Archive for the ‘Pumpkin’ Category

Is that sand between my toes or are you happy to see me?

Banana Walnut Bread

Banana Walnut Bread

I’ve decided to build an iPhone app that will help people answer the question, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” The twist—the gimmick—will be that you can’t write a word until Summer has receded into memory, your flip-flops have been thrown under the bed for the winter, and you can’t leave the toasty warmth of your kitchen without wearing something made of wool.  Yes, friends, this will be “The Procrastinator’s Guide to Summer Scrap Booking.”

I’m sure I’ll get around to this…eventually.

Following that general timeline, I’m just getting around to jotting down a few poetic thoughts about what came out of my kitchen during the warm weather. Hint: I could fit these thoughts on a cheap postcard of Ocean Grove, New Jersey.  Why Ocean Grove?  It’s a really nice summer place, but I’m scared to go there because John Quinones and the crew from ABC’S “What Would You Do?” keep popping up, documenting people’s bad behavior. Hey, I’m an angel, but with the wrong editing I may come off badly. And as Nora Ephron said, “Lighting is everything.”

But I digress…

The kitchen of my expansive New York City apartment (with views of Central Park, the Hudson AND East Rivers—framed) gets very hot during the summer. I find it interesting that something grown in tropical climates, the common household Banana, cannot survive a 90-degree New York City apartment kitchen without becoming the botanical equivalent of road kill.  Yet, stored in the refrigerator they begin to resemble the pods from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.

Predictably, I gave in to the common solution of using dying bananas to make Banana Walnut Bread.  I used the recipe in Craig Claiborne’s version of “The New York Times Cookbook” which dates back to 1961.  As with most things from that era, it has a bit more charm (hello), although this is due to Claiborne having called it, “Banana Tea Bread”.  That name conjures up the vibe of a different era, but I don’t own a tea service or a doily, so this Banana Walnut Bread—with canola oil replacing the recipe’s shortening—was purely a weekend snack.  Toasted, then topped with a little cream cheese, it also made a really good high carb pre-workout breakfast. (I make no claims about this being health food, but it certainly is wholesome.) Using Canola Oil means you can eat it straight from the fridge without it being like a big, cold, brick, but toasting it brings out its earth tones.

Pumpkin Blondies

Pumpkin Blondies

A few weeks ago, one of my treasured yoga teachers, Kyle Miller, decamped to Los Angeles.  All of my teachers are amazing, but yoga seems to waft from Kyle’s pores like the scent of patchouli from a burning incense stick.  I started practicing yoga at a fairly late stage in life, and am about as flexible and graceful as a “two by four”, so I consider myself lucky to have had someone as skilled, enthusiastic, and spiritual as Kyle to get me enthusiastic about returning to the mat.  Kyle has teamed up with some colleagues to start a business called Yoga for Bad People.  I hope someday she’ll return to New York and start “Yoga for Good People who are Bad at Yoga”.  I’ll be there.

Kyle’s final New York class was a packed, emotional (and sweaty) treat to attend. She is beloved. My Bon Voyage gift to her was a short stack of Pumpkin Blondies. I was hoping that the pumpkin and maple flavors would give her a little taste of the Northeast to savor in Sunny LA.  These were based on a simple Blondie recipe I found on line; the pumpkin, maple syrup, and chocolate chunks were my addition. (I struggle when it comes to making things without chocolate. The Banana Walnut Bread mentioned above almost succumbed.)

Mixed Berry Crisp with Pistachio Crumb topping

Mixed Berry Crisp with Pistachio Crumb topping

This past summer I found myself craving the delicate richness of home-made ice cream…often.  Perhaps too often. My excuse was that I was experimenting with using the same base to make different flavors.  Really. It was for the greater good. My favorite flavor remains Peppermint Stick. I tried adding chocolate to it, but the chocolate gets too cold, which blunts its flavor. I had better results adding finely chopped chocolate to the top of the scooped ice cream.

To accompany one particularly silky batch of Vanilla Bean, I made very simple, little Berry Crisps.  These make suitable baking subjects during the hot weather because the berries are (relatively) cheap and plentiful, and because you can throw them in the oven and retreat to the air conditioning while they bake.  The zaftig smoothness of the ice cream cuts the spiky, almost vinegary sweetness of the berries.  And the cold / hot “thing” is my second most favorite food juxtaposition, after “salty / sweet”.  So, there may have been the odd salted pistachio in the crumb topping.

A Child’s Thanksgiving in wails

Pumpkin Chocolate Cloverleaf Rolls

Pumpkin Chocolate Cloverleaf Rolls…boom

My sister Fran is a poopie-head. That is my honest, adult, unvarnished, truthful, insightful, well thought out appraisal of this thoroughly disappointing woman. Think George C. Scott as General Patton crossed with Glen Close as Cruella de Vil. Add maybe a sneeze or two of Susan Hayward in “I Want to Live!” There ya go.


In true American tradition I will be sitting at Frau Fran’s table this holiday eating her Turkey. She, in turn, will throw that in my and my other siblings’ faces forever. This is a delicate game of checks and balances. Yet, as dreadful as I have made the day sound, it is not without its rewards. I do love the meal. I have offered to host the meal myself many times but La Reina (another of my nicknames for Fran) insists—INSISTS—on hosting it. As with so many other things we have to do as a family, she bullies, coddles, bribes, threatens, and pouts until she gets her way. There have been years when I have been tempted to “call in sick” but my Mother won’t hear of it.

It is hard for Fran. Life hasn’t been easy. She married a man who was born without a brain, so she has had to think for two for nigh onto thirty years. (My Aunt Polly insists that Fran’s husband was also born without a spine, but that’s a whole other slice of pie.)

Clearly the parsnips won’t be the only bitter thing at the table this holiday. Yet, if you think about it, is there a better day for families to gather around their collective grievances than one on which they can drown said grievances in a big meal and a fat tanker-sized glass of moderately priced wine? I think not. You can keep your one hundred fifty dollars an hour family therapists. Bury your heartache under a pile of Ritz cracker stuffing, that’s what I say.

And speaking of football…

Over the years we lesser siblings who orbit Planet Fran like so many Moons have developed our own quiet rebellion—strictly sub-rosa but nonetheless well organized and quite virulent. The red wine stains on Fran’s favorite damask tablecloth? An accident, I assure you. The fact that every year Molly, Fran’s Cocker Spaniel, has an “accident” on the white living room rug? Chalk it up to the excitement of the day. (Hint: In those long-ago TV commercials Andy Griffin used to say, “Everything sits good on a Ritz.” Unfortunately Ritz don’t sit so good on Molly’s tummy. Good GIRL!)

No, Fran for All Seasons doesn’t stand in her kitchen for days on end cooking the big meal. She buys all of it pre-cooked, including the turkey, which she reanimates in her Magic Chef. What she fails to realize is that this reduces her martyrdom by a large factor. She doles out the money to Larry (that’s Mr. Fran) who then gets to pretend that he is the hunter / gatherer / breadwinner / head of the family by schlepping around town gathering the catered items in The Mercedes That Time Forgot.

Fran of a thousand faces has a knack for ordering good food—I’ll give her that—which is a surprise considering her sustenance is usually derived from a freezer full of Lean Cuisine. There was one disastrous year when she decided that she would start a new family tradition and serve a Honeybaked ham. This was met with howls of dissent, so equilibrium (or Librium) and roast turkey was restored the following year. But here’s my truth: as much as I love turkey, if you cut into it and found that it was made of bread I’d probably love it even more. The Thanksgiving bread basket? That’s my jam, yo.

It was my well-known love of the bread basket that sparked what has always been the most overt example of rebellion against Generalissimo Fran. It started as a dreadful act of violence directed at yours truly. I simply asked for the bread basket to be passed. Innocent as a lamb. Okay, there may have been the merest touch of an edge in my voice…and I may have labeled the bread basket with an adjective that I cannot print in a family blog. But really, just in good fun.

Anyway, before I could even slam the table with my fist and shout, “NOW!” it seemed like every roll ever baked since the beginning of time was being thrown at me. Thank goodness we’d already polished off the Parker House rolls I had baked, for their buttery goodness would surely have stained my handsome shirt.

As one good turn deserves another I was left only with the option of returning the salvo as best I could, after all it was eleven against one (my Mother had also lobbed a Pillsbury Crescent roll at me but you can’t return fire when it’s your Mother. I found out the hard way that that’s true in Paintball too.) (She’s fine.) (Now.)

When winging bread at folks it helps to first judge the distance of your target, the weight of the object being thrown, and the age and relative health of your target. Example: those hearty whole wheat raisin rolls are great for that sourpuss, bratty teenage niece with the big mouth, but for Granny stick with sliced bread thrown with a gentle Frisbee motion. However, please be advised that you should check with the bratty teenage niece’s parents prior to the meal to make sure she hasn’t already had her Sweet Sixteen Rhinoplasty. Either way it gets her out of the room.

Naturally one can game the system a bit by insisting on bringing home-baked rolls. This technique presents two advantages. The first is that you can make practice batches and sharpen your accuracy. The second is that it gives you complete control over the weight of each projectile dinner roll, therefore letting you adjust for age, height, and health of target.

I have gleaned from years of experience that the common Cloverleaf roll makes ideal cannon fodder for a Thanksgiving dinner. While they have a bit of heft, they don’t have the volume or mass of the whole grain raisin roll. They are also vaguely ball-shaped. This makes them safe for a wider range of targets: even Granny can survive being dinged by one, although it may hasten that day’s nap time.

I have been known to bake yearly commemorative varietal batches and give them as gifts. The saffron version was quite delicious, although the resulting orange splotches on the walls required that Fran-tasy Island have her dining room repainted. But these are mere trifles taken in the context of the larger picture.

This year I decided it might be fun to add a touch of sugar, pumpkin, and chocolate to them. This lightly sweetened treat was inspired by Nancy Reagan’s well publicized Monkey Bread recipe. What better model of familial dysfunction has there ever been than the White House Reagans? These will make a calming respite with a cup of morning coffee.

And the chocolate should make some lovely stains on Fran-tastic’s dining-room walls.


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Scared Twixless

Pumpkin Spice Ice Cream

My Jack O’Lantern…this year

Please don’t let Kathleen Turner read this.

Ever since I saw the movie “Serial Mom” many years ago I have been apprehensive about doing things after Labor Day that she may deem inappropriate. (Savvy viewers may recall the scene from said movie where she has a rather lethal encounter with Patty Hearst regarding the wearing of white shoes after Labor Day.)

Yes, I am fully aware that the movie was a work of fiction, and that she will not be bludgeoning me if I break a seasonal rule, but this rather ghoulish movie has been on my mind because of Halloween.

I think I’ve had just about enough of Halloween already. I have a friend who starts serving Candy Corn before I’ve had a chance to finish shaking the beach sand out of my sneakers. We have noticed that a majority of Candy Corn being sold this year lists Mexico as its provenance. One can only posit a wild theory that this is somehow related to its apparent addictive qualities.

My yearly complaint? As a happy home baker I really cannot do much on Halloween. I cannot make Candy Corn. Why would I try? Yes I could frost cupcakes to look like candy corn. I could make Candy Corn-colored cocktails. Alas, I’m a failure at kitsch.

I’ve gone the cookie route in the past…happily and with excellent results. But it always comes down to the same question: On Halloween doesn’t everyone really want a KitKat bar? I cannot compete on their turf.

Here’s where breaking a rule after Labor Day comes in, albeit a rule of my own making. I don’t know why I have this rule—it may be a simple case of waist preservation—but I don’t make ice cream after Labor Day. A silly rule indeed, and like most rules, made to be broken.

This year my Jack O’Lantern will be Pumpkin Spice Ice Cream. Pumpkin Spice is on my brain of late due to some publicity about there being a shortage of the spices used. (Yes, this was news.) Every day when I make my Starbucks run I am greeted by huge window decals advertising Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Read that sentence again. Yes, I said “Every day when I make my Starbucks run…” Clearly I am a Starbucks fan. Sadly though, my brew of choice is black coffee; I simply cannot get into the big drinks they make that are topped off with swirls of whipped cream.  When I get my frequent drinker rewards and order a simple, humble black coffee, the folks behind the counter wrinkle their noses in collective disbelief and ask a unified “That’s it? And not even a venti?”

The truth is, I do love those drinks but to be even more truthful I must claim that for the same fat and calories I’d rather have a dish of ice cream.

Pumpkin Ice Cream can be tricky, as the ideal balance of flavors is really a matter of personal choice. My Mother’s guideline with anything pumpkin, including Pumpkin Pie, is that she likes it to taste like pumpkin.

I have an ice cream recipe that I really like—I used it this summer to make Peppermint Stick Ice Cream—so that’s my base. I merely substituted one cup of canned pumpkin for the peppermint candy. This recipe directs you to push the cooled, cooked custard base through a sieve before churning it in the ice cream freezer to make the ice cream silky smooth. Following that logic, I also pushed the pumpkin through a sieve. This ended up being a good idea. The ice cream was delicately smooth, and with a mere whisper of a half teaspoon of cinnamon and pinch of clove the ice cream had the perfect, unmistakable pumpkin flavor my Mom will love.

The temptation remains to fiddle with the recipe a bit. Please feel free to do so; my mind has already wandered to wondering if brown sugar would add a bit of complexity. What about a touch of coffee to make it Pumpkin Spice Latte in honor of my Barista’s seasonal treat?

And you can still have your KitKat bar…


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Happy Tweetoween

Pies and the Man

Take a bow...

Take a bow...

There’s a Broadway theater named the Lunt-Fontanne—maybe you’ve seen it if you’ve walked through Times Square? Lunt-Fontanne was actually two people: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, husband and wife, perhaps the biggest stars of the early to mid twentieth century. I could claim they were the Brangelina of their time, but that’s not quite accurate. They may actually have been bigger; their Broadway plays were invariably hits, they dutifully took them out on the road playing cities of every size (a/k/a, “the provinces,”) and they were pioneers of a natural, realistic acting style. One night while channel surfing I happened to catch a kinescope of a play they had performed live on TV in the late fifties. Even then, in their late sixties, they had timing, humor, and chemistry that would be considered contemporary today.

What in the world does this have to do with food?

It’s a stretch, but bear with me.

Anyway, during their down time, “The Lunts” lived on a farm (now a museum) called “Ten Chimneys” in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin (Lunt was a Wisconsin native.) While there, Alfred channeled his artistic talent into the kitchen, becoming quite skilled in that venue too.

Blatz showed Lunt in his kitchen (left)

Blatz showed Lunt in his kitchen (left)

I found this out a few years ago, and was amused enough by it that I decided to name one of my recipes in his honor, giving it an imaginary “back story,” and the aura of mystery that goes along with it. (Food geek? Me? Hi! Have we met?)

The question was: which recipe? Then Thanksgiving rolled around. After a quick tour through my recipe file, the answer became obvious. For many years I have been making a pumpkin pie with a chocolate cookie crumb crust. The original idea came from seeing the pre-made chocolate cookie crumb crusts stacked near the canned pumpkin in the supermarket. It was as easy as asking, “What if I tried those two together?”

One year, I couldn’t find the pre-made chocolate cookie crumb crusts, and realized I would have to make my own. That’s when I found Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers. You may have seen those: they are packaged in a cellophane wrapped yellow box. A plain, simple, dark chocolate cookie, they are more than just a bit addictive, and, after a spin in the food processor, perfect in a crumb crust.

(If you doubt me that the cookies are addictive, I’ll admit that more than once I have had to run out and get another box because I no longer had enough to make a full crust. Oink.)

Although I have never been able to find out why the cookies are called famous, pairing the most famous stage actor / cook of the twentieth century with a cookie named “famous” just seemed natural to me. Could there be a better match? That’s how “Alfred Lunt’s Famous Pumpkin Pie” was born. The recipe is all mine, but its cachet is borrowed.

So, now, to the pie itself. I have written in this venue about a tendency I used to have to over spice pumpkin pie, a nasty habit swiftly broken by my mother’s insistence that she wanted to taste the pumpkin in the pumpkin pie. So I tempered my recipe, putting the pumpkin center stage, and relegating the spices to supporting roles. The spices are all still there; in fact I used a kitchen sink approach, just in smaller quantities, sometimes as small as a pinch. A restrained twist of orange zest adds a spring to the pumpkin’s step.

To give the pumpkin custard a bit of complexity I used three different sweeteners: white sugar, and smaller doses of maple syrup and molasses. The maple syrup adds a bit of smoke, and the molasses makes the sugar less cloying, effectively keeping the whole thing with two feet planted firmly on the ground. If you’re a fan of using sweet potato instead of pumpkin (and why wouldn’t you be?) I suggest using a bit less of each sweetener, and give some thought to employing them in different ratios than you would with pumpkin. Perhaps a bit less of the sugar and maple, and a bit more of the molasses?

I use a light version of the classic pumpkin custard, omitting the egg yolks, and using fat free evaporated milk. The remaining egg whites are whipped to soft peaks, breathing a bit of lift into what is usually a very dense pie. Pumpkin is rich enough on its own, so the resulting pie retains its heft, but you’ll have room for all the other goodies that are sure to find themselves under your nose on turkey day.

Because the pumpkin mixture is so liquid when poured into the pan, it soaks the chocolate cookie crumbs slightly, but the result seems like providence rather than poor baking skills. You get a dark, dense, mildly chocolate crust that sets off the rusty pumpkin better than a predictable pie crust ever could. Contrary to the expectation that the chocolate might upstage the pumpkin, they actually work together in a well rehearsed banter.

This all reminds me that the holidays are a perfect time to bring some theater to the table. I bake this pie in a Springform pan. This serves two purposes: first, you pop open the pan and the pie is freed, easier to slice, and ready to do its job; second, the perfectly upright sides of the pan give each slice a pleasingly symmetrical discipline. Why not take the slices out of the pan and line them up on a rectangular platter, like a line of whipped cream-topped Rockettes ready to kick their way across your table. Ta da!

And the cachet? I’ll be telling folks that Alfred Lunt used to bake this pie every Thanksgiving at Ten Chimneys. So when I offer seconds, it is in the tradition of the man himself exhorting Noel Coward to, “…have another piece of pie, old boy.” You can make up your own story if it pleases you. That’s “thee-a-tah.”

Hmmm: I wonder what I did with that recipe for Kathie Lee’s Crab Cakes?

Click here for the recipe for “Alfred Lunt’s Famous Pumpkin Pie.”

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Halloween (Part One)

Don't be scared. It's only a cookie.

Don't be scared. It's only a cookie.

You want scary? You should see me carving a Jack O’Lantern. Don’t worry, this isn’t a gruesome or gory story; no blood has ever been spilled. Sadly, this is simply a story of a boring pumpkin carver. Me.

This is a realization many years in the making. I don’t remember carving Jack O’Lanterns as a kid. But when my Baby Niece (“BN” as I refer to her in this venue) was growing up I was always the designated carver. I haven’t asked her lately what her memories of our pumpkin carving are, but her lack of vocal nostalgia through the years speaks volumes. It’s not that my Jack O’Lanterns were bad or messy, it’s just that they were…tame. Two triangular eyes. A triangular nose. A jagged mouth. Zzzzzzzzzzz.

From the vantage point of time passed, I see a two-fold problem. The first is relatively simple. Tools are everything, and I always feel that the tools I have at hand are inadequate for the “art of the gourd.” Pumpkins are big and have tough skins (I’ve worked for people like that) and kitchen knives always seem too small or frighteningly too big (I’ve worked for people like that too. Hmmm…)

I have seen Martha Stewart go at the poor defenseless vegetables with all manner of electric drills and saws. Where’s the sport in that? Bringing electric power to bear here seems like performing open heart surgery with a jack hammer. (I’m a big fan of Martha’s, but the look of glee on her face as she went at the pumpkin with a hole saw was eye opening for more than just the pumpkin.)

Last year at Williams-Sonoma I saw an electric tool designed specifically for pumpkin carving. Where’s the finesse? Where’s the artistry? Besides, if I used that a friend of mine would have labeled me a “cheater” to the end of my days. (I have a couple of friends who like to throw pumpkin carving parties. Let’s just say it’s a tough room.)

If you sense some hemming and hawing on my part it is likely due to the second part of the two-fold problem. I tend to personify the pumpkins. When I shop for a pumpkin I don’t choose the first pumpkin I see. I look for one that is big, round, and, for lack of a better description, happy. For me, pumpkin shopping is not unlike adopting a big round orange mutt from the pound.

Let me digress for a moment. I have a friend who has a dog. One Christmas season, someone (not me!) had the inspiration to place a set of felt reindeer antlers on the dog. I will never forget the look of shame and disappointment on the dog’s face as he hung his head in shame. If the dog could have spoken, he likely would have said, “Antlers? You’re kidding, right? I thought you were better than this.”

I look at my beautiful, happy pumpkin, and can’t help but feel the same attitude coming from him—I mean–it. So, my instinct is always to enjoy the fat, happy pumpkin as is.

But social obligations being what they are, when invited to a Jack O’Lantern carving party one must arrive with the makings of a Jack O’Lantern. That’s where some butter, flour, and eggs come in handy.

Yes, if there’s a holiday and a party, it’s likely that I can find a cookie to suit the day. In this case a Jack O’Lantern cookie isn’t a cheat, no; it’s a creative swerve into another lane on the highway. All you need is a Jack O’Lantern cookie cutter.

The first time I made Jack O’Lantern cookies, I used a tangy maple-flavored dough, sprinkled them with a dusting of maple sugar, and filled them like a sandwich cookie with chocolate buttercream. 

This year I thought it would be fun to go with tradition and use an orange colored filling. A chocolate cookie would be good, but a little predictable. I was in the mood for something else, so the cookies are mocha-flavored.

I was faced with a few choices for the filling, and decided to present you with an either / or decision. You can use an easy buttercream and tint it orange, but if kids are involved in the occasion, I thought it would be fun to make them into a kind of a Halloween S’Mores cookie. I painted the bottom cookie with melted chocolate, let it set, then topped that with a dab of Italian meringue (Marshmallow Fluff from the jar is a perfectly acceptable substitute) tinted orange. I closed the sandwich with a cookie whose eyes, nose, and mouth were cut out so the orange filling would show.

The trick? I didn’t have to carve a pumpkin. The treat? Cookies, of course.

Click here for my Jack O’Lantern cookie recipe.

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Happy New Year!

Pumpkin Apple Praline Cake

Pumpkin Apple Praline Cake

No, I am not calendar-challenged; this Friday marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year holiday, which starts with Rosh Hashanah, and ends the following week with Yom Kippur. 

On the lunar-based Jewish calendar this year will be 5770, and yes, I agree, time flies: seems like it was just 5760.

Here’s the “Emily Post”: Yes, by all means wish your Jewish friends a Happy New Year, but do not say, “Happy Yom Kippur.” Yom Kippur is all about fasting to atone for your sins, and mourning those we’ve lost. Stick with, “Happy New Year” and you’re covered.

In spite of the fact that the holiday includes a day of fasting, as with any big holiday there is also a big meal. My baby niece (that’s what I call her in spite of the fact that she is a college graduate) is the event planner. I have been tasked with providing desserts. Baby Niece (or “BN” as she will heretofore be known) assigned me this task as much for my skills in the kitchen as for the fact that we are simpatico when it comes to our choice of which desserts should be served on any given holiday.

The tradition of desserts on this holiday is not a particularly rich one. Traditional Jewish New Year desserts include apples dipped in honey (a symbolic gesture of hope for a sweet new year,) Honey Cake, Sponge Cake, and Taiglach, which could be wonderful, but ends up being soup nuts coated with “honey” (I use that term loosely), and tossed with chopped almonds and a few confused-looking maraschino cherries. This is usually sold in a disposable aluminum pie tin.

Maraschino cherries in a disposable pie tin. Tempting. If you’re a smelter with a sweet tooth.

Jewish food is basically a reflection of the various places we have lived; for some this means a largely Eastern European influence, and for others a largely North African and Southern European influence.

As I am several generations removed from the Eastern European experience, I think it is time to reflect (and celebrate) the rich traditions of the place where I grew up.

Welcome to “Extreme Makeover: Jewish New Year Desserts” edition.

The sponge cake is the first to be shown the door. The role has been recast with Lemon Yogurt cake, a simple recipe from Ina Garten, a/k/a the Barefoot Contessa, which has a fizzy lemon intensity that belies its humble name. (My family and I do not observe kosher laws, so we can have a cake made with yogurt, a dairy product, in the same meal as meat.)

I have a few ideas for the Taiglach, but they’ll need some work in the lab before I can use them, so I’m moving on, for now, to the honey cake, which is joining its sponge cake buddy in blessed retirement.  Perhaps they’ll drop us a note now and then.

BN and my mom have been tempted of late by pumpkin which I think fits the harvest celebration aspect of the New Year beautifully.  But flabby, over spiced pumpkin loaf recipes abound, and frankly, with the homey simplicity of the Lemon Yogurt cake something equally rustic, but slightly more stylish is needed. There’s also the fact that I learned my lesson about over spicing pumpkin several Thanksgivings ago when my mom, between shovelfuls of my Pumpkin Pie paused long enough only to breathe and say, “Delicious! But I can’t taste the pumpkin.”

So, a light hand with the spice. The earthy intensity would come from the use of brown sugar and maple syrup which would sweeten the cake, and reflect my New England background. A few wisps of orange zest would supercharge the pumpkin flavor. With a nod towards the apples and honey tradition, there would need to be apples in the cake, but more fun I thought, if the apples could be sliced and end up on top of the cake. The goal is like the lovechild of a cake and a clafouti.

Then I had second thoughts.  It sounded good, but the lily needed a bit of gilding: the cake still seemed a bit plain, and I like things to have a bit of crunch, which, unless I was clumsy with an eggshell, is not something for which cake is usually known.

Hmmm…my mind lingered for a moment on the almonds and honey in the Taiglach. What if the honey and almonds could somehow be a source of crunch on the cake? This is frequently done using crushed praline, which is simply sugar cooked with nuts, then allowed to harden, and crushed into a powder. Why not do the same thing with honey and almonds?

The story, I’m happy to report, has a happy ending. A trial run revealed the need for a few adjustments: a bit less orange zest here, a slightly greener apple there, and the use of cake flour instead of all purpose flour to dry the crumb a bit. But all in all, a wonderful makeover for that tired old honey cake.

The cake, once cooled, was first dusted with confectioner’s sugar, then with the honey praline. The apples were cooked on the bottom of the pan so they would be on top when the cake was turned out of the pan. Combined with the confectioner’s sugar they formed a thin, almost “jammy” layer. The pumpkin cake retained the buttery brightness of the pumpkin and orange zest, but revealed the smoky sweetness of the maple syrup. The praline was the best surprise of all, starting and ending each bite with a toasty, honeyed crackle that said, “Happy New Year!”

And the good news is that the cake is perfect for any occasion during fall and autumn, from a gathering as big as Thanksgiving, to one as intimate as coffee with a chum.

Click here for my recipe, and “L’shana Tova!”

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