Like clockwork, every year just before Christmas I catch a cold. Perhaps it’s because it’s our extra busy season at work, or that I’m realizing the end of the year is mere days away and I get flustered, or because those holiday cards aren’t writing themselves, or because of the very chilly temperature outside — I don’t know. But it’s becoming endemic, and here it is: the only thing to do is to eat soup, drink Cold Care tea, and try to go to bed early.
Ha! Well, it’s a nice thought. And I have been drinking lots of tea, eating soup, and wistfully hoping to go to bed early (and, you know, that tea really does help. Strange but true.) though since it’s that time of year I have lots to do that keeps me up past 10.30. Still, if I’m going to have to get sick I’d much rather do it the week before Christmas than on Christmas itself, you know? And really, I’m not that sick, just a little sniffly and achey and sleepy — nothing a stout shot of whisky can’t cure.
Last night when I got home I thought, should I run? I hadn’t in a couple of days and was feeling pretty slothful. Also, there was that holiday party the other night where I ate my weight in (delicious) guacamole and chips — two rounds! — plus (amazing) vegetarian empanadas, (really very good) beans and rice and tortillas, and then a tiny taste of flan (I’m not a big fan of flan) with a few margaritas (good tequila — who knew? That’s my end-of-year revelation, for sure) to wash it all down. And then there was that very afternoon’s indulgence in latkes — the potatoes fried to crisp, melting perfection — chocolate cream pie, brown butter brown sugar cookies (!), and I quake to mention the melted brie with caramelized onions. So even though it was so cold, and my throat hurt so awfully, and it was so dark out I dragged myself into my running clothes and got through six miles before tumbling in again to get warm. And it wasn’t bad at all: very cool, a slight spattering of rain, my malaise whisked out of me as I pounded through the miles.
Here’s a confession: lately I’ve been wanting not much else to do but lie on the couch drinking tea and reading. I’ve zipped through a few food memoirs lately (Kim Sunée’s Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home was simply beautiful) and caught up, almost, on the pile of magazines that threatens to drown my apartment. These are all very lovely pursuits, and when I’ve accomplished the little tasks I’ve set out for myself for that night (baked goods for holiday gifts; finishing up the last of the cards; wrapping a few presents) I let myself take a break and flop down for a good hour or so. It’s very cozy and comforting and all that. But I realized last night that despite all that relaxation and warm tea and and and, it was missing something.
It was missing cake.
[Pear-ginger upside-down cake, December 2008.]
When I read essays about people who cook for one, I always feel like I’m a bit out of the ordinary. Most of the writers discuss their love of a particular thing, such as scallops or even brussels sprouts, that their true love/s abhor and so when that loved one is away the cook embarks on a frenzy of scallop or brussels sprouts preparation or. Me, on the other hand — well, I’m always pretty good to myself all of the time. If I feel like a roasted cauliflower for dinner one night, well, by god that’s what I’ll have and nothing else. A baked potato with loads of sour cream? Yes please. Quinoa soup three nights in a row? Why not. If I have an urge to bake, I do. I look at cooking for one — and that one being me — as a necessary extravagance of taste every single night of the year.
While we’re on the subject of confessions, here’s a few more: sometimes I leave dishes overnight in the sink (just a few, though, like my tea cup and a spoon); I eat ice cream straight out of the carton but I often just have a few bites; I occasionally obsess over boys (quelle horreur!); I feel I could live off of roasted asparagus and good bread alone; lots of times I’ll make a cake just because I want to — such as an upside-down ginger pear cake perfect for December.
Alone in my kitchen time simmers and slows. The wind may bang against the windows and blow in through the cracks very cold and strong (I mean, it’s not Maine cold or Antarctica cold but by San Francisco standards it can get pretty cold) but inside my oven hums along quietly. I leave butter to soften on the counter while I write a few cards. I sift flour and brown sugar and core pears, hoping I have enough cinnamon in the jar. I melt chocolate on low, and whisk eggs into buttermilk and make a cup of tea. Sometimes I take a break and look out my window as night comes down. It’s a simple pleasure, to cook alone with good music on in the other room, my apartment clean and cozy as I like it, but it is mine, and I am grateful to have it.
I dreamed last night of a green water, a white beach, islands. Strange whales rose out of the sea. It was hot, sunny. I saw many people I miss; we had tea, chocolates, lazy afternoons and I woke up a bit empty and wishing to go to Rochester this weekend. I must realize and accept, then, that I will always miss someone because no place exists in this world where all of your loved ones live neatly within a 20-minute walk, and where you can see them nearly every day. Instead, I will embrace the knowledge that I have places all over the globe to visit. I will send cookies across the country and plan visits to Colorado. I will save my pennies for trans-continental flights. I will bake and bake until I simply can’t anymore.
Anyway: this cake. It’s delicious. It’s moist and dense and not-too-sweet. The cinnamon-laced caramelized pears somehow hold their integrity even through over an hour in the oven and are the perfect foil for the slightly spicy cake. And after all that nonsense about cooking only for me, I packed up about half of it and brought it in to work today (they loved it). This morning I woke to rain against the glass but in the past hour or so the sun has struggled through and it’s wonderfully clear and crisp. I just went to the post office and on my walk back the sky stretched out clean and blue save for the clouds at the end of the street piling up like whipped cream, the wind lessened to just a sweet, cool breeze. I came back in to have a slice of cake and a slip of coffee and oh, Friday, I do love you so.
Ginger Pear Upside-Down Cake, adapted from Leslie Mackie’s Macrina Bakery & Café Cookbook
For the topping:
3 Tbs unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup light brown sugar
1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
4-5 medium to large ripe pears, peeled, cored, and quartered lengthwise
For the batter:
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup light brown sugar
2 Tbs peeled, grated ginger
3 large eggs
2/3 cup molasses
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
1 ½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp. powdered ginger
½ tsp salt
1 ½ cups buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Oil a 9-inch springform pan, and line the bottom with a 10-inch circle of parchment paper.
To make the topping, combine 3 Tbs butter, ½ cup brown sugar, and cinnamon in a medium saucepan. Melt the butter over medium heat for about 1 minute; then pour the mixture into the prepared springform pan, completely coating the parchment paper. Place the quartered pears on top of the butter-sugar mixture, lining the pieces up tightly so that none of the bottom shows through.
To make the batter, cut 2 sticks of butter into 1-inch pieces, and put them in a large mixing bowl. Add ¾ cup brown sugar, and cream the mixture on medium speed for 3-5 minutes, until it is smooth and a pale tan color. Add the grated ginger, and beat 1 minute more. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the eggs one at a time, beating on low speed and making sure that each egg is fully incorporated before adding another. When all the eggs have been added, slowly pour in the molasses and beat to fully mix.
In a separate medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, ginger, and salt. Whisk to fully combine.
Alternately add small amounts of flour and buttermilk to the batter, stirring and folding with a rubber spatula until the dry ingredients are just absorbed. Do not overmix. Pour and scrape the batter into the pear-lined pan, smoothing the top with a rubber surface. The pan will be nearly full.
Carefully transfer the pan to the center rack of the oven, and bake for about 1 hour and 45 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the cake’s center comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes on a wire rack. Cover the pan with an upside-down serving plate; then carefully invert them together. Release the sides of the pan, and lift it away. Gently lift the pan’s base off the cake, and peel away the parchment paper. Allow the cake to cool for a half hour or so, and serve warm, with whipped cream.
*Thanks to Ms. Colwin for the title inspiration.