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That Same Old Song

[Cake for a barbecue, June 2008.]

Update: still sickish, though somewhat improving. Thanks for all the well-wishes! Crankiness level is reaching astronomical proportions, however; please send help. And chocolate.

I’m a creature of habit, it’s true. Sometimes, in the interest of creativity, or just plain boredom, I try a new recipe — even if I have one on file I’ve used lots of times before, because I feel like I Should. And, as in the case of last year’s pineapple upside-down cake, I can regret it, and wish I’d stuck with my old familiar. If I get stuck in a rut (and it’s quite clear I do, with all of my cupcake-baking, and simple stirfries of chickpeas and greens, or easy tomato sauces, and and and) perhaps it’s not so bad if the results taste so good.

Case in point: I volunteered to bake a dessert for our work barbecue this week, and so decided, what with all the cheap and delicious stone fruit coming in to the markets, I’d make my classic summer fruit upside down cake which came to me by way of williams-sonoma.com in the original form of a cranberry upside-down cake. There’s just something about this cake that lends itself to all sorts of permutations: it’s simple, buttery, and manages to be airy and rich at the same time, laced liberally with vanilla and lightened with a bit of cake flour. It’s the perfect base for any sort of fruit — I’ve also made it with cherries and last summer used nectarines and plum slices (this time I used white peaches and nectarines). Left to rest overnight, the fruit settles more comfortably into the cake, and the butter-brown-sugar layer binds it all together ever so gently.

Unfortunately, there were no leftovers.

Other things we ate (and yes, this was at work because San Franciscans are, as my coworker said, the wee-est bit food obsessed): grilled pork loin, grilled chicken, Kosher hot dogs (OK, I didn’t eat this), veggie burgers, veggie sausages, grilled corn with garlic-butter, grilled asparagus also with the garlic-butter, fruit salad, green salad, cookies, sangria, various potato and pasta salads, fresh vegetable platter, chips and guacamole.

This pesky cold does not seem to have affected my appetite too much, although with that kind of a spread you really do have to eat lightly out of self preservation.

[Summer fruit cake, June 2008.]

Today in the city the air is slightly smoky, a result of the fires burning up north and possibly even to the south as well. I would like to close my eyes and imagine that I am camping out at Wildcat, or just sitting round a driftwood fire after a good dinner, but all I can really do is hope the firefighters so bravely battling the flames will be OK, and that the fires are out just as soon as possible. Summer in Northern California is so dry, and is often marked by wildfires. I doubt I’ll ever get used to it.

Ironically, the first time I ever went camping, in the Armstrong redwoods, it rained. Nevertheless, my brother and I were so excited to sleep out-of-doors (those backyard nights spent in tents were of course very fun, but it was the backyard) we didn’t care (my parents might tell a different story). That weekend wasn’t just a drizzly one, either; the rain picked up during the night and we woke up to a waterlogged tent, muddy ground — and the most beautiful, ethereal mist drifting through the trees. I’ll never forget that; the sun is lovely, and a dry, crisp morning lovelier still, but there is something magical about being in the woods in the rain. Sounds are quieter, the birds are calmer. The water makes drips slowly off the trees and the sky feels closer.

[Sun through the trees, Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, June 2008.


Most of my subsequent camping and backpacking trips have occurred during better weather (in truth, the outdoors is a bit less magical when your sleeping bag is sodden and you’re slogging along through the mud), though on one trip to the Yosemite back country we hiked through snow (in early July!) and woke up in the night to the soft patter of rain on the tent. Some summers I have been lucky enough to camp along the coast during a heat wave, which means swimming in the freezing ocean if the surf is not too rough. An afternoon spent on the edge of the Pt. Reyes National Seashore, after a good 6-mile hike in, with a container of freshly filtered water and a book is something I can never get enough of. There are few things that make me happier than to sleep early and wake with the sound of the Pacific thrumming in my ears, that quiet ocean roar against the sand (of course, I’ll also take the wind in the high mountains as an adequate substitute).

I’ve been to the redwoods and West Marin (and the Sierras) for camping trips more times than I can count, but each time I go I feel as though I learn something new. A trail may be more rocky, a meadow more smooth, a tide pool laid bare for exploring, a tree tipped over unexpectedly. At home, I may bake a favorite recipe twice in one week, but each time it holds its own surprises (in the case of this particular cake, I’d never used that fruit combination, and it bears repeating).

So this creature of habit can’t complain too much if her little repetitions are so satisfying — also see: summers at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk riding the Giant Dipper over and over (and over) without ever getting sick of it — whether they concern camping, or cakes.

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