It started with D, when she suggested I bring dessert to dinner on Christmas day. I couldn't make bread pudding - I always make bread pudding, and if no one else is sick of it, I certainly am. I couldn't make brownies - they aren't really dessert, and nor are cookies. Tíramisu seemed wrong. I spent days dithering, until a piece of luck came in the form of the most recent issue of Gourmet magazine. Flipping through the pages yielded a recipe for a fig-pecan-bourbon cake; it looked complicated and time-consuming, but not too much so. I would need dried figs and pecans and bourbon and cake flour, and, of course, a Bundt pan. Most of what I needed I bought at the market, except for cake flour, which I couldn't find anywhere. The perils of eating organic. A note posted in the bulk foods section of my local co-op suggested 3/4 cup pastry flour - which I had bought by mistake - to 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. Some quick math brought that to three cups of flour to half a cup of cornstarch, more than enough for my cake. (I think).
I can't remember who taught me to read the recipe through and gather my ingredients together before I begin, or to estimate how long things would take. Usually it takes longer than I expect. What I like about Gourmet is that it tells you "active time" and "start-to-finish time." Certainly it takes me longer to simmer the dried figs until they soften and absorb most of the liquid. (The recipe calls for water, but I use bourbon and water). I am annoyed at the recipe, which merely says "until most of the liquid is absorbed," which is not precise enough for something like a cake, which needs precision. (I am someone who weighs my ingredients if possible, even when making macaroni and cheese).
My eggs are coming to room temperature; the butter is softening in its dish. I have to remind myself to do these things at the start of cooking, instead of in a hurried rush near the end. The flour is sifted into a large bowl, and then measured; I put all my dry ingredients together and the wet ones in another bowl. The figs are not ready, so there is time even for a quick dinner, which I eat standing up, hovering over the stove. The standing mixer is on one counter; the food processor takes up precious space at the other, but I need them both. It is fun to puree the warm figs with bourbon (I taste some - it's good); my food processor is shiny and new and with a few pulses the figs have become a smooth puree. The eggs are beaten with brown sugar and oil until pale and creamy before I add the figs, and then the flour mixture, fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg. As usual, I get flour everywhere.
But there is no time to dwell on the far-reaching mess I have made, because the pecans are just on the verge of burning and I rescue them just in the nick of time. A few more pulses with the food processor and the nuts are ready to be folded into the cake batter; the pan is already buttered and floured (a few bare spots linger, so I pray for the best) and waiting to be filled. And then it all goes into the oven, and I breathe a sigh of relief. It's out of my hands now. The scent of figs and bourbon and toasted pecans fills my kitchen, my apartment. An hour later I take the cake out - it is slightly burnt around the edges, but never mind, I can slice the dark bits off - and let it cool before turning it out on a rack. It is beautiful, dark and rich and fragrant, and I can't wait to taste it.
Two more days to go.