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1917 Applesauce Cake

I’m not much of a cake baker. When I was growing up, any cake my mother made came from a commercial cake mix box, so I never acquired any of the skills. (She was a good pie maker, though, so I did learn that from her.) The few cakes I do make tend to be things like this one, which I wrote about here a few years ago: a very basic batter topped with fresh fruit before baking.

About two years ago, intending to expand my baking repertoire, I bought a copy of Anne Byrn’s American Cake. I couldn’t resist its subtitle: “From colonial gingerbread to classic layer, the stories and recipes behind more than 125 of our best-loved cakes.” Ever since, alas, I’ve mainly used it as a dream book: turning pages to admire the gorgeous big color photographs and reading about cake making history and techniques; but hardly ever venturing to make something from it.

Now I’ve stepped up to the (cake) plate – albeit with one of the book’s simpler recipes. Byrn’s 1917 Applesauce Cake is a model of wartime frugality. It has very little butter, no eggs, and not too much sugar, relying on the natural sweetness of apples and raisins. Nevertheless, it makes a hearty, moist cake with plenty of flavor. Frugality should always taste this good.
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The first step in the instructions was to cream the butter and sugar. Beating a mere two tablespoons of softened butter into a cup of sugar produced something more like a feathery fluff than a cream, but I hoped that would be all right. It was.
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The dry ingredients are two cups of flour and small quantities of salt, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. The raisins you see here have been tossed with a little flour, which the recipe footnote informed me keeps them from sinking as the cake bakes. The applesauce, totally unsweetened, I made from two big Winesap apples.
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I was a bit surprised to see baking soda alone as the leavening agent. I make scones, muffins, and quick breads fairly often, and whenever a recipe calls for baking soda rather than baking powder, there’s always buttermilk or yogurt for acidity. I guess the applesauce serves that purpose here.

I let my heavy-duty mixer stir the applesauce into the sugar-butter fluff, then the dry ingredients, last the raisins. The thick batter went into a buttered baking pan.
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The cake was to bake at 350° for 30 to 35 minutes. Mine took a little longer than that. It came out with a slight depression in the center. That was probably because the test for doneness was whether the top springs back when lightly pressed in the middle, and I had to do that three times, maybe with too much pressure. I usually test baked things with a skewer. No real harm done, though.
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This is the kind of cake I can manage: no layers, no icing, no decoration – just slice and serve. And it was fine: nothing that’s going to revolutionize my life, but just plain good. I want to call it a friendly cake. Not too sweet, not too spicy, nicely moist and gently fruity from the apple and raisin. It loved being served with a topping of crème fraiche, and I’m sure it would like whipped cream too, but it was just as pleasant on its own. It even went well with the white Rioja we’d been drinking with our dinner. You can’t ask for much more than that from an austerity-rations, wartime dessert.
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Today marks my completion of a decade of writing this blog. The culinary adventures (both successful and not so) about which I’ve told stories each week have given me great pleasure. To celebrate my tenth anniversary, this post will be a retrospective of some of the dishes I’ve most enjoyed making, eating, and writing about – one for each year.

You’ll notice a strong Western European emphasis in the choices here. That’s a reflection of Tom’s and my general eating preferences, but I’ve actually written about dishes from 24 countries in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. I could have featured many of those others among these favorites.

Clicking on an image below will open the full post about the dish.
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2010

Prosciutto-wrapped Broiled Shrimp

My first blogging year was devoted to one new recipe a week from one of the 200+ cookbooks in my collection. This one, from Ada Boni’s classic Il Talismano della Felicità, makes as good an appetizer as it did a main course.

 

2011

Plum Cake Cockaigne

From my second year, I began including posts about recipes I’d previously known and loved. This one, from Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, has been a late-summer favorite in our household for more years than I can remember.

 

2012

Traditional Paella Valenciana

I found recipes for this relatively simple paella in two cookbooks: Penelope Casas’ Food and Wines of Spain, and Teresa Barrenechea’s Cuisines of Spain. Both looked good, so I drew steps from both recipes.

 

2013

Bluefish Gravlax

 

Here, I adapted a salmon gravlax recipe from the Cooking of Scandinavia volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series for local bluefish. I also made the book’s cucumber relish and mustard-dill sauce.

 

2014

Tripe in Golden Fontina Sauce

This is my own version of trippa alla valdostana, from Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. It makes a remarkably rich, mellow, elegant dish – if I do say so myself.

 

2015

Pheasant Pie with Noodles and Mushrooms

Under this pastry crust is faisan à la vosgienne, made from an Alsace recipe in Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking. Pheasant, noodles, mushrooms, sauce, and pastry were all lavishly endowed with butter.

 

2016

Chickpea and Cuttlefish Stew

Penelope Casas’s book La Cocina di Mama: The Great Home Cooking of Spain provided the recipe for this Andalucian dish intriguingly spiced with hot red pepper, sweet smoked paprika, and garlic.

 

2017

Poulet Marengo

Anyone familiar with my food preferences will know I couldn’t let this retrospective go by without including at least one chicken dish. This is a classic from Robert Courtine’s The Hundred Glories of French Cooking.

 

2018

Veselka’s Borscht

The Ukrainian restaurant Veselka, in NYC’s East Village neighborhood, serves the best borscht I’ve ever tasted or can imagine tasting. Making a batch of it from the place’s own cookbook was a major accomplishment for me.

 

2019

Apple-Stuffed Pork Roast

Apples, bacon, butter, mushrooms, onions, sage, a pinch of sugar, and a touch of wine vinegar made a delightful stuffing for roasted pork. It’s a recipe I clipped from Saveur magazine and pasted in my big recipe binder.

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So:  10 years, 512 posts, recipes from 120 cookbooks, as well as a few from magazines, newspapers, and the internet. I’ve learned a lot about food and cooking from all this. Now I plan to take the month of January off, to think about how I’d like to position my blog for the coming years.

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From my grocery shopping experience this Christmas season, I’d say there have been at least a million cartons of panettone on offer in local stores, in a dazzling array of varieties. With that abundance before me, naturally I chose to make one of my own.

I wanted a reasonably simple, traditional version of this festive bread, and I found a recipe for one in Michele Scicolone’s 1,000 Italian Recipes. I bake breads often, but very rarely are they this kind of sweet, fruit-dotted loaf. Making this one would be a tiny adventure.
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The first thing to do was to scald milk and, off heat, let butter melt and sugar dissolve in it. Already interesting: I hadn’t ever treated bread ingredients this way before.

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While the mixture cooled a little, I assembled candied citron, candied orange peel, raisins, and the grated zest of a lemon. Let me tell you, chopping candied fruits is a gooey business!
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Then, in the bowl of my heavy-duty mixer, I dissolved yeast in warm water, added the milk-butter-sugar mixture, and beat in two eggs and two extra yolks. That many yolks would certainly make a rich bread.
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The fruits and zest went in next, and finally the flour. Oddly, so it seemed to me, the recipe didn’t say to knead the dough: only beat it for two minutes. From long bread-making habit, I couldn’t resist sneaking in a few minutes of kneading with the machine’s dough hook.

In my bread-making, correcting for dryness or stickiness is often needed as a dough comes together. But this dough behaved beautifully – it quickly became smooth and springy, requiring neither a speck more flour nor a drop more moisture than the recipe’s given amounts.
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The dough was to have its first rise in a buttered bowl, covered by a towel, until doubled in bulk. That took considerably longer than the recipe’s approximation of 1½ hours: actually almost 3 hours. I’d expected something like that, with so rich and dense a dough – and also because it’s always fairly cool in my apartment. I waited with uncharacteristic patience until it was fully risen.
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Then came the choice of baking pan. The recipe called for one nine-inch round springform pan, deep enough to create the classic tall panettone shape. I didn’t want a single loaf that big. Unlike commercial panettones, which have additives to maintain freshness, a homemade one that size would surely go stale before we could finish it. I took a small half of the dough for a six-inch round pan and divided the rest over four tiny rectangular pans, whose loaves I could freeze handily for future pleasures.
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For the second rise, in the pans, the dough was again to double in bulk: about an hour, the recipe said. Again, I was called on for uncharacteristic patience; mine took another three hours, and even then I wasn’t sure it had fully doubled. But I proceeded anyway, lest I leave it too long and the dough collapse on itself. Good thing I’d started early in the day!
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I slashed the top of each loaf, hoping the cuts would encourage higher rising in the oven. The recipe said the big loaf would need an hour’s baking at 350°. My small ones tested done in half an hour, and the large one only ten minutes later. Regrettably, they hadn’t risen very much more at all. Nor had the slashes done much to open the tops. But they looked cheerful enough and smelled fine.
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I’d like to blame their sluggish rising on the age of my yeast, which was from the last of a one-pound bag that had been stored in my freezer for many months. But that’s an easy excuse. Somehow, I think it had to have been me. Sigh.

I wrapped and froze the little loaves and left the large one in a cake carrier on the kitchen counter overnight. The next morning, I cut it open to slice and toast for breakfast. It was extremely dense and weighty: not at all like the puffy softness of a store-bought panettone.
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Mirabile dictu! It had exactly the classic panettone flavor and aroma: lightly sweet, fresh, fragrant, and appetizing. Its feel in the mouth was perfectly acceptable; just more countrified in style – definitely homemade tasting. So this little Christmas cooking story has a very happy ending. Merry merry, everyone!

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I hate how this year’s Christmas marketing bling and blitz started a whole week before Thanksgiving. It’s enough to turn anyone into a Grinch. Even now it’s too early for me to put up my usual Christmas decorations. So when we had friends over for a casual dinner the other day, there was nothing Christmas-y on the menu.
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Instead I took the opportunity to make an autumnal dessert recipe I’d been meaning to try: Apple Tart Mapie. “Mapie” was the Countess de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose cookbook La Cuisine de France had a considerable following in the 1960s. I once had a copy of the book and was a fan of her recipe for skate with black butter, but I hadn’t thought about Mapie for decades. Then I found her recipe in the Pies & Pastries volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series.

Two things interested me about it: the apples were diced rather than sliced, and they were covered with custard of a kind I’d never made before. Seemed like a good use for some of the local fall apples I had in a brown bag in my refrigerator’s crisper drawer.

The pastry crust recommended was the book’s standard all-butter pâte brisée. Though the recipe indicated that a half quantity would work for any one-crust pie, it was barely enough to line my shallow 9-inch round tart pan, even needing a little patching.
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To start the filling, I had to melt a stick of butter and keep cooking it over low heat until it turned light brown. While waiting impatiently for that to happen, I cut up two apples.
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The butter took an unconscionably long time to color. My diced apples sat on the counter turning brown while my melted butter didn’t. Finally, I gave up and declared the butter dark enough.
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I poured it into a bowl in which I’d I put 1¼ cups of granulated sugar, stirring it well. The result looked kind of like scrambled eggs.
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Then I beat in four whole extra-large eggs, which thinned the mixture out to a slurry.
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With a final addition of three tablespoons of flour, that was the entire custard mix: no milk or cream of any kind. Can you really call that a custard? I don’t know. What I did know was that the apples alone had pretty much filled my pastry shell. Was all that dense liquid going to fit in as well? I was beginning to lose faith in this recipe.
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Fortunately, it did all fit – just!

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When I put the tart into a 400° oven, I set a sheet pan on the shelf underneath, to catch what I was sure would be an overflow as the custard swelled up. Surprise! It wasn’t needed: The custard pushed the apples up to the surface, making itself into a soft, even base layer. With a sprinkling of powdered sugar, it made quite a nice looking tart..
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A tasty one too. The custard was a little overly sweet for my taste, but everyone else said it was a fine dessert. Now I think I can finally let go of autumn and start getting ready for Christmas.

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Tom and I are just back from a week’s cruise on Portugal’s Douro river. We traveled upriver from Porto, on the Atlantic coast, about halfway to the Spanish border and back. The scenery was picturesque: vineyards, forests, vineyards, olive groves, vineyards, villages, and yet more vineyards. Above all, the Douro valley is Port wine country, but it also makes an abundance of red and white table wines.

Our ship, the Infante Don Henrique, carried 86 passengers from 8 countries, of which only we were from the USA. This was our third river cruise with the Croisieurope line. (See the others here and here.) It serves only one menu for each meal: three or four courses, at both lunch and dinner. Happily, this cruise included many Portuguese specialties, peppered among the line’s good standard hotel-style fare.

The wines – both simple ones poured generously for free and an array of better bottles to buy at modest prices – were almost all Portuguese. Accordingly, we ate and drank very interestingly (not to say excessively) throughout the trip. Here are some of the dishes we particularly liked..

Appetizers

The Portuguese influence on the ship’s cuisine was most prominent among the first courses. Here were cured ham from the prized Iberico black pig; sweet, tender melon from the Azores; a flavorful ricotta-like cheese on toasted whole-grain bread; a locally traditional meat-filled puff pastry tart; three kinds of luscious spicy sausages – chouriço, linguiça, and morcela; and a taste of the nation’s excellent olive-oil preserved sardines.
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Presunto ham and Portuguese melon

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Requeijao cheese tartine

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Pastel de Chaves

 

Grilled sausages, sardine toast

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Main Courses

For the principal lunch and dinner dishes, our chef turned mostly to international hotel-style preparations: everything meticulously designed on the plates and perfectly good, if not very exciting. There was one exception to that pattern, which I’m saving for last..
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Filet of sole with spiny lobster

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Chicken breast stuffed with linguiça

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Braised lamb

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Duck leg with fig and port wine sauce

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The Pièce de Résistance: Bacalhau com Nata
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This big dish of salt cod with cream sauce was presented to our five-person dinner table. My heart sank when I saw it. I knew that salt cod – baccalà – was practically the Portuguese national food, but I’d disliked every version of it that I’d ever tasted, in Europe or America. Nevertheless, I had to try it. Wow! It was terrific. Absolutely delicious.

The cod tasted like fresh fish. It was mingled with potatoes and swathed in a rich bechamel, probably seasoned with onions and wine. It went beautifully with the salad of baby greens and black olives. One of the first things I did when I got home was look up recipes for this dish. There are many online, and I’m going to try one very soon. Only, I’ll make it with fresh cod, not baccalà. That can’t hurt, surely? I’ll let you know.

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Before the cruise, we’d spent two days in Lisbon, where we also ate interestingly and very well. My next week’s post will be about that gastronomical adventure. Tom will also be doing a post on his blog about at least some of the wines we drank on the cruise and in Lisbon.

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Autumn is here, and it’s apple season again. The stands in my Greenmarket are spilling over with the abundant new crop. I counted two dozen varieties in a recent visit: from old standards like Cortland, Empire, Greening, Macintosh, Northern Spy, Rome, and Winesap, to some I’d never seen before, like Spartan, Snapdragon, Opalescent, and Zester. The Johnny Appleseeds of the world have been busy indeed.

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Just walking past the fragrant heaps gave me visions of apple pies and tarts, apple crisps and crumbles, apples baked and sautéed, apple fritters . . . all things I’ll be making in the fullness of time. But sometimes my apple craving can be satisfied with something much more modest than those treats: a simple apple compote.

The compote recipe I use is from my mother’s 1937 copy of America’s Cook Book. The recipe isn’t in a desserts chapter: It’s from “Fruits,” the very first recipe section in the book – which also includes recipes for avocados, kumquats, mangoes, papayas, persimmons, and quinces. At 1,000 pages, it’s an amazing book for its time.

For a little dessert for two, one recent evening, I made a compote with two crisp Braeburn apples.

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I peeled, quartered, and cored them, and dropped them into a bowl of cold water to wait while I prepared their syrup.
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In a medium pot I boiled a cup of water with half a cup of sugar for three minutes. The drained apple quarters went into the pot along with a small cinnamon stick.
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The next instruction was to cover the pot and simmer until the apples were transparent, which always takes longer than I expect it to. These particular apples weren’t very willing to cooperate at all, so when they began thinking about turning into applesauce I had to stop while they were only mildly translucent.
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Drained, they were very tender and not too messy looking. But next time I’ll try a different kind of apple, to see if the pieces will hold their shape better.
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To provide a bit of luxury, I topped our portions of compote with modest scoops of gelato. That’s stracciatella on the left, pistachio on the right. A sweet, light finish for a weekday dinner.

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It’s high peach season, and my Greenmarket is bursting with the fruits. Though I already have several easy recipes for peach desserts that Tom is always happy to eat on summer evenings (and often for the next day’s breakfast too), I enjoy looking for new ones to try. The recipe I found this week was somewhat misleading and didn’t come out at all the way I expected.

It’s called Peach Crumble Cake, and it’s from Lee Bailey’s book Country Desserts. The name was intriguing to me, because a crumble and a cake are normally quite different things. A cake, of course, is baked from a sweetened batter, and even if fruit is added, it comes out firm and sliceable. For a crumble, the fruit goes into a pan and is topped with a crumbly mixture of flour, sugar, and butter. When baked it’s spooned out for serving.

This particular recipe has a base of cake batter, with peach halves set on top. Okay, I thought, that seems like an easy enough kind of cake; I’ll just have to see how the “crumble factor” enters the picture here.

A glitch appeared as I noted the number of peaches the recipe required. For an 8-inch square pan, it wanted 10 large peaches, cut in halves. That was absurd: Even if each peach were only 2 inches wide, that size pan would hold only 16 halves – and most peaches are much larger than that. In any event, I didn’t have an 8-inch square pan, so I’d be using a 9-inch round one (the same capacity, per the πr2 formula). So I bought six peaches, each easily three inches across. I already had all the other ingredients.
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The preparations went smoothly enough. I creamed butter with brown and white sugar; beat in flour, baking powder, and eggs; and transferred the batter to my buttered cake pan.
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I dropped the peaches briefly into boiling water, drained and peeled them, and cut each one in half.
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From the amount of room they took up on my 11-inch prep board, it was clear that not all those halves were going to fit in my pan. And they didn’t. It took only seven halves, plus tucked-in bits of an eighth. I sprinkled them all with lemon juice and a mix of cinnamon and sugar.
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I expected that the cake batter would rise up and cushion the fruit, though I still couldn’t think how anything would become crumbly. However, the pan was already looking pretty full, so as I put it in a 350° oven, I made sure to set a baking sheet on a shelf just below it, in case the rising batter overflowed the pan. Which it did, in a few places.
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Baking time was a little problematic. The recipe said to bake one hour or until golden. My cake was golden after only 45 minutes, but the cakey part still tested very wet inside. At 10 minutes after the hour, when the crust was starting to darken to brown, my testing skewer finally came out clean. I pulled the cake out of the oven and set it on a rack to cool.
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Obviously, this was not the kind of cake that could be turned out of its pan onto a plate for serving. The recipe had no further handling instructions, so I thought I’d treat it like a pie and take slices straight from the pan.

Nooo, not that either. The missing “crumble factor” kicked in, but not in any way I’d expected: My attempted slices crumbled and fell apart at first touch. Also, the whole interior of the dish was extremely juicy – not to say soggy.

Well, all right: Since the cake had become this very moist crumble, I spooned it into bowls and served it with scoops of ice cream, as the recipe suggested. Texture aside, it tasted fine. It’s hard to hurt ripe peaches and sweet dough.
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But if I’d wanted a simple peach crumble, there are easier ways than this to make one. It was the crumble-cake combo that mainly interested me.  And, aside from the misnomer of calling this a cake, I think something was wrong in the recipe’s proportions: Though I used less than half as many peaches called for, the dish was far too wet. The sugar seems to have drawn so much liquid out of the fruit that the batter couldn’t firm up enough. And the crust would have blackened if I’d baked it longer.

So, for my next peach dessert this summer, I’ll go back to one of my tried and true recipes. The same book has a very good one for a peach cobbler that I’ve written about here before. And I have a recipe of my own for a “proper” peach cake, which I’ve also written about here.

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