California out the window

by Caroline

Every Sunday morning, just two blocks from my house, our neighborhood farmer’s market lets me witness the seasonal cycles of California produce and other farm products. Valentine’s Day was the last day for satsumas, for instance, so I bought several pounds for our trip; the woman who sells me eggs explained she’d run out earlier than usual because “The ladies are slowing down.” Our farmer’s market, like many, is made up of small family farms: they bring their kids; they borrow change from the neighboring stand; they may run out of produce and close up early. California agriculture as seen from my farmer’s market every week is low-key and pretty casual.

The California agriculture I saw out the car window last week on our road trip is an enormous machine; it’s the California that feeds this country. One statistic I read says that the state grows “more than half the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts from less than 4% of the nation’s farmland.” Driving across that less than 4%, as we did on our drive east and south to Yosemite, and then south some more and west to Santa Barbara, is hugely educational and although I’ve done the drive before, doing it with the kids this time I paid even more attention than usual. I highly recommend loading up the car with the kids, snacks, and books and doing it yourself some day if you can.

This time of year, the orchards are just starting to bloom; we passed almonds, walnuts, peaches and other stone fruit (it’s hard to tell the difference between all the different trees from 70 mph). We saw orange groves that stretched out to the horizon, the trees heavy with big orange globes, and then, as we got closer to Santa Barbara, the spreading branches and shaggy leaves of avocados, their fruit hanging like so many heavy green rain drops. We passed farm stands advertising lobster tails and avocados at 10 for a dollar but because we were nearing the final miles of a six-hour drive and a stop would have made it hard to get the kids ever back into the car, I thought a little sadly of lobster tail burritos with guacamole, and we drove on.

In southern California I was lucky enough to visit two farmer’s markets: a small one in Montecito, and a much bigger one in Santa Barbara. I counted five different kinds of avocados (Pinkerton, Fuerte, Bacon, Hass, Zutano) and was amazed to see that it was already spring, from a produce perspective: the farmers offered snap peas, asparagus, strawberries and loads of tender herbs (at which point I finally remembered to take out my camera):

Then there was the small slice of California agriculture we saw out the window of our cousins’ home; they’re renting a place where the backyard is planted with a half dozen avocado trees. The New Yorker in me was amazed at the bounty (sadly none of it ripe):

The kids just loved playing with the great sticks and the dried-out pits that had fallen from the trees. Our cousins have a lemon tree, too, and this again, for someone who is tending one small potted lemon tree and finally got one planted in the ground this spring, amazed me; even the kids were notably impressed by the size of some of the fruits:

Driving from Santa Barbara back home, our car now fragrant with a grocery bag full of lemons, we crossed miles of grape vines, producing for both wine and table; acres of romaine and other lettuces; and plenty more fruit and nut orchards before the landscape gave way to the beautifully soft, uncultivated green hills of the South Bay. The farms represented at our neighborhood market aren’t visible from these big highways, but now that we’re home I can’t wait to see what they’re selling this week.

Christmas Cooking: Ben’s Chocolate-Coated Candied Orange Peel

by Caroline


I am always ready to start the Christmas baking too early to actually start the Christmas baking. Last year (at exactly this time, I see), I was stirring up a batch of Wonderballs, no-bake peanut butter-oatmeal concoctions that we keep in the fridge. They are an excellent transitional snack, whether the gap you’re trying to bridge is from lunchtime to dinner, or from Thanksgiving to Christmas!

naked oranges

This year, I figured it wasn’t too early to start in on some of the Christmas gift candy-making. Every year seems to add a few more people to the list of folks who have helped us through the months, from the boys’ many teachers to the guy who delivers the Sunday New York Times, and while I make batches and batches of cookies during the holidays to share with folks who come over, I make candy to give away. It keeps better than cookies, it’s less fragile, and I can produce it quickly in great volume.

Now candied orange peel might not be at the top of everyone’s favorite candy list, and I think that’s probably because too many people have been subjected to too much bad fruitcake studded with plasticky candied citrus. Fresh candied orange peel is a revelation: it’s delicious, with all the citrus flavor concentrated in a couple tender bites; it’s sparkly and beautiful; it’s also (except for one tedious step) easy, quick, and cheap. What’s not to like? I’ve been making it for years, and now it’s one of the first things Ben asks for when we start to talk about Christmas cooking, so I can’t resist making it for him.

Place in a saucepan:

peel in pot

Peel of 3 oranges, 2 grapefruits, or 6 lemons, removed in wide strips

Add water to cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Drain, cover with fresh cold water, and simmer until tender. Drain, refresh under cold water, and then remove the remaining pulp or pith by scraping it away with a spoon or paring knife. This is the tedious part of the process and it’s a little too delicate to delegate to the kids yet, but I hope to next year.


Cut the peel into 1/4″ wide strips.

sliced peel

Combine in a large, heavy saucepan:
1 c sugar
3 T light corn syrup
3/4 c water

Stir over low heat until the sugar is dissolved. Add the fruit peel and cook very gently over low heat until most of the syrup is absorbed. Cover and let stand overnight.

cooking peel

Bring to a simmer again, then use a slotted spoon to transfer the peel to a baking pan lined with parchment and sprinkled generously with granulated sugar.
sugared peel

Use tongs to toss the citrus peel in the sugar until well coated. Let dry for at least an hour.

You can stop there, or you can go one more step and dip the candied peel into chocolate. This is something the kids could do, if you trust them not to eat every other piece.

Melt or temper half a pound of bittersweet chocolate (since I store these in the fridge, I don’t go to the trouble of tempering, but go ahead if you’re feeling fancy). Dip the end of each piece of peel in the chocolate and let dry on sheets of waxed paper. Store the finished candy between layers of wax or parchment paper in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 months.

chocolate peel

Finally, don’t toss the sugar you used to coat the candied peel; it offers a nice orange-y tang to any baked goods or even your next cup of tea.

Learning to Eat Quinces

by Caroline

Winter fruit in California is maybe not quite so varied as summer fruit, but with satsumas, pomegranates, and pears, I’m not complaining. This winter, I’m also optimistically awaiting a new addition to our winter fruit menu: the quince! After years of beautiful flowers from the raggedy little tree in the far corner of our narrow city backyard, this year, our little quince tree has set fruit, and a couple have even survived the squirrels and other urban predators to make it close to harvestable size.


But before our quinces were ready, my dad’s Connecticut quinces ripened. I associate quinces with Connecticut, and with my grandmother, who made sheets of sticky-sweet quince leather from the fruit of my grandparents’ small, sturdy tree every year. When I mentioned my tree’s produce to my parents, they said they had more quinces than they knew what to do with this year, and before long a package arrived on our doorstep:


So I got to work, researching the quince. The LA Times ran a feature story on quinces and another article reminded me of their place in poetry; my mom sent some recipes, and I also read happily about fried quince pies and my friend’s baked quinces. In the end, though, I used a cookbook straight from my bookshelf, Deborah Madison’s wonderful Local Flavors and found a recipe for poached quinces, so that I could cook with some now, and save some for later.

quinces in jar

Spiced Quinces in Syrup
2 1/2 pounds ripe, yellow-gold quinces
3/4 c sugar
1 cinnamon stick
5 cloves
2 wide strips of orange zest

Rub the fuzz, if any, off the quinces. Using a good sharp knife, cut away the skin in long strokes, like you would an orange peel, saving the skins. Remove the center with an apple corer, if you have one, or simply cut the fruit off the core in big chunks, and then slice into wedges about 1/2 inch thick.

Put the skins and cores into a saucepan with two quarts of water, bring it to a boil, then simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Strain. Return the liquid to the pot and add the sugar, spices, and orange zest. Stir to dissolve the sugar, then add the fruit. Place parchment paper of a heavy plate directly over the fruit to keep it submerged. Lower the heat, cover the pan, and simmer until the quinces have turned pink and are slightly translucent, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. If the syrup becomes too thick, add more water as needed. When done, store the fruit in its syrup in the refrigerator; the quinces should keep for two months.

Then, of course, I baked a tart:

Apple and Spiced Quince Tart
1 sheet of puff pastry
2 apples, such as Gravenstein, Golden Delicious or McIntosh
2 ripe but firm Bartlett pears
1/2 t ground cinnamon
2 t sugar
2 quinces (about 16 slices) poached in syrup
2 T butter, melted

Roll the chilled pastry into a square 1/8 inch thick. Place it on a sheet and refrigerate until ready to bake.

Preheat oven to 400.

Peel, core, and slice the apples into 1/4 inch wedges. Peel, core, and slice the pears into slightly thicker wedges. Toss all the fruits with the cinnamon and sugar.

Remove pastry from the fridge and loosely arrange the fruit in the middle, drizzle the butter over it, then pull the opposite corners toward each other; they won’t meet.

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 375 and continue baking until the pastry is puffed and golden and the fruit is tender, about 35-40 minutes.

quince galette with puff pastry

quince galette with puff pastry

I still have more poached quinces to bake into tarts and crisps, sweets that will tide us over while we await our own quinces. We are being very patient, and look forward to the day, some time in the next couple weeks, when the kids and I will pick our own small quinces, our first backyard fruit harvest.

Maple Pear Upside-Down Cake

by Caroline

pear cake

Another night, another cake! This one thanks to my mom, who is a regular clipping service, sending me links to New York Times articles I would otherwise miss and recipes with bigger yields than she and my dad can handle. It’s quite a bit like the apricot upside-down cake I made several times this summer (click here for the recipe), and of course not too different from the apple cake Eli and I made together earlier this week.

We’re doing a lot of baking together lately, my youngest son and I, and he’s getting ever better at cracking eggs without letting any shell get into the batter, scraping down the sides of the bowl to incorporate every bit of butter, and whisking flour without it flying all over the kitchen. Cooking together is not just a way to share something I love with my child, not just an easy way for him to learn about ingredients, it’s also art and science and math, and when the results taste this good, I’m happy to bake a cake every day.

eli making cake

The original recipe is here, but it’s crazy sweet (syrup and sugar in the topping!), so I’m reducing the sugar in this version:

11 tablespoons butter, divided
3/4 cup maple syrup

3 to 4 pears, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a small pan over medium heat; add maple syrup and bring to a boil. Cook for 2 minutes; remove from heat and set aside. Let cool while you peel, core, and slice the pears, then pour it into a 9-inch pie dish and arrange pear slices on top.

Beat remaining 8 tablespoons butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and eggs, one egg at a time, continuing to mix until smooth. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt.

Add flour mixture to butter mixture in three batches, alternating with milk; do not overmix. Carefully spread batter over pears–or, if you are 4, dump the batter onto the fruit, sending it flying up the sides of the pan. Try to get the batter evenly distributed over the pears as they slide around in their pool of syrup.

Bake until top of cake is golden brown and edges begin to pull away from sides of pan, about 45 to 50 minutes; a toothpick inserted into center should come out clean. Let cake cool for 5 minutes.

Run a knife around edge of pan; put a plate on top of cake and carefully flip it so plate is on bottom and pan is on top. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Apple Cake, Thanks to Mickey

by Caroline


It was late Sunday afternoon, and Tony was cooking dinner while the boys and I sat on the couch, reading. Ben was buried in his new book, The Mad Scientists’ Club and Eli and I were reading In the Night Kitchen. When I turn to the last page, I always stop reading and even Ben pulled his nose out of his book to sing out with Eli, “And that’s why, thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning!”

Then came the inevitable epilogue: “Mama, why don’t we have cake every morning?” “Well, we have pancakes a lot,” I answered. But it sounded lame to me, so we made cake.

It needed to be quick, it needed to be something I could make easily with Eli, and it needed (after the recent Halloween orgy) to not be chocolate. I dug through my recipe binder with a dim recollection of a good recipe emailed to me by my sister and, miraculously, found it in less time than it takes to peel 5 apples for cake.

5-6 apples or pears
juice of 1/2 lemon (about a tablespoon)
2 t cinnamon
1 1/2 sticks of butter, melted
3/4 c sugar (brown, granulated, or a combination)
1 c flour
2 eggs

Preheat the oven to 350.


Peel, core, and slice the fruit (I cut the apples into sixteenths) and toss into a pie dish. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and cinnamon. Next stir the sugar, flour and eggs into the melted butter and mix well.


Pour the batter over the fruit and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Bake for about 50 minutes, until the cake is browned and the fruit is tender.