I’ve never lived in San Francisco before, and rarely even spent summer days in this city by the bay when I did manage to steal away for a few weeks to visit California in late August. In Sonoma County, summers are hotter, drier, and more sun-filled, though of course the nights are cool, the mornings still brisk and clear. But this summer, adrift in a sea of fog that often began to make its way through the Financial District in early afternoon, I felt a bit bereft. Not only did I not spend a glorious weekend or two basking on a towel along Delaware’s Eastern Shore (Lewes, how I miss you) and reading books about food, I could hardly stand to dip a toe into the icy Pacific, let alone go swimming.
In short, summer did not feel exactly like summer this year, and it went by too quickly. Here it is October, and although we’re having the lovely “Indian summer” weather the Bay Area is known for, I still regret a little my ‘lost’ summer. While in Washington I bemoaned the humidity. I lamented the absence of a sea breeze, and (foolishly?) wished for fog. It is true that we often romanticize what is no longer, and to my mild chagrin, I realized I missed that somnolent heaviness a bit. Summer had become something to sweat and trudge through — but it had also become a balm. Some nights in the city the air felt like a warm bath — difficult to breathe, perhaps, but infinitely comforting.
So when I went up to Sebastopol in early July and stepped off the bus into a night as warm and clear as I remembered experiencing on the East Coast, I was happily delighted. This was summer. This was what I’d been missing while marooned in the city, watching white clouds blanket downtown from my 16th-floor window. This was the perfect summer I’d been longing for in DC — warm and hot, even, but not humid. That is the beauty of California.
When I walked into my parents’ house, my eye was drawn immediately to the platter of cupcakes on the granite counter. The kitchen was full of the smell of them, and of other things: spices, vegetable soup, good bread, onions. But the cupcakes … I really have not had anything as good before, or since. I’ve made them myself, but they were not nearly as enticing. Perhaps it was the warm weather; perhaps it was the feeling of an early-summer weekend stretching ahead of me; perhaps it was simply that my mother had made them for me, and I felt loved, and cherished.
I think mostly it was because they were so absolutely delicious. I nibbled on them all weekend — post-run, post-lunch, post-breakfast, even. And while I still couldn’t take a dip in the ocean, I felt, at least for that one weekend, that it was a proper summer.
I made this cake after I ran the 1/2-marathon in July and had a few friends over for dinner. It is a plum/nectarine upside-cake, also delicious, and also full of the tastes of summer.
Nectarine/Plum Upside-Down Cake
(Adapted from Williams Sonoma)
For the topping:
4 Tbs. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
3 plums, sliced
2 nectarines, sliced
For the cake:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
8 Tbs. (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs, separated
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk
1/8 tsp. cream of tartar
Butter a 9-inch round cake pan. Put the butter and brown sugar in the prepared pan and place the pan over medium heat. Heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter is melted and the sugar has dissolved. Arrange the fruit slices artfully over the butter-sugar mixture. Set aside.
Preheat an oven to 350°F.
To make the cake, in a bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. In another bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter and granulated sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla and mix well. Using a spatula, fold in the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the milk.
In a bowl, using a whisk or an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Add the cream of tartar and continue to beat until stiff peaks form. Using the spatula, fold the whites into the batter.
Spoon the batter over the cranberries in the cake pan, spreading it evenly. Bake until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, 55 to 60 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool for 15 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the pan to loosen the cake. Invert onto a serving plate, let stand for 5 minutes, then lift off the pan.
Serve with whipped cream.