Today was my first real day of fall. I brought two spectral pumpkins home to the porch, a petite ivory one & a stately albeit pockmarked blue-gray one, and then I made this cake: a cornmeal & pumpkin coffee cake, moist with crème fraîche and topped with a salty-sweet pepita streusel & a buttermilk glaze. October is my month, my absolute favorite month. I always do spectacular things like run away and fall in love in October. These days it’s even more spectacular. It’s everything I was ever running to or falling for: trips up to the Blue Ridge Mountains to eat fried hand pies & buy pumpkins so large two grown men can barely haul them onto my porch, elaborate carving rituals (Cthulu & the eye of Horus have been designs of Halloweens’ past), trips to haunted forests constructed for the season on remote farms, reading of H.P. Lovecraft, and warm, spiced baking with earthy things like pumpkin, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes. Recipe & more after the jump….
I make no secret of having a quiet gothic streak a mile wide; carrion is, in my opinion, a florescent subject for a poem, and the harvest moon of September leaves me electric. The moon pulls at me like the tides. Celestial bodies sigh and shift their weight, and I’m new. Sure, I’ll always love summer swims and warm tomatoes, but in the end summer can keep its tans, party anthems, and all my personal failures. It will always belong to a different sort of creature, a ruddier sort. I’ll stick to my pallor and darklings, thank you. I’ll keep my leaves, embers, and razor blue sky.
My ghostly pumpkins, the pale vanguard of fall, are stationed at the front door beneath the abandoned web of a fat spider the size of a quarter that fell dead some days ago. The truth is, while I love all of fall’s post card nonsense, the sweaters and burning leaves, I really love it for the telltale cool winds, the dark encroaching, the days like sucking your breath in through your teeth. It’s the brilliant last gasp of all that was hardly promised in spring, that swelled in summer. I love to watch it all burn up in a fit, all smoldering colors and trembling before it falls silent. Autumn is my memento mori, and I never feel more alive than when the leaves are dying all around me. The twilight is brilliant; in death’s theatrics, there is a promise: this is not it, you’ll be ok.
This cake is a welcome offering to the season, a house warming gift to pallid pumpkins. And I’d rather get to the eating of the pumpkin now before it’s been done a little too much for my taste & I have to move on to gourds less travelled. Right now, it’s been months, and I’m still excited about eating pumpkin. This cake is a first draft. And it’s amazing. How? Ratios.
I just want to say that baking without a recipe is a satisfaction unlike any other triumph in the kitchen. It makes you feel brave & brilliant (mostly). I attribute my personal baking fearlessness to Michael Ruhlman’s book, Ratio. This cake doesn’t fit strictly into one of his ratio categories. It’s somewhere between a sponge and a quick bread. But his ratios give me the parameters and within them I roam. They give me a ballpark; using them I know if I seem to have way too much or too little of something. Sometimes, I push my experiments and they fail. Sometimes, this cake happens.
The ratio is, very roughly 2 parts flour: 2 parts liquid: 2 parts sugar: 1 part egg : 1 part fat. It’s incredibly moist, I’ll say that. And I add in an additional 1/4 cup of buttermilk to the “wet ingredients” because pumpkin is a dryer wet ingredient. I’m in love with it, and I was frankly beaming with pride to no one in particular when it came out of the oven until my friend Sarah (whose 6 beautiful children I had the pleasure of making biscuits for last night!) came over & I was able to send her off with half.
Note: I used some of my own homemade ginger crème fraîche in this cake. Store bought regular stuff would be totally fine if don’t have a couple of days to let the crème fraîche do it’s thing, but in case you want to know how to make it: I just mix 2 parts cream with 1 part buttermilk in a mason jar. I stir it. I throw in a handful of candied ginger. And then I let it sit in my kitchen window sill uncovered for about 2 days, stirring occasionally, until it’s thick and tangy. I strain out the ginger, and then store it in the fridge.
This fall is so full of writing, cooking, new projects, and promise, and I can’t wait to share it all with you! Rebekka & I spent monday shooting the first Local Milk video: Buttermilk Biscuits! And we also shot a little extra clip demonstrating how to clean cast iron without water, using just salt and coconut oil. That’s how I keep mine seasoned, shiny, and beautiful. When baking something like this cake in my cast iron, I just rub on some coconut oil (or fat of choice), and it’s good to go.
Oh! And this coming weekend Rebekka, Hannah, and I are going mushroom foraging up in Cumberland, TN (I will be a proud, official member of the Cumberland Mycological Society!). I’m so excited about this; I think it involves a waterfall and definitely some picnicking. Photographs & a mushroom recipe will be sure to follow. I also have a little pop up shoppe tentatively slated to open up on November 1st featuring southernmade provisions for the kitchen, things like reclaimed dogwood bread boards, spalted tiger maple spatulas, natural, hand dyed linens, and more! And then, most exciting of all, we’re heading to Birmingham for a long weekend of hanging out with friends, eating Frank Stitt’s (one of my heroes!!) food, & exploring.
Oh…and one last thing, I swear! If you’re local here in Chattanooga you can catch me on 3 + You on Channel 9 Thursday morning. I don’t know what I’ll be making. Probably some version of this cake! If you’re not local, I’m sure I’ll post the link after it’s all said and done. It promises to be a laugh!
Summer lovers, don’t mourn. Everything in it’s season. Here’s a cake to celebrate or cheer you up, whichever suits you best!