I didn't think Kyle could top the shape and beauty of the brick patio he constructed in my back yard but he has. My friend Trish has a gorgeous garden. Her big house is on a corner lot in the Irvington section of NE Portland. Trish has lavished her considerable energies on this garden. Her husband, Dave, built her a greenhouse from salvaged wood, glass and other materials. Her side terrace has a gate in which she has installed a handsome metal sculpture of dragonflies. But Trish didn't like the sight of a large, outdoor central air conditioning unit. Its ungainly sight broke up the tranquil beauty of everything surrounding it. So after replacing a side stairway entrance to the house, Trish asked Kyle if he might create some sort of frame to hide the air conditioning unit. She had the same metal artist create a new metal dragonfly cutout. All that was left was for Kyle to find the right sort of frame to set it off. And did he ever.
The frame is mahogany and it's very heavy. Over a two-week period, I watched as Kyle drew and re-drew his design, bought the wood, and slowly began to assemble it, constantly refining his design. Cutting the pieces, sanding the wood's rough edges, the frame began to take shape. Kyle is delivering it today, but not before I asked him to take a picture with his phone. I meant to photograph it all weekend, but the rain kept interfering with my plans. So here it is. I tried to convince Kyle to leave it here for my garden. Trust me, I'm going to be hounding him for something similar!
My friend Sarah brought me some Asian Pears from her garden. I used half of them for a jar of Asian Pear apple butter with ginger, nutmeg, lemon juice, white and brown sugar, a bit of apple juice. It turned out well, but I only have one jar, so I may make a big batch of it next year. It certainly has zipped up my toast this week. The other half was a substitute for apples in a recipe from Dorie Greenspan's fabulous new cookbook, AROUND MY FRENCH TABLE, which I'm doing the publicity for now. Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake is an elegant, but simple one-layer cake that is mostly apples, held together, spider-web fashion with a small amount of batter composed of flour, butter, eggs, salt, baking powder, dark rum, vanilla and sugar. It's a snap to put together. It can be served plain with a dusting of powdered sugar, or with a spoon of whipped cream or ice cream. We ate it plain and it's not too sweet and a good way to end a meal. It also makes a fine breakfast, as I discovered the next morning. Here's the recipe.
Marie-Hélène’s Apple Cake
Makes 8 servings
My friend Marie-Hélène Brunet-Lhoste is a woman who knows her way around food. She’s a top editor of the Louis Vuitton City Guides (and one of the restaurant critics for the Paris edition), so she eats at scores of restaurants every year, and she’s a terrific hostess, so she cooks at home often and with great generosity. There’s no question that she’s a great cook, but for me, she’s the most frustrating kind of cook: she never follows a recipe (in fact, I don’t think there’s a cookbook to be found on her packed bookshelves), never takes a note about what she does, and while she’s always happy to share her cooking tips, she can never give you a real recipe — she just doesn’t know it.
I’ve watched her in her kitchen, in the hopes of nabbing a recipe by observation, but it’s impossible. Like so many really good cooks, Marie-Hélène starts off with a set of ingredients that could be annotated and recipe-ized, but once she starts mixing, stirring, boiling, baking, or sautéing, she makes so many mid-cooking adjustments that you just have to throw up your hands and content yourself with being the lucky recipient.
And so it was with this apple cake, which is more apple than cake, rather plain but very appealing in its simplicity (the chunks of apple make a bumpy, golden top), and so satisfying that we all went back for seconds. Despite knowing that it was futile, I asked for the recipe, and of course, Marie-Hélène didn’t really know.
“It’s got two eggs, sugar, flour, and melted butter — oh, and rum,” she said. “I mix the eggs and sugar together, and then I add some flour, some butter, some flour, and some butter.” When I asked how much flour and butter, I got a genuinely apologetic shrug, and when I asked what kind of apples she used, the answer was, divers, or different kinds.
Since there were only a few major ingredients, I thought I could figure out the recipe — and I did! (Although not on the first — or second — shot.) I’ve added baking powder to the mix (and I have a feeling Marie-Hélène might have too) and a drizzle of vanilla, which you can skip if you want. What you don’t want to skip is the pleasure of having divers apples. It’s really nice to mix up the fruit, so that you have some apples that are crisp, some soft, some sweet, and some tart.
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
4 large apples (if you can, choose 4 different kinds)
2 large eggs
¾ cup sugar
3 tablespoons dark rum
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter an 8-inch springform pan. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper and put the springform on it.
Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a small bowl.
Peel the apples, cut them in half, and remove the cores. Cut the apples into 1- to 2-inch chunks.
In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk until they’re foamy. Pour in the sugar and whisk for a minute or so to blend. Whisk in the rum and vanilla. Whisk in half the flour and, when it is incorporated, add half the melted butter, followed by the rest of the flour and the remaining butter, mixing gently after each addition so that you have a smooth, rather thick batter. Switch to a rubber spatula and fold in the apples, turning the fruit so that it’s coated with batter. Scrape the mix into the pan and poke it around a little with the spatula so that it’s evenish.
Slide the pan into the oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the top of the cake is golden brown and a knife inserted deep into the center comes out clean; the cake may pull away from the sides of the pan. Transfer to a cooling rack and let rest for 5 minutes.
Carefully run a blunt knife around the edges of the cake and remove the sides of the springform pan. (Open the springform slowly, and before it’s fully opened, make sure there aren’t any apples stuck to it.) Allow the cake to cool until it is just slightly warm or at room temperature. If you want to remove the cake from the bottom of the springform pan, wait until the cake is almost cooled, then run a long spatula between the cake and the pan, cover the top of the cake with a piece of parchment or wax paper, and invert it onto a rack. Carefully remove the bottom of the pan and turn the cake over onto a serving dish.
The cake can be served warm or at room temperature, with or without a little softly whipped barely sweetened heavy cream or a spoonful of ice cream. Marie-Hélène served her cake with cinnamon ice cream, and it was a terrific combination.
The cake will keep for about 2 days at room temperature and, according to my husband, gets more comforting with each passing day. However long you keep the cake, it’s best not to cover it — it’s too moist. Leave the cake on its plate and just press a piece of plastic wrap or wax paper against the cut surfaces.