Tastes of Summer – Apricot Cake

Featured photo by Cala on Unsplash

The Farmer’s Market on Keystone and Booth in Reno opens the first Saturday of June every year. By mid-July I’ve become complacent, despite having longed for it since February. Mid-July I think there’s no need to get up and go pick out fruit – there’s plenty of summer left. And though it’s open until the end of the first Saturday of October, I get over my complacency when dreaded August hits.

August has always been like Sunday to me, back when I was in school. I was a stellar student if we don’t count math into the equation (see what I did there?) but I totally hated school. So I loved Saturday and had a love-hate relationship with Sunday because while I was still free of school, there it was again, looming on the other side of Sunday.

August is like that. Too close to the official end of summer. Which may actually be the Equinox in the last third of September, but feels like the end of Labor Day weekend.

So. Farmer’s Market. Fresh peaches and cantaloupe and basil and onions and tomatoes and corn.

And apricots.

This is a family recipe, which may only mean from some women’s magazine I can no longer identify, but I hadn’t made it in forever before I made it this summer.  It’s simple, fast, tasty, lasts well, and isn’t so rich you can’t just cut a piece, stick it on a napkin and eat it with your fingers while reading or watering the flowers or doing something wonderfully summerish.

It’s Wednesday.  Here’s something sweet for the halfway mark of the week.

Apricot Cake

14 tablespoons shortening

1 cup minus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

4 eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

Powdered sugar to sprinkle

Somewhere around 8 to 10 ripe apricots, washed and halved, pits removed (do not remove skin)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

 

Cream shortening and sugar until well mixed, then add the eggs, one at a time, stirring between additions.  Add flour, salt and baking powder.

Grease a pan (I use a 7×9 glass pan that fits it perfectly) and spread less than half of the batter over the bottom of the pan.  The batter is really thick, so using less than half is important because the remainder has to be spooned on over apricots, which ideally should stay where you put them, and dragging thick batter over them doesn’t help that process.

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Place the apricots cut side down on the batter in the pan. I usually make two neat (kind of) rows of apricots but you don’t have to. Wildly random apricots would taste just as good, but one layer seems like the best bet in order for the cake to bake through and to have the wonderful tangy-sweet moist pockets of bright apricot.

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Sprinkle the fruit and batter with powdered sugar. Spoon the remaining batter on top and carefully drag to cover the fruit and bottom batter. Sprinkle the top of the cake with more powdered sugar.

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My traditional and not helpful recipe says to bake in the 350 degree oven for “Not less than one hour.” First off, not true! And second off, who says this? It is not helpful. So – I baked mine on a rack in the middle of the oven fur just 50 minutes and it was just this side of dry – perfect, but getting it out at 47 or 48 minutes might have been a tiny bit better. Test with a skewer or toothpick if you have no idea what a skewer is (I don’t – a long toothpick?)

Cool in pan on wire rack. This is better cold than hot, partly because it just is, and partly because the apricots form a pocket around themselves as they cook and inside that pocket they reach roughly the temperature of the sun and will remove your tongue and palate. When the cake is cold, those moist bits are a little tart and a little sweet, like the best apricot jam.

Perfect for after a barbecued hamburger and fresh corn, or maybe an easy morning breakfast with bacon on the side and a good English breakfast tea.

Summer is fleeting.  Taste every moment. Enjoy every encounter.

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Floury Baps

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Floury baps evolved over time for me.  There are so many recipes to make and so many variations on the same item – like the baps – there has to be something special to make me go back and try something a second time.

The first time I made baps I used a recipe from one of my favorite bread books.  Despite that, it didn’t turn out to be my favorite recipe for them.  They were dry and too floury – kind of grainy, definitely blah.

But I really wanted them to turn out.  I wanted to split them in half and load in a fried egg and some bacon and despite the similarity to certain fast food breakfast treats, this actually turned out when I used the second recipe – from Ultimate Bread by Eric Treuille and Ursula Ferrigno (1998, a DK Publishing Book).  My variations are minor, meant to reflect the dryness of the desert and the speeded-up rising and baking times of 5000 feet.

The second time I tried these was about a week into May. The Sierra still wore a considerable amount of snow.  Which wouldn’t be noteworthy, except this past Monday the foothills at the end of my street were covered once again in snow.  On June 12. Today the North Valleys will hit 88 degrees.

I love my desert.

As for the baps, apparently they’re meant to be slathered in jam, or opened and filled with cream.  I can see filling them with clotted or whipped cream and fresh, lightly sugared berries, too, though I haven’t tried that yet.

But the fried egg and bacon version was excellent.  So was baking them with grated cheddar inside.  So was loading one with a slice of cooked sausage (the kind that comes in a roll, ready to slice and cook) and a little cheese.

Baps aren’t all that sweet, so I’m not sure why they couldn’t be stuffed with a mix of lentils, corn and salsa, or be used as a sandwich wrap, or be filled with sliced black olives and tomatoes and sprinkled with oregano, other than the fact that might be messy as the filling spills back out.

¾ cup warm water

¾ cup room temperature milk + more for glaze

2 teaspoons active dry yeast (not rapid rise)

1 teaspoon sugar

3 ½ cups unbleached flour

1 ½ teaspoons fine sea salt

Combine the milk and water in a measuring cup.  Pour one half of the liquid into a smaller bowl.  Sprinkle yeast and sugar over top and let stand for 5 minutes.

Mix 2 ½ cups of the flour and all the salt in a large bowl.  Form a well in the center and pour in the mixed liquid, sugar and yeast.  Draw in as much flour as necessary to form a sticky dough.  Stir in remaining liquid as needed.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board.  I use part of the reserved 1 cup flour for dusting the board and kneading into the bread.  When I’m kneading and the dough stops pulling the flour from the board and my hands, it’s time to slow down adding more.  I’ve found while baking yeast breads in the desert that my best loaves come about from doughs that still cling just a little damply to my hands.  Still the soft rounded look of the dough, and they’re not leaving sticky patches or pulling off, but just slightly tacky or damp.

Knead the dough for 5-10 minutes, as long as it feels elastic and smooth.

Leave the dough in a clean bowl covered with a clean dish towel.  Allow to rise in a warm place until doubled, roughly 45 minutes at 5000 feet.

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When the dough has risen, punch it down and allow it to rest on the board for 10 minutes, then separate into 8 pieces.  Gently form into soft ovals and flatten slightly with your hand as you put them on a greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet.

Brush with milk and give each a heavy sifting of flour.  Allow to rise, uncovered, for 30 to 45 minutes or until doubled in size.  Mine took a really long time to rise, but that was subjective and because I forgot them – I was making devil’s food cupcakes and an olive thyme baguette at the same time.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Dust with flour again, then bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly golden.  When first out of the oven, cover the baps on the tray with a clean dish towel for 10 minutes.  Then remove towel and move baps to a wire rack.

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Spring in the High Desert – First Sunrise Hike of the Year

The year we found bobcat prints in the backyard, I spent a summer getting up at dawn and hiking in the 20 minutes before the sun came up. The only time I ever saw the illusive cat was the very first morning I went out. Just clearing the last steep hill that overlooks the cul-de-sac backyards in the pre-sunrise twilight, I saw about 5 houses away what looked like someone’s dog entering the open desert that runs behind the house. Stray dogs never, ever come helpfully to me so I can check tags and call owners. Stray dogs instead seem to think this is play time and I’m there so they can give me spitty kisses and jump up with their paws on my shoulders.

We’re in disagreement about that.

But another look to see if there were any humans near the putative dog made me do a double take.  Long, lanky legs and a curious gate.  That was my bobcat, jogging confidently up the trail toward me.  I held my breath but the cat disappeared into the tiny ditch behind the houses and from there, probably into the culvert. I’ve never seen him or her again.

Sometime last summer I got out of the habit of doing more than looking for tracks.  There are plenty.  Rabbits, kangaroo rats, quail, dogs people are walking. 

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What I haven’t gotten out of the habit of is the early morning hike, the earlier the better.  This morning I got out at 10 after 6, which was the same time the sun comes up.  I’ll have to leave earlier to catch the really lovely time, the purple time when the desert air is actually wet and all the animals are still out. 

This morning was just over 40 degrees, and turning back toward home and into the breeze was – let’s call it bracing.  During the walk I encountered three jackrabbits, two cottontails, one fat quail and one lone bird who sat and watched me and made disconsolate beeping noises.  My reassurances that I didn’t wish to eat it or its brood, incipient or otherwise, didn’t comfort it.  My leaving did.

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Sunset hike

Tonight was my second hike this year. Our house butts up to open space and rolling Nevada foothills – go outside and head into the hills.  But I’ve been out once earlier this week and once a couple months ago for a hike so freezing I’m kind of not counting it. This has been a long, wet winter, with a normal year’s allotment of rain and snow already by the time we got to March if I remember correctly. This is a desert, but spontaneous lakes have been appearing, and ravines are cut into the desert hardpan in unexpectedly deep cuts.

It was 61 degrees when I left a little after 7 p.m., with roughly 30 minutes until sundown for Reno, though in the hills I had about 20 minutes. The sun had already dropped by the time I got back. The dirt gives up the day’s heat and the sage smells strong in the mornings and evenings. I was out for half an hour, leaving later than I meant to because there was a cottontail in the front yard asking for apples. I took to feeding them when it kept snowing later and later into the year, and am trying to convince them now to eat the plentiful weeds in our dirt-filled third of an acre.  Still, when wild rabbits come running when you call “Rabbits! Rabbits!” it’s hard to resist.

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There were three jackrabbits, two cottontails and one stick I thought might be a snake on my hike. To date I’ve only heard one rattlesnake and I’m coming up on my fifth summer of rambling through the foothills. I thought I’d heard one before but once you hear the real thing, there’s an atavistic response that can’t be mistaken for anything else. I believe I levitated off that part of the trail that day, and remained leery of passing the area for the next many hikes.

Another fake snake alert last summer: I was directly opposite a very large sage, very close, on a slippery, rock-covered, very steep foothill when there was shaking and vibrating of the bush. I was too close and on too uneven of ground to escape well, so I panicked and froze. Seconds later one of the biggest jackrabbits I’ve seen exploded out of the bush and tore off across the foothill.  They’re lovely and enormous and for once, one of them scared me more than I scared it.

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Not the most dramatic skies, but soft and still. There’s almost always wind in Northern Nevada, especially if you’re a runner (I take this personally – it should be impossible to choose a route that leads in a square and have the wind in my face in every single direction). But tonight it was still and the contrails stayed in the air and frayed, turning fainter colors and dying away.

The blue jays I feed by hand – one sits on my hand, the other makes strange sounds like something out of The Ring and comes close but to me – are nesting. I’m not seeing much of them and when I do, Blue takes the roasted peanuts, cracks them from their shell, and carries off most of it to Scrawny.

The quail are nesting, and a squirrel yelled at me from our side yard, so I assume they’re hatching in burrows, if that’s where they live. It’s spring. Time for light sweetbreads and lemon everything and just over a month away from farmer’s market and chocolate cherry pies and peach pies and berry tarts and apricot cakes and just plain fruit eaten in the backyard while reading a good book.

Happy Spring.

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