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Jan 9, 2007

Plain and Simple (with butter and jam)

Every year around this time I begin longing for spring, and this week the longing is particularly excrutiating because San Francisco is experiencing a warm spell that teases and tantalizes its residents with memories of long August nights and the odd Septemeber weekend during which the temperature breaks records and dusty, little-used fans.

But a cold front is expected to snap down on the coast in a few days, and I will almost welcome it because now is not spring! There are months and months to go before the time changes! I am almost used to running in the dark (and waking in the dark, and going home in the dark) and roasting things in the oven for proper winter meals! I have even contemplated baking bread! People here in l'office are bandying about "global warming" as if the concept is no big deal. But it is! I believe it! And I haven't even seen the Al Gore movie yet!

[I must confess I am warm-weather lover of sunshine and clear skies. I will not move to Southern California. But I have contemplated New Mexico, or Arizona.]

I'd rather have things be in their right order, and while I adore the sun I worry a a bit about the looming summer if there is not enough rain this winter. These stolen days of bright warmth will probably come with a price -- which is, conversely, why they are so special.

Regardless, last night needed something to celebrate the 63-degree day. I decided after I did my grocery shopping at lunch that I wanted to bake a simple cake; for it I needed almond and lemon extracts, vanilla, milk, and powdered sugar. (My pantry was lacking, clearly.) I was loathe to go to the store again, but I kept thinking about it and thinking about it -- and I knew it would be delicious to have a buttery, jammy cake for dessert after the healthy dinner we had planned (tofu; broccoli; carmelized onions; a big salad). So back to the store it was for me.

I came across this recipe from 2004; the headline for the story reads "Jam Fills Sublime Butter Cake." It's not summertime, so I had to use a store-bought (organic, though) strawberry jam but yes: "sublime" is just the word for it. The cake is simple, fresh, and gently laced with lemon, vanilla, and almond extracts. It was all I could do to pile the batter into my trusty springform pan (bought years ago to make angel-food cakes, among, of course, many other things) and slide it into the oven -- I wanted to eat it all up, fast and furious because it smelled, looked and (yes) tasted so good. (I did lick the bowl and spatula smooth.)

I have a funny (and bad?) habit when I bake: I never, ever use a timer, and I rarely even glance at the clock. I'll usually remember to do so five or ten minutes into the baking and will then yank open the over door to see how my little creation(s) is doing. But I don' think this is ideal for a healthy rise, and last night I forced myself to note the time I started baking and managed not to peek too often. Honestly, I don't know if this had any affect (I think it was more the cake flour), but omygoodness it was tender and light and airy and all of those yummy adjectives. I slapped it full of strawberry preserves (some day, I would like to try with my own home-made plum), dusted with powdered sugar (actually, "dusted" might be misleading; it was more like "I'm tired and thus half-heartedly sprinkling clumpy teaspoon-fulls"), and whipped some cream.

As soon as I sunk my fork into its feathery layers I knew I'd hit on something good, and when I tasted it, I knew the recipe was a keeper. The sweet jam seeps into the moist layers just enough, and the whipped cream an aboslute must as an accompaniment.

I know this is a cake that Ann-with-an-e Shirley would have made once she mastered the art of baking, perhaps proferred guiltily to Marilla after getting into one of her habitual scrapes. It's not the first time I've wished I could have a chat with Lucy Maude, but oh, how nice to imagine us sipping tea on the wraparound porch of a white clapboard house on P.E.I., looking contentedly upon her beloved, shining sea, sharing a delicious slice of cake and comfortable conversation.

Plain & Simple Jam-Filled Butter Cake (this title, I love), from Flo Braker

INGREDIENTS:
1 3/4 cups sifted cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 ounces ( 1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 large eggs
1/2 cup milk
1 cup jam of choice, such as apricot, plum or strawberry
owdered sugar

INSTRUCTIONS: Bring all ingredients to room temperature. Adjust rack to lower third of oven; preheat oven to 350°. Grease and flour a 9-inch round springform pan; insert a round of parchment or waxed paper in bottom of pan.

Sift flour, baking powder and salt onto a sheet of waxed paper; set aside.

Using an electric mixer, preferably with paddle attachment, beat the butter in a large bowl at medium speed until it is smooth and creamy.

Maintaining the same speed, add the sugar in a steady stream. When all the sugar is added, stop the machine and scrape the mixture clinging to the sides of the bowl into the center of the bowl. Continue to cream at the same speed for 3 minutes, or until the mixture is light in color and fluffy in appearance. Add the extracts in the final moments of beating the butter and sugar.

With the mixer still on medium speed, add the eggs, one at a time, incorporating each one thoroughly into the mixture before adding the next. When the mixture appears fluffy, reduce the mixer speed to low. Add the flour mixture in three additions alternately with the milk in two additions. Scrape the sides of the bowl occasionally, and mix until smooth after each addition. Spoon the batter evenly into the pan.

Bake for about 40 to 45 minutes, or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out free of wet batter. Place the pan on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Carefully release the springform and remove the metal ring from around the cake. Cool completely before removing the cake from the metal form.

Using a long serrated knife, cut the cake layer in half horizontally. Set the bottom cake layer on a serving plate and spread the jam over the cut surface. Place the top portion of the cake cut-side down on the jam-covered layer.

To decorate, sift powdered sugar over the top.

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