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Saturday, October 1, 2016


October 1, 2016

My grandson Alexander, three and a half, and I like to bake together.  It's something we do when one or another of his parents drop him off to play at Nana's.  The new year coming up in a few days, yesterday I pulled out ingredients for a honey cake and, though he spent a good lot of the time licking the honey off the small blue-willow saucer I give him for snacks, we managed to cut apples, measure flour and spices (and baking soda and salt, he reminds me, looking up from his dedicated concentration on the sweet stuff), whipped eggs and honey, and mixed them all up to bake.  The house, even the yard outside, grew aromatic with the first of fall's holidays.

Honey cake is one of those yearly treats I used to approach with some trepidation, since a good one is both fragrant and moist and a less good one (I'll be generous here with a few of the ones in my past repertoire) well, dry.  So much depends on the recipe, kind of flour, the proportion of honey, even the foibles of the oven itself.  But I finally got the best of it when it occurred to me that the tradition of eating apples and honey--a toast to a sweet year!--might be a clue, and I took two recipes, Teddy's Apple Cake, a fall favorite from a page out of an ancient NYT magazine that doesn't have to wait for once a year, and Heidi Wortzels's Honey Cake, from Joan Nathan's book of holiday recipes.  A bit from this one and a bit from that one, and I made my own.  All of a sudden, dry was obsolete; the spice and softness of the apples lifted the cake in both height and spirit.

Now that I've openly admitted that transgression, some traditionalist is going to frown, reach into her or his own cookbook shelf, and convince me that there was nothing wrong with great-grandmother's version.  Yes, yes, I'll say, I know your grandmother's recipe always came out as sweet and light as a childhood memory on a silver platter.  But this is our version now, and our tradition has to begin somewhere. It's like the baking we do together.  If it worked as a holiday sweet back when I re-invented it, it's working now as part of Alexander's and my time together.  Coming in the kitchen door, he'll climb up on the counter, slide into place before my mixer, and announce, "Let's make something!"  If making something means a chance to work the levers on the 35-year-old machine and lick the batter, it also means he's learning how to break eggs, measure spice, cut up apples, and most important think about ingredients as possibilities.

This summer, we made a cake entirely from Alexander's imagination.  He added to the requisite base a little bit of this and that (chocolate, avocado, carrots, zucchini, a sprinkle of juice from his tumbler, and cinnamon, of course, which, besides the chocolate, is always on Alexander's list of necessary additions)...whatever he felt like working with.  We gave pieces to the neighbors, some to my niece and her children who were visiting, and had some for a snack.  Almost everyone liked it (well, some people are just picky eaters).  The best part wasn't that, amazingly, nothing went wrong; the best part was that it was clear he'd learned what making a cake was all about and could be adventurous in embellishing the basics.  He is becoming a cook.

Alexander likes plenty of other things, too...Hallowe'en, action figures, digging in the yard,

banging rocks with various tools (he knows the precise names of all the tools in a carpenter's tool caddy, and of most of the construction vehicles on the road...the Excavator Song is a frequent request).  He likes anything to do with building up and cutting down.  Legos, Lincoln logs, wooden blocks litter the playroom floor.  He likes practicing using scissors.  He climbs rocks and jumps off flights of steps and reads funny books, especially the parts where the hero gets into trouble. He will take on the character of his heroes (both good and bad), and involve you in the action (you get to play the parts he assigns you).  "Let's do it!", he rallies us.

In even more elemental words, he's a maker.  A boy who creates.  It's the three-year-old mind at work, heads filled with sheer possibility.  That sense of unlimited potential is the sweetest thing, truly, about this life, and it's such a gift to be reminded of it.

May you all know such sweetness in the new year, whatever the recipe.


Our Honey Cake

Whip together:
1 cup oil (I use coconut oil)
1 cup honey (darker the better)
1 cup dark brown sugar

Adding one at a time, continue to whip in:
3 eggs

Sift together:
3 cups flour (I use Pamela's GF)
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp nutmeg

Add dry ingredients to egg/honey mixture and beat until smooth.  If the mixture seems too dry, I add a little orange juice. 

Peel, core and chop:
4 large apples

Fold apples into batter.  You can also add 1/2 cup chopped walnuts or almonds, and raisins (we like raisins, which I soak in cognac or something like that first, but I forgot to put them in this time).

Pour batter into a greased Bundt or two loaf pans.
Bake in 350 degree oven for 45-60 minutes (depending on pan, your oven, etc.).

It's best left to sit for a day before serving, if you can wait that long.


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