The holiday season can be a little bit of a minefield, especially in a place where everyone is a good cook and many are great cooks. Let me tell you what I mean.
Early December brought an invitation from my friends Matt and Robin to a solstice party they would host. Their events are always wonderful, and I was warmed to have been included — until I saw the ticking bomb at the end: I could bring a dessert.
Until he decided to get all selfish and have a life, Matt presided over his local gathering spot, the Big Chimney Bakery. I could empty the arsenal of superlatives and still fall short of describing the good things he made. Of his eclairs I thought: if I knew that eating one would result in an instant and fatal heart attack, I’d eat it anyway. That gives you an idea.
Make dessert — heavens, bake! — for people who are accustomed to such fare? Right. And then I’ll play banjo for Jens Krüger and email Tiger Woods a golf tip.
Panicked, I phoned my friend back East, with whom as coincidence would have it I have recently been working on a cookbook. I can cook somewhat; I can make some things that are really good and some things that do not require immediate hospitalization, but she is comfortable in the entire kitchen. To the extent that she upped the ante by deciding that I would make something using only ingredients I already had. I did not have many much, but we came close; I lacked only baking powder. (It would turn out also that the apples would better have been described as former apples.)
She spoke to her mother in Brooklyn and called back with a recipe.
And I chickened out. Got a chocolate polenta cake — much, much better than it sounds — at Village Bakery. But I shouldn’t have. I prepared the recipe for the gang at Fur Peace Ranch. It turned out far better than anything I bake ever should. People actually spoke of it without averting their eyes.
There is a point to this. Anything that I can bake that turns out this well just has to be passed along. And it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge just this once that something good can come from New York City. No, this is not going to become a recipe column. But here is the plan for something really good. I don’t know what to call it, so you may name it yourself.
Core and peel the apples and slice them as thinly as you can. Mix the wet ingredients and the dry ingredients separately, then combine them. The result will be so thick you’re sure you did something wrong. You didn’t. Fold in the apples, making sure they’re evenly spread in the batter. Pour the batter into a heavily greased glass 8×8 baking dish and bake at 350 degrees for an hour. Stick in a toothpick after 55 minutes; if it comes out clean you can put it back and nobody will know. (Okay, I made that up. If it comes out clean it means the cake is done.) Let it cook, lightly covered, for a long time because it takes a long time to cool. You can turn it out of the dish after it is completely cooled, but you can also serve it from the dish, cornbread-style. The recipe can be doubled.
This is easy, and it works, and the results are gratifying. I shall never fear an invitation again.
Here’s another festive holiday tip. Some years ago it happened that I was in Kuwait, where hospitality involves the offer (and acceptance) of a kind of coffee made with unroasted coffee beans and cardamom pods. Once you’ve had it you yearn for it, even years later. There is a whole ritual around it, but here is a shortcut. Go to the international food store on East State Street and get, from back in the far corner, a bag of little green cardamom pods (not the big black ones, which are suitable primarily for the preparation of VapoRub-like poultices).
Smash up a few of these and throw them in with the grounds when you make coffee. It makes the house smell wonderful, and the coffee is different but really good.
And with that, have a rich and meaningful Christmas, and never forget how good it is to live here, especially if “here” is out in the country.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at email@example.com.