Monday, June 10, 2013

Apricot Cakes

When I started writing about food, I had this assumption. It's nothing I ever really thought about; it was more of a subconscious understanding of how it all went. I assumed that the more complex the recipe, the more I'll have to say about it. It makes sense, right?

Then I read this article by Amanda Hesser. She went on for pages about madeleines, those spongy little lemon cakes, elegant but so simple. There was no big epiphany on my end, but a new understanding had begun to seep in. I was slowly learning that the catalyst behind good food writing goes beyond an evaluation of the food alone. It comes from the whole experience that surrounds it, too.

I found these little cakes in the pages of my latest issue of Bon Appetit, tucked into a feature titled "Picnic in Province." All sorts of transportable delicacies posed for the shoot - olives, bean salad, goat cheese, a French baguette - and they all lay out on hardy kitchen towels and thick wood cutting boards that were weathered and stained by regular use. The cakes had their very own page. They had been piled casually in a metal tin and plunked down on long grass, all beautiful and low-maintenance. Right away I wanted to make them, and I knew I wanted to enjoy them in some re-creation of the alfresco scene presented to me. 

Ah, the power of suggestion.

I didn't have to wait long. An annual Memorial Day picnic brings a group of us to an open field of grass by Lake Calhoun, always an arm's length from hot dogs, sangria, and plenty of guac. This year, there'd be little apricot cakes, too.

There are all kinds of baking experiences. There's the adventure, where everything is new, the motions feel unnatural, and you have no idea if things are going to work out - but you're not too worried about it, either. There's the obligation, where you've made a commitment to bake a certain amount of something for a certain amount of money. It's work, and it's stress from start to finish, no matter how well you know the recipe.

Mid-morning on Memorial Day, I embarked on my favorite baking experience of them all. It's the kind you sink into; the kind where, although the recipe is new to you, the process is so familiar and the movements so second nature that your mind can let go a little. I've never baked with apricots. But how many times have I creamed butter and sugar til they're pale and fluffy, beat in eggs and flavoring before adding flour and salt at intervals? This is the kind of baking that slows my heart rate and brings me into balance. It's spiritual baking.

Bon Appetit was right: the little apricot cakes really were perfect for a picnic. I tied them up in a flour sack towel and carried them out to the lake where we munched our summertime food under an overcast sky, waiting for the rain.

But what I remember most about the cakes happened long before we had our feet in the grass. It was back at home when I stood over the cooling rack and grabbed a cake, still a little warm, to try for the first time. I met the light, tender crumb with a breath of lemon; the darker, chewier base; and the tart, slippery apricot embedded in the cake. It all came together with a force that literally drew my hand to my chest and swept my eyelids shut. This wasn't for effect; there was no one around to play for. And I don't think it was just the bite I was reacting to. It was the culmination of such a simple recipe, such easy baking, and the very moment when you discover how much can come of it.