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No frosting, no ceremony

We left our window open last night, and when I woke up today, there was rain on the sill! I am wearing a scarf that I made! Let the hoarding of plums commence!

What I thought about saying next was, "The citrus is coming! The citrus is coming!" (In the privacy of my own head, I spout this kind of garbage the way Old Faithful does boiling water.) I decided against it, but during the thirty seconds when I was considering and then reconsidering, I remembered a walk I took with the dog a few weeks ago. A little boy down the street was having a birthday party, and from the skull-and-crossbones flags tied to the laurel hedge along the road, I gathered it was pirate-themed. There was some marauding role-playing going on in the yard as I passed by, lots of running and yelling, and from the other side of the hedge, I heard someone confess, "I don’t like to whip her, but I really need her to run fast, because the British are coming!"

Which would be alright with me, actually, because they make good plum cakes.

I’ve written about a lot of cakes over the years, but time and time again, the ones I return to are these: everyday cakes, no frosting, no ceremony. This particular example comes from Nigel Slater’s Tender, Volume II: A Cook’s Guide to the Fruit Garden, a tome if ever there was one. The thing weighs 3.8 pounds. I could probably spend a few years cooking only from Tender, and if anyone out there is looking for a project, well, my friend, there’s a whopper for you. The two volumes live on a special shelf next to my desk, and last week, that shelf was where I went when I found myself with several pounds of rapidly ripening plums from my friend Wynne at Jerzy Boyz Farm. We buy hundreds of pounds of fruit from her every year for the restaurant, and she’s taken to calling me "sweetie." She knows what I like.

Anyway, I had this box of plums, so I went to Nigel, and Nigel placed before me the words Pudding Cake of Honey, Cinnamon, and Plums. I think I could stop this post right here and you would know everything you need to know, but I will say just a little more, because as it turns out, this is going to be my new go-to cake. It’s a cinnamon spice cake with plums, and as the name implies, it’s dark and very tender - damp, as I once heard Nigella Lawson say. What’s particularly interesting is that it uses three kinds of sweetener: golden syrup, honey, and brown sugar. When I was making it, I was convinced that it was going to be a toothache-inducing mess, but I can now say with confidence: DON’T CHANGE A THING. The sweeteners each bring a different flavor, and together, they give the cake real depth and warmth. And the plums aren’t sweetened before they get dropped into the loose, caramel-colored batter, so they retain a nice sourness as they sink and soften.

This isn’t the kind of cake that you reserve for company; it’s a Tuesday-night sweet. It’s also a Wednesday-afternoon, coming-in-from-the-rain sweet. It is also, if you’re open to it, a totally reasonable breakfast. I don’t like to use the word perfect, because I am fickle, but I’ll say it here. I think this cake is perfect.

Happy fall.

P.S. I’ve fallen in love with the ease, speed, and accuracy of metric weight measurements, particularly in baking. From now on, the recipes I post here will use both cup and weight measures.

Nigel Slater’s Pudding Cake of Honey, Cinnamon, and Plums
Adapted from Tender, Volume II

My neighborhood grocery store carries golden syrup, and in general, I think it’s getting easier to find in the US every day. I usually keep a jar in the cabinet for making flapjacks. I didn’t have quite enough golden syrup for this cake recipe, so I added honey to make up the difference. Worked just fine.

2 cups (250 grams) all-purpose flour
1 slightly heaping teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 slightly heaping teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 pinches salt
2/3 cup (200 grams) golden syrup
2 Tbsp. honey
9 Tbsp. (125 grams) unsalted butter
¾ cup (125 grams) lightly packed brown sugar or light muscovado sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup (240 ml) milk
5 (350 grams) ripe plums, pitted and quartered

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease an 8- or 9-inch square baking dish, and line it with parchment paper. I like to cut the parchment so that it hangs over the edge of the pan: you can use it to help you lift the cake out later. There’s no need to grease the parchment.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. Whisk well.

In a saucepan, warm the golden syrup, honey, and butter over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. When the butter is melted, stir in the brown or muscovado sugar. Remove the pan from the heat, and set aside to cool for a minute or two.

Break the eggs into a medium bowl, add the milk, and whisk to mix.

Pour the golden syrup mixture into the flour mixture, and stir with a sturdy spoon until just combined. The batter will be very thick at this point. Pour in the egg mixture, and continue to stir – it will resist incorporation and look weird at first – until you have a loose, almost sloppy batter without any traces of flour.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and then arrange the plums on top. (They will sink.) Bake for 35 minutes; then place a piece of foil loosely over the top of the cake, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes more. The cake should look mostly set at this point, but it might still look the slightest bit soft in the center. That’s okay. Remove the piece of foil, turn off the oven, and leave the cake in there for another 15 minutes. Transfer to a rack. Cool for 20 minutes; then loosen the cake from the pan and lift it out onto the rack. Cool completely before slicing.

Note: This cake keeps beautifully at room temperature, and because it’s so incredibly moist, it’s actually best not to cover it too tightly, or else it can get gummy. So long as you eat it within 2 or 3 days, a piece of wax paper pressed against the cut surfaces is all you really need.

Yield: 8 servings - or maybe more.


Not a tomato sandwich

So, I turned 33 a couple of days ago. And Brandon, who was but a pup of 23 when I met him, turned 30 a few days before that. Thirty! The staff at Delancey wrote BRANDON TURNS OLD TODAY on the chalkboard and spelled out OLD BOSS in alphabet magnets on the ice machine. He told me that he hasn’t thought much about being in his thirties, but I think he secretly likes the idea. I’m on the fence sometimes, but mostly, I do too.

In any case, thank you for your patience. In my absence from this space, there was a return flight from Ohio, writing, more writing, payroll, a birthday cake, a big project for a friend, and a two-night birthday camping trip that featured an island, seals, jellyfish, porpoises, and a steak cooked over a campfire. I love you, Pacific Northwest! Though let’s not go too far: you could grow better corn. Ohio’s corn beats your corn black and blue.

We had our first rain in months yesterday, and at the markets, summer is clearly giving way to fall. But corn is still around, and Ohio-quality or not, I intend to eat as much of it as I can before I’m forcibly restricted to tubers, crucifers, and brassicas for the rest of the year. (Though I was looking at the brand-new Art of Eating Cookbook last night, and I found myself eagerly bookmarking every recipe that used the words winter squash or cabbage. Weird how that works.)

This time last year - actually, this very day last year! I just noticed that! Weird how THAT works - my friend Matthew and I did a Spilled Milk episode on corn, and Matthew made a spicy sauteed corn recipe that, for me, sort of stole the show. I’ve wanted to make it since corn first showed up this summer, but I got sidetracked by tomatoes and tomato sandwiches and more tomato sandwiches, and it was only today that I finally made the corn. With a few slices of sharp cheddar and some toast, it was the best lunch I’ve had in a long time. Or maybe I was just impressed that I had made something that was not a tomato sandwich.

I might have said it before, but I’ll say it again: Matthew is a terrific cook. I’ve eaten a lot of meals at his table, from carnitas to home-corned beef, Frito pie, green papaya salad, cucumber salad with Szechuan peppercorns, and cowboy beans, and he does it all well. His spicy sauteed corn is not fancy, but it reliably does what I wish every recipe would reliably do: take a few good ingredients and, without unnecessary fuss, make them even better. It makes very good corn taste excellent and so-so corn taste very good. Basically, you melt butter in a hot pan, and then you tip in some fresh corn kernels, minced jalapeno, and a couple of sliced scallions. You stir to coat them in that hot butter, and then you let them hang out, mostly, for the better part of ten minutes, until the corn begins to caramelize. You might notice that it smells like the State Fair, in a nice way. I cooked my corn today a little darker than Matthew does, and it smelled even more State Fair-y, which was kind of thrilling, though I think I like his better. Either way, when the corn is pleasantly browned, you throw in a splash of water and scrape up the tasty browned bits on the bottom of the pan, and they melt into a light glaze that covers the whole thing. Then you finish it with salt and a good amount of lime juice, and that’s it.

If it were my dish, I would call it Spicy Caramelized Corn, but Matthew calls it sauteed, and it’s his dish, so he wins. Whatever you call it, the corn is darkly sweet and sticky, and your lips burn from the heat of the jalapeno, and then the lime juice comes in kicking. It gets very hard to keep a fork out of. I can imagine eating it with almost any meat - or cheddar and toast. Or maybe tomorrow, a tomato sandwich.

P.S. I’m a guest at habit for the month of September, so come visit. I post there as “molly w.” a few times a week. I really love that site.

Matthew’s Spicy Sauteed Corn
Adapted slightly from Spilled Milk

I bought my corn late last week and didn’t have time to cook it before we went camping, so I cut it off the cob, spread it in a single layer on a sheet pan, and froze it. Then, before I cooked it today, I let it defrost in a colander for about 30 minutes, shaking the colander a couple of times. It worked very nicely, and based on that, I am happy to say that you don’t have to use fresh corn kernels for this recipe! You can make it at any time of year, with frozen corn. If it simplifies things, note that you will need 10 to 12 ounces of kernels for a single batch.

Also, I used a 10-inch cast-iron skillet here, but you can use whatever kind of skillet you have.

3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
Kernels from 3-4 ears fresh corn
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeds removed if desired, minced
2 Tbsp. water
1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice, plus lime wedges for serving

Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium-high until bubbling. Add the corn, scallions, and jalapeno, stirring to coat with butter. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the corn begins to brown and stick to the bottom of the pan, about 10 minutes. (You might hear some kernels popping toward the end.) Add the water and stir, scraping the bottom of the pan to dislodge any extremely delicious brown bits. When the water has boiled off, add salt to taste. Remove from the heat, and stir in the lime juice. Serve immediately, with additional lime wedges.

Yield: 4 side-dish servings