It’s Molly’s graduation weekend and even with all the excitement of upcoming events, I am of course thinking about food. There is a reception planned at her house after the final ceremony and families will all be bringing things to eat and drink and share. Molly’s ‘papa’ (my father) will be making his spinach and cheese pata, always a favorite. However, I have had no clear direction of what to bring, and after days of pondering all the possibilities, finally wake this morning with ‘cheesy cornbread’ and ‘vegetables’ clearly calling to me from my free flow of dreamy morning thoughts. Not sure where to go with this, I peruse my mother’s collection of cookbooks and immediately zero in on “The New Enchanted Broccoli Forest” by Mollie Katzen (of the Moosewood cookbook series fame…). It’s a gorgeous book. Flipping through with anticipation, the book falls opens to a photo of ‘Vegetable Upside-Down Cake”. Smile. I go to the recipe; and it’s all there, sautéed veggies, cheddar cheese, and a savory cake which I without hesitation substitute with a cornbread batter recipe found on another page. It will be a process putting this all together and finding time to bake in the midst of all the activities…
It’s already Friday now, and the first of the receptions and gatherings on campus are drawing us all to celebrate. Such savory sweet days! As an alumna of this venerable college of William Smith, equal partner and collaborator with the men’s college of Hobart located in Geneva NY, I am reveling in the feeling of being part of the triple legacy our family brings to this institution. I remember sitting with my father (Bob Ford, Hobart class of ’54) in Williams Hall five years ago as Molly, just admitted to William Smith but still ‘deciding’, was auditioning for an arts scholarship. Williams Hall in my father’s day was the gymnasium. In my day it was the post office, and now it is the Music department where Molly might be spending much of her time as a student should she so choose. Standing at the window looking out to a timeless view of the quad, I felt the wave of certainty that the legacy would pass through to Molly for sure, and that she too would someday feel this certainty. It takes four years and a passionate immersion into her chosen course of study for her to finally confide that indeed, these colleges have been the place for her! But I digress….
For the upside-down cake, I double the recipe, calculate some substitutions, and end up with 2 cups chopped onion, 4 cups of small broccoli florets, 6 small carrots cut into discs, 4 cups of small cauliflower florets, a large minced red pepper, 10 minced cloves of garlic, and 10 minced scallions. The broccoli, cauliflower & carrots are blanched for just about a minute in boiling water, drained and plunged into a large bowl of ice water, drained again, and then wrapped in a clean cloth towel to dry. The rest of the ingredients are put in a covered dish and everything goes in the fridge until it is time to assemble and bake the cake. Now the early morning of the next day and just hours away from the graduation ceremony, the oven is preheated to 350 degrees, a large baking pan (for holding equivalent contents of (2) 8″ x 8″ baking pans) is greased with about 4 tablespoons butter, and the onion, pepper, scallions and garlic is sautéed slowly in 3 tablespoons butter. The sautéed veggies are cooked about 8-10 minutes, seasoned with salt, pepper, cayenne, basil and thyme, added to and mixed with the bowl of blanched vegetables, spread in the bottom of the pan, and sprinkled with 3 cups grated cheddar cheese. Then make the cornbread batter: 2 cups unbleached white flour sifted with 4 teaspoons baking powder, 2 teaspoons baking soda, and 1 teaspoon salt, all mixed with 2 cups course yellow cornmeal. Separately, 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk and 1 cup of plain yogurt is whisked with 2 beaten eggs and 4 tablespoons olive oil. The wet ingredients are poured into a well made in the dry ingredients and stirred until just blended, then spooned on top of the cheese layer and spread evenly with a rubber spatula to the edges of the pan. Bake for 35 – 40 minutes or until cornbread is done. Cool in pan for about 10 minutes.
I realize now I have been not only been seduced by the photo in the cookbook, but by the making of something savory for this celebration. Making something salty and spicy rather than ‘sweet’. It is a nagging feeling with no clear reason why, tugging at me still as I consider leaving the baked cornbread on top in the pan as is and just serving it this way, this plain and uninspiring top layer offering no glimpse whatsoever to the richness of flavor and color below. I am worried that it will all fall apart when I flip it upside down. Besides, I look around and can’t find a tray to turn it out onto anyway. I think, it will be easier to transport, easier to serve, easier maybe even to eat this way. I am then reminded of the roller coaster of Molly’s college days behind her now, the sweet victories and the salty tear-stained disappointments competing for attention. Which one will be ‘seen’ on any given day? So many days of feeling upside down and out of sorts….
And then the complacency of this train of thought blows through and I want to ‘see’ this upside-down cake in all its glory. Only then do I ‘find’ the pan that will hold it perfectly, position it over the top of the baking dish and invert. And….WOW. there it is.
I feel sweetness in the delight of something perfectly formed and fragrant. This ‘cake’ is deliciously colorful and ordered and so together after all! It is a delight, despite the doubts and the worry. And I think, the potential for delight is always there isn’t it? And then one last inspiring shot of the beautifully enchanted broccoli presence here before covering it all for the ride to campus and the main graduation event…
It is a beautiful ceremony, filled with so much inspiration, and so many savory sweet moments. From the grandeur of the bagpipes and drums leading the graduation procession into the quad that oozes generations of hope playing in uncertain community….
to the radiant moment of NOW, here I am, ready to go forth….
to a final exuberant collective expression of joy…
The upside-down cake is delicious, all the textures and tastes perfectly blended and just enough cayenne added to give it a subtle but clear zing. I eat it accompanied by homemade chocolate caramels dusted with sea salt…more savory sweet! And feel how poignant and significant it is to experience the contrast, how it actually accentuates the taste. Then Molly and I take one final walk to the quad. The campus is now silent and empty but for the resonance of the day and all it contains. The quad is once again so open, so green, with clear evidence of being so lovingly cared for. It has reverted back to an uncertain yet timeless ground, ready to offer surprises and inspiration to the next wave of students….