- Do not go where the path may lead,
- go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
- -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
We were a family with a serious sweet tooth. Breakfast, snacks, desserts or after dinners in front of the television, there were no limits on when, what or how much we could eat. We were sensible kids and good eaters, so we had no problem eating a balanced meal, fruits, vegetables and all, and when left on our own – which we often were – invariably fixed ourselves a fairly good lunch. We were active kids, too, and living in small town Florida meant playing outside, ball, biking, running, basketball, every day all year round. Burning more than our fair share of energy. So our parents worried little about our in-between-meal eating habits and let us make all of the decisions. Either that or this was just their “live and let live” parenting style.
Our home was filled with sweets in every shape and form, from breakfast cereals to cookies, ice cream by the gallon and candy scattered here and there, bagfuls tucked away into every cabinet. We all had the baking bug: dad’s marble sheet cakes, luscious Bundts, bowls of pudding and mom’s banana cream pies filled our home with the aroma of freshly baked goods and our young tummy’s with pleasure. Much of their baked goods came from a box, but each was always made from the heart. I loved nothing more than watching my father blend, stir and pour with the patience and passion of a great pastry chef. Mom did her duty by us as well, no matter she never liked to cook, and filled in when dad wasn’t baking with pies both creamy and fruity. Home Ec and Girl Scouts had me baking alongside my sister and brother, cranberry muffins, Apple Brown Betty, even spending a fun-filled afternoon pulling taffy across the kitchen. Yes, we were all happy eaters and happy bakers as well.
Although much of what my parents baked came from a box, a can or something frozen, they did bake from scratch as well! I have waxed eloquent on my dad’s wonderful choux puffs, light, ethereal, delicate pockets. He would make them the size of saucers and fill them with pudding and they were heaven. Large simmering pots of dried fruit compote, dark prunes, golden apricots plumped up in a vanilla- and cinnamon-scented sauce riddled the air with exotic odors and I would wait impatiently for the fruit to cool. My mother’s fruit pies and cream pies, well, I have vague memories, the strongest being the time that she carefully filled a homemade pie crust with creamy liquid, lifted it off the counter as gently and slowly as possible to carry it towards the oven as we kids stood and watched and the pie, as in some silly comedy film for kids, flipped up and out of her hands and landed upside down on the floor.
I recently posted about my current dark days of writer’s block. The good friends I have gathered around me and with whom I am in daily contact, talented each and every one of them, all seem to be going through the same dip in enthusiasm, accompanied by an overall depletion of energy. Maybe it is the change of seasons, the dark, sullen, leaden days of winter that still steal across our horizons and seep into our lives that leave us listless and uninspired. But there is comfort in numbers, misery loves company and all that, so maybe it isn’t anything personal, and maybe something will turn it all around and that proverbial light bulb will be switched on. Meanwhile, some of my baking inspiration has returned and I am finding the old joy and sizzle to pull out the flour, chocolate chips and eggs and whip up something sweet for my family.
- Abraham Lincoln
Spontaneity comes in fits and bursts, yet happily it comes all the same. Carefully turning the pages of my mother’s collection of community and Temple Sisterhood cookbooks, from her own to that of my great-aunt up in Albany, New York to several she purchased from who knows where, have my imagination churning. My finger slides up and down the timeworn, well-stained pages, perusing each recipe both savory and sweet and I am taken aback by the lack of detailed instructions. Used to modern cookbooks where each and every step is marked down in black and white, specifics enumerated step by step, these old cookbooks featuring recipes from real housewives back in the good old days are written in such a sketchy way that one realizes they assume that every home cook is well-schooled in the basics, that we automatically understand the how-tos and are able to fill in the blanks. A home cook and baker who often doubts her own capacity to ad lib, who underestimates her own knowledge and talent, I have long avoided making any recipe from these books, simply afraid that none will turn out. I come across many dishes credited to my mother, her name typed underneath the recipes; some I remember fondly, others less so – leaving me in stitches, laughing at the poor bugger who will make this or that, a dish that invariably arrived at our own table dried out and flavorless - while some stir up delicious memories of a dish I loved so well. I have made, with some alterations, her wonderful Veal Scallopini and recently made and posted the recipe for Butter Horns, although not her recipe, from the same Sisterhood cookbook. And then I stumbled upon her Nut Bread.
With each recipe I recreate, the more I want to discover. Many of the names in her own Our Favorite Recipes from the Sisterhood of Temple Beth Sholom, where I grew up, are as familiar to me as my own mother’s: Mrs. Siskind, Mrs. Rosenberg (the best cook!), glamorous Mrs. Silver, this book full of goodness, filled with the foods of my youth, brings back my childhood in one fell swoop and I am back reliving those good old days in that tightly-knit, loving community. The particular recipe that I have baked today is from my mother, though for the life of me I don’t remember her ever making this. A simple sweet quick bread, dense and moist with tangy buttermilk, full of nuts and little more, is the ideal sweet treat for my own family, the perfect snack cake for breakfast. I took her rather plain Nut Bread recipe and added vanilla and a hint of cinnamon, the finely grated zest of one orange for a deep fruity sensation and loads of mini chocolate chips, everyone’s favorite.
Some people in this house actually found this cake a bit too dense and moist, more like a pudding than a quick bread, yet I found it delightfully and satisfyingly chewy to the point of being addictive. I found the balance of nuts to chocolate and the wonderful aroma brought into the game by the splash of vanilla and the bit of zest absolutely fantastic. Possibly the buttermilk gave it that pudding-like quality, and I personally found it wonderful. Oh, if my mother had only made this more often when I was a kid! Perfect with a glass of milk, dunked into café au lait or with a mug of tea… a bread quick, satisfying and delicious.
After my Chocolate Chip Pecan Butter Horns, I would like to share this wonderful Chocolate Chip Pecan Bread with my wonderful friend Lisa of Parsley, Sage, Desserts & Line Drives for Bread Baking Day, a monthly bread event created by Zorra of 1x Umruhren Bitten. Lisa is hosting BBD #47 all about Bread & Chocolate! As you can tell, it is a favorite of mine!
CHOCOLATE CHIP PECAN BREAD scented with cinnamon and orange
2 cups (280 g) flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
1 cup (200 g) granulated brown sugar (you can replace this with packed brown sugar but spooned loosely into the measuring cup)
Finely grated zest of 1 orange, preferably untreated *
½ tsp ground cinnamon *
½ tsp vanilla
1 large egg
1 cup (250 ml) buttermilk
1.8 oz (50 g, about scant ½ cup) coarsely chopped pecans or walnuts
3.5 oz (100 g, about heaping ½ cup) mini chocolate chips
* These flavorings are optional but highly recommended!
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease a loaf pan and dust with flour, shaking out the excess.
Place the flour, baking powder and baking soda, sugar, cinnamon and grated orange zest in a large mixing bowl. Stir or whisk to blend.
Add the egg, the vanilla and the buttermilk and whisk or stir by hand until blended and smooth.
Add the chopped nuts and chocolate chips and stir until evenly distributed and well blended.
Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake in the preheated oven for 55 minutes to 1 hour until puffed, golden and a tester stuck into the center comes out mostly dry. Cover the cake with foil for the last 10 to 15 minutes if it seems to be browning too quickly.
Remove from the oven onto a metal cooling rack and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Run a sharp knife all around the edges and loosen the bread then turn out onto a cooling rack; allow to cool.