on improvisation (& baking dangerously)

by s.

A week ago, I stood in forty-odd degree weather against a fading sunset in the Catskills, shivering with bare arms in a green silk dress and thinking about how it had been less than two months since I’d done yoga on a beach in Cape Cod. Weather changes fast, and life along with it, and my freezing green-dressed self only signified that a week later, a pile of snow would dump down on New York and one of my best friends would be married and on vacation in Hawaii.

In the many years I have known her, I have learned a lot from Cristalle, but the most important has been that writers are not the only craftsmen who make shit up for a living. We all have our influences, but to be good at something means that you take those influences and make them into something of your own. She makes dresses without patterns; she casts jewelry from molds that she’s carved herself; she knits with a wild abandon that needs to be seen to be explained. Last weekend in the Catskills, I was reminded of one of my favorite of her creative endeavors: she bakes without paying attention to recipes, and it is probably because of her that I do the same.

This morning I woke up with a lingering cold and watched as the pouring rain turned to snow and my heart basically broke into pieces. The only thing that I know how to do in these situations is bake something that is warm, makes the house smell good, and that is worth eating while sulking out the window with a cup of tea. What that thing was to become changed as I realized I was out of butter and whole wheat flour and various other necessities, but I had vegetable oil and some yogurt and the next thing I knew I had gone from Googling two different muffin recipes to making loaf cake without looking at either one.

Here is the thing about baking: Make sure you get the amounts of things that cause chemical reactions right (the baking soda, the baking powder, you know). Make sure you at least look at another recipe to make sure your liquid-to-solid proportions are in order. After that, stop worrying about it.

Last weekend, I watched a bunch of neurotic bridesmaids (listen, I was one of them, okay?) run around worrying about the desserts and their tights and their makeup, while in the middle of them Cristalle stood calmly assembling the decorations she made herself, putting on the dress she made herself, and teasing her own hair into a perfect Priscilla Presley bouffant. She is really, really good at life, and she is really, really good at life because she knows how to improvise. Knowing her, as a result, is an easy ad remarkable reward.

In the end, the apple loaf cake I made because I was out of ingredients turned out to be one of my finer creations, and I’ll send the recipe to Cristalle for inclusion in the recipe box that was her bachelorette party keepsake. What’s funny about that is, of course, that she’ll never use it, because who needs a recipe?

Apple Loaf Cake: An Approximation

2 cups flour (white / whole wheat mix is good; I used 1/4 cup almond flour for flavor)
2 tbsp flax seeds
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
dash salt
~1 tbsp delicious baking spices (I used cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. You don’t really need to measure these because, seriously, relax)
1/2 cup vegetable oil (or butter, if you’re not out of butter)
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 large egg
2 tbsp honey
1 tsp vanilla
1 serving-size container (approx 1 cup?) yogurt (I used Ronnybrook Maple Vanilla)
2 baking apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
3/4 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted (or, honestly, walnuts, which I was also out of)

Preheat oven to 350F. Mix all of the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. In a separate large bowl, beat vegetable oil and brown sugar until smooth. Add egg and mix well; add in honey, vanilla, yogurt and mix gently. Stir in dry ingredients, then fold in apples, cranberries, and almonds. Pour into generously greased loaf pan and sprinkle with brown sugar, then pop in the oven for 40-45 minutes**.

(**I mean, probably check it after 35 and see how it’s doing. Every oven is different and also I would be lying if I told you I paid any attention to how much time this took. You will know that it is done when it’s lovely golden-brown on top and a toothpick comes out clean, which you should already know because you are a person who lives and breathes.)