Years ago when I purchased my favorite cookbook, Baking with Julia, I began to steadily go through it, deciding which recipes to try. This practice isn’t all that unusual, but at the time, baking was something I reserved for special occasions — birthdays, dinner parties, holidays — and always planned for on weekends, or when I had vacation time. If someone had asked, I’d have said I was more of a cook than a baker, and not always confident that what I baked would turn out as I wanted it to, so kept things safe with the basics. Cake, an occasional bread pudding, and pie were the norm.
The dust cover of the cookbook is now worn and slightly torn in a few places with spots and spills on many of the pages. Its sturdy binding has relaxed quite a bit, allowing it to comfortably lie open on my kitchen counter, sometimes for several days while I’m thinking about a particular recipe, glancing at it as I pass, wondering when the right time might be to indulge myself with a treat that doesn’t take a lot of time, or tackle something more complicated instead.
I think of so many different things when I open this particular cookbook, and most are not about the recipes. I think of younger boys still at home, occasions celebrating a kitchen renovation, or springtime in all its glory and a back yard groomed to perfection with my mother’s love and sweat. I think of a dinner party for six that lasted well into the night, meticulously planned for, each course paired with the perfect wine. I remember all that was lovely about a very special house, no longer ours to enjoy. So many things beyond recipes.
I don’t know that it matters which recipe I tried first from Baking with Julia, but of the 98 cookbooks I currently own, it’s the one I have baked more from than any other. Of course there are quite a few recipes I haven’t tried, and several which continue to taunt me, all seemingly beyond my ability or perhaps patience to contend with– the Pain de Camagne, for example, which is made by a very old chef-levain method requiring one to “capture and nurture airborne wild yeast” for the dough. But I have tried many more than once, like the Oven-Roasted Plum Cakes.
I’d waited forever to try the recipe, but when I saw a small bin of Italian prune plums at the market one day– something I’d not come across before — I knew they were destined for those plum cakes. I sorted through the deeply purple oval-shaped fruit to collect a small bag, noticing their dusty skins and stems still clinging to most. Some were quite firm, and others soft and fragile, like a ripe fig might feel. Or persimmon. I chose the firm plums finding that once sliced, the fruit easily separated from the stone unlike other plums such as Santa Rosas, which aren’t as cooperative. The interior color is a beautiful mix of melon and chartreuse and the flavor not as sweet as I’d thought it would be, but pleasant all the same.
They would be perfect for a whole plum cake rendition and thoughts while baking about times fondly remembered.