Monday, October 19, 2009
I’ve had a love affair with autumn my entire life. The crisp air, the golden sun low in the sky, and the leaves in every color of the rainbow. I was born in October, and my mom has always made a big deal about my birthday. So naturally, when asked as a kid which season was my favorite, I would say, “fall” emphatically.
When I was little, my mom would spend the weeks leading up to my birthday decorating the house for the “big day.” Colorful autumn leaves and fall flowers and sometimes even tree branches anointed with twinkling, white Christmas lights were all brought inside our small, one bedroom house. Every year my mom made a delicious, completely healthy, applesauce cake and decorated it with the few fall flowers still lingering in the garden. The cake contained no wheat, milk, or sugar, as these were things I was allergic to at the time, but it was the best tasting cake. To this day, it is still one of my very favorite desserts, although I tend to substitute wheat flour for the rice flour, white sugar for the date sugar, and butter for the goat butter. When asked what I wanted for my birthday dinner, I always requested spaghetti (rice or corn, of course!). As I grew, spaghetti and coleslaw turned into a Bento box at my favorite Japanese restaurant and now that I’m an adult, I crave anything that is fresh and full of the flavors of the season.
To celebrate my birthday this year, I spent the day wine tasting in Paso Robles. The grape leaves, for the most part, are still clinging to the vines and they range in color from bright yellow-green to a burnt brown and crimson. Below the soft blue sky, the mountains in the distance are pale pink and the nearby hillsides are an assortment of greens and browns depending on what covers them: wild oats, live oaks, grape vines, or even apple and walnut trees.
After an unseasonable storm that brought up to nine inches of rain, the sun fought its way through the clouds and warmed the soggy earth. Steam rising from the usually bone-dry soil, I felt as though I’d been transported from the usual arid landscape to somewhere much more tropical, maybe even Florida!
At the end of a day tasting rich red wines and light and fruity whites, we found ourselves at a new restaurant (well, new to me) and I enjoyed a truly scrumptious meal. As a first course, my dad and I split red abalone frito misto grown locally in Cayucos with an assortment of vegetables served with a deliciously decadent creamy dipping sauce. The abalone was piled high in the center of a palm-sized (as in my hand, not a palm tree frond) glimmering abalone shell. It sat like a little island, floating amidst a sea of rock salt, which I bit into by mistake. Oops!
My following course was dripping with fat and oozing flavor, just the way a short rib should. I had two or three meaty and delicious short ribs drizzled with a syrupy and smoky reduction, served on a thin bed of the most gooey and delicious cheddar grits. All this topped with tangy pickled onions and tender pea shoots. That seemed like plenty, but then the waitress arrived with a small Staub full of fresh farmers’ market favas and butter beans baked to perfection with dark autumn greens and topped with breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese. Every so often, I would find that one of the favas had sprouted a little tail, a seemingly true sign of freshness.
Although I was full beyond belief, it was my birthday and I couldn’t leave without a little something sweet. I scanned the menu full of exotic crème brulées and a decadent pear and whiskey crumble but finally settled on a Scharfenberger chocolate brownie. Two thin brownies arrived, warmed from the oven. This chocolate confection fell somewhere between flourless cake and a chewy Ghiradelli made-from-a-box brownie. In one word, it was amazing. It tasted exactly how a brownie should taste.
So, I’ve gotten a bit off-track, as I tend to do when I’m thinking about food. I was saying that autumn has always been one of my favorite seasons. In the fall, we still have the lingering fruits and vegetables from summer like tomatoes (if you’re blessed to live in a mild climate), late harvest peaches, and chard to name a few, but to that we add potatoes, pumpkin and winter squash (which I adore), lots of dark greens, wild mushrooms, apples, and cranberries, plus a number of other fall delicacies. Autumn food is rich and full of flavor, yet tinted with reminders that summer was not too long ago. I love summer salads and eating dinner right out of the garden but when the days become shorter and the air more crisp, there is nothing like curling up on the couch in cozy pajamas with a warm bowl of soup or an earthy slice of butter and brown sugar slathered acorn squash.
As I mentioned before, a few days before my birthday wine tasting bliss, torrential rains pounded my little town. The wind was so strong that it snapped my umbrella in half! Rain, while common in most of the country, is an extremely rare commodity in Central and Southern California for most of the year. When it rains, even a few drops, the weather report on the evening news is likely to start with the headlines, “Storm Watch 2009. When will we get relief?” However, this was indeed a worthy rainstorm. As the rains fell with gale force, I got busy in the kitchen filling my home with the aromas of fall. First I made crusty bread, which warmed my kitchen (and for some yet still unknown reason set off the smoke alarm). After that I got to work on wild mushroom Bolognese, homemade pasta, and of course an applesauce cake.
Below you will find directions to make some of these dishes at home, but if you don’t have the same ingredients or the right tools, make do with what you have. That is how I taught myself to cook—by making do. You’ll notice that I don’t always give quantities. That is because I cook by taste and instinct and as time goes on, I hope that you too will feel confident to do the same. (Baking, however, is a different story. In general it’s advisable to stick to the recipe as much as possible.)
Happy Birthday Applesauce Cake
Makes 2 round 9” cakes
This cake is not fussy or fancy and can easily be doubled. Leftover Happy Birthday Applesauce cake is especially good for breakfast!
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup unsweetened applesauce, preferably organic
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup raisins
1 cup walnuts, chopped
Preheat oven to 350ºF.
1) In a large bowl (or in the base of a standing mixer), cream the butter with the two sugars until light and fluffy.
2) Mix in the eggs and the applesauce.
3) In another bowl, mix the flour, cinnamon, cloves, baking soda, and salt.
4) Slowly add the flour mixture to the applesauce mixture and stir until just combined.
5) Fold in the raisins and walnuts.
6) Pour into two greased and floured 9” cake pans and bake for 25-30 minutes. Remove from the oven when a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.
7) Remove the cake from the cake pan and cool.
8) Frost with the following frosting once the cake is completely cool or dust with powdered sugar.
Delicious Happy Birthday Applesauce Cake Frosting
1 cup (8 oz.) sour cream
1 cup (8 oz.) cream cheese
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup powdered sugar
Mix all ingredients together in a standing mixer or food processor until light and very fluffy. (I have made this by hand, but the cream cheese tends to be lumpy).
Wild Mushroom Bolognese
Wild mushrooms, dried
Crimini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
Ground beef (I prefer grass fed, ground turkey is delicious too)
This sauce is best when it’s had time to simmer slowly on the stove. If you have to make it fast, add less wine because you won’t have as much time to reduce the liquid.
I rarely see wild mushrooms in the markets, even in the fall, so I usually use dried mushrooms mixed with fresh crimini (baby portabellas). If using dried wild mushrooms, soak them in warm water for approximately 10-15 minutes to soften them. Reserve the liquid to add to the Bolognese sauce later.
Meanwhile, sauté diced onion and garlic with olive oil in a large saucepan. Garlic has a tendency to burn at high temperatures, so it’s best to start on a low heat. Add a pinch of salt (more can be added later if necessary).
Add the basil and oregano. If fresh herbs are available, use them. However, dried herbs tend to be more potent. I often use basil and oregano together, but you could choose to use one or the other.
Add the beef and stir periodically; however, you want to make sure you give the beef a chance to brown. When the beef is brown, pour off some of the excess fat.
Add both mushrooms—crimini and wild—a bit of the reserved mushroom liquid, and a good dose of red wine. It is true that bad wine will still taste bad when cooked, so it’s a good idea to cook with wine that you wouldn’t mind drinking. That said, I don’t like to spend a fortune on cooking wine and can generally find a happy medium.
The sauce will now have a lot of liquid. Simmer until the liquid reduces. Depending on how much wine and mushroom water you add, this could be anywhere from a few minutes to hours. Keep this in mind when you’re adding liquid to the sauce. However, the more wine, the better!
When the sauce has reduced a bit, add the tomato sauce. I tend to use a jarred pasta sauce, but try using canned or fresh tomatoes for a slightly different flavor.
Let the sauce continue to simmer. If the sauce continues to be thin or if it’s a bit tart, add some tomato paste, which will add a hint of sweetness.
Taste the sauce as you go. If it is too tart, add a bit of sugar. This secret ingredient can transform a lackluster sauce. If the sauce tastes too sweet, try adding a dash of balsamic vinegar or more wine.
When the sauce meets your approval for both thickness and taste (or you’ve hit your deadline for dinner), enjoy with a bowl of spaghetti. I also really like this sauce with a type of thick spaghetti called bucatini. These noodles are hollow and all the deliciousness of the sauce gets caught inside the noodle! Serve with Parmesan cheese and warm, crusty bread. Delicious!