Baby in the Apple Cake

My sister made an apple cake for Mom's 82nd birthday.There was a baby in the apple cake.

The most surprising thing about the baby in the apple cake was that I never knew about the baby until now.  I have Grandma Flora's recipes, her precious gold thimble, her linens, her chocolate set, and the list goes on.  So why did I not know about the cake baby?

My sister said that Grandma Flora gave it to her decades ago with a little note saying that HER mother had baked the little black metal baby into birthday cakes.  Again, WHY DID I NOT KNOW ABOUT THIS?  I adore tradition and fun games and family history so the baby takes the cake (pun intended)!  I am so happy my sister held on to the baby all these years through her world travels and multiple lives, to bring it out and celebrate our mom's birthday.  And now that baby is out, nobody is going to put baby in a corner.  Baby is invited to all the family occasions.  At least until I find it in the cake!

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We don't know much about the origins of the baby.  It is about the same size as the plastic Baby Jesus that is baked into a Mardi Gras King Cake, but it looks different.  More like a baby and less like Baby Jesus.  And it must be rather old because it is metal, very heavy metal, with fine details including a nicely curved buttocks!  Mom remembers that Grandma baked it into birthday cakes too.  And between my sister and Mom, they recall that Grandma told them the one who found the baby in the cake had good luck for a year.  Whatever the intent, the baby has been reborn and will now have a new life as part of our family celebrations.  I am happy about that.

The baby could be baked into any cake but my sister baked it into her go-to recipe for apple cake.  It is simple and delicious.  The perfect cake to introduce baby to the family again.

"Tradition does not mean that the living are dead, it means that the dead are living." -Harold MacMillan

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Baby in the Apple Cake

3/4 cup all-purpose flour 3/4 teaspoon baking powder Pinch of salt 4 large apples (if you can, choose 4 different kinds) 2 large eggs 3/4 cup sugar 3 tablespoons dark rum 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled preparation

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter an 8-inch springform pan and put it on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper and put the springform on it.

Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in 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. 

Credit:  This recipe is from Dorie Greenspan, known as Marie-Helene's Apple Cake.

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The Two Jen's Granola

Jennifer and I met in 2000 when Hubby and I settled back in Santa Barbara with our children after moving around the world for nearly eighteen years. My kids and Jennifer’s kids went to the same school and like me, Jennier loves food and loves talking about food.  We became fast friends. We would go on long morning walks discussing our latest new food finds, amongst a myriad of other topics, and then we would enjoy a hearty breakfast together.

Jennifer owned my favorite children's stores with locations throughout the state.  The clothes were beautiful, the stores were cheery and inviting, and Jennifer was creative, positive and full of life, as she still is today.  Jennifer moved on from children's retail years ago and now she spreads her wisdom about retail operations at Merchant Therapy while still offering her Oprah-favorite Piggy Pajamas online to all her adoring PJ fans.  She is just an all-round rock star in my group of interesting friends!

And what a friend she is....when my brother died in 2011, Jennifer was the one who understood and knew what to do.  Losing a sibling was strange.  My brother didn’t live in my town so not many of my friend’s knew him and most had never met him.  My family and my brother’s friends gathered around his wife and kids, as did I, and worried endlessly about how to make them feel better.  We couldn’t imagine the grief they felt and how they would get through the next days, weeks and months.  Everyone around us loved my brother and missed him terribly.  We talked and cried and he was never out of our minds.

But eventually, I had to leave my sister-in-law and come back to my home.  Home where no one was talking about him, or crying over the loss, or grieving.  The village that surrounded my sister-in-law was not available to me.  It had been a couple of weeks since my brother’s death, I had been out of town since then, and most of my friends were busy with kids and school and jobs.  They had expressed their sorrow for my loss and gone back to their lives.  I didn’t blame them.  I didn't lose my husband or a child or someone my friends saw as an extension of me.  My home life looked the same so it was easy to forget and move on.  They couldn’t have known what I was going through and I was too overcome with grief to reach out to anyone.  But Jennifer knew.

She found out I was back in town and invited me to lunch.  My sister who lives in Los Angeles was with me that day because she too was feeling alone with her loss and wanted to talk about it with someone who understood.  The three of us had lunch, at Jennifer’s little kitchen table in her newly rented house on the hill.  Jennifer gave me some gifts of her favorite new food finds from local stores.  My sister and I nibbled on olives and blistered almonds while Jennifer made a divinely simple pasta with a sauce of imported truffle tomato paste, simmered in oil.  She tossed beautiful fresh greens with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and aged parmesan cheese shaved in long slices. We sat and we ate and we talked.  We talked about my brother, we talked about my sister-in-law, we talked about Jennifer’s sister who had passed away over 30 years prior, and we talked about the food.  It was a lunch I will never forget.  It fed my soul at one of the saddest times of my life.

Jennifer is a master at simple, fresh, healthy food.  She taught me the best roast chicken, the easiest great pasta, and showed me where to get the best almonds on earth.  But my favorite Jennifer recipe is her granola.  Jennifer and her childhood best friend Jenny tested and tasted for years to create their favorite combination of healthy, delicious, granola that they make regularly for their families.  After Jennifer gave me a big jar of granola as a Christmas gift one year, I asked for the recipe and I have been making The Two Jen’s Granola ever since.  I believe it is filled with love and wisdom and health.  I suggest you share it with your friends and listen to their stories.

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“Your friends will know you better in the first minute you meet than your acquaintances will know you in a thousand years.” -Richard Bach

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The Two Jen’s Granola

4.5 cups rolled oats (about 1 lb.) 2 cups almonds (blanched skinless whole with seasalt from Fat Uncle’s Farms) 1 cup coconut flakes (sugarless organic from Edwards and Sons) 3/4 cup flax seed (whole preferred) 1/2 cup raw wheat germ 1 cup honey 3/4 cup oil (I use olive oil) 1-1/2 tsp vanilla 1 T water 1 tsp sea salt

Heat all liquid ingredients together and pour over all of the dry ingredients in a large roasting pan.  Toast in 350 degree oven for 30-40 minutes, stirring/turning every 10 minutes to brown evenly.  Remove from oven and cool completely, turning every 10 minutes until cool.  Store in airtight container.  Eat and enjoy!

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Ham and Cheese Strata for Kate

Isn't it funny how two people can interpret or remember something very differently? My friend Kate told me a story recently that took me by complete surprise.  I was there.  I did it.  And yet, I didn't remember any of it the way she described because it was from her perspective.  It was such a joy to have her tell me her version.

The story revolved around Ham and Cheese Strata. The recipe is actually called Souffle de Queso Y Jamon in the Buen Provecho cookbook where it originated.  I was living in Mexico City in 1992 and it was a very helpful Junior League cookbook because the ingredients were measured and named as they existed in the Mexican stores.  Ham and Cheese Strata was easy, tasty and kids loved it so it made appearances throughout the years, well after our time in Mexico, mainly because it could be made ahead and reheated with satisfactory results.

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The story I had planned to write about the Strata was that I made it for my Mother-Daughter Book Club when Firstborn Daughter was just 7 years old.  Book club consisted of a group great friends and their daughters from my time in the Bay Area.  Our girls had all just started to read chapter books and so we started a club to promote their reading and provide a safe and comfortable environment to discuss the issues presented in the books.  Each mother/daughter team took a turn selecting a book for the month and we would meet for dinner and a craft related to the book.  While working on the craft, we would talk about the book and it's messages.  I remember so looking forward to our gatherings with that group of sweet girls and their amazing moms.  After the first year of our club meetings, I would have been hard pressed to say who got more from our sessions, the mothers or the daughters.

When it was my turn to provide book club dinner, I made a ham and cheese dish because it was such a great versatile dish for adults and kids.  It was a hit.  Nearly everyone asked for the recipe that night and I forever think fondly of our book club whenever I bake the ham and cheese strata.

But my Ham and Cheese Strata story changed on a recent trip to Seattle.  Hubby and I had dinner with my great friend Kate and her husband.  It was such a fun reunion.  They had moved to Seattle over a decade ago and I had not seen Kate in person since that time.  While we stayed in touch with our lives through email and Facebook, we had so much ground to cover in just one dinner!  Discussion came around to food and my blog and Kate asked when I was going to post the Ham and Cheese Strata.  I laughed and said I needed to write the story first, not thinking there was much of a story behind the time I shared the strata with Kate.  Kate went on to say, "I just remember that strata saved my life at a time when I was drowning."

I was baffled.  She explained that when I brought it to her just after she gave birth to her twins (she already had two other young children) she was on the verge of collapse. Her husband traveled frequently and she was alone that week with four young children including newborn twins.  Showering was not an option some days and just taking time to put food in her mouth was a struggle.  Kate said the strata was so good, and so easy to scoop out and microwave while holding a baby, she was grateful beyond belief. The casserole fed her and the kids for days.  While I didn't have twins, nor four children, I could relate to her story and that feeling of barely keeping my head above water at times when the kids were young.  I felt so honored that my little gesture of food helped Kate in a time of need.

Kate went on to tell me another story.  She said, "Your family saved me twice during that time."  Apparently, her husband was out of town when she went into labor so she called a mutual friend of ours for help.  She needed a ride to the hospital and someone to pick up her other children after school.  Minutes later, my brother showed up at her door.  Kate said she doesn't even know why or how he was there.  She had hardly spent any time with my brother.  But there he was so she wasn't about to ask questions.  She got in the car and he drove her to the hospital where she shortly after gave birth to twins.

And then Kate had yet a third story connecting my family to her and her twins.  I was babysitting her two young girls one day while she went to a doctors appointment.  Kate arrived to our house after the doctor and looked like she had seen a ghost.  She had just been told she was having twins.  Her husband was out of town, she was trying to absorb the news of adding two more babies to her brood, she needed to process it and there we were.  According to Kate, Hubby and I talked with her a bit, laughed with her about how her life was about to change, and somehow reassured her that everything was going to be okay.

I'm not saying I had never heard these stories.  But I certainly didn't remember them.  All this happened during a time in our lives that Kate and I were so overwhelmed that stories often didn't get told, or were interrupted by young people's needs.  I find that sometimes, years later, I remember little details of my life that got buried amongst the stronger memories.  Thank you Kate for remembering these stories that bind us and reminding me that sometimes even the smallest gesture can make a world of difference to a friend in need.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”  ― Philip Pullman

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Ham and Cheese Strata for Kate

butter for baking pan 1/2 pound sliced or diced ham 12-15 slices white bread 1/2 pound grated cheese (I use a combo of Gruyere and Monterrey Jack) 8 eggs, beaten 1/2 cup butter (1 stick) 2 tsp vegetable oil 1 onion, finely chopped 2-1/2 cups milk 1/2 tsp salt 1/4 tsp pepper 1/4 tsp dry mustard 1/8 tsp nutmeg

Depending on size of desired baking pan, you can make this in either two or three layers of bread.   Cover bottom of a buttered baking pan with bread slices.   Add ham and cheese and cover with another layer of bread slices.  Repeat if desired. In a pan over medium heat, fry onion in butter and oil until soft and starting to brown.  Add milk and stir in salt, pepper, mustard and nutmeg.  Heat until starting to boil and remove from heat. Let cool a few minutes and gradually stir in the beaten eggs. Pour into baking pan, evenly across all bread slices. Let stand 1 hour. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until eggs are set and top is golden brown. Cool for 15 minutes and cut into squares.

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