Over the past several days I have been noticing that retailers — both on line and off — are trying to use what may turn out to be one of the hottest summers on record to their advantage. The other day while channel surfing I happened upon a show on QVC devoted solely to Christmas trees and wreaths. The show’s title (you guessed it) was Christmas In July. Well heck, these folks don’t trade in subtlety, they trade in cubic zirconia.
Can you blame them for trying? The thought of the holiday season may have a cooling effect on some folks, others will be enticed to start their shopping early, and still others — like me — watch in amusement from the artificial winter of my air conditioned living room.
As I sat watching the various ways you can adjust the trees to flash their twinkling lights, my air conditioner faithfully fighting off Mother Nature’s sticky panting, I thought of the song “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” most notably the line that beckons, “Oh bring us a figgy pudding.” (I would think of food.)
Wait. Did I think of the song or was it playing in the background as the host of the show demonstrated how the remote control on the battery powered wreath works?
No matter: it put the thought of figs in my mind. Fresh figs, happily, are actually in season during the summer months, unlike the PVC wreaths flashing their LED lights in tempo to “Jingle Bells.”
I love Christmas and the entire holiday season, but I hew to a different vocabulary of tastes during the summer months: a better way of putting it would be to say “a time and a taste for everything.” (Sounds like a T shirt slogan. On sale in the lobby gift shop.)
During the summer I gravitate towards lighter foods, and things with brighter, fresher flavors. That does not mean that cake is out of the question. In fact when the thought of figs came to mind so did an old recipe of mine, one that I’ve been anxious to revisit for quite a while. It’s the first recipe I ever wrote that got published. Make that ghost-published.
You see, I have a friend who spends a great deal of time away from New York, so when he’s in town we always try to get together and catch up. Usually this involves gabbing in a Chinese restaurant until the staff makes it abundantly clear that they’d like us to leave. One time a few years ago he came over for coffee and cake.
He liked the cake so much that he asked for the recipe. A while later, with my permission, he volunteered the recipe for a book that was sold for charity, adding an amusing back-story that bore no relation to the truth. Did I care? No! I had published my first recipe. (I have no idea how well the book sold.)
The funny thing is that when I baked the cake I faced a kitchen with dwindling supplies, including – uh-oh – not enough sugar.
So, winging it with whatever I had in the cupboard, I came up with an adaptation of a basic Italian Olive Oil cake recipe that was satisfyingly plain. Don’t confuse plain with boring, because the cake was flavorful, moist, and had an unexpectedly hearty crumb. (Is using the term “crumb” a little high-falutin’? Apologies. It sounds like we’re having a cake tasting the way folks have wine tastings, but instead of comparing bouquets we’re comparing crumbs. A slippery slope. I promise to use caution.)
Some people hear the words “olive oil” and “cake” in the same sentence and get a little worried. If you’ve cooked with olive oil you know it usually has a scent that ranges from grassy green to turpentine. In salads or cooking that’s usually not a problem; in chocolate chip cookies this could be objectionable. But with the right cohorts olive oil can be a welcome addition to the sweet part of the meal.
Just like when you’re making chicken, a touch of lemon is compatible with olive oil. Maple syrup lends a bit caramel, and vanilla adds…well, vanilla.
The real difference is using semolina flour. This adds a texture, color, and a slightly sweeter grain flavor than plain flour. The result is like a big, moist corn muffin with hints of undecipherable influences. It’s good cake, and I thought, perfect for a re-visit, fresh figs in hand.
The figs I found were just on the cusp of going past their prime, so I carefully diced them (a serrated knife helped), and gently folded them into the batter. For a touch of crunch I sprinkled Demerara sugar on top before baking, the large sugar crystals lending a touch of molasses crunch to the finished cake. The figs dissolved slightly into the finished cake, but not enough that the little pop-pop-pop of their seeds – a la “Fig Newtons”—was lost. Their gentle honey flavor mellowed a bit, mixing beautifully with the other sweet ingredients. It all sounds kind of icky sweet, but in truth, not so much. Mellow is the best adjective here.
A perfect light summer dessert, yes, but not a bad choice with coffee, even for breakfast.
And this time the recipe’s all mine. No ghosts.
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