In late October, I drove up north to visit my daughter and her family in Santa Cruz. After lunching downtown one day, Dinah and I walked over to the Museum of Art and History. She led me to her favorite exhibit, which featured the daily life of Santa Cruz County from earliest times. We ambled through the centuries, dioramas crowded with tools, furniture, clothing, journals and keepsakes of each period. But when we reached "The Home Front: Santa Cruz County's War Front During World War II," I stood still.
There, lifted straight from my L.A. childhood, in a small kitchen that reminded me of my best friend's mother's, were food ration books and coupons, Victory Garden seed packets, gas rationing stickers and cupboards crowded with boxes of spices, sacks of grain, dried beans, dehydrated soup mixes and Mason jars brimming with home-canned green beans, cherries and rhubarb. The robin's egg blue stove made my mouth water, with its long legs, stacked ovens, shelf for raising dough, trash burner and two warmers.
Driving home down Highway 101, signs heralded fruit stands with "Apples! Pears! Persimmons!," and suddenly I was 9 years old in Jenny's mother's kitchen, baking cookies--persimmon cookies. In their garden, small lanterns of persimmons shone from a leafless tree. These were the first cookies I ever made, and I was mesmerized putting the dough together. (I'd long been my mother's dinner party sous chef, peeling vegetables, tossing salads, stirring stews, but baking wasn't one of her passions and so I'd never baked.)
First Jenny and I smooshed the fruit's jellylike pulp with forks on a wooden board. Then in a deep bowl, we took turns using a stout spoon to beat and beat until the shortening and honey (sugar was rationed) turned fluffy. To this creamy mixture we plopped in an egg, dropped in the orange mash, dumped in a cloud of flour and whiff of cinnamon, scattered in raisins, stirred feverishly, then daintily pushed blobs off a spoon onto the baking sheets we'd greased with the flats of our hands. After a lifetime of waiting--15 minutes, I was frantic with the fragrance--we opened the oven door. I gasped. The pale blobs had metamorphosed into beautiful amber-gold cakes.
At Paso Robles I turned east. Reaching Interstate 5, the okra aroma of cotton fields was in my nose. A roadside sign touting "Pomegranates!" snapped my thoughts back to Jenny and me at the Eunice Knight Saunders School in Hollywood. Two old pomegranate trees graced the schoolyard. Every October even scrappy first-grade boys didn't climb the trees lest the limbs break and the fruits be smashed, and even snooty fifth-grade girls didn't wear good dresses lest they be splashed with scarlet. I remember the shock of the fruit's first taste each autumn, sharp-sweet, deeply quenching, delicious. And what fun aiming shots of seeds at friends and enemies alike. So Southern California, kids hanging around at recess, feasting on pomegranates, taking the riches for granted.
Back home in L.A., where our weather had suddenly turned as brisk as Santa Cruz's, I unpacked, all the while haunted by the scent of spiced persimmons baking. It wasn't a child's cookies I longed for but my grown-up rummy persimmon cake (inspired by James Beard's persimmon bread, the recipe has evolved over the years). I was seized with the need to warm chilly days and chillier evenings with the pleasures and comforts of autumn's harvest from my oven.
I called my mother, inviting her to go with me to the farmers market, telling her what I had in mind. I smiled when she told me she didn't find baking a comfort. A challenge, yes. Involving, yes. But not a comfort. For my part, when I'm at sixes and sevens--even when I'm not--I find myself in the kitchen whisking up coffeecake or patting out shortbread. I find baking's rituals--the sifting, kneading, rolling, pinching, smearing, melting, folding--pleasurable. And when something's pleasurable, it gives me comfort deep down. Although I think it unlikely, I hope Ma will feel what I feel about baking one day.
I set off. I was thrilled by what I found at the farmers market. At a time when strawberries and even peaches are boring with their year-aroundness, spying rose-scented quinces, ruby pomegranates, neon persimmons, jewels of cranberries and elegant Seckel pears after most of a year without them is bliss. And apples! Not just Arkansas Blacks and Newtown Pippins (beloved by Jefferson and Franklin, called Pippins these days) but varieties such as Ginger Gold and Sierra Beauty that I'd somehow never seen.
Fruits aren't all of autumn's sweetness. Hazelnuts are among the nuts that tumble from trees in cool weather. I find their unique flavor makes pastry taste European. Got some of those too.
Over the days that followed, I indulged in a blither of baking. I basted three-fruited dumplings with caramel syrup, drizzled a rummy mountain of persimmon cake with rummy orange icing, heaped hazelnut meringue over raspberry jam over chocolate-hazelnut cookie dough, confected a tart of diminutive pears set in almond custard and glazed them with fresh pomegranate jelly.
Burrowing into my cozy kitchen, I reflected. Each season blesses us afresh. Autumn's blessings seemed to mantle me in layers. First, the beauty of the fruits. Next, the comforts of baking. Ah, then the pleasures of tasting. Crowning all, of course, the joys of sharing. An abundance for gratitude, indeed.
Active Work Time: 1 hour
Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Note: These caramel-coated flaky dumplings are inspired by Paradise Jelly--an exquisite blend of apples, quinces and cranberries. Lard adds flakiness to pastry; butter adds lightness and crispness; shortening helps make pastry tender as well as flaky. Serve with vanilla ice cream.
2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup shortening, chilled, cut in 1/2-inch chunks
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted European-style butter or lard, chilled, cut in 1/2-inch chunks
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon ice water
1. Use a fork to blend the flour, sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the shortening and butter. With your fingertips, rub the fat into the flour until the mixture is half pea-size pieces and half the texture of coarse meal.
2. Add the water and stir lightly with a fork until all the flour has been moistened and the mixture holds together. Divide the dough in half and make a rectangle of each piece. Wrap and chill at least 30 minutes while you prepare the fruit.
1 (3 1/2-inch) Granny Smith or Pippin apple, peeled, quartered and cored
1 (3 1/2-inch) ripe (fragrant) quince, peeled, quartered and cored
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 cups cranberries
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, cut in 6 pieces
1. Slice the apple quarters lengthwise in half, then cut each piece crosswise into 1-inch chunks and place them in a mixing bowl. Repeat with the quince, being sure to cut out any gritty white part that lies beneath the seeds.
2. Blend the sugar, flour and cinnamon together. Sprinkle over the fruit and toss to mix.
3. Roll out the first piece of chilled dough on a floured board to 18x7 inches. Cut it in 3 (7x6-inch) pieces, then roll each out to make a 7-inch square. Repeat with the remaining chilled dough.
4. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Have ready a 13x9-inch baking pan.
5. Working one square at a time, place some fruit in the center, scraping in a little, if any, melted sugar. Add 1/4 cup of cranberries and top with a piece of butter.
6. Brush the edges of the square with cold water. Bring the two opposite corners together and pinch at the top and the sides. Repeat with the other corners and sides. Set the dumpling in the pan. Continue with the remaining squares.
7. Bake the dumplings while you prepare the syrup.
2 cups light brown sugar, packed
1 cup cool water
1. Blend the sugar and water in a 1-quart saucepan and stir while bringing to a boil.
2. After the dumplings have baked 15 minutes, pour the boiling syrup over them. Return them to the oven. Spoon or brush the syrup over the dumplings after another 10 minutes. Continue to bake the dumplings until the fruit tests tender with a thin skewer, about 5 minutes more.
3. Cool a few minutes, then lift the dumplings onto dessert plates with a spatula. If the dumplings cool enough that the caramel hardens, return them to a 425-degree oven for 5 to 10 minutes to soften.
6 servings. Each serving: 772 calories; 370 mg sodium; 72 mg cholesterol; 45 grams fat; 21 grams saturated fat; 91 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 4.96 grams fiber.
Persimmon Cake With Rum Orange Icing
Active Work Time: 25 minutes
Total Preparation Time: 2 hours
Note: In baking, the persimmons' puckery taste mellows and their velvety flesh melts into tender richness. This is a cake that's fun to make, long-keeping and irresistible on a buffet. If your bundt pan is heavy cast aluminum, bake the cake at 325 degrees.
2 cups chopped walnuts
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted European-style butter, melted, divided
2 cups dried currants
3 cups sifted unbleached all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 3/4 teaspoons baking soda
Rounded 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 3/4 cups pureed unpeeled, fully ripe persimmons
4 eggs, beaten to blend
1/2 cup best-quality dark rum
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the nuts on a baking sheet and toast until lightly browned, about 15 minutes, shaking the pan once or twice.
2. Meanwhile, butter a 12-cup bundt pan with 2 tablespoons of the melted butter, then dust with flour and knock out the excess. Mix the walnuts and currants together; set aside.
3. Sift the flour, sugar, ginger, baking soda and salt together in a large bowl and stir to blend.
4. Whisk the persimmon puree, eggs, rum and remaining melted butter together until blended.
5. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and whisk until thoroughly smooth. Add the nuts and currants and fold with a large rubber spatula until thoroughly mixed. Smooth the batter into the pan, pushing it up against the outer rim.
6. Bake at 350 degrees until a thin skewer inserted halfway between the tube and rim comes out clean, 60 to 65 minutes. Cool the cake in the pan 10 minutes, then knock the pan against the counter a few times to loosen the cake. Unmold onto a rack and cool.
RUM ORANGE ICING
3 2/3 cups powdered sugar, put through a sieve
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted European-style butter, softened
4 to 5 tablespoons strained orange juice, divided
2 tablespoons best-quality dark rum
Finely grated zest of 1 large orange
Whisk the sugar, butter, 31/2 tablespoons orange juice and the rum together until smooth. Whisk in the zest. Test a little on the cake--if the icing is too thick to spread when it falls, whisk in another 1/2 tablespoon orange juice. Use at once. (Makes 11/2 cups.)
To ice the cake, set the cooled cake on its rack over wax paper and slowly pour the icing from a measuring pitcher around the top of the cake, letting the icing fall in long graceful drops down both sides. Immediately spoon the icing on the paper over the top again, in the same direction, until all of it has been used.
Using spatulas, lift the cake onto its serving platter. The cake can be covered and kept in a cool place 2 to 3 days before serving.
1 firm-ripe persimmon, for garnish, optional
Fresh unsprayed leaves, for garnish, optional
At serving time, if desired, cut the persimmon in strips about 1/2-inch-wide, 1/2-inch thick and little-finger length, and lay them in the grooves along the top of the cake, pointed ends out. Arrange unsprayed leaves around the base. To serve, slice with a serrated knife.
20 to 24 servings. Each of 24 servings: 374 calories; 148 mg sodium; 60 mg cholesterol; 17 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 50 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 1.58 grams fiber.
Viennese Hazelnut Chocolate Raspberry Bars
Active Work Time: 45 minutes
Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Note: To blanch (peel) hazelnuts, roast them in a 350-degree oven in a single layer until you can smell them, 10 to 15 minutes. Rub the nuts, a handful at a time, in a towel until the peels fall off. Lift the nuts out carefully, shaking off any flakes of peel. You can find blanched, roasted hazelnuts at some gourmet shops. Be sure the egg whites in the hazelnut layer are at room temperature .
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup (about 2 1/2 ounces) finely ground toasted blanched hazelnuts
1/2 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Dash sea salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted European-style butter
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, ground to a powder
1. Line the bottom and sides of a 13x9-inch baking pan with one sheet of parchment paper.
2. Blend the flour, hazelnuts, sugar, cinnamon and salt in a mixing bowl. Make a well in the center and cut in the butter in small pieces. Add the yolk and vanilla, then pour the chocolate over all.
3. Blend the ingredients together with your fingertips, then when it becomes a cohesive dough, knead gently into a ball.
4. With a fork or your fingertips, gently smooth the dough so it evenly covers the paper in the pan. Set the dough in the freezer to chill while you make the hazelnut layer.
3 egg whites, room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 1/2 cups (about 7 1/2 ounces) coarsely ground toasted blanched hazelnuts
2 tablespoons strained lemon juice
1. Whisk the whites, sugar and salt together in a bowl until the whites are frothy and the sugar has dissolved, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the hazelnuts and blend with a fork, then blend in the lemon juice.
2/3 cup seedless raspberry jam
2 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Remove the Chocolate Layer from the refrigerator and spread the jam evenly over the top, using the back of a spoon.
3. Spread the Hazelnut Layer evenly over the jam.
4. Bake on the lowest rack of the oven for 10 minutes, then bake in the center of the oven until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes more.
5. Cut into bars while hot (if desired, first cut around the pan at the point where the edges start to darken and later discard these parts). Be careful not to cut through the paper. Cut the 13-inch side into 12 sections, then make 4 even cuts the other way. Cool in the pan.
6. Using the paper, lift the bars out of the pan, if possible.
7. Melt the chocolate and drizzle it in swirls over the top of the bars. After the chocolate has set, remove the bars from the paper and store them in an airtight tin or box. They will keep fresh in a cool place at least 1 week.
48 bars. Each bar: 127 calories; 19 mg sodium; 51 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 14 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.91 gram fiber.
Tart of Poached Seckel Pears With Frangipane Cream and Pomegranate Jelly Glaze
Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 2 hours
Note: Pomegranate's pizazz is a brilliant counterpoint to these delicate diminutive pears, while sweet almonds tie them together. Each element of this beautiful dessert is an adventure--but there's no pressure, as all parts may be prepared in advance. You may put the tart together up to 4 hours before serving. Keep it in a cool dry place, not the refrigerator. You'll have Pomegranate Jelly left over. It's great on toast.
CRISP SWEET PASTRY
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking powder, optional
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted European-style butter, cold
3 tablespoons chilled whipping cream
1 egg yolk, chilled
1. Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into a mixing bowl.
2. Cut the butter in quarters lengthwise, then slice it into the bowl in 1/4-inch-thick chips. Toss the chips until separated and coated with flour.
With your fingertips, rub the butter into the flour until the mixture has the texture of coarse meal. Keep your hands above the mixture while you're working to prevent the butter from melting (your palms are warmer than your fingers) and to keep the dough airy and light.
3. Beat the whipping cream and yolk together, make a well in the flour and pour in the cream mixture. Blend the liquid into the flour with your fingertips until the dough sticks together; it will be very wet. Turn onto a floured board and pat into a round.
4. Now the fraisage--the smearing that brings the dough together better. With the heel of your hand, smear walnut-sized pieces of dough across the work surface for 6 or so inches. Scrape up the heap, press all of the pieces together and pat them into an even 1/2-inch thick round. You can wrap the dough in foil and refrigerate it for a day or two, or proceed at once. (If you're chilling the dough, bring it back to room temperature before beginning the next step.)
5. Sprinkle a pastry board or work surface with flour. Roll the dough out to an even 11-inch round, rolling in one direction, then lifting the pin and giving the dough a quarter turn as needed to make a circle (never roll back and forth). Fold the dough in half, brush off any flour, then lift it up and brush off the flour beneath. The dough will be very tender; handle it very gently. If it keeps breaking, knead flour a tablespoon at a time into the dough so that it remains tender but can be lifted up without breaking.
6. Center the folded round above a 9 3/8-or 9 1/2-inch two-piece tart pan or a tart ring set on a rimless baking sheet. Unfold the dough and, without stretching, let it fall into place in the ring. Coax it down to fit snugly against the corners. Smooth out any air bubbles.
7. Fold the sides down to touch the bottom. Cut off any excess dough even with the rim. Press all around the sides with a fingertip, simultaneously sealing and fluting and making the sides 3/4-inch high.
8. Cover the shell and refrigerate from 1 hour to 1 day.
9. The shell for this tart will be fully baked. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lay a square of parchment or wax paper in the shell and fill with 3 cups pie weights (dried beans are good). Weights keep the dough from bubbling up. Gently press the weights down into the corners and up against the sides over the rim. Bake the shell until the rim is golden, 25 minutes.
10. Lift out the paper and weights and return the shell to the oven. Bake until the bottom is lightly golden, about 12 to 15 minutes--check every 2 to 3 minutes and prick with a fork if the pastry bubbles up. Remove from the oven. Cool a shell in a two-piece tart pan in the pan; a shell baked in a ring can be slid off the pan onto a cooling rack. Unmold the shell. If it is in a two-piece pan, set it on a sturdy can and let the rim drop down. Use a spatula to gently nudge the shell off its base and center it on a platter. If using a tart ring, slide the shell off the cooling rack onto the platter and lift off the ring.
The shell can be baked up to 3 days in advance and kept in a cool dry place, not the refrigerator.
POMEGRANATE JELLY GLAZE
3 (9-to 10-ounce) pomegranates (choose the heaviest for their size)
3 tablespoons fruit pectin powder
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon strained lemon juice
1 1/2 cups sugar
Cut the pomegranates in half between blossom and stem ends. Ream them on a juicer, then gather the spent seeds into a damp cloth and squeeze out every drop of juice. Strain and measure 1 cup.
Follow the manufacturer's directions on the pectin box to make elderberry jelly, using the 1 cup pomegranate juice, the lemon juice and sugar.
After skimming off the foam, use the jelly immediately or pour it into a clean hot glass storage jar, cover and refrigerate up to 2 weeks. Makes 1 2/3 cups.
FRANGIPANE CREAM FILLING
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3/4 cup whole milk
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 cup ground almonds
Shake the sugar, flour and cornstarch together through a sieve into a mixing bowl. Add the egg and whisk until thick and smooth, about 1 minute.
Bring the milk to a boil in a small saucepan. Slowly whisk 1/3 of the milk into the egg mixture, then whisk the egg mixture back into the pot. Whisk over medium heat until the custard begins to bubble, then whisk for 1 minute.
Remove from the heat, pour through a sieve into a bowl, whisk in the almond extract, then blend in the almonds. Lay wax paper on the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Cool before adding to the tart shell, or cover and refrigerate up to 2 days.
If the Pomegranate Jelly has set, melt it in a saucepan over low heat, whisking to break up lumps. Pour 1/3 cup into the shell and brush it over the bottom and up the sides for a moisture barrier.
When this jelly has set, smooth the Frangipane Cream into the shell.
1 1/2 cups sugar
12 firm-ripe Seckel pears of the same size
Add enough water to the sugar to make 1 quart, stirring until the sugar dissolves, then pour the syrup into a 3-to 3 1/2-quart saucepan.
Peel the pears and cut in half lengthwise. With a small sharp knife, make a V-cut to trim out the cores. Drop the halves into the syrup as you go.
Bring the syrup to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to low and simmer until the pears test tender with a thin skewer, 10 to 20 minutes. Skewer them and lift each out as it is ready.
You can keep the pears in the syrup, covered and refrigerated, up to 3 days. If using right away, cool them before adding to the tart.
Lift the pears from their syrup and pat thoroughly dry. Lay them on the cream layer, starting with a row of rounded bottoms against the sides, thin edges pointing toward the center; finish with a small pear in the center. For help in lifting and moving pears, use a thin skewer.
If the pomegranate jelly has set, melt it over lowest heat, whisking until smooth. Spoon about 1/4 cup over the pears and cream, covering them completely but steering clear of the pastry rim.
1/4 cup sliced almonds
Seeds from 1/8 medium-size pomegranate
Toast the almonds in a dry skillet over medium heat until golden, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle the almonds around the outer edge of the tart in a 1 1/2-inch border. Strew pomegranate seeds over the almonds.
8 servings. Each serving: 662 calories; 78 mg sodium; 336 mg cholesterol; 25 grams fat; 11 grams saturated fat; 103 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 6.32 grams fiber.
European-style butter, called for in these recipes, contains less moisture than regular butter. Several brand-name dairies make it now, and it can be found in most supermarkets.