Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Fig Cake for Dad

My parents have two fig trees in their backyard and they have been inundated with figs since September. Mom hit fig fatigue by the time I arrived in late September and hadn't been eating very many of them. Dad still dutifully picks and eats figs daily. Both of them would gift figs every time they saw anybody else who likes figs. ("Did you bring Sal figs this week? How about John? And Jesse? Shall we bring more figs to the girls at the club? Hey, do your friends like figs?")

A Fig Cake for Dad

I, however, am not a fig fan. My father asked daily if I wanted any figs, and daily I turned him down. I think he hoped that if he kept on me I would eventually relent. Nope, sorry. I don't want any figs. Ever.

In the last two weeks of my visit I plunked all the baking books I brought with me down on the table in front of my dad and told him to pick something for me to bake for him and Mom. I suspected he would choose some chocolate-chocolate bomb like he usually does but instead he zeroed in on Dorie Greenspan's Fig Cake for Fall and that was it. Well, I thought, at least I won't be endangering my own waistband with this one.

A Fig Cake for Dad

October 17, 2009
Name of cake: A Fig Cake for Dad
Occasion: Too Many Figs
Constituents: Poached figs atop a lemony cornmeal-yellow cake with a sherry-port reduction (sounds fancier than a sherry-port sauce)

Since this was Dad's cake, I employed him to round up the 18 ripe, yet firm, figs necessary for this cake. He skipped 'round the corner of the house, climbed his trusty ladder and within minutes handed me a bowl of freshly picked figs. He seemed so pleased to help that I asked him to prepare the figs for poaching. Dad gruntled a bit about being second in command but set to work cutting off the stems and splitting the fruit in half. After he placed the prepared figs in a bowl he wandered off. So much for helping out!

A Fig Cake for Dad

Mom had a musty old bottle of port on the bottom shelf of a cupboard next to an equally musty bottle of sherry. I've never had port before, so I asked my parents if the stuff was still good. It passed their test, so into a pot with some honey for poaching. There wasn't enough port so Mom yelled from outside to use the sherry. This was way outside my cooking/baking expertise, and since it was Mom and Dad who would be eating the cake later on, I did as she advised.

A word about the honey: Mom and Dad took a trip to Greece last May, and high up in some monastery in Meteora they bought a large jar of honey. Apparently it was made right there, and when they found out I needed honey for the cake, Dad got all excited about me using the Greek honey. He exclaimed to mom, "see! I told you we would use it all up!"

A Fig Cake for Dad

(I didn't use it all up, but I'm guessing they had some argument about what would they do with such a large jar of honey, and probably about who was going to give up the space in their suitcase for it.)

The figs poach for about 20 min, until soft but not falling apart. They are then removed from the liquid and set aside. The liquid continues to cook down until it is thick enough to coat the back of a metal spoon. I let the liquid work while I put the rest of the cake together.

The cake batter is a simple yellow cake with the addition of lemon zest, more honey, and cornmeal. My mom doesn't have a zester or a microplane so I had to peel and chop the lemon zest by hand. That was an experience.

The batter is prepared by first creaming the butter, sugar and lemon zest. The eggs are added, as is the honey and vanilla extract. By this time everything looks curdled and sad, but thankfully Dorie warns of this. After mixing in the dry ingredients the batter was thick, yellow, and delicious. It is poured into a 9 inch springform, the figs are scattered across the top, and the cake is baked for almost an hour.

A Fig Cake for Dad

I was really unsure of how things were turning out. Actually, I felt pretty confident about the cake but I wasn't sure about the sherry-port sauce. It smelled weird to me. Not knowing what port (or sherry, or port + sherry) taste like and disliking figs, I couldn't tell if the sauce was good or yucky. I asked my parents to come in and sample the syrup and Dad told me it tasted like "port and figs." Okay, thanks Dad.

When I pulled the cake from the oven it looked beautiful. I mean, as beautiful as a fig cake to a non-fig lover can be. Mom and Dad said it looked just like the photo in Baking From My Home to Yours so I took a photo of both:

A Fig Cake for Dad

Dorie recommends serving the cake with either whipped cream or vanilla ice cream alongside the cake and sauce. Dad opted for a thick coat of Reddi-Whip (ugh), Mom and I a little bit of ice cream. I took a thin slice--I had to try it, even if I was wary.

A Fig Cake for Dad

The cake had a nice textural crunch from the cornmeal. It was moist and substantial without feeling heavy or dense. The lemon zest played nicely off the sauce, which I was surprised to discover tasted very grapey, almost like grape juice. I have no idea if Mom's dusty bottle of port was a good quality port, or if all port sauces taste grapey, or if port in general is grapey. But this sauce was grapey. And the figs? The figs were...figgy. I would have enjoyed the cake more if it was without figs. Mom and especially Dad enjoyed the cake and the cake's flavors, although I don't think they liked the cornmeal crunch too much. I advised Dad to share the cake with his fig loving friends in order to keep from eating the whole thing, but he seemed hell bent on eating the whole thing himself. I guess that's a pretty good endorsement for this cake!

A Fig Cake for Dad

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Caramel Peach Grunt

Well folks, fall in the San Francisco Bay Area is a different ball of wax. The days have been dry, sunny, and warm with lovely cool evenings. This is pretty much the best time of year to be in San Francisco proper, and over the weekend we enjoyed beautiful warm days with a light breeze. Warm! No fog! I always feel sorry for the tourists who come to SF in July, not expecting it to be cold, foggy, gray, and windy. The beautiful time in San Francisco is September and October, people. Please remember that when planning your trip.

Ah, all this time with my parents must be rubbing off on me, as I opened this post with a paragraph about the weather. They love to talk about the weather. They struggle to stay awake through the news so that they can get the weather report, and then they go straight to bed. They only call me up if they've heard the weather in Portland has been doing something interesting, otherwise they stick to forwarding me emails about amazing photography and funny stories.

As you may have gleaned from my ramblings, I am visiting my family for a while. My parents still live in my old hometown on the peninsula and my sister and her husband live in SF, about 45 minutes apart from each other. I am bouncing back and forth between both places while I am here, and currently I am back in the suburbs after a weekend in The City with my sis. (Yes, locals call SF "The City" and NOBODY calls SF "Frisco." Ignore at your own risk.) This afternoon my sister and her husband drove me back down here and mom made us an awesome dinner. In fact, every dinner mom has made since I've come home has been awesome. God, I love my mom.

September 27, 2009
Name of Dessert: Caramel Peach Grunt
Occasion: Dinner with the Family
Constituents: Peaches, stewed in a caramel sauce with a drop biscuit top

caramel peach grunt

On Friday, before I left for SF, Mom and I were talking about Sunday's dinner and cleaning up the stacks of papers that my dad likes to leave everywhere. In the stack was a newspaper clipping that my mom pulled out and started telling me about. She began to explain the existence of things called crisps, cobblers, pandowdies, and grunts. I laughed, and told her I was already acquainted with these things. Her clipping, it turns out, was part of the press for Rustic Fruit Desserts and included the recipe for the Caramel Peach Grunt. I have been dying to make the grunt, and when mom heard that she asked me to make it for Sunday's dessert. Yesssssss!

We were scheduled to arrive at Mom and Dad's around 5 pm, so Mom bought me the peaches and then fretted that I wouldn't have time to put it together before it got too late for Michele and Mike to get back to the City. I assured her it wouldn't take much prep time and could be baking while we ate dinner, but she bought a pre-made pie crust just in case.

A grunt and a slump are pretty much interchangeable terms, both denoting fruit cooked on top of the stove instead of baked in the oven. This technically isn't a true grunt as it is finished in the oven, so that the biscuit top gets nice and toasty. But who's counting.

First off, the peaches are macerated in some sugar in order to release some of their juices. After sitting for about 20 minutes, the juices are strained off for later and the fruit tossed with a bit of cornstarch and salt.

Next, a caramel is cooked in a deep ovenproof skillet. Once dark amber, which because I am anxiously watching the pan seems to take forever, the peach juices and a little bit of butter are added and brought back to a boil.

The peaches and a little bit of vanilla are added, and left to simmer until the peaches are cooked through.

caramel peach grunt

In the meantime, a buttermilk biscuit dough is made. It is sticky and pillowy, so the biscuits are dropped onto the fruit and the whole thing is popped into the oven until the biscuits are cooked and the juices are thick.

caramel peach grunt

We chose to serve it with vanilla ice cream, which I believe is almost necessary with cooked fruit. My sister is on the opposite camp and had her ice cream separately in another bowl with chocolate sauce.

I found the caramel to be very pronounced, with a boldness that did pair well with the fragrant peaches. The biscuit was a little bit of a wallflower for me, but it did provide a nice chewy something to contrast with all the soft and showy fruit and caramel. Interestingly, I discovered that I liked this dessert much better without the ice cream!

caramel peach grunt

Everyone loved the dessert, and found it to be a great end to the evening. Mom kept repeating her astonishment that it only took about an hour to put together. What can I say, except that Rustic Fruit Desserts is awesome?

Most importantly, about six hours after my sister ate the grunt, she went into labor and lookit what got born Monday mornin'!

my sister and the little pooper