[In Essaouira, June 2014.]
We went away the weekend before last, to Essaouira, which is a bit south of Casablanca on the water. To get there you can either take the coastal road or go inland towards Marrakech; while in a previous life the longer more scenic coastal route probably would have been embarked upon with no questions, things are different now and even the most patient of 8+-month-olds tends to chafe at 10 hours in the car (I do too). So we logged the miles instead along tidy freeways that paralleled dusty fields before turning off into the desert. These smaller roads crossed through towns marked by an abundance of horse and donkey carts, piles of watermelon and other produce piled under rickety awnings by the side of the road, and deserted, half-completed construction sites that seemed as though they had been there for years (and perhaps they have been). The landscape was littered with argan trees and the related collectives touting their argan oil. We didn’t stop this time, but maybe on the next trip.
Then: Essaouira, which truly is the windy city and not in a bad way, at least during that weekend in June. And blue — the wooden boats it’s known for were as blue as the sky, as blue as the sea. Bluer maybe. The medina was mellow and surprisingly fairly quiet, the beach clean and traversed by camels. We walked and ate lunch and went swimming in the late afternoon and it was a much-needed and appreciated respite. More photos to come on Wednesday.
And now, possibly because I’m anticipating a longer vacation quite fervently and am trying to up my running miles as much as possible (not related really except in that both are occurring simultaneously) I am thinking about cake. But when am I not thinking about cake, hm?
Here is one I’ve been holding back for months, since the holidays, actually, and now it’s nearly July and I’m still thinking about it so I think it’s time to share. It’s a simple enough cake, good and buttery and run through with maple syrup and topped with cinnamon-laced caramelized pears. Don’t like pears? I think nectarines would do quite handily here, though you’ll probably want to cook them a bit less lest they disintegrate.
I realize in the past months, particularly since I’ve moved to Morocco, I’ve probably seemed slightly nuts in terms of my cake-and-cookie-and-etc.- baking. There have been many sweets documented here and even more that I have not: riffs on vegan berry muffins, updates of the beloved busy-day cake, quinoa flour chocolate chunk cookies, an almond butter cake … In truth this is nothing new (see the now-defunct ‘Tuesday Treat‘ series for a reference) but I know that this has been my way of grounding myself through several major life occurrences. It is as much about the act of putting a cake together as it is about eating the cake, although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t eagerly anticipate that first forkful.
I used to bring Sierra into the kitchen with me and still do this occasionally, though now she is rather less immobile than once she was. Thus I try to cadge together batters when she is taking a nap or is otherwise safely secured and not getting into more mischief than usual; it works so far, and I am grateful. Baking — cooking — soothes me, and has been my companion during moves and job changes and new persons arriving on the scene and all else. I am not taking on large projects these days but who knows … I may find my way back to wedding cakes again. I wouldn’t mind that at all.
So if asked I’d have to say my current state of baking is ongoing. Not abating. At similar levels as previous. No signs of a change on the horizon. And you know, I am totally OK with that.
Today I am longing for the mountains, for a good, long Yosemite hike, preferably with a pack and my wee one perched atop it for the ride. Two summers ago we hiked up to Cathedral Lakes and passed a couple on the switchbacks with their 10-month-old securely strapped on and I said to myself, me, one day … And maybe it would have been me except for the detour I took about a year ago to a congested city with little green space and no real access to the California landscape I so crave. Oh, for the wind sighing through the trees in the back country. Oh, for the peace and stillness the Sierras brings. I vow I will be back, and I will show my daughter the hidden secrets of the wilderness, let her plunge feet and hands into icy snow melt, rest her back on warm granite and let the sun lull her into sleep. There is little better. Except maybe cake.
I was sorely missing American flavors in December, my first month in North Africa, and so was hankering for all things maple syrup. This cake is a splurge at calling for 3/4 cup of syrup, but for a homesick expat it did the trick. If you’d rather be more conservative, swap 1/2 cup of packed light brown sugar for 1/2 cup of maple syrup.
Makes 8 servings.
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
3/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 cup raw sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup plain whole-fat yogurt
For the pears
4 pears, washed, cored, and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons raw sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Prepare the pears: in a cast iron skillet or frying pan, melt the butter, maple syrup, raw sugar, and cinnamon over medium heat. Add the pears, reduce heat to low, and sautee for 20 mins on med-low heat. Remove from heat and set aside.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch square baking pan and line with parchment paper. Lightly butter parchment and dust with flour, tapping out excess. Arrange the prepared pears in a circular pattern on top of the parchment.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
In a large bowl, and using an an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter, maple syrup, and granulated sugar until pale and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add in vanilla and mix thoroughly.
Reduce mixer speed to low. Add flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with 2 batches of yogurt and beat until just combined. Transfer batter to prepared pan; smooth top with an offset spatula. Bake until a cake tester comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool 10 minutes. Turn out cake onto rack to cool completely.