Have you ever bought something for a pittance, and then it turns out to be one of the best things you’ve ever bought?
It happened to me with Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin. I found it about twenty years ago on a bookshop’s remainder table for $2, and took it home. Remainder tables prove either one of two things: that a lot of crap gets published, or that book buyers are idiots. As soon as I started reading Laurie Colwin’s book – a collection of essays dotted with recipes, written at a time when blogs did not exist – I knew that the point that had been proven was the latter.
Colwin’s intimate, friendly tone pulled me into the book like an embrace, and I was hooked. And continued to be hooked, for I read this book too many times to count in the twenty years that followed. And I didn’t do it for the recipes, which I only ever cooked a few of. Like other lovers of this book, I did it for the writing. And I did it because the more I read it, the more she became my friend. Opening the book was like entering her SoHo apartment, flinging my coat off, and having Laurie talk to me while she prepared something that, to paraphrase the woman, I didn’t know I wanted but was exactly what I wanted. “Some books are like coming home,” said Gillian Armstrong’s Jo March, and this is exactly what I felt, which would have given Laurie Colwin a kick, because it’s exactly how she felt about old cookbooks.
What really sucks about Laurie Colwin is that she died too young. And when I found out she did, I was devastated. Moreover I found out that she was dead years after the fact – she died pre-Internet (at least Internet For Me), and the newspaper didn’t think her a writer worthy of enough note to write an obituary – so my grief was retrospective. I think this would probably have given her a bit of a kick as well. But at this time I learned why I loved her cookbooks so much: they were her only non-fiction forays in what was a highly regarded (albeit cultish) career writing fiction. The skill with which she created the tangible worlds in which her fiction took place was the same with which she created her paper kitchen. I was not her only fan, and many of her fans would also consider her a friend, just as I did.
Shortly before she died, Laurie Colwin opened the door to her kitchen once more and published More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. So I bought it a couple of weeks ago and I’m reading it and laughing and getting a tear in my eye because with every word, I feel she’s telling me, “Welcome back!” And I am glad to be back. Once again it’s just Laurie and me, and she’s telling me about her life, and travels, and friends and family (many of whom have shared recipes for this book), and handing me a slice of this pie here, and all is well with the world.
The pie in question isn’t a pie at all, she says, but a cake. And it’s from Nantucket and made with cranberries, but mine is from Melbourne and made with ripe white nectarines and apricots. And the original recipe isn’t from Laurie Colwin, but her friend Ann Gold, who got it from her mother, who doesn’t know where it originally came from. This makes sense, because as Laurie Colwin herself said, without a cook giving another cook a friendly hint or two, the human race would have died out long ago.
So I had very, very ripe white nectarines and apricots to use up. And I wanted something simple but delicious. On top of it all, it had been a stinking hot day and although I was keen to bake something, I wanted no banging around, and for the oven to be on for the minimum time. Laurie Colwin told me that she herself likes “a cake that takes about four seconds to put together and gives an ambrosial result”, and this was the recipe, which I adapted slightly (her recipe uses cranberries and walnuts, one less egg, and almond essence). It was, as she said, a snap.
When I took it out of the oven, I sighed. When I unmoulded it, I proclaimed myself a genius. And when my eager Baby asked me what kind of a cake it was, I announced that it was The Cake of Deliciousness! (To say this properly, you need a bit of Invader Zim megalomania and phrase it thus: “THE CAKE! OF! DELICIOUSNESS!”)
Although cold leftovers were good the next day, this cake is best served warm or at room temperature, however you like. Laurie Colwin advises: “If you wanted to do some lily-gilding, you might put some vanilla ice cream (or crème fraîche or, if you have tons of time, custard) on the side, but Ann Gold serves it straight, which is, I feel, the best way.”
So do I. Thanks, Laurie. See you soon.
THE CAKE OF DELICIOUSNESS
Soft fruit, as needed (see below)
1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup melted butter
1 cup flour
1 tsp. vanilla essence
What you do:
1. Preheat oven to 180oC. Chop enough soft fruit to make 2 1/2 cups. (Laurie Colwin says the charm of the dessert is the contrast of the tart berries with the “smooth, sweet, buttery cake”, but my white nectarines and apricots were sublime.)
2. Butter a pie dish or cake pan, or brush with Baker's Secret, then sprinkle over 1/2 cup of the sugar. Scatter fruit on top.
3. Mix the eggs with the remaining sugar, butter, flour, and vanilla essence. Stir until smooth – no need to beat.
4. Pour batter – it will be thick – over fruit, spreading it carefully. There will be a high fruit-to-batter ratio and this, my friends, is what makes this cake so spectacular. Bake for 40 minutes, until set and just getting golden around the edges. Allow to cool for 5-10 minutes, run a knife around the edge, and unmould upside down onto a pretty plate. Announce that you are a genius and that this is THE CAKE! OF! DELICIOUSNESS! and serve warm or at room temperature.