Today, unexpectedly, a new(ish) friend told me about something traumatic happening in her family.
I was giving her a ride home, and when she strapped herself into the passenger seat of the Cube she began to talk, surprising herself, even, at what she was revealing. She apologized for laying it all out in the open.
I told her it was the Cube that had that effect, that the boxy walls and ripple pattern on the ceiling often caused The Teenager to open up. Some of our best conversations have happened in the Cube.
In fact, some of my best conversations, period, have happened in cars. It’s where it took me 30 minutes to ask for my first bra. Where I fell in love with the man I thought I was supposed to marry, and then again where I realized there was no way we could be together. And then a car brought Dane and I together when he rescued me from the body shop where my new-to-me-car was deemed dangerous to drive. He swooped me up in his tow truck, just another type of vehicle, and laughed, outraged, when I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.
And then a car took him. But I digress.
What struck me about my friend sharing her traumatic event (which is not mine to tell, so suffice it to say it is beyond what most of us will have to deal with in our lives) is twofold.
First, that she trusted me enough to share it. But then again I guess cars do that. You are trapped, even by your seat belt, and it’s like you have no choice.
And second, what a burden secrets are to the keeper.
We all of us walk around with secrets, large and small. Secrets we keep from others. Secrets we keep from ourselves.
So potent and powerful, this secret keeping.
My friend’s timing was, as usual, impeccable. In sharing her secret and seeming visibly relieved and unburdened, she reminded me of two things.
One: You never know what burdens other people are walking around with.
It’s easy to make so many of our daily experiences about ourselves – the unkind word, the slow driver, the glare from a stranger – but often they have nothing to do with us. We are, in truth, the center of our own universe, but the universe does not actually revolve around us.
(Get it? Revolve around us? Solar system humor).
We can cultivate a fine sense of outrage about the many things that happen to us, even when so many of them are actually happening to others on the periphery of our little world with some spilling over on us. Then we get fired up and let that interaction shape our world when, turns out…it was never about us.
Two: The time has come for me to unburden myself of my own secrets.
Some are quite dark and have been a part of me for my entire life. Others are small, hidden creatures that just need a little light.
Shadow work, they call it. It sounds dark and hard and scary, and it is those things. It means confronting potentially the most painful things about myself, but it also means rolling them around in my hands and then letting them go. Letting them be.
Heady stuff for a Tuesday, and not quite what I expected to come out of a simple ride home.
As we were getting ready to part, my friend said in passing and in reference to my recent (welcome) onslaught of paid work that had seen me badly neglecting my unpaid work – this site, recipe development, food writing, and photography – “Yes, but you make CAKE.”
And that is exactly true.
Cake is a comfort to me, in the making, the sharing, and the eating. I love pretty much everything about cake; it may even have surpassed my love of chocolate candy, which is saying something.
There is nothing new in a polenta cake, but this one has a few special touches. I developed this the way the very best recipes are developed: by listening to the ingredients themselves in the season in which they are intended to be eaten. I bought a few fuyu persimmons at Asia Food (my favorite Asian market off York Road) and started thinking about how I might like to eat them. Raw was of course always an option, but I wanted more. A quick search led me to a recipe for blood orange upside down cake. Some tweaks to highlight the ingredients, fine-tune measurements (and get rid of some sugar), and make it gluten-free, and this is what you have. Mad props to the process in the original recipe; the inspirational recipe was lovely, and I can’t claim this as my own.
I immediately shared it with another friend and made sure The Teenager had a hunk after school, but I won’t lie: I ate most of it.
This cake is for everyone out there doing the shadow work, and for my sweet friend whose world has been flipped on its head. This cake is for you.
A few notes before you begin:
- Read through completely before beginning, and utilize the principles of mise en place. It will make the process much more enjoyable (in life as well as baking, if we’re being honest)
- Dry goods are measured in grams. Otherwise, you have imprecise measurements like “six tablespoons.” But don’t worry; I have included those as well.
- Persimmons should be ripe but not mushy. This makes them easier to peel and slice. And mandolins make slicing easier but are not 100% necessary.
- I used grits, not “polenta.” When we lived in the south, I went searching for polenta in the grocery store one day, and the clerk looked over his glasses, down his nose, and drawled, “Y’all mean grits, raht?” If you want to save some cash, use grits. Polenta is a little finer, and it is, after all, in the title of this, but I like the slight toothiness of grits. A little crunch.
Persimmon Polenta Cake With Rosemary And Lemon
75 grams of sugar, plus 150 grams of sugar (6 tablespoons plus 3/4 cup)
3 tablespoons water
8 tablespoons butter (one stick), softened
3 Fuyu persimmons, ripe but firm, peeled and sliced 1/8″ thick
110 grams gluten-free all-purpose flour (regular AP works fine here, too. 3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons)
45 grams polenta (or grits, y’all. 1/4 cup)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped rosemary (about 1 sprig)
zest of one lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, separated
6 tablespoons milk
Prep all ingredients first. Peel and slice persimmons, zest the lemon, finely chop the rosemary, separate eggs. The sugar is used in two separate steps, so divide it as noted.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a 10″ cast iron or ovenproof skillet, dissolve 75 grams of sugar in water and heat until the mixture becomes slightly amber in color (about five minutes). Don’t stir during this process, but feel free to give the skillet a little shake. Don’t walk away, as the change happens quickly. Once it is amber, remove from heat and stir in two tablespoons of butter until dissolve.
Arrange the peeled, sliced persimmons in a spiral pattern and then set aside while you make the cake.
Combine the dry ingredients in a small bowl: flour, polenta, salt, baking powder, chopped rosemary and lemon zest.
In a large bowl, cream the butter, remaining sugar, and vanilla until creamy. Mix in one egg yolk at a time. Alternate adding milk and dry ingredients, starting with dry. Mix until just combined, then add milk, then dry, then milk, then dry.
In a medium bowl with absolutely clean and dry beaters, beat the egg whites until they are stiff but not dry. They will be shiny and hold a stiff peak.
In three additions, fold the egg whites gently into the batter. The batter will be thicker than a regular cake batter.
Pour over your persimmons in the skillet, then spread evenly with a spatula. Bake at 350 for 30-45 minutes. This is a large range because ovens vary so much. Start peeking in at around 30 minutes. The cake is done when a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean, and the top is a lovely brown (just past golden).
Remove from oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes, then loosen around edges with a sharp knife. Place a platter or plate on top of the skillet, then carefully invert. If any persimmons have move or look wonky, replace them, then cool completely before serving.
For me, this serves four. But that’s because I ate it for breakfast, a snack around three, and then again after dinner. And I let my kid have some.
For most other people, this serves 8-10.