Tuesday, August 26, 2008

This cake won't change the world, but it might make you feel better

We're just coming off of a long weekend of parties, finding ourselves facing a very busy week with not quite enough rest under our belts, and all of a sudden it seems like there is an awful lot looking for our attention. Beneath my feet, two dogs (ours and a spare we're sitting on for the week) wrestle around; on the table, a stack of unopened mail and unread magazines towers. And for some reason, in spite of the bright blue sky outside and the secure knowledge that things are really quite good, I find myself a little bit down today.

In order to combat that, I'll tell you about the party we went to on Sunday night. It was a big collection of friends from various restaurants, gathering together to fire up the pizza oven that will be installed at the Slow Food Nation bread pavilion this weekend. And fire it up they did, filling it with pizzas and ratatouille, with slow-roasted goat and crispy potatoes and wild salmon and wax beans and peaches and...well, you get the idea. A whole mess of food. The whole event was held in a metal-work studio a couple blocks from our house, and had the lovely bohemian quality that makes this part of the world so great. Somehow 80 people were fed from that oven, the wine didn't run out, the place didn't catch fire, and a feeling of wellness and plenty rolled over the crowd like a wave. It's too bad you can't bottle that feeling.

I didn't want to show up empty-handed, so Sarah and I made a bunch of nectarine upside-down cakes using our old favorite recipe from The Best Recipe cookbook, put out by Cooks Illustrated. In the scheme of things, this cake is relatively easy to turn out in quantity and it never disappoints (well, it disappointed once, when I accidentally forgot to fold in the beaten egg whites at the end. Oops.). You could make this cake over the weekend, serve it to dinner guests and then eat the leftovers for breakfast. Top it with pineapple or peaches or nectarines or prune plums or cherries.

Fruit upside-down cake

This cake bakes up very nicely in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, and you can make the caramel topping right in the pan. If you don't have one, you ought to buy one. But if you want to make this cake RIGHT NOW you can use a 9-inch round cake pan, so long as it's got 3-inch deep sides.

For the topping:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

3/4 cup light brown sugar

fruit of your choice, cut into this wedges or slices


1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons cornmeal

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

1 stick butter, at room temperature

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

4 eggs, separated and at room temperature

1 1/2 tsp. vanilla

2/3 cup milk

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease pan (you don't need to grease a cast-iron). Melt butter in skillet. Once foaming subsides, stir in brown sugar and cook 2-3 minutes. The sugar and butter will clump and look terrible, but don't despair. Transfer to a cake pan, if using, or just proceed with next step if using cast-iron. That's the way it's supposed to look. Arrange fruit over sugar mixture in an attractive pattern and set aside.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and 1 cup of the sugar until light and fluffy. Turn mixer to low and add egg yolks and vanilla, stopping mixer occasionally to scrape down sides of bowl. With mixer on low, add dry ingredients little by little, alternating with milk, beginning and ending with dry ingredients.

3. In a separate, clean, bowl, beat egg whites until foamy, then add in remaining 2 tbsp. sugar and continue beating until egg whites form stiff peaks. Stir 1/4 of the beaten egg whites into batter to lighten it, then gently fold in the remaining whites until there are no longer white streaks in the batter.

4. Pour batter over fruit in pan and gently spread it to evenly cover, taking care to avoid disturbing the fruit layer. Bake until well-browned and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean (do not poke all the way to the bottom of the pan, as the fruit layer will remain gooey), about 50 minutes if you're using a cast-iron skillet, or 60-65 if you're using a traditional cake pan. Let rest on cooling rack two minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the pan and flip cake out onto platter. Reposition any fruit that may have stuck to the bottom of the pan.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fish Fry

A week out, I'm still wishing we were back in Michigan. Michigan, I think to myself, where life is easy. I know it's the rose-colored glasses of vacation talking, of course, because vacation has a funny way of making you want to up and leave your real life. But I stand by it: Michigan is nice.

Should you find yourself in Ludington, Michigan, sometime between Memorial and Labor Day, you owe it to yourself to make a pit stop at Bortell's Fishery. We were lucky to be traveling with our friend Chad, who grew up just down the road from this place and who wisely steered our car there in time for a late lunch. Here at Bortell's you can get fish to go (fresh or smoked), but you can also order fish by the pound and wait while the owner, Kris Bortell, fries it up for you right then and there, just as the four generations of men before him have done. Take a minute to check out the black-and-white photos on the wall and it's almost as though time has stood still--the Bortell men all look remarkably similar, with blond hair, broad faces and strong shoulders.
We ordered a smorgasbord of smelt, perch and whitefish, all caught in Lake Michigan, took the whole fried lot of it out to a picnic table and then chowed down. My favorites were the smelt, which are headless but otherwise whole. Even though (in this case) it was a misnomer, I couldn't resist calling them by a name I saw on a San Francisco menu: Fries with eyes.

Was it sunnier in Michigan? Does Kris Bortell possess some kind of frying expertise no other cook has mastered? I doubt it. But somehow, that afternoon, everything seemed pretty close to perfect. Vacation will do that to you.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Shake it don't break it

I have been dutifully documenting meals and recipes these last many weeks, with plans to share lots of images and stories with you. Wholesome things, mostly, summer squash, farm eggs, raspberry lime rickeys. But let's face it, sometimes you just want the money shot. So that's what I'm going to bring you today. We just returned from a too-short trip to Michigan and have returned with a new motto: Michigan-who knew?

Who knew, for example, that Lake Michigan is like a salt- and shark-free ocean, with waves and tides? That heartlanders really are as nice as is reported? That Northern Michigan really is the cherry capital? Some of you surely did, but you were wise to keep it a secret. Otherwise, you'd never have the place to yourselves. But we crashed t
he party and I'm glad. Because if we hadn't, I wouldn't be able to tell you about the cherry shake at Don's Drive-in in Traverse City.

Don's cherry shake brings all the boys to the yard.

And though you might be able to guess at the sheer glory of good vanilla ice cream blended with ripe, just-picked Bing cherries, now you know for sure. Best of all? Don's offers a real, true small size, 10 ounces of creamy goodness that's just enough to satiate, but not so much it sickens. After all, I had a lot of research left to do to find the state's best tart cherry pie, so I couldn't let my appetite be hampered by too much cherry shake. If you happen to be in this part of the world during cherry season, make a bee-line to Don's (2030 N US Highway 31 N, Traverse City, MI 49686, 231-938-1860).