[Redwood, Armstrong Woods, August 2010.]
I was trying to write this thing about summer — how I felt like I finally caught it on Saturday driving along the Russian River but wishing to be out upon it, kayaking or canoeing, how a champagne picnic under the redwoods really is the best use of my time on an August afternoon, and how the air smells near Monte Rio, charged with the energy of almost-fall (oh, but not just yet!) and the dry, slightly smoky smell of trees and dust and river water shot through with sunlight — but it’s coming out all wrong.
So instead I am sticking that photo up there and giving you a recipe for brown sugar blueberry-plum-walnut bread, though I don’t have a photo for that. (Breads don’t always photograph so well, anyway, or at least they don’t if you’re me and throwing something together in the one hour you have between going for a run and going for a drink, with little time to arrange and polish and prettify.) Still, it was a good bread — delicious, in fact, and I will have you know, and came about as these things so often do: because I have a surfeit of some fruit or other (in this case, the plums) and am going to visit friends and of course must bring something homemade (of course, of course, for c’est moi.) in small offering. If I’d had the time for dog biscuits I’d have whipped up a batch of those as well but alas the day slipped away from me ….
I took a banana bread recipe I’ve made a lot (I think originally it came from williams-sonoma.com) and actually considered just making as-is (my freezer usually contains at least 2-3 bananas for use in a last-minute baking pinch) but I didn’t have any chocolate chips and then after all there were those plums softening in their bowl on the counter and I didn’t want to waste them. I’ve been swapping in a bit of brown sugar recently in a lot of recipes because I find I really like the taste of it in baked goods (it’s a sort of deeper, more caramelized sweetness than results from plain white sugar) and then I thought there should be some crunch in there, too, to balance the sweet and the soft … so I used all of those things, plus a few extra blueberries to elevate it a little bit. It turned out pretty great: not too sweet (the plums still very plummy and a little tart) and rich with good butter and nuts. I will make this again and again for sure; cherries would be wonderful here, I think, or even apricots in season, or maybe pears or apples (or a combination) when true fall descends.
As I have mentioned many times, I bake a lot. A lot. Sometimes I feel like it’s something I do almost by rote; I have learnt my oatmeal-chocolate chip cookie and my vegan chocolate cake recipes by heart, and another favorite banana bread is nearly there. I am often loathe to tweak baked goods too much because it’s a science, after all, a peculiar and mysterious alchemy of flour+butter+sugar+vanilla+baking soda or powder that perhaps should not be tampered with. And yet it’s imperative to do so as long as the basic principles remain — and, this is a note to myself — I wonder if it might make the act of baking even more enjoyable. I have that M.F.K. Fisher quote tacked up there to the right for a reason — Cooking made me feel creative and powerful and that is perhaps the truest reason for my continued preoccupation with the art of eating. — and it reminds me to trust my instincts. Yes maple syrup in a cream cheese frosting is often just right, but it should top a nut-and-raisin filled carrot cake rather than a red velvet. Yes substituting a 1/4 cup of cornmeal for white flour in a cake recipe will make it not only more textured but interesting besides. And yes plums go just as well with walnuts as they do with almonds, and chocolate is not always necessary (perish the thought!).
Mixing things up a little (oh, ha ha) also helps with the occasional baking burnout. After doing the wedding cakes for Kurt and Emily a few months ago (two months ago exactly this Thursday, if you care to celebrate these monthly milestones which, yeah, I do) I thought I would need a long and solid break from the oven for at least a month or so. But I think I was back to it straightaway that first week back in San Francisco and not just because I wanted to keep my apartment warm; clearly it’s an addiction, or maybe I just like it a lot (or I know a lot of people with summer birthdays). A few weeks ago I was tasked with making three different and distinct cakes for a 50th birthday party, and spent not a few hours making sure the German chocolate, the carrot, the cheesecakes (with blueberry compote) were just so. I was pretty sick of baking after that but then I had a little dinner party and made a cornmeal-plum tart, and then later this week I am baking two birthday cakes (one, a yellow cake filled with strawberry buttercream and lemon curd; the other a rich, deepdark chocolate cake) for Saturday parties … and while sometimes it feels a little much once I am firmly planted in the kitchen, the oven creakily warming up and butter going soft in the bowl, I feel I am exactly where I am supposed to be (place, map, circled and all that).
I mean, you combine these fairly basic ingredients together and with a little effort and thought — less, if you stick absolutely to the recipe — you’re rewarded with something beautiful and good-tasting. And then if you give it away and watch the recipients licking their fingers and going miam miam and taking seconds “even though I shouldn’t” and smiling because, really, what’s better than a homemade brown-butter-plum-walnut bread? … well, it’s slightly miraculous (and I use that word advisedly), what can come from virtually nothing. It is one of the simplest — and most wonderful — pleasures going.
Another simple — and most wonderful — pleasure is going to the woods. Here I am lucky, because I have the redwoods, and other than the maple and oak trees I climbed all over in my childhood redwoods are absolutely my favorite tree. They are home and California to me. But any woods will do, really, and there are gorgeous forests on the East Coast, too: piney, sweet-smelling, leaves thickly carpeting the ground in autumn to make stepping comfortable and quiet. My beloved John Muir knew it (The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness, he wrote, perhaps about Yosemite but it could also have been about Shenandoah, or Mt. Desert Island) and some days you just ought to go, cake not required. Some nights in this city all I want is the calm peace of the redwood forest, to lean up against a tree to feel its shredding bark damp and cool against my back and look up to see the Pleiades in the high dark. Maybe it’s enough simply to know it exists.
This weekend I wasn’t in Armstrong at night but it was perfect all the same. Things slow down down there; sound and light drift and swirl under that green canopy that I have gone to for my whole life: summer for camping by the pond; fall for hiking on those gorgeous warm Indian summer afternoons; cold-midwinter for cracking puddle-ice and wishing for gloves; spring for rain and the streams swelling their banks. I love it in all seasons.
Now it is nearly fall here in this western state and summer has been a dream, a haze of fog and mist. Yet despite the (seemingly) endless grey bits it has been for the most part the best summer I’ve had in ages. I bake things and I can’t always write and I sit by a fireplace and have a cup of tea and I take photos of Tomales Bay in that 6p light and I spill Hardcore Espresso coffee all over myself (they are nice there and will give you another for free) and I hug a black lab and I go to the trees, when I can. I can rest right here in this moment, and I find this moment to be pretty good.
And so I am grateful. Always.
I hope you have fared well this summer, too, that you’ve been able to steal away to cook delicious things, to go to your favorite places, and to simply, if at possible, just to be.
Let me desire and wish well the life
these trees may live when I
no longer rise in the mornings
to be pleased by the green of them
shining, and their shadows on the ground,
and the sound of the wind in them.
Brown Sugar Blueberry-Plum Bread with Walnuts
8 Tbs. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup regular sugar (I always use a raw/organic sugar I buy in bulk)
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
4 plums, quartered with their pits removed, and then coarsely chopped
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
1/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
Preheat an oven to 350°F. Grease and lightly flour a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan.
Beat together the butter and sugar on medium speed until creamy, about 1 minute. Add the vanilla, and eggs and beat until smooth. Add the buttermilk and beat just until combined.
In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, nutmeg, cinnamon, and salt. Add the flour mixture to wet mixture and beat just until combined. Add the fruit and walnuts. The batter should be slightly lumpy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the loaf is dark golden brown and dry to the touch and the edges pull away from the sides of the pan, 50-60 minutes. A toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean.
Makes one 9-by-5-inch loaf.