A few weeks ago, Ben and I skipped town for the day. We needed to get away—do you know this feeling? The one that whispers that if you escape your normal routine for just a handful of hours, you will be fine, but if you stay, you may well break? I don’t know that I’ve always responded to this tug, but it’s something I’m working on. Mental clarity, emotional wellness and work-life balance are entirely worth whatever effort it takes to attain them.
And so, that crisp Sunday morning found us rolling north with mugs full of coffee, windows cracked to catch the fresh air and sights set on pumpkins or apples—something autumnal, I didn’t care which—and a bit of good food and wine. The prior day’s internet research had yielded the happy discovery of the Nicasio Valley Farms pumpkin patch. We’d driven past en route to Point Reyes, and we’d tasted their fantastic cheeses, but we hadn’t been aware of the plethora of pumpkins and pomegranates and funky gourds they grew during the harvest.
My childhood Halloween was always preceded with a trip to the pumpkin patch, where I would scale pyramids of hay bales and survey the pumpkin options. My dad would search with equal enthusiasm for the ideal pumpkin to bring home, his always bearing a tall, winding stem and a sizable surface for carving a wide smile. I’m glad I learned so early on that adults can have as much fun as children in most any situation if they put their minds to it. Ben and I may have been the only people without kids at the pumpkin patch that day, but I had a glorious time.
(Also, pomegranates at the pumpkin patch? California still blows me away.)
From the pumpkin patch, we made our way through the rolling hills to Sonoma, where we lunched at The Girl and the Fig and stopped at a couple of wineries before making our way home. The trees were not quite so brilliantly colored as they are back in Michigan, where my family would go on color tours around this time of year when I was small, driving up north to where autumn most loudly proclaimed its arrival. And yet, our Sunday away granted dry orange leaves that skipped across the pavement as we drove, and trees blazing red and gold were rare, perhaps, but all the more celebrated.
I can get quite tense in my day-to-day living, always thinking and analyzing, unsure of exactly how to rest, clutching to my to-do lists. But there’s something that happens when I’m pulled out of my normal setting, from floors that ought to be swept and an inbox that beckons. It’s a stunning, expansive place, this world, with magnificent landscapes and hundreds of thousands of strangers with lives as rich and complicated as my own and seasons that change dramatically, pulling all of us along through time and space. Sometimes I need help remembering how good it all is.
I brought along fat slices of this cake, baked the day before, for our morning drive. Nigel Slater describes it as “a good, reliable cake that will keep for a day or two, the sort you find at village-fête cake stalls,” which sounds idyllic to me. I can’t say I know all that much about village fêtes, but the phrase makes me think of grandmothers and wholesome treats and farms and the simplicity we all seem to be longing for these days. And this cake fits the bill—festive, hearty, well spiced and delicious.
Whole Wheat Apple & Marmalade Cake
Adapted from Nigel Slater’s Ripe
Makes 1 8-inch cake, about 8 servings
Nigel suggests you peel your apples; I peeled mine partially. Proceed however you prefer. I didn’t include the orange zest as I didn’t have an orange on hand, but it’s in the original recipe, and I think it would be a lovely addition.
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
Scant 1 cup / 190 g natural cane sugar
2 cups / 250 g whole wheat flour
1 slightly heaped teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of salt
1 medium or 2 small apples, about 8.5 oz / 240 g
2/3 cup / 100 g raisins
6 tablespoons / 125 g orange marmalade
Zest of 1 orange, optional
Demerara sugar, for finishing
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line an 8-inch round pan with parchment paper.
In a stand mixer or large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light, fluffy and pale in color. In a small bowl, lightly whisk the eggs. In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.
Core the apples and coarsely chop them into small (1/3 inch / 1 cm) pieces. Toss with the raisins, then stir in the marmalade and orange zest, if using.
A little at a time, add the beaten eggs to the creamed butter and sugar, introducing a spoonful of the flour mixture if it starts to curdle. Gently fold in the remaining dry ingredients. Fold in the fruit mixture until just combined.
Spoon the batter into the prepared cake pan and smooth the top. Generously sprinkle with demerara sugar. Bake the cake for 1 hour 15 minutes, until a skewer comes out moist but without cake sticking to it. Cool slightly before serving.