November grumbled in, arriving like a grouchy old man determined to spread his gloom and misery, gray and rainy, damp and cold. But this morning, one week in, pinpricks of light spread elegantly throughout the city, pink and glowing, the promise of autumn whispered. By mid-morning the sun was blazing, offering the kiss of warmth as we welcomed the season’s chill, the exciting chill reminiscent of pumpkins, apples and pears, the nostalgic chill of campfires and new winter coats. A whiff of approaching holidays gladdens, the excitement of children as we bundle up and stand outside, hands buried deep down in pockets, as the dog scoots through the heaps of golden leaves that have gathered in the corners of the steps in front of our new home.
And then I turn on the television. American news, British news, French news, images hurtle and flit across the screen of the destruction of Sandy, winds and rain sweeping across the eastern states, newly fallen snow, already an unwelcoming sooty black, sitting atop drifts of broken wood and plastic and bits of people’s homes. I shiver and wrap my arms tightly around myself as I think of friends and strangers in that place I love sitting comfortless and cold even inside their homes. I am here warm and cozy, my refrigerator humming softly, happy little dog curled up at my feet and I think of those in other circumstances, tearfully, impatiently waiting for lights to flicker on, gas burners to rumble to a start.
I grew up in a hurricane zone. Maybe, back then, the only hurricane zone in the States. Our family home was built on sand by a hopeful generation, halfway between ocean and river on a long, narrow stretch of land, barely a mile wide in our small town. With each gathering storm somewhere off in the Atlantic, dad, and all the dads in the city, would begin the long, careful process of preparation: band after band of heavy duty masking tape would be stretched back and forth, up and down across plate glass windows, tremendous squares of plywood would be nailed to other panes, everything that could be lifted and shifted would be moved indoors while everything else would be battened down with cord and plastic sheeting as best as could be. Plants would be covered, trees shaky on their roots may have been taken out as a prevention measure. And as the storm approached we gathered, huddled inside, praying that the eye of the great storm would shift away from us at the last minute, before it was too late for our tiny, vulnerable stretch of Florida.
The beach in the distance.
The hurricane of 1964 left its mark in the corner bedroom I shared with my sister, water stains on the terrazzo flooring where the hurricane had lifted up our home and seeped in. 1972, if my memory serves, saw the first forced evacuation I can remember. After securing the house as best as we could, we piled into the family station wagon, pushing in one terrified English setter, food for a few days and grabbing as many valued belongings as allowed and joined the slow exodus across the bridge to the mainland where we set up camp in the offices where mom worked. It was terrifying and exciting, as the wind grew stronger, the building shook and shuddered, four kids dashing breathlessly out into the eerily perfect calm of the eye as it slowly passed over us before experiencing the other half of the wild, angry tempest. And then returning home a day or two later once the clear signal was given, making the slow exodus home now amid fallen trees and broken objects strewn from one end of the city to the other. Four kids in awe at the power of nature.
The Little House in the Hurricane Zone.
The days and weeks that followed saw the city band together for the great clean up. Trees blocking roads were hauled away while cherry pickers lifted men bedecked in yellow vests and hardhats aloft to remove loose branches. Citizens and city workers alike would join forces to sandbag – or re-sandbag as the case may be – the dunes between the wild waves and the teetering beachfront condominiums. We do eventually get back to normal after each great storm, but a normalcy forever changed, affected as it now was and is by the knowledge of that mysterious force of Mother Nature.
My friends Jenn of Jenn Cuisine and Barb of Creative Culinary have created an event to help raise awareness of the plight of Hurricane Sandy victims in the Northeastern United States. I now join them in asking all of my blogging friends to share dishes of comfort and, more importantly, to donate to one of the many organizations that are helping those suffering, those without power, without food and water, and those that had to be evacuated because of the further storms, the snow and the Nor’easter that followed Sandy. There are too many people that will need assistance for weeks to come. Every dollar sent to one of those organizations will do much good.
Some of the larger organizations that are taking donations include:
• Red Cross is providing food, shelter, and other forms of support to hurricane victims. You can donate directly to the Red Cross, you can also text the word “Redcross” to 90999 to make a $10 donation.
• Salvation Army is also focused on providing food, shelter, and support to victims, and takes donations to storm relief.
• Feeding America is providing food, water and supplies to those who need it as part of their disaster relief program.
Needing the comfort of something warm and redolent of autumn after the stress, worry and physical and mental labors and exhaustion of three solid months of renovations and the move – not to mention an emotional Presidential election - I decided to put my new oven to the test and bake. Knowing the comfort of the season’s best apples, understanding that offering a slice of cake not long out of the oven accompanied by a cup of tea or a mug of milky coffee is healing, a sincere offering from the heart, I so desired to bake a beautiful apple cake with a hint of cinnamon and the earthiness of nuts. I gently sautéed slices of la Reine des Reinettes, my favorite baking apple, sweet and tart, meltingly smooth while holding its shape, in butter, adding a dash of cinnamon and a splash of maple syrup, then paired them with a wonderful pound cake heavy on the ground almonds. The French would call this a Moelleux, a tender, moist cake and that describes it just so. The apples added a necessary, in my opinion, fruity sweetness to a nutty, not-too-sugary, not-too-gooey cake, creating the perfect treat for breakfast, snack time or teatime. Comfort food, indeed.
As autumn rushes into winter, we gather in the comfort of our own homes and stare out at the mad, changing weather. We wait for each burst of sunshine, that magical brilliance that sings of life, a glorious harbinger of the coming holiday season. We settle into our new apartment, not quite unpacked but already back to work and normalcy, whatever normalcy is. I have set up shop and am trying to catch up, get back into the swing of things. Our new Plate to Page website is up and running and beautiful and we have new guests posts lined up by the best in the business: food writers, teachers, stylists and photographers who share their visions and advice on the trade. We are already organizing our next workshop which will be held in Ireland just outside of Dublin in May, an even better workshop than ever! Pre-registration is open to one and all. And I am working like a busy bee on my own writing and great news is just around the corner.
MOIST APPLE ALMOND CAKE WITH CINNAMON
Based on a recipe from French Saveurs Oct – Nov 2012 issue
3 - 4 small cooking apples (I love Reine des Reinettes)
1 Tbs butter
1 – 2 tsps maple syrup or brown sugar
1 Tbs or so slivered almonds, optional, for decoration
200 g granulated sugar
200 g butter, softened to room temperature
3 large eggs
¾ tsp vanilla
140 g flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
180 g finely ground almonds or hazelnuts
½ tsp ground cinnamon + more for apples
Squeeze of lemon, optional
Peel, core and slice into quarter-inch-thick slices the 3 small apples. Heat about a tablespoon of butter in a skillet and add the apple slices when it melts and begins to sizzle. Toss the slices to coat and cook over low heat until softened. If you like, add a splash of maple syrup (or brown sugar) and a sprinkle of ground cinnamon, stir and continue cooking for a minute or so. The apple slices should be soft yet still hold their shape. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
Butter and flour a fluted tube pan 8 ½- or 9-inch in diameter (22-cm) and about 3 ½-inch high (9-cm) or similar. Once the apples are cool enough to handle, dust a tablespoon or so of slivered almonds into the grooves of the prepared cake mold then place slices of cooked apple in the grooves and a second layer of slices on top of the first. The apple slices should be in a nice even circle around the base of the mold.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
In a large mixing bowl, beat the softened butter with the sugar until well blended, light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating just to blend after each addition. Beat in the vanilla with the last egg.
Stir the baking powder, salt and ground cinnamon into the flour and add to the batter and beat on low just to blend. Beat in the ground almonds. Chop the remaining cooked apple slices coarsely if needed and fold into the batter with a spatula, making sure all of the ingredients are well blended. If desired, squeeze about a tablespoon of fresh lemon juice into the batter and stir or fold to blend. Alternately, fold in the finely grated zest of a lemon.
Carefully spoon the thick batter into the mold on top of the apple slices, trying not to disturb the apple slices. Once all of the batter has been scraped out of the bowl and spooned into the cake mold all around the tube, very gently just smooth it a bit so it is evenly spread around.
Bake the cake in the preheated oven for 45 to 50 minutes or until the cake is risen, the top golden brown and crusty and the cake feels firm and springs back when gently pressed; a tester inserted in the cake will come out clean.
Remove the cake pan to a cooling rack and allow to cool in the pan for about 15 minutes or so. Turn out onto a serving platter, apple side up and serve slightly warm or at room temperature. You can lightly dust the cake with powdered/confectioner’s sugar and, if serving for dessert, this cake will go well with a scoop of salted butter caramel ice cream.