Food Journal: Buttermilk Caramel Cake

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This recipe was born of a need to use up excess whey. I didn’t think much of it, just your basic squishy cake, yet there was a lot of interest in this cake the other day when I posted it on Instagram, so I thought it garnered a post. This is an easy old-fashioned cake, large enough for bringing to a picnic or potluck, perfect to bring to a neighbor in need of comfort, or just good to have around for those cake-y cravings. It truly comes together in just a few minutes. It’s like a coffee cake, but bouncier in texture, as opposed to crumbier. Such a forgiving cake! If you only have one egg, use 1/4 cup applesauce instead, which is what I did for the one above. Whey or buttermilk are interchangeable. If you don’t have either, use milk with 2 tablespoons of white vinegar in it. Or half yogurt mixed with half milk. Let me know how it comes out! I’ve made it only twice, so I’d love to hear what you changed or tweaked!

Buttermilk Caramel Cake

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a glass 8×12 pan well. (9×13 will work as well, maybe better! I am a thrift store shopper, and all my pans are weird sizes…) 

3 cups of all purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup brown sugar (or half white/half brown)

2 eggs

2 cups of buttermilk or whey

1/2 cup of oil (I use safflower)

2 teaspoons of vanilla extract

1/4 to 1/3 cup caramel sauce (the only non-pantry item in here, you can absolutely leave this out. Of course, then it will not be a buttermilk caramel cake, but just a buttermilk cake.)

Put all dry ingredients into a bowl. Whisk up wet ingredients in a separate bowl. Pour the wet into the dry. Mix thoroughly, but don’t over mix. Pour half the mixture into the prepared pan. Then, using a spoon or measuring cup, drizzle caramel sauce throughout. Add the rest of the batter on top, and finish with another layer of caramel sauce. I do lines back in forth both ways, and it ends up like a plaid splattered Jackson Pollack look. If you leave big splotches of caramel sauce it will open the cake up as it bakes, but thin drizzles will make a cool pattern. Bake for forty minutes. It will be a little gooey on top in the center. If it’s really sticky, cover it with tinfoil and bake another five or ten minutes. It might still look a tiny bit sticky and unbaked in the very center, but it should set as it cools.

 

 

Field Notes: The End of May

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We have officially transitioned from early spring to late spring, though the change has been a bumpy one. There have been sweltering hot days offset by chill and damp ones. Not quite a normal spring. One of the more noticeable signs for me is that the big old dogwood behind the shed out back has lost all of its cream-colored petals and has fully leafed out. Every morning in the blue pre-dawn light I would marvel at its cascading flowers glowing brightly. The lush grass and budding trees and bushes would remain crepuscular and mysterious, but the dogwood would be alive and kicking, no pre-dawn twilight could keep it down. Now it’s back to its behind-the-scenes modesty, just simply being a tree behind the shed, its moment of fame evaporated into the ether.

Another sure sign of late spring’s arrival is the end of morel season. But boy what a season! I think everyone found a morel this year. I have read that it was a once-in-a-ten-year explosion. I haven’t been seriously looking for that long, so I wouldn’t know. I have been aware of the morel mystery for a long time though, even wrote a short story about them over ten years ago. Back then I thought I’d never find one, but now I know how hard you have to look. This year I found them all over. Friends gave me some! People who don’t even look found them in the weirdest places. Popping out of gravel and sidewalks! Under a line of spruces between two driveways! These are all anomalous places compared to the general rule of dying elms, ashes and abandoned apple orchards. But morels are nothing if not anomalous, in my opinion.

This year, I found them under every one of these types of trees. It was an exciting time, and I feel now as if I had been swept up in a weird wave. Every spare moment was given to exploring possible sites. All my free thinking time was spent wondering where I would go next. Frankly, this obsession is exhausting, and I’m rather glad it’s done! Now when I walk I’m back to my thoughts, instead of wondering where the morels are. Is it like a crush? Although I found several different spots, I picked only a few from each patch. I have a rule that if there are only a few I don’t take any. And when there are a good ten or so, I’ll take about half. It’s not that they are endangered, it’s just the general etiquette. I dehydrated some, and the rest I ate sautéed in a good amount of butter, cooking them thoroughly, served on a good piece of sourdough toast. Did you know that you have to cook morels thoroughly? All wild mushrooms really. And some folks can have a bad reaction to them even after having them with no prior upset before. Always be careful when eating wild mushrooms.

Now my obsession is turned towards the garden, as the still-green strawberries fatten up  and tomatoes are finally planted in the garden. I direct sow most of my garden, but I always buy tomatoes plants. I just don’t have the patience to start them myself. The past few years I have been buying them at the Northern Dutchess Botanical Garden–organic seedlings, great selection and only $1.49 a pop. There are so many great local sales to visit, but it can get crowded and expensive. I bought two Opalkas, which was last year’s winner, a paste variety that is equally delicious canned or sliced for the table. Other tomatoes: Sun Golds, Early Girls, Paul Robeson, Black Krim, Pineapple Beefsteak, and Principe de Borghese, among a few other randoms. The planting of the tomatoes is so filled with hope and desire, adequately taking over the obsession of the morels.

 

Random Notes: Now that the summer is here, I will have less time to be prolific here so I’ve decided to do one post a week, alternating Field Notes with my Kitchen Journal posts. I hope you’ll stick around! Stay tuned on Instagram for almost daily posts…

Roasted Radishes

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Do you, like me, have a hard time thinning your radish seedlings and end up with a lot of radishes that are more greens than actual radishes? Then you will want to give this idea a go. It’s been a very crisp and cold spring here so roasting seemed a natural. I am guessing that when it turns 90 degrees on Thursday I won’t want to roast vegetables anymore, but for those cold days in between this has been a really perfect snack.

I know roasted radishes are a thing, but I wondered about the greens. I was staring at a pile of teeny tiny radishes with lots of greens attached and wondered how to eat it all. The radishes were very tiny and super hot. Not enough to pickle. Too spicy to eat raw. I get bored with making pesto out of everything green, and radish greens can be a little bit tough and sometimes even a little fuzzy. But do this: apply some olive oil, sea salt and 350 degrees of heat for about ten minutes and you will have a crispy and delicious pile of radish green chips attached to some delectable little radishes that have softened and sweetened. I highly recommend having this alongside roasted fennel and a small glass of soda water with a splash of aperol and blood orange juice.

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Roasted Rhubarb Custard

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It’s rhubarb time! This year the stalks have been looking so thin that I was wary to harvest. Why was my rhubarb was so spindly? Lots of stalks, but all of them are skinny and spindly, not huge and robust as they have been in the past. When I look it up there are two competing ideas on this–either the plant has too little food or that it needs to be divided. I’ve had these plants over five years, and I have divided them. So could it be that they need some food? I plan to give them the rest of last year’s compost, and we’ll see what happens. In the meantime, I harvested a small bunch. I’m the only rhubarb lover in the house so what to make would be my decision entirely. My favorite is rhubarb custard pie, but I was feeling lazy about making a pie crust. A light bulb went off above my head: why not just make the custard? And so here it is: simple and luscious, served with mascarpone it makes an elegant dessert, and served with some thick freshly-drained yogurt it makes a perfect breakfast. You may eat it throughout the day. I did!

Roasted Rhubarb Custard

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a glass dish. I mean generously!

1 pound of rhubarb

2 large eggs

3/4 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

Cut the rhubarb how you see fit. Arrange it artfully in the prepared glass pan. Beat the eggs, sugar and salt until foamy and bright yellow. Pour this mixture over the arranged rhubarb. Bake until set, about 15 to 20 minutes. It will puff up and be golden. If you forget about it, and let it go too long, the custard will separate. It’ll still taste good though! (That’s what happened to me!)

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Field Notes: May Mornings

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I love the fuzzy interstice between waking and sleeping. I love how my eyes adjust to being awake, and my mind has to also adjust its focus, the soft edges slowly sharpening. I hate putting the light on too quickly because it forces everything to sharpen up too quickly. I love trying to find the shards of my dream life. And then to recall what I was thinking before I went to sleep. I wake up around 5 or 5:30, and I love how everything looks outside from inside the dark house, especially now that spring is here. Winter can look so bleak, but spring has a sense of lush mystery about it. The promise of it is palpable. Lately the mornings have been foggy and veiled and all one color, but who knows what that color is? Not gray, not green, not brown. It’s so muted.

Every detail seems so beautiful in this predawn light. It looks magical and unreal to me: the cascade of white dogwood flowers glowing brightly, and the seemingly mirrored glow from the white violets that profusely dot the thick luxurious lawn that I really don’t want to mow. But there are ticks to think about, and the lawn must be mowed. The birds are always just starting up their chatter when I wake up, and we’ve had some chilly mornings with the windows all fully closed, but I can still hear them. A fat squirrel bounds on the stump outside the kitchen window, and seems to look in and say hello. A robin later on takes a turn looking in the window at us. Turkeys and pileated woodpeckers are more wary and as soon as they see movement, they’re gone. The other morning there was a tom turkey down the hill strutting about with his tail feathers on display, and it took me a few times to figure out what it was in the gloomy light, as generally turkeys have a sleek and slender profile. They look so different once they puff up like that!

By about six o’clock the sun will start to shine on the surrounding ridges, giving them a peachy glow. That is if we are lucky to have sun. On the cloudy days, and rainy days, which have been the rule lately, things get more solid but the soft edges remain. I love to walk the circumference of our three acres at this early time, no one is up, and on a Saturday the cars are few. The stream that runs into the pond is rushing, everything is still covered with pearls of yesterday’s rain. Everything is wet and heavy, slowly waking up just like me, as the fog burns off.

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Meatless Monday Rice Bake

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I do love a glossy cookbook filled with lovely recipes and photos of them. They are nice to page through, though I find I don’t go back to them. The books I go to the most are simple books chock full of recipes with nary a photo. Maybe some illustrations. Maybe. Right now I’m reading one of those books. It’s called Feast for a Farthing by Molly Finn. I have it on loan from the library–I do think she would approve of that, though it would be a good book to own! It was in a bibliography from another fine book by Peter G. Rose, Foods of the Hudson, also no illustrations. It’s not that I’m against photos, (quite the contrary obviously, if you follow me on Instagram) but it’s not the main reason I like a book.

I like unfussy cookbooks, and that includes the recipes. Perhaps I’m alone in this love for text-heavy detail-free recipe books? I just read this article (h/t to Dianne Jacobs for passing it along), which talks about how the new trend in cookbooks is the story behind them. I do like those books as well, indeed, as a cookbook hoarder, I love them all. But the ones I use daily for reference are those simple ones with nothing but quick text describing a meal. I love that. I might add it’s how I best like to share a recipe, too. Like the following one for a bubbly rice casserole, or bake as they are often referred to. A quick and hearty meal using the extras in the fridge and pantry. My favorite thing!

Here it is in a nutshell: do you have a quart of a creamy butternut squash soup to use up? Sauté some diced onion and garlic in a dutch oven, add a healthy cup of uncooked white rice to toast up, then add a quart of creamy soup, a spoonful of wild greens salsa verde for flavor, some salt and pepper, and about a half cup of parmesan cheese shreds. Once it is bubbly, cover it, and put it in the oven at 350 for about 15 minutes. When the time is up, pull the pot from the oven and stir it up. Add some more cheese in, if you are so inclined, and cover it. Let it sit for five to ten minutes. There: dinner. Approach it like risotto, but it is so much quicker and easier. Serve with a side of sautéed greens.

[Pro tip: if there are any leftovers, sauté in a pan either in small pancake shapes, or one large cake. To cook the other side, invert and use a plate to flip it over.]

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Field Notes: April’s Farewell

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Even the side of the road is a pleasure to see.

The green continues to seep in the landscape, and I want it to linger a little where it is. I don’t want it to come on so fast. Isn’t that just like life? We want things to stay for a little bit. I walk around deeply filling my lungs with air, deep and heady with damp showers and the scent of dirt, molds and wet leaves. Also, lightly, delicately, there are the intoxicating scents of lily of the valley and lilac, both just starting to bloom. Each time I look out the window the green is more startling. Its vibrancy is shocking. Can things be this lush?

The way the maples leaf out is fascinating, and I am sure I look crazy as I stumble around my yard looking up at the trees. Now that I’m tapping them I am really making note of the sugars and the reds and the silvers, realizing how different they all are. The sugar maples shine a glorious chartreuse, their flowers stringy, like green chandaliers. As the leaves begin to form they start to look like tiny jellyfish. The red maples go from red and gold pompoms to spider like leaves that will soon reach up and out to the sun. The silver seems to be the quickest to leaf, but it’s also in the sunniest spot, its deeply lobed leaves stretch like spidery fingers.

I’ve been prowling my morel mushroom spots, and I have come to the realization that it’s a long term affair. It’s years in the making. It requires some obsession. On the online pages I frequent, especially the local mycology page, people post pictures of their treasures. Of course, I am jealous, because mine have not yet come up. It brings out something fierce in me, something obsessive: I must have that. I’ll be honest and say that it’s not the prettiest feeling, and I try to rein it in. Still, I go looking more and more. The other day I visited a reliable spot and found nothing. I continued to look in larger radius, enjoying walking below the bower of the apple trees I hunted in, listening to the bees buzzing above, drinking from the just-opened blossoms. From a distance, I saw it: a conical head popping up from the ground. Several little half-free morels were clustered around, and I was so glad to see them! They were my first morchella semilibera find, so it was a thrill.

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Apple blossoms.

Yesterday was a true banner spring day—no longer early, tentative spring, but bounding, luxurious, full-on spring. Warm in the sun, a casual breeze at points, with no teeth, just soft and gentle ruffle-your-hair kind of breeze. Getting out of my car after grocery shopping, I was astounded: there it was! Shade! Shade is a shock when you haven’t seen it for months, and then it’s just there as if it never was gone. We take shade for granted, so I always like to welcome it back. Yes, we herald the leaves unfurling, but the shade it creates is a treasure for all of us. Looking up, the trees bend and sway in the gentle breeze, and they seem to feel like I feel, just going with it, deliciously.

We went down to the river in the afternoon, and my son got his feet wet—one of his favorite things. I sat on the shore on a make shift bench someone had cobbled together out of two stumps and an old picnic table slat, the brown paint peeling from a stint in the river. The shore was covered with invasive ornamental water chestnuts, locally called “cow heads,” or devil pods, as we like to call them. I stared out at the Esopus lighthouse, the waves of the river in high tide rippling and glowing blue, hypnotizing me with their movement, cumulus clouds rising up over the horizon of the East shore in Dutchess county. When this weather hits us, it can pack a wallop. It’s beauty is heady and strong, and I felt in a daze from it all.

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The Hudson River and the Esopus Lighthouse, looking east.

Staying Hungry

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