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.

 

Just Like Your Kid: Trouble But Worth It Cinnamon Rolls

Nothing gold can stay.
Nothing gold can stay.

Exactly five hours from now (or thereabouts, as these things go), I am taking my child to France.

Not France, exactly.

Worse: taking her to Boston to hand her over to a group of (hopefully kindly) strangers who will then shuffle her off to Anglet by way of Paris/Normandy in a mere 48 hours. She will be gone for ten months, and as these things sometimes go, I may not actually see her for any of those ten months.

If ever there was a time for comfort food, this is it.

This is when I start hunkering down, loading up the pantry with staples and filling the ‘fridge with things that are substantial and too much of them.

If we weren’t busy with frantic, last-minute packing, I would make these cinnamon rolls.

I call them Just Like Your Kid Cinnamon Rolls. They are a pain in the ass, but in the end oh so very worth it.

When I made these the first time, I held my breath. I have made gluten-free cinnamon rolls before, and they were tough, dry, awful things that were saved only by copious amounts of cinnamon and overly-sweet cream cheese icing and a burning need for a cinnamon roll.

These cinnamon rolls. Zoiks.

They are everything they should be. Soft and yielding and hot and sweet and pungent with the sharp smell and taste of cinnamon. They melt in your mouth. These cinnamon rolls are the thick, fluffy blanket I want to wrap myself in when I think of food that is comforting.

Bonus: they are gluten-free. My god. Could it get any better?

Side note: of course you can make them with regular flour. Whatever comforts you most.

If I had time on this morning where I am trying not to think too hard about sending my baby off to another country for nearly a year, I would go ahead and make a big batch of these. I would wake her up with one of these and a cup of coffee (with cream and just a little sugar but not too much anymore because she is using less these days) on a tray to her room.

I would spoil her in the way I do, with food delivered to her in the morning and the simple grace of allowing her to rise into this new day gently.

But since I can’t do that, and we don’t have anymore time, you’ll just have to make these and let me know how they work out.

Just Like Your Kid Cinnamon Rolls

Note: Read the recipe through first. This is not a complicated recipe, but the butter that needs to be softened needs to be very, very soft for spreading.

Ingredients

Dough

2 tablespoons butter
1⁄4 cup white sugar
2⁄3 cup milk, warmed (80 to 100 degrees)
1 tablespoon yeast
1 large egg (room temperature is best)
1⁄4 cup canola oil
1 1/2 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour
1⁄4 teaspoon baking soda
2 1⁄2 teaspoons xanthan gum
2 teaspoons baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla

Filling

1 cup packed brown sugar
2 1⁄2 tablespoons cinnamon
1⁄3 cup butter, very softened (spreadable)
Icing

8 tablespoons butter, softened
1 1⁄2 cups powdered sugar
1⁄4 cup cream cheese, softened
1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla
1⁄8 teaspoon salt
Method

Wake your yeast as you would your teen: gently. Place warmed milk into a large bowl and allow to bubble for a few minutes.

Add sugar, butter, oil, and vanilla to milk/yeast mixture. Stir gently until completely combined.

Add egg and stir to combine.

In a smaller bowl, combine salt, gluten-free flour, baking soda, baking powder, and xanthan gum.

Add flour mixture to mixing bowl. Stir until well combined. This dough is somewhat sticky, but if it seems unworkable, add a little more flour, just a tablespoon at a time. You don’t want it too dry.

Place dough in a greased container and put in a warm place to rise for 45-60 minutes. I like to preheat my oven to 200 degrees and then turn it off. If you are using gluten-free flour, the dough will not double in size, but it will rise just a bit.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and grease a square glass baking dish. 8″x8″ works great.

Get ready to roll.

Tear off a piece of plastic wrap, about 18″ long or so and lay it on your counter. Place the dough on this plastic wrap, then cover the dough with another piece of plastic wrap.

If you skip this and act like a teenager and think you just know everything (#RollsEyes) then you will wind up with a sticky mess and no cinnamon rolls and YOU SHOULD ALWAYS LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER (or, in this case, this recipe. #Trust).

Roll dough to 1/4″ thick rectangle between the plastic wrap. I use a wine bottle if I don’t feel like digging out my rolling pin, and I have also used floured parchment paper instead of plastic wrap (when I am feeling uptown) or plain old waxed paper.

Your rectangle should be about 13″ or so long and nearly as wide as the plastic wrap.

Spread very softened butter on the dough.

Combine brown sugar and cinnamon together and sprinkle liberally onto the dough, leaving a 1″ edge clean (the long edge farthest away from you).

Now here’s the tricky part – rolling the dough into cinnamon rolls.

Use the bottom piece of plastic wrap to begin to roll the dough away from you. You are going for a tight log shape. The tighter, the better, but don’t sweat it. When you get to the naked part of the dough, the part with no filling, then you’re done and that naked edge will help seal the log shape.

Use a serrated knife to cut the log into eight pieces. Tranfer these pieces to your greased baking dish. Leave a little breathing room between each roll.

You could let them rise a little longer here if you’d like. OR you could make them up to this point the night before, put them in the ‘fridge, and then bring them to room temperature in the morning before baking.

Bake for about 2o minutes until tops are golden brown. To check for sure that they are done, run a butter knife into the very center rolls. If dough sticks, bake a little longer.

Combine frosting ingredients while the cinnamon rolls bake, and frost the cinnamon rolls while they are piping hot. Don’t expect these to last long, but if you manage to have leftovers, cover and keep in the ‘fridge.

What’s your comfort food?

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.