The next variation which their visit afforded was produced by the entrance of servants with cold meat, cake, and a variety of all the finest fruits in season… There was now employment for the whole party; for though they could not all talk, they could all eat; and the beautiful pyramids of grapes, nectarines, and peaches soon collected them round the table.
- Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
His fingers find hers and entwine gently and they lie there, still and silent, for just a second or two. She sighs heavily and rolls towards him, kicking off the twisted sheet. He groans and murmurs something too low for her to hear. “What time is it?” she whispers. With his free hand he fumbles for the alarm and she perceives the tiny light of the clock flick on and then off. “Two,” he moans, releasing her hand and flipping over onto his back. “Go back to sleep. It’s too early for coffee.”
This is the second night in a row, yet not the first since the beginning of this adventure, they’ve been awakened by their dreams, dreams of cream-colored cabinets, countertops in marble and wood; dreams bordering on nightmares of making decisions, choosing dishwashers and ovens, drawing and redrawing floor plans; stools and faucets swirl through their brains, mocking them, terrifying. If anything can go wrong, it certainly will in the maze of their dreams.
By day, the search and planning is near to thrilling, exciting in the flipping through catalogues and choosing this design and that cabinet. Watching their very clever son create their kitchen on his computer screen, a three-dimensional plan that allows them to walk through the room, stand behind sink and stovetop as if they are cooking, sidle up to the bar and practically slide onto a stool (they can almost smell the food cooking) is absolutely thrilling! Yet at night, while they sleep, the stress, the doubts, the fear of failure come to life and haunt them both as they toss and turn and images of rogue kitchens chase them through dark alleys and laugh at their failings.
Afternoons, son and I, sitting side by side on the sofa, finalize the plan, adding handles to the cabinets, choosing sink and dishwasher (Hallelujah! Finally a dishwasher after two years of privation!) and faucet… he so wants to be architect, designer and chef de chantier, supervisor of renovations, that he has convinced us to allow him to design the kitchen and bathroom, order everything from Ikea and Leroy Merlin and do it ourselves. Our purpose was to renovate this apartment for the least cost, doing most of the work ourselves, from the parquet and flooring, from the knocking down of walls and putting in doorways to the installation of kitchen and bath that this may work out for the best. With the help of his brother who recently spent a year in New Orleans rebuilding houses in the Lower Ninth Ward, as if in preparation for renovating our own home, and a few of his friends, this might just turn out fine.
Yet the dreams materialize, waking us in the night exhausted and drained, waking us in the morning wondering if we are making the right choices. But we know we are. We see the livingroom come to life as the dividing wall falls; we see the beauty of the raw wood appear as we yank off carpeting and scrape away glue; we admire the elements of our future kitchen, brush our fingertips across surfaces, slide imaginary cakes in the shiny new oven and dream of moving in. Thoughts of our rough night dissipate as we pull on work gloves and grab tools. This project that we have made our own, a project shared with our sons who, now adults, participate as equals, bringing knowledge, experience and ideas to the table, sitting with us and discuss, argue, measure and count, is the next step in Starting Over.
Our apartment project, Our Great Adventure, defines our summer and carries us towards autumn. The mild weather is helping us along by making working conditions if not pleasant at least bearable. But this is the project we needed as a family, a common cause, something that brings us together, working together with, at the end, something we can all be proud of, something that contains a part of each of us. A project shared, starting off the next phase of our lives, four adults now off to conquer the world separately and individually, bringing us together, keeping us together.
And while the men work, I spend time at home with Marty, watching over him and keeping his needs met. And I bake for the guys. And what better than an old family favorite, a stunning Caramelized Peach Upside Down Cake, the cake itself light, fluffy and moist, the peaches tender, sweet and fruity mingling with a delicate caramel which only heightens, never overpowers, the magnificent flavor of fresh, seasonal peaches, a favorite fruit.
Peaches, peaches, glorious peaches! My childhood was punctuated by peaches eaten on the front porch, perched in the tree shading my parents’ bedroom window, and sitting in the backseat of the station wagon, squished in between my battling brother and sister, on those long, long summer vacation drives up to New York. While citrus was my winter’s lifeblood, peaches were my summer passion, a love affair that wove its way between thick slices of watermelon and ice cold popsicles, nourishing me heart, body and soul.
I have never been one to eat oranges or grapefruit in May, June or July, no, I was certainly taught better than that! Citrus meant winter when there was a chill in the air and the ground crackled underfoot, when one dashed out quickly into the garage, tugging a sweater or robe tighter around one’s shoulders to grab an orange or two or a tangerine or three, braving the winter cold for the pleasure of fruit. Sadly, sadly I watched the waning of the season and the coming of spring, braced myself for that seemingly eternal period between my beloved grapefruits, oranges and clementines and the following winter when they would, once again, appear in the garage, divided by the long, long months between. During the winter I couldn’t imagine a day without citrus, plunged into the heady scent and flavor of these favorites I just couldn’t conceive of a day without. Long after the last citrus had disappeared, I waited forlornly for the following November, December, January when citrus would make its reappearance and I could heave a sigh of relief.
An apple is an excellent thing until you have tried a peach.
- George du Maurier
Yet, come summer I turned to other pleasures. Once the first stone fruit appeared on the supermarket benches or piled high, fragrant and plump, on the ramshackle wooden farmer’s stalls in service station parking lots up and down South Patrick Drive, I forgot all about those tangerines and grapefruit. Peaches, that age-old harbinger of summertime, school out, each and every day our own. Kids running wild, up and down the street, making up games as we went along, sitting in the shade of a tree in someone’s front yard with an improvised picnic for lunch. Or waiting for the metallic ting ting of the ice cream truck every afternoon, or that chorus of moms’ heads stuck out a series of back doors, yelling us in for dinner.
All grown up, I find it impossible to break such ingrained habits. Nothing has changed; citrus is still the highlight and the heart of my winter; peaches still mean summer to me. Sweet and refreshing, eaten fresh, they lose nothing in the baking, their tenderness and natural sweetness only more intense. I have been baking this perfect Caramelized Peach Upside Down Cake for twenty years and it has always been and still is my husband’s favorite for breakfast, snack and dessert. I find it impossible to resist.
Life is better than death, I believe, if only because
it is less boring and because it has fresh peaches in it.
- Alice Walker
And as this is peach season, how about a few more peach recipes, both savory and sweet?
Sweet & Sour Chicken with Peaches
Nectarine or Peach Jalousie
Old Fashioned Peach Cobbler
Peach Prosecco Bellini Sorbet
Read STARTING OVER: Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, Step 4 and Bad Dreams and Ghosts
CARAMELIZED PEACH UPSIDE DOWN CAKE
½ cup (100 g) firmly packed brown sugar, light or dark
4 Tbs (60 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
Pinch ground nutmeg
4 ripe peaches, white or yellow, about 14 – 16 oz (455 – 450 g) total
4 Tbs (60 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
¾ cup (150 g) granulated white sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 ¼ cups + 1 Tbs (180 g) flour
2 tsps baking powder
¾ tsp salt
½ cup (125 ml) milk
Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C). Have ready a deep round cake pan 8 ½ to 8 ¾ inches (21 ½ to 22 cm); I prefer using a nonstick pan.
For the caramel, cream 4 tablespoons (60 g) of the softened butter with the brown sugar and a pinch of ground nutmeg until smooth, blended and creamy. Using a spatula, spread evenly in the cake pan all the way to the edges.
Peel and pit the peaches and slice into approximately half-inch (one cm) wide or slightly larger wedges. Place the peaches in the pan on top of the brown suger-butter in concentric circles, pushing close together.
Prepare the cake batter by first creaming the remaining 4 tablespoons butter with the white sugar until smooth and creamy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating briefly after each addition until blended; beat in the vanilla. Stir the baking powder and salt into the flour and beat the flour into the batter in two additions alternating with the milk in two additions, scraping down the sides as necessary. The batter should be well blended, smooth and creamy. Pour the batter over the peaches in the cake pan.
Bake the cake for about 35 minutes, covering the cake loosely with a square of aluminum foil after about 25 minutes when the cake is browned. The cake is done when the center is set and firm and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. The caramel should be bubbling a bit around the edges.
Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool on a rack for 10 minutes. At the end of 10 minutes, carefully slide the blade of a knife around the edges to loosen, place a serving platter or cake plate upside down inverted on top of the cake pan and, protecting your hands, grab both the pan and the cake plate firmly and flip over (invert) so the cake is flipped upside down – the cake now on the platter and the caramel side up – and gently lift off the pan. Allow to cool before serving.
We love the cake as is, son claimed it better with a bit of whipped cream.