Thursday, July 16, 2015

Alpha Bakers -- Molasses Crumb Cakelets

Gingerbread. Definitely my jam. Definitely good with jam, also, if it comes to that. Gingerbread is also really molassesbread. This gingerbread below has no ginger. More on this.

This week's baking was a portrait of an internal tug-of-war, a crisis of place played out in butter, sugar, orange zest, and molasses.

I have been doing something that all East Coast people do, but most don't like to admit. I have been dallying with California. In my defense, it's San Francisco, people. A city so beautiful that residents of Lisbon and, well, New York, are impressed. Every block felt like a secret and a new beginning. I couldn't begin taking pictures of houses because I would have to take every one. Yes, I was staying in a neighborhood I couldn't begin to afford, and yes, I was drenched in what Matthew Amster-Burton calls 'Vacation Head,' but, oh, I was ready to really, truly say goodbye to Brooklyn and move to that strange, steep, city. Perspective. 

Maybe I am ready to leave New York, but more maybe what I needed was a reminder that there are other ways to do things, other values to value, other ways to make places lovely. I was very happy there. Thank you to Willa & Steve, my wonderful hosts, who gave me a beautiful home and a warm welcome, to the beautiful older butches riding fire trucks with their wives and the bookmobiles driving in the pride parade. To Clarence & Shefali & K & M, my old neighbors who showed me their new neighborhood. Thank you San Francisco, for a rest and for helping me breathe and wearing out my calves. To Miriam, with whom I drove over the longest and most amazing bridge, and then about 500 more miles. Zach, my dear cousin who just moved out there like a good little migrating tech-bird, I hope the Bay Area is wonderful to you. 

Eating (and walking) in San Francisco is much like eating and walking in any famous city--half-remembered terribly famous names just appeared every time I turned a corner, and I greeted them like old friends. On my first blissful walk through town, I walked past no less than the lovely Zuni Cafe, and two hours later I was there for lunch. It was perfect, as simple and as strong as could be, and I would have gone back over and over. It's the kind of fancy restaurant that isn't really fancy, the kind where you instantly want to be a regular, the proper treat.

And then there was Tartine. One of the reasons that I fell so deeply and suddenly back in love with San Francisco (seriously, why have I been going to Europe--I want to see much much more of the Pacific Northwest) was how easy things seemed to be. Yes, every block is an Everest, and there are two conflicting transportation systems and nobody seems to notice (WTF, Muni & BART?). Still...something about NYC (and apparently Paris, Mr. Lebovitz) that everyone just seems to accept is that everything is always a Gigantic. Effing. Ordeal. Protesting. Celebrating. Meeting for lunch. Renting a car. Hiring a roofer. Everything. I know that every place has complications, and some things are harder outside of the city, but I swear that there is some agreement among New Yorkers that every damn thing has to be just a little harder than it needs to be, a little more of a hassle, and so whenever I leave town I am struck all over again by how little I need to hunch my shoulder and gird my loins before, say, going to the supermarket, or checking out a large public event. I have avoided all parades in NYC for many years (with good reason), but I was able to stroll down to SF pride perfectly calmly, walk through a crowd, watch the parade at the barricade for a while, and then...walk away. This blew my mind. Do they just get to go see fireworks and then not have to walk down terrifying subway entrances after queuing behind weird traffic control buses too? What is this magical place? 

Of course, the magic I fell for was a place that embodies both the free and crunchy spirit of San Francisco and the celebrity-culture hassle of a New York or Paris. Tartine. 

Tartine, that bakery of beautiful conflicts. The line is long, but everyone is pleasant. The counter staff is calm and efficient. The place feels like a neighborhood coffee shop that just happens to have the best croissants this side of the Atlantic and you want to sit there forever. And you sort of can. There were lines both times I went there, but also seats. And I got a morning bun. 
I had heard many tales of the storied morning bun, a croissant-meets-kouign amman-meets-sticky-bun situation. I even tried to make them once, about two years ago for my former boss' birthday. As the person who most closely shares my love of breakfast pastry, I felt it was no more than she deserved. However, I found that I had completely failed her. The morning buns I had made using Tartine's recipe were crusty, sticky pleasures, but they were not Tartine's morning buns. Somehow, the ones they turn out are softer, fluffier. And very good. They somehow make it all the way through all the aforementioned pastries to an almost sugar-raised doughnut place. And, as we all know, sugar doughnuts are the creme de all cremes, so. I immediately texted said former boss, who luckily was in town for the same conference that I was, and confessed my failure and suggested she get herself over to Tartine immediately. 
When I got home, I tried again, and went through the, well, giant hassle of making croissant dough and making morning buns. 
They were still crunchier than Tartine's, but excellent.

Then, I moved into another path, wandered into a different idiom, really, and made this week's Alpha Bakers recipe, the Molasses Crumb Cakelets. If there is an opposite to Tartine's croissants, this is it. These are small, terse, vegan mini-muffins, with a stern hit of molasses (I used the Wholesome Sweeteners brand). These are the frugal, spicy face of Northeast austerity and hospitality. These are...really really good. There are things that need careful dexterity and long patience. And these are works of art and are good. There are also things that are simple, that mix in one bowl and bake in ten minutes and use no eggs and no butter, and they, too, are valuable parts of our lives. Richness isn't only in effort or butterfat. 

Or maybe there's no moral here and I just love gingerbread, even the kind without any actual ginger. These molasses cakelets are as worthwhile as any croissant, and maybe when I open my bed and breakfast, we'll serve croissants and elegant fruits in the morning, and these as a bedtime snack. They taste like home.


Unknown said...

Oh, you have such an interesting writing style, easy to immersed in the stories of the cities I know little about. Loved "Richness isn't only in effort or butterfat." … your molasses cakes look wonderful… as do your morning buns. ---- Jeniffer

evil cake lady said...

I loved reading this, but maybe that's because I grew up south of SF and I fell in love with SF again as I read your love letter to that wonderful city. Also, your description of the cakelets is perfect.

Unknown said...

London is the same - just everyday living requires a big effort. Big cities have a lot going for them but there are easier places to live. Your posts are always interesting.

Alpha Baker Joan said...

wonderful story and cakelets!