Yesterday, two am.
Tonight, we ate al fresco. In our garden. Who said you’re not allowed to play make-believe anymore?
I made dessert. One strawberry tart, only it’s so much more. Black olives, vanilla, and olive oil shortbread. White chocolate crémeux. Strawberries from the little patch that somehow resisted the month of May; or perhaps, I should say the month of rain. Strawberry coulis and jam, just so. I topped it with borage flowers, and basil blossoms. And it was pretty amazing. We had a slice each. And then a second.
By that time, mosquitos began dancing around us. And every star started to rise into the sky, not unlike a slow-motion time-lapse.
After dinner, I read. A lot. And sometime, between one and two am, I found the following quotation from We Girls: A Home Story about spider cakes:
“Barbara got up some of her special cookery in these days. Not her very finest, out of Miss Leslie; she said that was too much like the fox and the crane, when Lucilla asked for the receipts. It wasn’t fair to give a taste of things that we ourselves could only have for very best, and send people home to wish for them. She made some of her “griddles trimmed with lace,” as only Barbara’s griddles were trimmed; the brown lightness running out at the edges into crisp filigree. And another time it was the flaky spider-cake, turned just as it blushed golden-tawny over the coals; and then it was breakfast potato, beaten almost frothy with one white-of-egg, a pretty good bit of butter, a few spoonfuls of top-of-the-milk, and seasoned plentifully with salt, and delicately with pepper,—the oven doing the rest, and turning it into a snowy soufflé.”
Adeline Dutton Train Whitney (1870), We Girls: A Home Story
A bit of a rabbit-hole, which Jessica Fechtor entered first, and I felt obliged to follow. Looking up the definition of spider cake seemed like an obvious first step, a word of U.S. origin meaning “a cake cooked in a spider pan”.
Rather unapologetically, I began scouring eBay for spider pans, a sort of frying pan with legs. And delved into its history, a link shared by Jessica. But perhaps, most importantly, I fell asleep thinking about the custard-filled cornbread she’d made following Molly’s adaptation of a Marion Cunningham recipe. Perhaps, the most food-writing hall of fame-ish sentence I have ever written?
This morning, eight am.
I woke up with the sun through curtains so light they seemed to glow. And before coffee even begun to run through the maker, I buttered a 24cm-wide cake tin and turned the oven on.
Coarse polenta got mixed with flour, sugar, and a lot of milk. And cream was poured with no other explanation than this spider cornbread I’d read about yesterday.
I didn’t grow up on cornbread. But cornbread grew up on me.
It might have been because of that guy with deep-blue eyes and the cutest American accent ever. He would make me peanut butter and honey sandwiches, and halve strawberries into salads. But that’s another story, one I will possibly never tell, and rather frankly, this cornbread cannot wait.
While it was in the oven, I rolled puff pastry and made vanilla crème diplomate. I wrote a little too. And after an hour had passed, I took the glorious bubbling cake out from the oven and let it cool while coffee was finally being made.
I had a slice, still warm, with plenty of runny honey. And trust me, I think all mornings should be like this.
Adapted from Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life.
I did not know what to expect from this cake. Sure, knowing both Molly and Jessica, I knew it’d be good. Even with a picture in front of my very eyes, I couldn’t help but feel like magic is always involved when a batter separates into layers.
When it was just baked, I could barely wait to slice it. And the cream was still on the slightly runny gooey side. Not that there is anything wrong with it. Now, a few hours later, it’s firmed up into a silky custard (yes, I totally had a pre-lunch slice).
The edges remind me of canelés. The bottom is rich with corn. And the top feels like a pillow of creamy custard.
Makes one 24cm cornbread.
50 g butter
140 g flour
120 g coarse polenta or cornmeal
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
a fat pinch salt
45 g caster sugar
480 g whole milk
50 g butter, melted
1 tbsp vinegar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
240 g double cream
Butter a 24cm-wide cake tin, preheat the oven to 150°C/fan 170°C, and place the tin in the oven to warm up.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, polenta, baking powder and salt. In a jug, whisk the eggs and sugar, add the milk, butter, vinegar and vanilla extract.
Slowly pour the wet ingredients over the flour, and mix until just combined.
Scrape the batter in the hot tin, then slowly pour the cream in the centre of the batter. Bake for one hour. Allow to cool for 30 minutes or longer, and serve in thick slices with maple syrup or honey.