Our little back house we are renting is about four miles from the ocean here in Costa Mesa/Newport Beach. We get the foggy marine layer on the mornings it chooses to hang over the coast, and we have a very tempered climate year round. In the past I’ve brushed southern California off as having no seasons, but this just isn’t true. I think with social media these days we see so much in the fall of the iconic leaves changing, and more clearly defined seasons of certain regions of the world, that is has become commonplace to standardize these quarterly shifts. Maybe it’s just me and my tendency to seek out change, but I’m coming around to seeing a more full, open picture. Every little dot of latitude and longitude on the map has it’s own unique characteristics when it comes to seasons, and I’m beginning to appreciate our a-typical southern California ones.
September and October are two of the warmest months here where I live, which is wonderful if you can get past the photos of falls leaves and warms mugs of cocoa elsewhere. Why is it wonderful? The crowds of people have all gone home, the kids are back in school, and the beaches and national parks are now near-empty to enjoy. Around here we call it “locals’ summer”. I don’t do well in the heat, so this time can be tough for me to get through, but November and December are the greatest gift after these few warm months. This is my season, this is the time of year I fall in love with California. The air is chilly and as crisp as you can get with the pacific ocean nearby. The light is the most beautiful light I’ve ever seen. The sunsets make you weak in the knees. And the smell that permeates the entire city is pure heaven. The farmers market is still overflowing, with fall produce finally coming in alongside unlikely jewels such as tomatoes, avocados, oranges, and so many greens (kale, chard, herbs, etc). Local pomegranates are half the size of my head and two dollars a piece.
Approaching Thanksgiving this year, and hosting for the first time with my parents coming into town, I tried pondering a new theme we could base our cooking around that felt more fitting for our area. As is typical this time of year, we have a three day heat bump that lands right over Thanksgiving. Normally I would say something negative about California and how I wish I lived somewhere cooler. But not this year, I’m celebrating where we live. So we are having a California-themed Thanksgiving with dishes made from all of the produce that was overflowing the most at the farmers market this past weekend. Our backyard will be in shade in the late afternoon, so we will set up the table under our twinkle lights and eat outside. Roasting a dozen heavy dishes on a warm day doesn’t sound right to me, so I’m planning a few lighter twists. I’ll be sure to share them on Instagram stories a bit if you’re curious to see what we are making. I’m really excited you guys, it feels good to be going with the grain and not against it for once.
Part of my inspiration to dig deeper into understanding and loving the unique spot in the world where I live came from reading Valentina‘s pages in her new cookbook, Everyday Vegetarian. She lives in a small medieval town on the eastern side of Italy and shares her region’s history and culinary traditions in a way that reads like a poetic novel. From cover to cover you are immersed in recipes and stories that overlap each other into one beautiful picture of her culture. Valentina takes traditional recipes that have been passed down for generations in her family, alongside some newer ones of her own, and shows how to make them vegetarian (and many of them vegan too) without compromising the tradition. It’s beautifully photographed, with such a lovely cover to have sitting out on your kitchen counter too (see photo below recipe). She shows how there is so much more to Italian cooking outside of pasta and tomato sauce (although she has recipes for both from scratch that are incredible) and how to cook throughout the seasons in her nook of the world as well. I want to make every recipe from cover to cover and book a trip to Italy ASAP to experience so much of what she describes.
The first recipe that jumped out to me was her grandma’s upside down prune cake, which she suggests in the fall making with pears, nuts, and chocolate instead. So I did just that, and it was so scrumptious I had to share it with you here too! I used a mixture of freshly milled flours from the incredible people over at Eat Grain, which I link to individually in the recipe below. You can taste the freshness, and even see it, in these flours. I’ve never experienced anything like it – and the nutrition is suppose to be even better as well! Check out their line on their site here if you’d like, they are shipping anywhere in North America for free for the rest of the year – which is perfect timing for some holiday baking.
I hope those of you celebrating Thanksgiving this week have the most wonderful, joy-filled time. Maybe this cake could even squeeze onto one of your holiday tables too ;). -xx
RECIPE NOTES: The recipe below is pretty darn near exact to Valentina’s, with a few small exceptions. Here are the few substitutions I made which you can convert back to the original if you desire to: I use coconut sugar instead of brown sugar, apple sauce instead of sunflower oil, and a mixture of whole spelt and rye instead of whole wheat. I also halved the recipe below and prepared it in a 6 inch springform pan in the photos above, since I knew we would have lots of sweets on hand this week. This worked out really well, but I know I’ll be making the full recipe next time – it was just too good.
UPSIDE DOWN WALNUT, CHOCOLATE, & PEAR CAKE
Makes one 10 inch cake, serves 8 to 10.
1 3/4 cups almond or soy milk
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup of water
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup unsweetened apple sauce (or sunflower oil)
juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 cup coconut sugar, plus 1 teaspoon for the pan
1 cup of sifted spelt flour (white)
3/4 cup whole spelt flour
1/4 cup whole rye flour
1/3 cup potato starch
1 heaping teaspoon baking soda
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
pinch of salt
15 small pears
1/3 cup chopped raw walnuts
1/3 cup chopped dark chocolate
optional: extra chopped walnuts and dark chocolate for sprinkling on top
Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a 10-inch springform pan with parchment paper and lightly oil the sides (I forgot to oil mine and it still removed itself nicely, but it is probably safer to do so). Sprinkle about a teaspoon of coconut sugar on the bottom.
Combine the sifted (white) spelt, whole spelt, and rye flour with the potato starch, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, coconut sugar, and lemon zest in a large bowl and whisk to remove any lumps (I sifted mine, and added the sugar and zest afterwards).
In a large glass measuring cup, combine the almond or soy milk, vinegar, and lemon juice and stir. After a few seconds, the milk will start to curdle. Immediately add the water, applesauce (or sunflower oil), and vanilla. Stir well. Slowly pour this into the dry mix, stirring with a whisk to break any lumps. The batter will be somewhat on the liquid side.
Core each pear and slice into 1/4 inch thick wedges. Arrange in a circle in the prepared springform pan, until the bottom is completely filled. Sprinkle the chopped walnuts and dark chocolate on top, and slowly pour the cake batter into the tin. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes (mine took 50), until cooked through when tested in the center with a toothpick. Once cooked and golden on top, turn off the oven and let it sit inside for 5 minutes more.
Remove the cake from the oven and release from the springform pan onto a wire rack. Flip upside down so that the pears are on top, and peal away the parchment paper. This is optional, but while the cake is warm I sprinkled some dark chocolate on top, and when it had melted I added a small handful of additional chopped walnuts. Once fully cooled, slice and serve the cake. Store leftovers in an airtight container on the counter, or in the fridge (it’s really good cold), and enjoy within three days.
This recipe was originally found in the cookbook Everyday Vegetarian, and is being republished here with Valentina’s permission. See more of her beautiful work on her blog, Hortus Cuisine, and on Instagram.
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Naturally Vegetarian by Valentina Solfrini
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