Just FYI, The Road Is Lined With Peach Cake With Pecan Crumble

I have made Peach Cake With Pecan Crumble this morning for breakfast and am now listening to the rain and waiting for it to cool. It is the kind of rain that is the harbinger of a change in the weather, and I am ready for fall.

August always seems to be this way: a headlong rush and flurry of busy-ness that only begins to calm down as the mercury drops and the sun dips below the horizon a few minutes earlier every night. I don’t subscribe to the status-seeking cult of busy-ness (also known as the “busy trap”) that surrounds people in the U.S., and yet I have a distinctly difficult time actually relaxing. It is hard for me to sit and just be.

Even as I put a period at the end of that last sentence I was rising to get a slice of still-warm cake because I just couldn’t wait anymore.

I have also, in the time that it has taken to write this little bit, texted with a friend and checked my calendar to see if there is anything pressing this week.

What happened to me?

Growing up, bored and lonely on the side of a mountain in western Maryland, I used to while the days away reading, making art, walking in the woods, and writing. My brother and I were not especially close, and when we were it was often because I was receiving a punch for some unknown transgression (or perhaps because he was, himself, bored and lonely and without any particular outlet, and I happened to be handy). I learned early not to approach him unless I was so bored that it was worth the gamble of a blow or a game.

We didn’t have a TV until I was older, and even then it was a black-and-white set with rabbit ears wrapped in tinfoil perched on top, so reception (and even just plain old power) was sketchy at best. We had animals and chores and two parents who worked, so I was left to my own devices more often than not. There was nothing much to do and an endless amount of time to get it done.

After many years of busy doing, I find myself now in a position where I can take my time to do what it is that I am doing. I have mercenary writing that people pay me to do, and then I have my own (which pays nothing but is one of those things like breathing that is necessary and reflexive and vital, even when words don’t make it onto the page. But I digress.). I have yoga teaching and a new job as the assistant manager at my lovely studio, both of which do not take much time either.

So I find myself at loose ends, again, as the calendar and the weather indicate that it is, indeed, decorative gourd season, motherfuckers.

What to do? How to fill the days?

Technically, I have completed all of the duties of a productive member of society: I have (nearly) raised a child to adulthood (a good one, I think); I have started a school and taught over a thousand children; I have been married to a man I loved and lost; I have been lucky enough to love another man in a way that is breath-taking to me – we are building a life together that I could not imagine in the years following the death of my husband.

I have volunteered my time, donated my money, rescued animals, helped others. I have paid taxes.

But what is it about my need to feel like I am doing something? Who cares what I am doing? Who cares how fast it gets done?

Lots of folks, turns out. I have been the recipient of some judgy looks and comments, for sure, about my lack of “busy” on a daily basis. On many days my presence is not required anywhere. I can sit with two dogs at my feet and a cat lazily twining in and around my ankles until I am damn good and ready to do whatever it is that I feel like doing (or whatever it is I have put on my calendar; I am an inveterate procrastinator, but I have not missed a single deadline, and my written calendar is the reason why). This seems to be offensive to some. If I am not worn out by work I don’t enjoy and shopping with the madding crowd every Saturday morning, my life is something of a millennial’s, and perhaps I should grow up.

We are conditioned from birth to do, go, and be. We are to be productive members of society. We are to graduate from schooling (and childhood) and earn money to buy All Of The Things, and we are to have a career or something that we do for 40 hours a week. We are selfish if we choose to art or write or travel or bake or otherwise defy the American Dream (which has itself become a nightmare).

In my graduating class at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, there were two philosophy majors who matriculated with the whole class of several thousand. I still remember wondering what, exactly, that degree would translate into as far as employment goes. Even when I got my English degree, the first question was always if I was planning on teaching. What would I DO with my degree?

Side note before I continue my white-privileged exploration: I am well aware that the color of my skin has allowed me to even think about not doing, going, and being. It is a source of much trouble in my mind and in my writing that I get to write from a place that many people (women) of color will not be able to experience. It is also true that I am exploring ways to support people of color in my work and in theirs. 

Side note, part two: I would not be able to indulge in this type of under-employment were it not for a few life-changing events, specifically the death of my husband in 2013, which put the process of living into perspective, and the closure of my school, HoneyFern, shortly thereafter. 

But here I am now, scoffing at my own self a bit, just as if I was one of the philosophy majors who has no real prospects for gainful employment.

I am trying to make peace with the fact that I there is no earthly requirement (or heavenly one for that matter) that I be constantly and consistently on a path of someone else’s design.

Trouble is getting myself to relax into a path of my own design. Or to even find a path. Or know how to start thinking about design.

We are most of us morons when it comes to listening to our own selves and shutting out all of the noise. It is challenging to find out if what we are doing is actually something we want to be doing or if we have been so corrupted by the influence of the world around us that we are just utterly convinced it was our own idea in the first place.

I am trying to shut up and listen to that little voice, not the Anti-Cheerleader, that raging bitch who insists I am unworthy and ask how dare I, but the voice that is still capable of awe and pure joy. The one that is unconnected to anything but itself. When I can shut up everything – The Facebook, Instagram, the people who would still treat me as if I were a child, the expectations of the world, my own doubt and anxiety and worry – I find moments and glimpses of the road ahead of me. And it’s a peaceful, gravel-lined walk that is meandering and has lots of benches with cushions lining it (I like a soft place to land).

For now, though, seems like I am still in the place of learning to unclench. The anxiety and worry that has gripped me this summer still squeezes me like a fist. It’s rainy days, with peach cake, that maybe help that ease up just a bit.

Peach Cake With Pecan Crumble

This is a breakfast cake, like coffee cake, only with fresh fruit, so technically a serving of fruit. 

Ingredients

Dry:

2 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar

1/4 cup almond meal

Wet:

2 large eggs
1/2 cup canola oil
3/4 cup whole milk
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

2 cups fresh peach, peeled, pitted, and chopped small

Crumb topping:

1 cup gluten-free all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of salt
6 tablespoons melted butter

Optional: 1/2 cup pecans (or type of nuts like almonds or macadamia), chopped small

Method

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and grease a square glass baking dish (butter, oil, or cooking spray). You can also use mini bundt pans (see Recipe Notes).

In a large-ish bowl whisk together dry ingredients.

In a smaller bowl, whisk together wet ingredients (I used a 2-cup measuring cup, adding the eggs last and beating them in).

In an even smaller bowl, whisk together crumb topping ingredients while you melt the butter.

Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Add peaches and stir to combine.

Pour into glass baking dish.

Use a fork to add crumble ingredients to melted butter and mix to combine. It should be somewhat clumpy, which is what you want. Add pecans, if using. Spoon/pour/use your hands to distribute crumble on top of your cake.

Bake for 50-60 minutes or until the top is golden brown and a toothpick comes out fairly clean or with maybe a crumb or two clinging to it.

Best cooled completely and then maybe warmed slightly. If using gluten-free flour especially, cool completely for the best texture.

Recipe Notes

If using mini bundt pans, press crumb topping gently into the top of the batter and reduce baking time to 20-25 minutes. This can also be baked in a large bundt pan, with the same guidelines and a longer baking time (watch carefully). Cool for ten minutes in bundt pan, and then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.

 

The Fruit Fly: A Cocktail For Life

Light and refreshing. Becuase you might need a lot of drinks.

I am writing this on July 4th. The house is still quiet because The Child worked late and is still sleeping, plus in the summer-sleepy holiday neighborhood very few people are moving around yet. The heat is sluggish and heavy, even before the sun is fully awake itself.

This is weather for contemplation. I have written recently on my lack of belief system, but sometimes it seems like there is some kind of message that is trying to come through from somewhere/thing/one. These past few weeks have been a series of minor disasters, in my life and in the lives of the people close to me.

And when I say “minor disasters,” I mean a cluster of annoying events that are like pesky fruit flies: hard to swat away, lasting usually for a few days, and coming out of nowhere.

To wit:

  • A stand mixer dropped on my toe, resulting in an epic bruise and a toenail steadily rising up off the nailbed. #Barf
  • A neck injury…from sleeping…that is persisting over several weeks.
  • A cat with a broken wrist, right after the dog with tumor surgery.
  • Another dog with a suspicious bump.
  • My particular friend’s beautiful moss garden vandalized by a person with mental illness, at a time when my particular friend could use some stability.
  • A friend whose job has suddenly turned on her, using her as a scapegoat for something she has no control over.
  • The watermelon I bought yesterday was completely rotten inside this morning. #ThatsAFirst
  • Likewise, a bag of small, sweet, organic peppers I bought were moldy and rotting also.
  • And I nearly killed my family by using an obviously bad batch of pickled green beans in today’s slaw.

Sounds like life, yes? Like the things that just happen? Nothing deadly here, nothing permanent.

But still.

And then the dreams.

  • Dreams of teaching again, three in the past few weeks.
  • Dreams of loss, specifically of my beloved horse, Sadie.
  • Dreams of people I haven’t seen in a long time, crossing through my mind and interacting with people I see every day.

Plus writing work, very little of which has made it onto a page/screen but is floating in my brain.

Crazy-making. Anxiety-producing.

I am trying to pay attention to these things – the accidents and mishaps as well as the thoughts of my unconscious mind. I think this is what creative people in any field are: noticers. People who think about connections and the ways in which the world – all of the world – works.

But I get the sense over the past few weeks that we are not any of us in control of anything. Not even our own selves in a sense; my brain has made it very clear that it will have its way with me while I sleep, producing intense overnight emotions that have set the tone for each day of the past many weeks. It’s deeper than not sleeping; it’s literally like I have been wrestling something overnight, which perhaps explains my neck injury.

In these instances, I get the feeling that really all I can do is hang on. Make lists. Ground myself. Go to water.

I write lists of the things I have to worry about, and then methodically proceed to worry about just the one thing at a time instead of allofthethingsatonce.

I write lists of all of the things I need to do, make categories, and then attempt to do something about them. This includes mostly writing work, either paid or my own, and if you are a regular reader of this blog you will notice that my own writing has not been at the top of the list, which is a shame and probably not helping my overall psyche.

Usually also I do more yoga, but between my neck and my toe the most I have managed in the past three weeks is two Kundalini classes and maybe a bit of stretching here and there.

This is hanging on. This is getting by.

This ain’t living.

It’s a slog. A trial. An awareness that even though I am so much better off than much of the world, hanging on isn’t really “living my best life.” #ThanksOprah

It’s not particularly socially acceptable or fashionable to ask “Why bother?” on a food blog. This may not be the medium.

“Just get to the damn recipe,” you say.

I will. Spoiler alert: It’s a cocktail.

As Janis Joplin would say, it’s all the same fucking day, man.

Is that enough? The same fucking day, every day?

Maybe the pesky fruit flies are designed to wake us up out of our stupor, to remind us to stop living in such a rote fashion, to help us stay awake and aware and in the world, not dazed and living in a creamy-filmed soporific filter of simply putting one foot in front of the other every day without ever really questioning why beyond adding to our 401k and getting the kids the fuck out of the house as not-too-horrible adults.

It’s the 4th of July, and I need a drink. Specifically a drink that allows me to go all day, thinking about the things that matter without getting morose.

My particular friend and I did a lot of research on this drink. It started out as a variation on a Dirty Shirley (without the Sprite) but he didn’t love how sweet it was, and I didn’t love the plain vodka.

So here we are. I made my own fruit-infused vodka, which is really all for the best, but that could take weeks, so if you want it now, skip the flavored vodka.

You can drink this and not get hammered, perfect for a hot, humid day. It also has very little sugar, so should you miss the mark and end up getting hammered, your hangover shouldn’t be too bad. Plus, the seltzer keeps you hydrated.

The Fruit Fly

Ingredients

2 oz. fruit-infused vodka (see Recipe Notes)

2 dashes cherry bitters (or any bitters you like, really)

Lemon seltzer (not sweetened, or use plain seltzer)

Lime/lemon for garnish

Method

Fill a pint glass with ice. Add vodka and cherry bitters. Top with seltzer. Garnish with lime or lemon, as you like, and maybe a few springs of fresh mint.

Recipe Notes

Fruit infused vodka: I packed a pint jar with overripe strawberries and blueberries and covered them with vodka. Steep for at least a week, then strain into another clean jar.

Bitters are, in my mind, largely a matter of preference. Cherry bitters give this drink a sweetness without adding sugar, which keeps it light and not syrupy.

 

 

Gratitude, Day 8: Democracy Now, Or How Cake Brings People Together

NOTE: I am a fan of 30-day challenges, and November is traditionally a time of two: National Novel Writing Month, and 30 Days of Thanks. As I am not a fiction writer, this year I have chosen to publish a daily blog for the entire month, expressing my gratitude. This may not be entirely food-focused, but expect recipes aplenty. Feel free to join me in the comments below. What are you thankful for today?

Even though I voted early, I found this sticker a couple days ago and will be wearing it proudly today. #VOTE
Even though I voted early, I found this sticker a couple of days ago and will be wearing it proudly today. #VOTE

I have voted for president in three states in my lifetime: Maryland, Washington, and Georgia.

I vote in primaries.

I vote in mid-term elections.

I donate money on occasion to candidates.

Today, I am grateful that this shitshow of an election is over. #Gratitude

This blog is posting in the morning, so I don’t know how grateful I will be for the result of the election tomorrow, but if things proceed as they should, all campaigning and mudslinging and incivility will be over, at least until the next election.

(okay, that’s a bit naive, but allow me that indulgence for just this one moment)

Every presidential election since I can remember I have stayed up late, watching the election returns on TV. Even when I was a little kid we would huddle around the black and white TV, watching the percentages change. The first election I can actually remember is Jimmy Carter’s.

Ten days ago, in preparation for the ritual election returns watching, I baked an election cake. Election cakes date back to before the Revolutionary War when they were prepared for hundreds of people using nuts, dried fruit, wine, and whiskey.

A cake for many, many voters.
A cake for many, many voters.

Bakeries across the country are reviving the election cake tradition using the hashtag #MakeAmericaCakeAgain. When three people tagged me on an election cake post, I figured I would give it a shot.

Trouble is, I am no fan of yeast as it can be problematic in gluten-free baking, and traditional election cakes use yeast for their raising agent. Election cakes use yeast to create a live sponge, into which fruit, nuts, and additional flour are added.

In all other aspects, though, this shit is just a boozy fruitcake, which I happen to have on lock.

I made this cake ten days ago because it just gets better (and boozier) with age. It’s also very, very forgiving, so if you don’t have the particular dried fruits on hand you can make do with what you have. Just keep the total amount the same and you should be just fine.

Suzannah’s Modern-Day Election Cake

Ingredients

1 cup golden raisins (or regular)

1 cup currants

2 cups of any combination of the following: dried cherries, blueberries, cranberries, chopped apricots

Zest of one orange

Zest of one lemon

1/4 cup crystallized ginger, chopped

1 cup rum, bourbon, or brandy

1 cup sugar

10 tablespoons butter

1 cup apple cider

Teaspoon of each of the following: clove, ginger, cinnamon, allspice

1 1/4 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour (regular works here, too)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 eggs

1/2 cup toasted pecans, roughly chopped

Brandy for basting (I used Laird’s Applejack because it’s what I had)

Method

THE NIGHT BEFORE: Combine dried fruits, citrus zest, chopped ginger, and booze in a glass container. Mix thoroughly and place overnight in the ‘fridge. This can be in the ‘fridge for two (or more) days, so if you get distracted, no problem.

It’s also delicious straight off the spoon, but that can be dangerous.

When you are ready to bake, place dried fruit, sugar, apple cider, and spices in a non-reactive saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring often, then turn heat down and simmer for ten minutes. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

Add to cooled fruit mixture and mix thoroughly. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well to incorporate each egg. Add chopped pecans.

Grease three disposable loaf pans (you are going to want to share these. Maybe). Divide batter evenly between the tins and bake for one hour. Test for doneness by inserting a paring knife. The knife should come out completely clean. If crumbs are sticking to the knife, bake for another five minutes and test again.

When the election (cake) is (finally) finished (over), remove from oven and baste liberally (yuk, yuk) with brandy. Cool completely in tin before turning out.

You are welcome at this point to try your cake. It will be spicy and fruity and nutty and delicious.

But this cake gets even better with age.

Wrap it tightly in plastic, store on the counter, and baste with brandy every couple days. In two weeks you will be eating a little slice of heaven, like we will be eating on election night.

I have heard that this cake last for a month or more. I may make it again on Thanksgiving and take it to Christmas to see how it goes. The booze and the sugar act as preservatives.

What are you grateful for today?

Sophie’s Choice: Strawberry Bread Pudding

Really, the only decision you need to make today.
Really, the only decision you need to make today.

The start of things is always challenging.

Especially when the thing you are starting is somewhat of a secret, kept that way so it can be a big surprise when it’s all done.

But it starts today, no foolin’, and already I am stuck.

Anyone who reads even a blog or two of mine knows that motivation and I have not always walked well together.

This reminds me of the story about Jesus walking with someone on the beach (two sets of footprints) and when times got tough there was only one set of footprints because Jesus was carrying the person. This story makes me a little nauseous (and only a little nauseous because I would like to have a long conversation with Jesus, for real, not praying, like hang out with the man and say what the fuck, Jesus.), but it would be super awesome if motivation would just swoop down and cradle me in loving arms.

Motivation for me is more like a sharp, pointy stick. Or a cattle prod. And that’s no day at the beach.

Especially perceptive people who have read even a blog or two of mine might even recognize that this here blog post itself is really just a clever avoidance tactic. Or maybe not so clever.

Regardless. Here we are. At an impasse.

Sometimes, as right now with The Secret Thing, the issue is just too many choices.

I could literally go in 100 different directions with This Secret Thing, but if I commit to one, 99 of them fall away and become impossible.

And I am on a deadline, so I have basically this weekend to commit.

And anyone who knows me well knows that commitment and I are also not always walking together on the beach either. And commitment is too fucking lazy to pick me up. And super heavy for me, even with all of the yoga.

The answer to this is very, very simple: off to market.

Not only does this allow me to procrastinate, but it also gives me a great excuse to check out the new MOM’s that opened up this very morning in The Rotunda in Hampden. It was, as expected, a madhouse, so much so that any designs of leisurely strolling the aisles looking for inspiration fell away when the doors opened.

The samples. And the fresh mozzarella. And Greek yogurt. And bulk section. And the sheer number of people who really should all be at work and not shopping right now so that I can have the store to myself. #OtherPeopleRuinEverything

But THE STRAWBERRIES.

If we were still in Georgia, I would have already been harvesting the first tender shoots of asparagus and small, juicy strawberries, but here in Maryland not much is coming out of the ground beyond greens and brassicas, and even then only for really good garden planners.

These strawberries weren’t local, but they were organic and sweet and deep, ruby red and sexy as hell.

And on sale.

I bought two clamshells, planning something with the aforementioned Greek yogurt (so thick like vanilla-scented crème fraiche) but then came home to other choices.

Quickly staled gluten-free bread, optimistically baked a couple days ago and not consumed. Four egg yolks leftover from the bread’s mother, also still quietly growing delicious in the ‘fridge. Vanilla beans to spare. Almond milk, bought for another purpose and then forgotten, but still good and unopened.

Sophie’s choice: strawberry bread pudding. Christ on a bike, this was good. The perfect bridge between the sunny, spring-like weather of this morning and the 30-degree temps and flurries forecast for Sunday night. Dollop of the Greek yogurt on top.

Perfect for ignoring the other choices I am avoiding. You’re welcome.

Strawberry Bread Pudding

Hey, man. This is totally unfussy. I am putting amounts here, but really, go with what you have. Leave the strawberries out, or add chocolate chips and a touch of cinnamon. Or maybe dried fruit. Or no fruit. Or whatever. Regular milk. Less sugar. Two eggs instead of just yolks. Whatever. No real choices need to be made until you are damn good and ready.

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups milk (cow, almond, soy. Whatever. Whole milk is the more reliable choice, to be sure, but don’t let dairy hold you back.)

1/3 cup sugar (or more. Or less.)

1 vanilla bean, scraped (or 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract)

pinch of salt (or 1 teaspoon if you like to measure)

2 T. butter

2 eggs (or 4 egg yolks if that’s what you have in the ‘fridge)

one leftover loaf of gluten-free bread, cubed into maybe 3 cups (or stale, gluten-filled french bread, brioche, challah, or….)

1 cup chopped strawberries (or a handful of chips, or nothing)

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter a ceramic baking dish big enough for your bread and berries. Set aside.

Heat milk, sugar, vanilla bean scraping, salt, and butter until the butter is just melted. Cool if you have that kind of patience, or, if not, slowly, slowly, slowly – whisking constantly – drizzle the hot milk into the eggs in a large bowl. If you do it too fast, you will have vanilla-flavored scrambled eggs. Drizzle slowly, slower than you think, while whisking frantically.

Place bread and strawberries in the buttered dish (I used a high-sided white ceramic baking dish). Pour milk-egg mixture over the bread, soaking thoroughly.

Allow the bread to sit in this mixture for 30 minutes in the ‘fridge. Longer, if you like. This is to soak up some of the liquid so the custard does not “break” (scramble the eggs) in the heat of the oven.

Bake for 30-45 minutes (seriously. Big range), until the custard is just a little tiny bit wobbly (but not raw. GROSS). For more gentle cooking, cook the pudding in a bain marie.

Again, cool slightly if you can, or grab a spoon and eat IMMEDIATELY with unsweetened whipped cream, crème fraiche, or super thick Greek yogurt.