ounces of the chocolate and 2 sticks (1 cup) of butter in a medium metal bowl set over a saucepan of just simmering water stirring occasionally until smooth.
Whisk sugar, eggs, and vanilla in a large bowl until thoroughly combined. Gradually whisk in the melted chocolate mixture, then 1/4 cup of the reduced stout.
Fold in flour and 1 1/4 teaspoons salt. Pour batter into prepared pan, spreading evenly.
Bake brownies until surface begins to crack and a tester inserted into center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, about 35–40 minutes--do not over-bake. Transfer pan to a wire rack and let cool for at least 20 minutes.
Melt remaining 4 ounces chocolate and butter in a medium metal bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water until smooth. Remove from heat and whisk in remaining 1/4 cup reduced stout and 1/4 teaspoon salt until well blended.

Pour warm glaze over brownies. If the icing is thick, use small off-set spatula to spread evenly over surface of brownies. Let stand at room temperature until glaze is set, at least 40 minutes.
Using foil overhang, lift brownie from pan and cut into 16 squares. Remove brownies from foil and if they seem to be sticking to the foil, an offset spatula will take care of removing them cleanly.
Yield: 16 brownies