I wake up in darkness. The cold September air enters through cracks and open windows, emptying the house of the smells and worries of the night before. I wrap myself in a blanket and cling to my coffee cup just a little more than usual, trying to absorb its warmth by way of touch, smell and taste. The windows are black; reflective canvases impossible to penetrate. There really is no sense in staring outside, but I do it anyway.
As I go through my morning rituals, the world around me starts to awaken. The lights in the house behind us are turned on. The neighbor's car door slams. Darkness turns into dawn. By the time I step onto my bike, it is light enough to ride without a headlight. But the air is still cold and the fog still clings to the fields, golden light piercing through it, turning the damp grass into a glittering, flickering masterpiece. I feel lucky to be breathing in this moment, so delicate and short-lived. I will be spending the next 9 hours inside, but in these early days of September, at least my schedule seems perfectly aligned with nature's course. When I ride home, there will still be plenty of light left to savor and plenty of day left to enjoy. We could have a barbecue or do some yard work, go to the park or out for ice cream, until we realize, way too late, when darkness hits, that we still want to curl up on the couch with a mug of tea, too.
The transition from summer to fall is a time I treasure. I love how dark mornings are followed by bright afternoons; warm days by cool nights. I love how bustling social gatherings are once again alternated with cozy, reclusive me-time. And I love that light! Oh, that light ... No longer harsh and blinding, but not yet cool and blue, warming without burning ... just so beautifully golden and glowing. These days truly give us the best of both worlds, and I am more aware of it today than ever before.
Using the last of summer's stone fruit - the plums that always seem to presage darker days - and a combination of wholesome flours and nuts, this cake celebrates and exemplifies this beautiful time of year. The plums bake into pockets of luscious, warm jam, while light brown sugar, almond meal and spelt flour add the nutty, hearty tones of fall. For an extra hint of sweetness and spice, I served the cake with a drizzle of star anise infused honey. Fruit-filled, yet wholesome; fresh, yet warming; juicy, yet spiced ... this cake, too, offers the best of both worlds.
• While there's a little baking powder in this recipe, most of the air is incorporated by way of the egg whites. It's a method I grew up with and greatly appreciate. It makes for a slightly drier, but mostly airier and more delicate crumb - one that soaks up the star anise honey like a dream.
• Instead of using the slow method to infuse the honey, like I did here, I opted for a quicker infusion which involves warming the honey together with the star anise and letting it steep. I would say an hour of steeping is a minimum here, but longer really is better. Use a mild honey, so that the star anise can really shine through.
plum almond spelt cake
cake adapted from Nigel Slater
makes a 20 cm/8 inch cake
for the cake
150 g unsalted butter, room temperature
120 g light brown sugar
3 large eggs, separated
100 g spelt flour
50 g almond meal
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking powder
30 g fine sugar
200 g small, red plums, stone removed and sliced
slivered almonds, to finish
for the star anise infused honey (optional)
100 ml honey
ca. 4 star anise
for the cake
1. Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease a 20 cm/8 inch springform cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.
2. In an electric mixer fitter with the paddle attachment, or using a wooden spoon, cream butter until soft. Add light brown sugar and continue to mix on high until airy and light in color. Add egg yolks, one by one, beating for about 30 sec. after each addition.
2. Over a medium bowl, sift spelt flour and almond meal. Whisk in salt, cinnamon and baking powder. With the electric mixer running on its lowest setting, add flour mixture to the rest of the batter. When only a few dry flecks of flour remain, stop the mixer and set aside. The batter will be stiff.
3. In an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites. Start the mixer on low and gradually increase the speed as the egg whites start to foam. When soft peaks are formed, add the fine sugar, little bits at a time, and continue to beat on high until all the sugar is incorporated and stiff peaks form.
4. Using a silicone spatula, fold about 1/3 of the egg whites into the batter. This will be a bit difficult, as the batter is relatively stiff, but it'll all work out. When incorporated, fold in the remaining egg whites in 2 additions.
5. Pour about half of the batter into the prepared cake tin and spread it out. Top with half of the sliced plums, followed by the rest of the batter. Spread out the batter so as to cover all of the plums, then arrange the rest of the plums on top. You can push them into the batter slightly, but the cake will rise around them anyway. Sprinkle slivered almonds around the borders of the cake.
6. Bake the cake for 40-50 minutes, until risen and golden. A skewer inserted in the center of the cake should come out clean. If the cake browns too quickly, cover it with tin foil for the last 10-15 minutes of baking. Allow the cake to cool on a wire rack, then remove from the tin.
for the star anise infused honey
1. In a small saucepan, combine honey and star anise. Heat over low heat for about 10 minutes, but don't bring it to the boil. Remove saucepan from the heat and allow to steep for at least 1 hour, preferably overnight.
2. Serve cake with fresh plums and a drizzle of honey. Leftover honey can be stored in a clean glass jar for at least 1 week.