During high school, my academic life revolved around index cards.
A nervous public speaker, I needed index cards (with my speech written out in full) to get through presentations. An appallingly disorganized research paper-writer, I used them in an effort to track ideas and organize thoughts. A student of multiple foreign languages, I had an entire collection of flashcards, neatly arranged in rubber-banded stacks. I stockpiled index cards (three by five, white, lined) as though Staples were about to go out of business.
Seven years later, I no longer have to do any public speaking. I've accepted that the best way for me to work on papers is to start writing and then organize. I have largely abandoned my efforts at foreign language acquisition. And yet, I still have a few leftover packages of index cards in my stationery drawer.
Or rather, I did. I moved them to the kitchen when I discovered that they were just the thing for writing down recipes.
You see, I lack the counter space to have my laptop in the kitchen, and it's exasperating to have to move back and forth between the kitchen and my desk. (It seems like a bad idea to be anywhere near my laptop with floury hands, anyway.) I have a recipe notebook, but something about the format never sat right with me. And notepad paper is just too thin - one oil blotch, one splash of milk, and it starts to disintegrate.
Index cards, however, are just right for scribbling down an ingredient list and proportions. The thick card stock holds up well to drips and splashes. And I can note my changes as I go along, so that I'll actually remember what my measurements were if I decide the recipe is worth writing down in a more permanent form.
Sometimes, the results are mediocre, and the index card gets tossed into recycling. Sometimes the idea is worth further experimentation, and I write up a fresh index card for the next attempt. But sometimes, the recipe comes out beautifully, and the index card gets moved to my desk, waiting for the recipe to be written up for the blog.
Last Wednesday, I noticed that my latest container of buttermilk had crept quite close to its use-by date, but remained three-quarters full. A pan of cornbread took care of most of the problem, but I still had a cup or so remaining. And so I cast about for a way to use up the rest.
I found a recipe for a raspberry buttermilk cake, scribbled down the ingredient list and oven temperature, and then, as usual, decided to tinker.
First up, the fruit. I have just one package of farmer's market raspberries left in my freezer, and this didn't feel like the right recipe in which to use them. Instead, I took dried apricots, and soaked them in milk to soften them up.
Then the cake: less sugar, more butter. Given the apricots, I thought it made sense to add flaked almonds to the cake's sugar topping, but a cake with a nut-and-sugar topping is a cake that shouldn't be turned out upside-down. Out came the parchment paper.
I had the right kind of pan for a change (my bakeware woes are a story for another day), but a nine-inch pan would produce thin slices, and I wanted a cake that would cut into fat, satisfying wedges. Out came the eight-inch pan instead, followed by adjustments to the oven temperature and cooking time.
The cake came out soft, mild and vanilla-scented, a contrast to the tangy apricots and the crisp flaked almonds. The parchment paper lining gave it a rustic, uneven appearance. It seemed like a good cake for breakfast, or afternoon tea.
Once I'd wrapped the cake and finished the washing up, I moved the index card from kitchen to desk. My life, it seems, will revolve around index cards once again.
Apricot-Almond Buttermilk Cake
(Inspired by this recipe from Smitten Kitchen.)
I'm sure this recipe will work fine with berries or any other kind of tart fruit, but I'm rather fond of the apricot-almond combination. California apricots are better than Turkish, because they're not quite so sweet.
(Recipe not for one. It doesn't keep.)
Take a cup of dried apricots, cover with water or milk, and soak until softened (leave them for at least two hours.) When you're ready to bake, drain and set aside.
Preheat oven to 375F. Line an eight-inch round cake tin with a sheet of parchment paper. (Don't worry if it refuses to stay put. The cake batter will weigh it down.)
In a large mixing bowl, cream together three-quarters of a stick of softened butter with one-third of a cup of sugar. Stir in a half-teaspoon of vanilla extract and beat in one egg until the mixture is thick and creamy.
In a small bowl, stir together one cup of flour, a half-teaspoon of baking powder, and a half-teaspoon of baking soda. Measure out a half-cup of buttermilk.
Fold the flour mixture into the butter mixture in batches, pouring in a little buttermilk with each addition. The batter will be quite thick.
Glop the batter into the parchment-lined tin. Arrange the soaked apricots on top. Scatter over a generous handful of flaked almonds, and sprinkle with one tablespoon of white sugar.
Bake for forty to fifty minutes, or until cake is browned at the edges and a knife or skewer pressed into the center comes out clean. Lift the cake out of the tin by grasping the excess parchment paper, and transfer to a cooling rack.
Cake may be served warm or cool, preferably with tea or coffee.