Mother Linda's Arkansas Fig Fruitcake

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Four days until Christmas Eve, five days until Christmas Day. Are you all set, all ready? Are your presents purchased and wrapped and hidden away? Are you avoiding the kitchen or still churning out cookies and cakes and edible gifts like there's no tomorrow? (Not making a Mayan calendar joke, not making a Mayan calendar joke, not making a Mayan calendar joke...)

I'm very sorry to have to add to your load at this crucial moment before the holidays, when any moment of free time you might have is probably tied up with a million other things, but I don't really have a choice. Forgive me! You see, I made this fruitcake last week and it is so good, so perfect, so un-fruitcake-y and wonderful that the year cannot, must not, end without it on your holiday table. Okay? Okay.

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I read about this lovely thing in the Washington Post, my ears perking up when the journalist said that it was responsible for her "fruitcake awakening". The cake required no alcoholic soaking, was not studded with any garishly colored cherries or bitter citrus peel and could be stored for at least two weeks. Plus, I could buy all the figs, raisins and nuts from the discount store around the corner from my house. Recipe kismet always feels so good, doesn't it?

Then, when I went and actually looked at the recipe, I had to read it twice. Were my eyes betraying me or were there no eggs and no shortening of any kind in this cake? No, I could read correctly. What it did have was an enormous amount of baking soda, plus the loveliest name I could think of. I don't know about you, but Arkansas Fig Fruitcake has such simple lyricism that I probably would have been moved to try it on account of the name alone.

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So, here's what you do. You chop and simmer a bunch of figs with some sugar and water until they are soft. Then you purée them and measure out most of the purée (the rest is delicious stirred into your morning yogurt - cook's treat!). You mix the fig purée with walnuts or pecans, a box of raisins, two diced apples, what seems like an absurd amount of sugar (I think you could probably cut down on this if you wanted to, but I loved the recipe as is), flour, spices and the aforementioned soda, which you need in such ample quantities to help power up the dense, heavy dough. It's so dense and heavy that you shouldn't bother mixing this with anything but your hands - it will make any electric motor smoke. This part is messy.

You push the dough evenly into your pans (I happen to have one very large loaf pan - that kiwi in the first photo was meant to show you just how epically large my fruitcake was - but I'd recommend baking the cake in smaller pans for better gifting) and bake them for two hours at the relatively low temperature of 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Slowly, slowly, the cake rises and the edges caramelize in the oven heat. When it's done, the burnished top towers over the edge of the pan.

Cooled and sliced, it's remarkably light and incredibly fragrant and moist. It's hard to believe that nothing but fruit, really, gives the cake the moisture it needs. As it ages, it gets better and better - the flavors melding further, though I frankly don't know how this cake would ever last two whole weeks. And all you fruitcake skeptics out there: I'd wager a pretty penny that this is just the thing that could help you with your own fruitcake awakening. Tell me if any of you try it and are converted!

By the way, all that sugar doesn't actually result in a tooth-achingly sweet cake. What it does is give the cake this deep caramel flavor on top of all the other things going on: the gentle crunch of the fig seeds, the warmth of the spices, the satisfying heft of the crumb. It's so good that I served it as my birthday cake last week when I turned 35 (!). Who needs a chocolate layer cake when there's Arkansas Fig Fruitcake to be had?

Arkansas Fig Fruitcake
From Mother Linda
Makes one 9-inch round tube cake or two standard-sized loaves

3 cups (14 ounces) dried figs, stemmed and coarsely chopped
2 cups plus 6 tablespoons sugar
2 1/2 cups water, plus more as needed
2 cups finely diced, peeled apple (about 2 apples)
15 ounces of raisins
2 cups pecans or walnuts, in halves or pieces
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons baking soda

1. Combine the figs, 6 tablespoons of the sugar and 2 cups of the water in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring just to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the figs are tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

2. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let the mixture rest for 10 minutes, then use an immersion blender on low speed to process the figs to a coarse puree, adding water as needed. Let cool. The yield is slightly more than 2 cups.

3. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Butter and flour a 9 3/4-inch tube pan, preferably one with a removable bottom, or two standard loaf pans.

4. Measure 2 cups of the fig puree and transfer to a very large mixing bowl along with the apple, raisins and nuts. Reserve the remaining purée for another use (like stirred into your morning yogurt). Stir to mix well.

5. Whisk together the flour, the remaining 2 cups of sugar, the cinnamon, cloves and salt in a separate large bowl until combined.

6. Combine the baking soda and the remaining 1/2 cup of water in a small bowl, stirring until the baking soda has dissolved. Stir this into the fruit mixture.

7. Add the dry ingredients to the fruit mixture and mix well. The batter will be extremely thick and heavy, so at this point it's easiest to mix it with your hands. You might need to add a couple tablespoons of water to moisten all the ingredients.

8. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan(s) and use a flexible spatula or your hands dipped in water to smooth the top. Bake for 1 3/4 to 2 hours or until a tester inserted near the middle of the cake comes out clean.

9. Cool for 30 minutes, then remove from the pan to cool completely. (If using a tube pan with a removable base, keep the cake on the base as it cools.) Wrap tightly and store at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.


Jeffrey Alford's and Naomi Duguid's Banana Coconut Bread

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Well. All those people weren't kidding when they said that once you have a baby, everything else goes out the window: showering, eating, sleeping, even, shh, going to the bathroom! It all takes a back seat to baby. If it wasn't for my mother, who has come over almost every day since Hugo was born, laden with groceries, bags of fresh fruit and vegetables and fragrant pots of food for us (next time, hopefully, I'll tell you about the meatballs), we'd have been on a diet of straight cereal and milk. (She also cleans up without asking, folds laundry, does laundry, puts the baby to sleep, wipes tears, makes tea and sends me to bed when need be. It's no use competing, folks, throw in your towels now: My mother is the best mother of all time.)

Now that Hugo's five weeks old, finding time in the kitchen is still tough. I can boil water for tea, I can maybe sauté a few zucchini or quickly spoon some yogurt in a bowl and mix in a bit of jam if he's in a good mood, but cook the way I used to? It seems it'll be some time before I'm able to again.

But just this past weekend, Hugo obliged me by letting me bake a whole batch of brownies while he was bounced around the apartment by his father and even though, in my haste, I wiped cocoa all over my breast milk-stained nightgown (rowrr!) and took the brownies out five minutes too soon, it felt so good to be in there again, wiping counters, measuring sugar, doing the dishes. So, all in good time, I guess.

I made those brownies to bring with us to a friend's house on Sunday. However, the next thing I bake will be a loaf of this banana coconut bread and I don't plan on sharing it with anybody, except maybe my mother. I mean, see above and all. But actually, maybe what I should do is bake two loaves, one to eat and one to freeze. That's probably the best idea. You see, this banana bread is out of this world and I kind of never want to be without it again. Really, I don't and I don't usually think banana bread deserves those kinds of superlatives. But then I went and made this loaf of banana bread with dried coconut and a drop of rum and a crunchy cap of demerara sugar on top and not only did it taste delicious, but it kept for almost two weeks (in the fridge) and hardly tasted worse for the wear.

All of this happened a week or so before the birth, so I had a nice run of days there where I'd cut myself off a thick slice for breakfast or a little sliver in the afternoon to tide me over, crunching happily through the crisp top and gobbling up the moist crumb. As the days wore on, I wrapped up the end of it in plastic wrap, stuck it in the fridge and, uh, went into labor. At least that's how I remember it now. What I'm trying to get at is that a week later, after the baby was born and I'd recovered in the hospital enough and we were finally sent home, I found that little end of banana bread in the fridge, now over two weeks old.

We'd eaten vegetable soup for lunch that my mother had made that morning while Max and I were packing up our things in our hospital room and I was weeping at the thought of leaving said hospital room. Plus there had been a wedge of cheddar cheese and some old-ish bread that had survived the week without us (German bread is hardy stuff, people). But we were hungry for dessert or something sweet, in any case, to end the meal, which is how I happened upon the banana bread that afternoon. I unwrapped it, checking it skeptically for signs of mold (none), then sliced it, feeling it for signs of desiccation (none). We each got a piece and I gingerly took a bite, anticipating staleness, then realized it had, if anything, gotten even better with time. Ripened or something? It was delicious still, moist still, improbably so.

So it's sort of inevitable now that when I think about that banana bread, I think about that strange first day at home, the strange final days of pregnancy, becoming a mother and my own mother, too. I hope this banana bread stays my favorite for a long time to come.

Banana-Coconut Bread
Original recipe from HomeBaking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition around the World
Makes 1 loaf
Note: Your eyes aren't fooling you: there are no eggs in this recipe. No fear, it's moist and wonderful all the same.

3 large, very ripe bananas
2 cups all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon white vinegar
1 ½ tablespoons dark rum
½ cup dried shredded unsweetened coconut
1 tablespoon demerara sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a standard-size loaf pan.

2. Purée the bananas and set aside.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, nutmeg, and salt. Set aside.

4. In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vinegar and rum, and beat to mix well. Add the banana purée and the flour mixture alternately, about 1 cup at a time, beginning with the banana and beating to just incorporate. Use a spatula to fold in any flour that has not been absorbed, and stir in the coconut. Do not overmix.

5. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Smooth the top, and sprinkle evenly with the demerara sugar. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool on a wire rack for about 20 minutes; then turn the loaf out of the pan and allow it to cool completely. The loaf will keep, wrapped well, for at least three or four days.


Deborah Madison's Poppyseed Cake

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I am stuck. Completely and utterly stuck. I've had these cake photos sitting in this post form for two weeks now and every day I open it up to start writing and every day I close it again because I don't know what on earth to say.

How about this: This cake, it is good. So good! So moist. A little crunchy, too. Not too sweet. Perfect.

My friend Sylee made it for me a while ago, except, because she's Indian-American, she used white poppy seeds instead of black ones. We ate slices of it at her place after a lovely lunch of fava beans and crisped prosciutto on wholesome bread, along with a mug of milky tea. It was such a nice Friday afternoon.

The original recipe uses regular poppy seeds, all chalky and blue. I love the way they pop in the creamy-white batter. I like their slightly stony flavor and the way they taste embedded in the sour tang of the buttermilk batter, the faint whisp of vanilla floating behind them like a nimbus cloud. I like how the cake is almost juicy with moisture, how the top ripples and folds once it's baked. I like the way it makes the house smell.

And that's about it.

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If you could peek into my brain right now, I think you'd have a start. There's a crazy ticker tape parade of stuff going on in there at the moment: finishtaxes findacrib buydiapers whenisthisbabycoming owmypelvis shouldibeworried organicchangingpadversusregularchangingpad whocaresjustbuyaflipping changingpad sheets breastpump owmypelvis whenisthisbabycoming taxes crap taxes yikes whatarewegoingtocallhim bureaucraticpaperwork spineproblems willineedanepidural owmypelvisow and so on.

I've been so lucky so far - the baby is healthy and well, I am doing fine, there is absolutely nothing to worry about. And yet. As the gestation comes to an end, I find myself on the verge of anxious tears a lot. Some of it has to do with the annoying pelvic pain, some of it is because I miss my husband, who is working feverishly before he can take time off and come home before the baby arrives, some of it is because - utterly against my nature - I don't really have anything set yet. I know a baby doesn't need much, I know that we don't need to blow our paychecks at the baby store (trust me, we're not the type), but still, for my own peace of mind, I need to start dealing with the fact that we are still missing the most basic basics: enough clothes for the first few weeks, a changing pad, for cripes' sake, even just a few folded cotton cloths or towels.

Until I do that stuff, I'm afraid that ticker-tape parade of to-do lists and low-grade anxiety isn't going to go anywhere and I will lie awake at night as the rain hits the windows, feeling him bump and wiggle inside me, and worry. Which is silly, I know.

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But really, that shouldn't stop you from making this cake. It's such a good cake. Especially when sliced thickly and served with milky tea in the afternoon. It's comforting and plain, but not boring and the crunch of the poppy seeds is a treat. In fact, when it cools off this weekend, I might even try to distract myself by baking it again so I can eat slices of it for comfort in the afternoons to come, soothing myself like I'll find myself surely soothing this baby just as soon as he gets here, right into my arms.

And who knows, maybe one day the smell of this cake baking will be something that our boy associates with home.

Deborah Madison's Poppy Seed Cake
From Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
Makes one 9-inch round cake

1 cup poppy seeds
1/2 cup milk, heated, but not boiling
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/8 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, separated
1/2 cup (4 ounces or 113 grams) unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk

1. In a small mixing bowl, combine the poppy seeds and the hot milk. Set aside until needed. Heat the oven to 375ᵒF. Butter and flour a 9-inch spring form pan. Set aside.

2. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

3. Place the egg whites in the bowl of an electric stand mixer, fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk on medium-high until firm but moist peaks form. Transfer the egg whites to a small mixing bowl. Using the same bowl as for the egg whites, but now using the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the vanilla, then beat in the egg yolks, adding one at a time and beating well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, as needed.

4. Drain the milk from the poppy seeds, discarding the milk. Add the buttermilk and the drained poppy seeds to the batter. Beat until well combined, then again scrape down the sides of the bowl with the rubber spatula. Add the flour mixture to the batter, in thirds. Again scrape the bowl with the rubber spatula, making sure it’s all well mixed. Fold in about a quarter of the beaten egg whites with the spatula, then fold in the rest, mixing gently until just combined.

5. Transfer the batter into the prepared cake pan, smoothing the top with the rubber spatula. Bake until golden and firm, with the sides just beginning to pull away from the pan, about 40-50 minutes. Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack. Carefully run a sharp, thin knife along the sides of the cake, just against the pan, then gently remove the rim and allow the cake to cool to room temperature before slicing.


Catherine Newman's Donut Cake

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This all started when I read Joanna's post about a book she'd read that she'd loved during her pregnancy (this one). In that post, she asked her readers if they had any other books to recommend for pregnant ladies, which was like Christmas morning for me and soon I was clicking and bookmarking away, leading me further and further into an Internet wormhole. I came up for air at Catherine Newman's blog, the author of Waiting for Birdy (ordered, shipped), and soon found myself reading about a cake that tastes like doughnuts, which is a riff on Edna Lewis' Busy-Day Cake, which I'd only wanted to make since, oh, forever and so I decided to take that serendipitous find as a sign from the gods that I should waste not a single moment longer before making it.

So I made it. And, lo, it made my house smell of doughnuts, nutmeggy and sweet.

(Let's not discuss the fact that I was far more inclined to make something called Donut Cake than I was to make something called Busy-Day Cake. I am, in culinary terms at least, apparently something of a magpie.)

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It really is the loveliest thing. Buttermilk makes it tender and gives it the faintest, barest tang. A few spoonfuls of cornmeal give it a little crunch. And the intersection of vanilla and nutmeg make your house smell like a old-fashioned doughnut shop, MINUS the stench of boiling oil and the slickness of greasy fingers. It's intensely wholesome and lovely, this cake. If it was a person, it'd have perfectly creamy skin and a natural glow all the time, no makeup or raw spinach smoothies required.

It's the archetypal afternoon cake or breakfast cake, to be dunked in hot chocolate or coffee, and I'd gladly serve it to children, too. You could, I suppose, gussy it up with whipped cream and fruit. But I like how stark and plain it is all by itself. In fact, in the terms of auld, I'd say this is one for the lamination files.

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Which reminds me that I actually meant to tell you guys about a different cake entirely before I got completely sidetracked by this one. But that will have to wait until next week.

Catherine Newman's Donut Cake
Makes one 9-inch cake
Catherine says that the cake is destined to sink once it cools, but I had no such problem.

1 stick butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
2 tablespoons cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup buttermilk, room temperature

1. Heat the oven to 375°F. Butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan, and set it aside.

2. Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, about two minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating to incorporate after each addition, then add in the vanilla. Scrape down sides of bowl with a rubber spatula. Set aside.

3. Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, salt, baking powder, and nutmeg. Add the flour mixture to the batter in 3 parts, alternating with the buttermilk, starting and ending with flour. Make sure each addition is incorporated before adding the next, but don't over-beat it at the end. Spread the batter in the prepared pan and smooth the top.

4. Bake until the top is puffed and golden brown and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool on a rack before serving warm or room temperature.


Nancy Silverton's Graham Crackers

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Last Thursday, at 23:37 Central European Time, I sent my editor my final manuscript, 852 days after the proposal was preempted all the way back in October 2009. Forgive me if this all sounds rather dramatic, but, oh my goodness: 852 days, a hundred sleepless nights, countless destroyed cuticles and a few gallons of tears are just a few of the metrics I can't help but list when I think about how on earth I got from there to here. When I was sure - convinced! - for so long that I couldn't do it.

But I did do it. You guys, I did!

[Insert "Rocky" theme song or the sound of an Olympic crowd cheering here. Or both!]

How on earth did I do it? That is not a rhetorical question: I have been asking it of myself a lot this week. (In my head and sotto voce, just to add to the slightly loony appearance my mother said I had towards the end of things last week, when I wasn't really showering or eating or doing much of anything besides staring at a computer screen and perfecting stuff.) I still don't really know. Bird by bird, yes. But with a lot of blood, sweat and tears, too, and a freaking village of people telling me I could do it (though I was convinced for about 838 of the past 852 days that they had absolutely no idea what they were talking about). It was the hardest work of my life.

Things aren't entirely finished just yet. The manuscript is currently in the hands of the copy editor, the person responsible for catching every last little typo that I didn't already, who makes sure all the punctuation is correct and who also is invaluable as a fresh set of eyes to look over everything and ask me the hard questions, namely to clarify stuff that my editor and I may have overseen. In the meantime, I am finishing up the testing of a few straggler recipes and periodically pinching myself black and blue, because I still cannot believe that I wrote a book. Me. A BOOK. A book with words and pages and a copyright page and a very pretty jacket (more on that as soon as I can share - wheee!).

Honestly, at times it is more than my feeble mind can process.

When the copy editor is done, the manuscript will come back to me for one final go-through. At some point after that, it will be released to the printer. The day that happens, I will most likely be prone and screaming silently in despair as I am sure I will suddenly have a million reasons why I am not yet ready to let go. Sadly, I will not be able to preemptively sedate myself with copious amounts of sparkling wine. My husband keeps saying something about perspective and a baby and yoga class, but I am not really sure what he is talking about.

So that is where we are at the moment. The book, called My Berlin Kitchen, will be published in September. Which is also when we will be going on book tour to eight cities (they are still being finalized, I'll have a final list in a month or so). Uh, yes, you read that right: We. We as in me, Max and the little dude in my belly, who should be about three months old by then. I'm coming to see all of you with mah baby!!

And, people, I cannot WAIT to see you. I am pretty sure that might be the very best thing about this whole thing anyway.

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So in addition to, you know, finishing my book, I made graham crackers a few weeks ago and lo, they were good. I made them because a very nice young man named Darryl was coming over to interview me for his blog, Stil in Berlin. And also because I wanted to eat them. The recipe is Nancy Silverton's and just in case you were wondering, there is no graham flour in these graham crackers, just plain old white flour. Brown sugar, honey, butter and vanilla give the crackers their flavor and snappy texture.

Despite being delicious, they were a bit complicated to make. The dough, as seen above, is very soft and must not only be refrigerated for hours, but then also rolled out with copious amounts of flour, see below, and then the flour must be brushed off before the crackers are topped, decorated and baked and honestly, it is not that complicated, but clearly I had a lot of my plate around the time when I was making these and I kept thinking that if I lived in a country where graham crackers were readily available in any grocery store, I would never make homemade ones again.

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Still, this did not exactly stop me from eating and enjoying them (dipped in milk, especially). Also, my mental state was delicate at the time, which is probably why a cookie recipe made me feel slightly, shall we say, pushed over the edge. You may feel differently.

And that is where things are at right now. Me, graham cracker stuck in my mouth at a jaunty angle, covered in pinch marks, feeling - slowly more and more so - like I have just climbed the biggest mountain in the world. It feels so good.

Nancy Silverton's Graham Crackers
Makes approximately 24 crackers

2 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons unbleached pastry flour or unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
7 tablespoons (3 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes and frozen
1/3 cup mild-flavored honey, such as clover
5 tablespoons whole milk
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade or in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt. Pulse or mix on low to incorporate. Add the butter and pulse on and off on and off, or mix on low, until the mixture is the consistency of a coarse meal.

2.In a small bowl, whisk together the honey, milk, and vanilla extract. Add to the flour mixture and pulse on and off a few times or mix on low until the dough barely comes together. It will be very soft and sticky.

3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and pat the dough into a rectangle about 1 inch thick. Wrap in plastic and chill until firm, about 2 hours or overnight.

4. In a small bowl, combine the sugar and cinnamon, and set aside.

5. Divide the dough in half and return one half to the refrigerator. Sift an even layer of flour onto the work surface and roll the dough into a long rectangle about 1/8 inch thick. The dough will be sticky, so flour as necessary. Trim the edges of the rectangle to 4 inches wide. Working with the shorter side of the rectangle parallel to the work surface, cut the strip every 4 1/2 inches to make 4 crackers. Gather the scraps together and set aside. Place the crackers on one or two parchment-lined baking sheets and sprinkle with the topping. Chill until firm, about 30 to 45 minutes. Repeat with the second batch of dough.

6. Adjust the oven rack to the upper and lower positions and heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

7. Gather the scraps together into a ball, chill until firm, and reroll. Dust the surface with more flour and roll out the dough to get about two or three more crackers.

8. If you'd like to make the cookies look like "real" graham crackers: Mark a vertical line down the middle of each cracker, being careful not to cut through the dough. Using a toothpick or skewer, prick the dough to form two dotted rows about 1/2 inch for each side of the dividing line.

9- Bake for 15 minutes, until browned and slightly firm to the tough, rotating the sheets halfway through to ensure even baking.


Monastery of Angels' Pumpkin Bread

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I always have to read a little before I go to bed. I get all ready - brush my teeth, wash my face, put on my cashmere bed socks (the best birthday present a girlfriend ever gave me) - and then I get in bed, adjust my pillow, fluff the blanket and open a book. If I don't read before turning off the lights, I'm guaranteed to toss and turn for a long while before falling asleep, if I'm able to do that at all.

For the past few nights, I've been re-reading Farmer Boy. I can't tell you how many times I've read it, but we can all be sure it's a fairly high number. The Little House series was my reason for living when I was a child (until Narnia came long and then Anne of Green Gables and Diana Wynne Jones and, oh, let's stop this right now, otherwise we'll be here all day) and when I was at my friend Joan's last year, gripped with writer's block and worry, she pulled Farmer Boy off her shelf and handed it over to me. "Remember this?"

The pleasure I get from going back into Almanzo's world is hard to put into words. Every other sentence plunges me back in time to when I was first reading about how the Wilder men cut and stored ice, packed in straw, until summertime, how Almanzo and his siblings made candy while their parents were out of town, using up all the good sugar their mother warned them not to finish, how Almanzo longed to be given the responsibilities of caring for the family's horses while his father continued to command him to stay away. And, of course, how little, 9-year old Almanzo put away in one regular weeknight dinner what most of us could barely manage on a holiday like Thanksgiving.

None of us (well, as far as I can imagine) are doing anywhere near the amount of physical labor that he was at nine years old. But still. Here's what Almanzo ate on one winter's evening:

1. Sweet, mellow baked beans
2. Mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy
3. Ham
4. Velvety bread spread with sleek butter
5. A tall heap of pale mashed turnips
6. A hill of stewed yellow pumpkin
7. Plum preserves, strawberry jam and grape jelly
8. Spiced watermelon pickles
9. A large piece of pumpkin pie

And then (oh, you didn't think he was done, did you?), the family retired to the fireplace and Almanzo ate popcorn and apples and drank apple cider, and he took such pleasure in this and his family and his life that when I read that bit I always fairly burst with the longing to reach out through time and space and dimension to touch his sweet little self or give him a hug. And also eat a handful of popcorn with a glass of cider in the other hand.

Books, man. They kill me.

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We think Thanksgiving is such a busy time and we overwhelm ourselves with grocery lists and cooking strategies and forums on whether to brine or not to brine (actually, this lady doesn't), so reading about how the women in Almanzo's family did that kind of work every day, in addition to churning the butter and curing the ham and dying their own wool and cloth so they could sew their clothes and their own rag carpets, among a hundred other daily chores and duties, well, it's humbling.

The resourcefulness and thrift and sheer doggedness is particularly inspiring, as well as mortifying, of course, because I think nothing of throwing out a stale heel of bread or letting those two stray carrots in the fridge whither into sponginess. While I'm far away from ever wanting to move to a house in upstate New York and become a self-subsistent farmer, what I'm trying to say, I guess, is that Farmer Boy is as enchanting to the adult me now as it was to the little me then.

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I made pumpkin pie for our Thanksgiving feast (we celebrated on Saturday instead of Thursday), but due to a little, er, mathematical error, I roasted about six times too much squash in preparation for the pie (this one, in case you're wondering, which was once again demolished in one fell swoop, but with this crust recipe, the second half of which I used for this tart, which was eaten even faster than the pumpkin pie).

I froze some of the squash, but with all the Advent tea times ahead of us in the next month (the Germans are big on Advent Sunday tea time), I decided to get resourceful and bake something to have on hand during the next few weekends. Pumpkin bread from a monastery in Los Angeles that sells loaves for $9 a pop seemed like a good place to start.

The recipe hasn't changed since the early 1970's, which is a pretty good pedigree, if you ask me. It's a basic sweet bread or tea cake or whatever you'd like to call it, spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg (I also added some cloves) and is quiveringly tender and moist. If you, like me, use Hokkaido (or red kuri) squash, your batter will seem practically fluorescent.

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I promise, though, that it will mellow in the oven, turning an agreeable, gingerbread-y brown. The crumb is velvety-soft and fragrant with sweet squash and the spices, while the crust gets all caramelized and toothsome. Some bits of it even crunch. It's a lovely thing to eat. I wanted to add walnuts to the batter, but mine were all rancid, so I threw in chopped pecans, the last of a precious stash from the States, instead. Their earthy crunch is a nice thing to happen upon as you work your way through each soft slice of bread.

My only advice would be to try and make as many loaves out of this one batch of batter as you can. I crammed all of the batter into one 13-inch long loaf pan and ended up having to bake the loaf for an hour and a half, nearly burning the edges. If you bake it in smaller loaf pans, the baking time reduces to one hour.

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I let it cool completely, then I wrapped it carefully in plastic wrap and foil and put in the freezer where it'll rest until this Sunday when we have friends over for tea in the candlelight.

But next Sunday, I've already decided, there will be popcorn and apples and cider. And in addition to being grateful for my family's good health and my good fortune in life, I'll be saying a little gratitude prayer for books, my constant companions in this life.

Tell me, readers, what were the childhood books that you loved the most?

Monastery of Angels' Pumpkin Bread
Makes 1 13-inch long loaf or 2 smaller loaves
Original recipe here

3.5 cups of all-purpose flour
3 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1.5 teaspoons salt
4 large eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup water
2 cups puréed pumpkin or squash
1/2 cup chopped pecans tossed with a spoonful or two of flour

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour loaf pan(s). Sift together flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt in a large bowl.

2. In a separate bowl, combine eggs, oil, water and pumpkin and mix well. Mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until the batter is smooth and there are no streaks of flour left. Fold in the pecans.

3. Scrape the batter into the buttered and floured loaf pan(s). Bake for 1.5 hours or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean. Cool the pan(s) on a rack for half an hour before turning the loaves out to cool completely. Wrapped tightly, the bread keeps for at least three days.


Clementine Bakery's Banana Cake

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As promised, dear readers, I come bearing cake. Not just any cake, mind you, but the best banana cake the world has ever seen, if you will allow me some superlatives. This is not banana bread, in case you're wondering; it's nothing rustic and it's not remotely acceptable for breakfast. This is cake, rich and tender as all get-out and sporting a gorgeous cap of creamy-sour frosting.

To tell the truth, I made the cake for you. Because yesterday this blog turned six years old. Six. Six! If this blog was a child, it would be in first grade! It would be reading. And telling jokes! If this blog was a dog, it'd be middle-aged! I think that calls for some celebration. And what, pray tell, is a celebration without cake?

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Six years is a long time. And it's a preposterously long time for a blog whose originator speculated it would barely last a year. The fact that it's still around and kicking and featuring unbelievably delicious cake is really, in no small part, due to all of you coming here and reading and cooking and commenting and all the rest of what you do. So I made you all a cake. You have no idea how much I wish I could have shared this actual cake with you, slice by slice.

When the book is published, do you know what I'm looking forward to the most? The book tour, is what. Because then I'll finally be able to meet some of you in person instead of just sort of vaguely knowing that you're out there. In fact, when the going gets rough, that's what I think about, I really do. It peps me right up. Puts a spring in my step.

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But back to the cake. Hoooo, people. The cake. It is so good. It's super-tender and amazingly not-too-sweet and fragrant with bananas and velvety and moist and the frosting (which I changed a little from the original recipe, to make it a little less sweet) is the perfect foil for it, though I suppose if you left off this frosting and topped it with, say, something dark and glossy like this, I wouldn't kick it out of bed either. My friend Suzy, who I consider to have terrifyingly high standards when it comes to food, gave it high praise. As in, halfway through her first slice, she stopped eating, put her fork down and fixed me with a serious look. Then she said, "This is really good." Then she went home with a doggie bag and ate another piece after dinner which, according to her, never happens. Never ever.

The recipe comes from Los Angeles's Clementine Bakery and is, really, the holy grail of banana cakes, as far as I'm concerned. It even keeps well for a day or two, though it beats me how on earth you'd manage to keep it hanging around for more than a day, unless you were the kind of nut who bakes cakes for her blog and then has to run around the city delivering leftovers for friends lest she eat the entire thing all by herself. And best of all, it is so easy to make - no layers, no complicated mixing techniques. Just a bowl, some ripe bananas, a mixer and you.

I lessened the amounts of cream cheese, butter and sugar in the frosting, but then I added a little extra crème fraîche instead of sour cream, because I think that deeply creamy, sour flavor would be nice to underline. Plus it gave the frosting a little sensuous floppiness, instead of leaving it a stiff spackle. Which I think is sort of crucial when it comes to simple cakes like this one.

Now go forth and bake! And thank you for being here. And happy blog birthday to, uh, me!

Clementine Bakery's Banana Cake
Makes one 10-inch round cake plus a few extra cupcakes, or one 9 x 13-inch rectangular cake
The original recipe is here.

Cake:
2 2/3 cups pastry flour or 2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour minus 2.5 tablespoons
2 2/3 cups sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 large or 4 small very ripe bananas
3 eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup canola oil
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Into a large bowl sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, mash the bananas with an electric beater until smooth. Mix in the eggs, one at a time, until each is completely incorporated, then mix in the buttermilk, oil and vanilla. Finally, mix the dry ingredients into the batter just until thoroughly combined.

3. Pour into a 9-by-13-inch greased pan or a 10-inch round cake pan (you might have enough batter leftover for a few spare cupcakes). Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until golden-brown on top, a toothpick inserted comes out clean and the cake springs back when lightly touched. Cool on a rack.

Frosting:
6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 ounces butter, room temperature
1/3 cup powdered sugar
3 tablespoons crème fraîche

In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a medium bowl with a hand mixer, beat the cream cheese until smooth and there are no lumps. Add the butter and whip until incorporated, then add the powdered sugar and the sour cream. Beat until the frosting is very smooth and lump-free. Frost the top of the cooled cake, then slice and serve.