Every year, my mom makes bread for the fall and winter. It’s not bread-bread; I suppose it’s what you’d call quick bread, whose only likeness to actual bread is that it’s baked in a loaf pan. Because quick breads are really just cakes. But in loaf form. So, you know, they’re at least quasi-acceptable as a legitimate breakfast/snack/dessert/accessory for any meal. And the beauty of these breads is that she will make, like, twelvity million at a time, wrap them up tight, freeze them, then pull them out one by one throughout the fall and winter to bring to parties, give as hostess gifts, send back with her city-dwelling kids for nostalgic snacking, contribute to Thanksgiving dinner (or breakfast…), or use on her own holiday table. They thaw back out quite nicely, often even better at room temperature or even a little chilled – you know, from being refrigerated in the garage once the temperature gets down far enough.
Quick breads tend to get named after the most healthful ingredient in the list – banana bread, zucchini bread, pumpkin bread, etc. My mom makes all of those, and with great talent. Maybe of the three, she makes the least banana bread. But she makes up for it with a spectacular walnut raisin bread with all manner of warm spices, which I adore, despite my loathing of both walnuts AND raisins. She also makes thee best pumpkin bread in all the land. So she’s doing pretty alright.
ANYWAY: we all know that quick breads are so beloved because they are a) indeed quick, and b) ACTUALLY CAKE. Which means that that zucchini hiding up in there, for example, is really just a beard for all of the other not-particularly-healthful ingredients holding it up. Butter or oil, eggs, sugar, white flour… cake.
So here I have to tell you that I have no problem with any of that. I find it charming. I have also managed to get myself to a point where I at least acknowledge that what I’m eating for breakfast the day after Thanksgiving, for example, is indeed cake and simply a part of my two-month campaign of holiday glee. So what? Come at me.
This fall, though, finds me in a state of nest-o-mania more profound than I have ever experienced. Maybe I am getting older (ha, okay, we are all getting older, whatever), maybe I’m on Pinterest a lot more lately (no really, check it out: my eat me board has truly blossomed), maybe it’s because we’ve been seeing a lot of our friends in the last few months and feel like contributing a little more than a bottle of wine or bomber of beer, or maybe I’m just getting more comfortable with baking. Or, maybe the transformation to Becoming My Mother is nearly complete. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, this year I decided it was time to explore my own signature quick bread.
As part of my nesting project, I’ve also been reading cookbooks. Like, you know, for fun. One afternoon last weekend I was flipping for the zillionth time through Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Every Day, and came upon her recipe for buttermilk cake. She’s a huge fan of buttermilk, using it in a lot of recipes, and I’m starting to get to a point where I buy buttermilk for something (often to make my version of her saag paneer), but only end up using half. The other great thing about this recipe is that it uses whole wheat flour. It’s pastry flour, so it’s friendly to all things cakey, but I liked the idea of making a cake (which in this case just feels a lot more like a quick bread, instead of the other way around) with whole grain flour. Refreshing! Shameless breakfast! (Or… Pretty much!: it still has butter. Whatever.)
That weekend also happened to find me solo, without car or husband. And, as I have learned in the last handful of college football seasons, this comes with equal parts curse and blessing. Two days, unencumbered by plans, or structure, or reasonable ideas, or conversation with another living human, or hunting for parking spaces, or climate-controlled transportation. Two days, resplendent with time and empty rooms and open city and sprawling sleep positions and general pottering around and mischief. Which, as it turns out, chiefly involved a daily nap, much reading of the cookbooks, experimentation with at-home amaro cocktails, yoga, and baking. (Though not in that order.)
On the first morning of the first day, I woke up with a head full of plans. Although this bears striking similarity to my normal Saturday brain, the difference was that I had nothing to deter me (or, probably more accurately, convince me of better, wiser ideas). I got up, put on some coffee, threw open the doors of my cabinets and refrigerator, and got down to business making an autumn version of the cake, with apples. I literally had everything for the recipe, which was both a miracle and something of a milestone – that only happens to, like, real grownups, right? Just being able to whip something up at a moment’s notice? Then make a whole boatload of it so you can be that awesome host(ess), guest, friend, or family member that comes bearing delicious homemade gifts?
Grownups. AKA cool people.
Some notes before we get into the recipe:
- This works with almost any variety of whole-grain flours (or white flour, for what I’m sure would be a lovely, if different result). I have used whole-wheat pastry flour, sometimes combined with oat flour, and even regular old whole-wheat flour – the outcome has been just fine in all cases. I suppose my preference is for a finer flour, but that being said I’ve got two huge bags of lovely hard red winter wheat flour from a friend and they ain’t gonna use themselves.
- The first time, I finished this cake with alternating slices of Honeycrisp and Ambrosia apples lodged on top. I’ve since made it a few more times, mainly sticking with apples because IT’S STILL COLD OUT, though I’ve been eyeing the summer strawberries in my freezer for future incarnations. This last time, I was working with some quirky little backyard green apples from my brother-in-law’s family in Michigan – not very pretty, but a lovely flavor for baking. Since they were a better, uh, peelin’ apple, I sliced them up and put them directly into the batter before dumping into the loaf pan.
- I’ve also experimented with pan types – the loaf pan is much more reminiscent of a quick bread, though because this recipe is, after all, a cake, one must be careful not to overload the pan. The potential risk is a too-dense result that takes forever to bake, and is impossible to bake through evenly. Although, a dense version of this wouldn’t be the end of the world. After all, a nice slab of cake/bread/whatever you want to call it with a good smear of honey butter is just what the doctor ordered this time of year.
- The recipe is easily doubled or tripled for maximum holiday generosity and convenience, and in classic quick bread/cake form, freezes nicely when wrapped securely.
- 2 1/2 cups any combination of whole-wheat pastry flour, oat flour, or regular whole-wheat flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1/2 cup brown sugar (white sugar works fine too; I just like the flavor of the brown sugar in colder months)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1/4 cup butter, melted and cooled
- 2 apples, sliced (or peeled and sliced, if they’re going directly in the cake)
- large-grain raw sugar, for sprinkling on top