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The days are twice as long

This time last week, I was in a wood stove-heated cottage with no Internet, no telephone, and no television, reading my sixth New Yorker of the day. I am fully caught up with The New Yorker. (!) (!!)  Those words may never again be assembled in that order by me, or by anyone, ever.

Actually, I should already switch tenses: I was caught up with The New Yorker. Briefly. Past tense.

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending two nights at Hedgebrook, a nonprofit retreat for women writers, located on Whidbey Island. It’s an incredible place: just six one-room cabins, a cottage, a farmhouse, a garden, and a couple of woodsheds on 48 acres, dedicated solely giving women the time, space, and quiet to write, free of charge. (!) (!!) At the end of each day, at 5:30 pm, the six or seven writers in residence gather in the farmhouse kitchen to share a meal cooked for them by one of Hedgebrook’s chefs, with ingredients largely harvested from the garden. And afterward, they each take their flashlight and a basket of breakfast makings and lunch and walk back to their cabins in the trees, and no one disturbs them, or comes looking for them, or asks anything of them, and definitely, definitely no one there needs a diaper change or wakes up crying in the middle of the night, and this superlative quiet continues until 5:30 pm the next day, when the writers meet for dinner again, walk home with their baskets again, etc. etc. etc. (!!!)  I try not to use the word magic too often, not unless the topic is actual magic, magical magic. But Hedgebrook has it.

This fall, Hedgebrook is celebrating its 25th birthday, and it has also just released a cookbook of recipes served at the farmhouse table, and because of that, I was offered a stay there, to experience it. I don’t usually do PR stuff; it’s not what I like to write about. But I had heard about Hedgebrook years ago from a photographer friend of my mom’s, and I had thought about applying to be a writer in residence someday, but I was too intimidated to do it. So boarding the ferry for Whidbey Island, I was giddy, electric. It took a full day for my insides to stop vibrating.

I stayed in a cottage called Meadowhouse, which is apparently the same place where Gloria Steinem stays when she goes to Hedgebrook. (!!!!)  Most writers stay at Hedgebrook for two to six weeks. I was there for 48 hours. The time seemed so short that it almost hurt to look at the clock. I spent the first day resisting the urge to make a to-do list and launch into it at breakneck speed. (Shower in the same shower that Gloria Steinem showered in: CHECK! Pee in the same toilet that Gloria Steinem peed in: CHECK! Prod log in wood stove with same wrought iron poker thing that Gloria Steinem prodded log with: CHECK!) But having nothing to do but take care of myself and do my work - whatever that meant, because no one would be keeping score - the hours felt slow, expansive, extra, as though I had gone through a portal and come out in a universe where the days are twice as long.

I learned how to build a fire in my wood stove, and how to keep it burning. I read eight New Yorkers and started Madame Bovary. I took a walk in the woods on the property and another down to the beach. I listened to an owl. I ate two slices of butter cake filled with raspberries. I had two dinners and easy conversation with six other women writers. I slept in. I took pictures. I was temporarily blinded by euphoria and a ray of sunlight and walked into a blackberry bush. I went out to the woodshed and brought in more firewood. I thought about what I might write next, whenever I feel ready to write another book.

Every year, to mark Delancey’s birthday, we donate the evening’s sales to a cause we believe in, and next year, I announced to Brandon, we’re going to give them to Hedgebrook. There aren’t many (any?) other places where a woman can go to be nurtured this way, given food and shelter and supportive peers and space to do creative work, without an exchange of money and regardless of her means. I hope Hedgebrook is still around in another 25 years, and for a long time after that.

Denise’s Fruit-Filled Butter Cake
Adapted from Hedgebrook Cookbook

Denise Barr, one of the cooks at Hedgebrook, served this cake at the first dinner of my stay.  She used fresh raspberries from the garden, and it was so good - simple, buttery, with a damp, nubbly, almost muffin-like crumb - that I dog-eared the recipe later that night. The cookbook calls it a Rhubarb Cake, but you could probably make it with any soft fruit, and when I tasted it, before I saw the recipe in the cookbook, it struck me first as a wonderful butter cake. I hope Denise won’t mind that I tweaked the name. When I made it at home, I thawed out a batch of rhubarb compote that I made last summer and spooned it into the batter, and it was terrific.

1 ½ cup (210 grams) all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt
½ cup (120 ml) whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 stick (113 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup (200 grams) sugar
3 large eggs
2 ½ cups diced rhubarb, blueberries, or raspberries, or 1 batch Dana Cree’s rhubarb compote
2 tablespoons instant tapioca (if using fresh rhubarb or berries)

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour an 8-inch square cake pan.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Pour the milk into a measuring cup or small bowl, and add the vanilla extract. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or with a handheld mixer in a large bowl), beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, and then add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture and the milk mixture in three doses each, alternating dry and wet. Mix until just combined; then use the rubber spatula to give the batter a brief final mix, to make sure the flour is absorbed.

If you’re using fresh rhubarb or berries, stir the fruit with the tapioca in a small bowl.

Scoop about half of the batter into the prepared cake pan, and spread it across the bottom. Scatter the fruit evenly over the batter – or, if you’re using rhubarb compote, dollop spoonfuls of it evenly over the batter. Do not press the fruit down. Top with the rest of the batter. Don’t worry if the batter doesn’t fully cover the fruit: it will puff and move a bit as it bakes.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool before slicing into squares and serving.

Note: This cake is best on the day that it’s made, but wrapped tightly and stored at room temperature, it should be fine for at least a couple of days.


It made an impression

I had to get a new computer last week, one of few life events with the power to make a person feel both elated and completely bankrupt. After I brought it home, while I waited for my blood pressure to stabilize, I combed through the files that had been on my old computer and happened to find a document that I had forgotten, a recipe for a brown sugar clafoutis with pears. BROWN SUGAR CLAFOUTIS! WITH PEARS! I made the clafoutis last week, and again yesterday, and then I hustled over here to tell you about it with an oddly colored iPhone photo of my leftovers.

I had clafoutis for the first time when I was 23. It came to the table in a skillet the size of a salad plate, and where it met the pan, it rose up like an aspiring souffle. It made an impression.

I was working in France that year, teaching English in a public school outside of Paris. It was a very part-time gig with very part-time pay, and most nights, I cooked at home, in the studio apartment I rented in the 11th arrondissement, on a two-burner stove in an alcove between my bed and the front door. My landlord and his wife, who lived next door, told me that they played a game of guessing what I was cooking each night (tomato soup? ratatouille? bizarrely spiced packaged tofu burgers from Naturalia, the health food store?), based on the smells that filtered through the wall between our apartments. But when I was out in the neighborhood, I liked to read the menus of restaurants I passed, and I kept a list of the ones that looked good, for when friends or family came to visit.

My dad came in mid-May - this was 2002 - about two weeks before my work contract was up. Some days, we went to museums and walked around, but on the days when I was working, we would meet up later, for a drink and dinner. He was always waiting for me on the terrace of one of the cafes on Place de la Bastille, waving his book of crossword puzzles to catch my eye, wearing the khaki fly fisherman’s vest that he wore everywhere, even in Paris. We would order glasses of white wine and eat salted peanuts and try to eavesdrop on other patrons, and then we would go somewhere for dinner.

The clafoutis came midway through his stay, at a restaurant called Le Repaire de Cartouche. I had wanted to eat there for months. It was in my neighborhood, a small split-level bistro trimmed in dark wood and faded murals. I had made a reservation for eight o’clock, and we were seated in the upper room. By local standards, we were eating early, and the place was barely awake. The dining room was otherwise populated only by an elderly couple in the corner. The waiter set down a ceramic pot of rillettes and a basket of warm bread, and we ordered a carafe of wine. We both ordered fish, and then we decided to share a rhubarb clafoutis.

I had read about clafoutis in a cookbook, and I knew that it was from south-central France, a cross between a baked pancake, a flan, and a soufflé, usually dotted with cherries. It’s not fancy, and it’s not really restaurant food. It’s grandmother cooking, a dish you serve not to impress people, but to feed them. But here it was on the menu of a bistro in Paris, so we ordered it.

It goes without saying that it was beautiful, the way the custard rose at the edges and rumpled back onto itself. We tore into it. It was creamy but light, the rhubarb stewed nearly to jam.  My father scooted his chair closer to the table, and I don’t think we spoke at all while we ate it, not until the server came to clear away our plates.

I’ve made a lot of clafoutis in the years since, some of them pretty bad. The basic ingredients are milk, eggs, sugar, flour, and fruit, but depending on the proportions, clafoutis can wind up bland, too sweet, or with the textural appeal of a rubber band. Even among the good ones, there are different styles: some are cakey, while others lean closer to custard. I like mine in the custardy vein, with just enough flour to bind the batter.  Actually, you could call the recipe that follows a Brown Sugar Baked Custard with Pears. I started to, but it screwed up my story about the rhubarb clafoutis, so clafoutis it is. You do whatever you want.

Clafoutis seems to have been designed for summer fruit: berries and cherries and sliced stone fruits, anything soft and juicy. In late spring, stewed rhubarb is nice. But I also like to make it in the cold months, with pears. I’ve written before about a clafoutis recipe, and for a while, that was my usual one. It was sweetened with regular granulated sugar, as most are. But a few years ago, I tried an experiment: I had bought a giant bag of brown sugar on sale, and I decided to use it in a clafoutis. Whizzed in the blender, the batter turned the color of coffee with milk, and as it baked, the kitchen smelled like butterscotch. The custard was firm but silky, a texture I want to call squidgy, and had a darker, caramelly sweetness that felt particularly right with pears. It’s nice warm, but if I were you, I’d try to wait until it’s cold - I mean really cold, fridge-cold.  I like it best the morning after it’s baked, actually, as a dessert after breakfast. And now you know all my secrets.

Happy week.

P.S. Go drink a New York Sour.

Brown Sugar Clafoutis with Pears

I use golden brown sugar here, because it’s what I usually have, but if you have dark brown sugar, go ahead and try it. And then let me know how it is.  Also, I know this seems like a lot of sugar, but trust me.

Butter, for greasing the pan
About 2 teaspoons granulated sugar, for dusting the pan
1 large (about 225 to 285 grams, or 8 to 10 ounces) ripe pear
1 ¼ cups (295 ml) whole milk
1 cup (155 g) brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. fine sea salt or table salt
½ cup (70 grams) all-purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Butter a 9 ½-inch pie plate and dust it lightly with granulated sugar. Shake out any excess.

Peel and core the pear, and slice it thinly. (I cut mine into 12 to 14 slices.) Arrange them on the bottom of the prepared pan.

In the jar of a blender, combine the milk through flour. Blend on high speed for 1 minute (stopping once, if needed, to scrape down any flour that may stick to the sides of the jar). Pour the batter over the pears.

Bake until the custard is puffed and golden brown and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. The custard will deflate a little as it cools.

Serve at room temperature or - my preference - chilled.

Yield: 6 servings