I don’t know if this is the case in most places, but in the town where I grew up, when you graduated from high school, you had a big open house and invited all your high school friends, teachers, and neighbors. Scheduling was, of course, a nightmare, since come June you suddenly had over a hundred kids all trying to schedule parties within the span of a couple weeks while trying to keep from overlapping too much with anyone else.
During those few weeks there was absolutely no need for parents to attempt to cook because we all wound up hopping from party to party, filling up our bellies from the deli platters, crudites trays, and tiered stands bedecked with bars of all flavors – lemon bars, blondies, 7-layer bars… All in all it was a 3-week showcase of quality Midwestern fare (and truly, I say that with a great deal of fondness).
At that age I had developed the standard teenage angsty sense of needing to show how special I was. And since full out coolness wasn’t in the cards, I instead cultivated an interest in high culture, which, while sophomoric and stilted, also turned out to be sincere. I preened and announced my affection for opera and T.S. Eliot. I sketched and wrote pretentious essays about my thoughts. And I liked fine foods (while also being perfectly happy to stuff my face with Oatmeal Cream Pies or Chewy Chips Ahoy topped with Cool Whip. Ah, the teen years. I’m afraid the cream pies and chips ahoy are the only things I’ve fully outgrown.).
So, for my graduation open house, I asked my mother to have it catered with Indian food, which had only just become available in our area. And, I’m pretty sure I mostly did this because my boyfriend at the time loved Indian food. My party dovetailed with that of next door neighbor, who was (and is) also one of my best friends. We had decided that my house would be the savory food stop, and then she had a dessert buffet. I’m pretty sure I left my party early to go to hers and hover with our friends over the chocolate cakes.
I recently rediscovered a stash of cards that I had received at my graduation open house. Rifling through them, reminiscing, I found one in particular that turned out to be a treasure. It was from a guy friend of mine who was a couple of years older and who was back home from college when he came to my party. He had gotten me a card that he said he thought I would really like because it had a recipe on the front, a recipe for a traditional yogurt cake.
Looking at it now, I’m struck by how remarkably thoughtful that is for a boy of that age, and it makes me feel grateful all over again for the wonderful friends I’ve had through the years. I also realized it was time to make a yogurt cake.
Yogurt cake is a wonderfully simple, traditional French afternoon snack cake. It’s part of the reason why I love the French. IT is similar to a pound cake, but the heaviness of the butter is traded for the freshness and mild tang of yogurt. A bit of oil stirred in at the end gives the cake a golden slightly crackly top crust without weighing down the tender crumb.
The most traditional version is flavored with just some lemon or other citrus, but a yogurt cake is really a canvas to which you can add all sorts of berries, fruits, or other goodies. Thinking of another classic French dessert, poires belle Helene (which I grew up calling paere bel Helene, and thinking it was a Norwegian dessert), I filled my cake with bites of soft juicy pear, and bittersweet dark chocolate. The result was a wonderful dance of flavors, subtle but certainly not shy. A warm slice of the cake makes a decadent treat on its own. But add a dollop of softly whipped vanilla-scented whipped cream and you’ll find yourself with an ethereal dessert that demands being savored with your eyes closed.
That card has been moved from its shoebox and taken up permanent residence in my little book of recipe notes.
Yogurt Cake with Pear and Dark Chocolate (makes one 8-inch loaf)
- 1 1/2 cups flour
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1 cup plain yogurt (whole milk yogurt, not low fat)
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- 1 large pear, ripe but still firm, cored and cut into small pieces (leave the skin on)
- 1/2 cup bittersweet (dark) chocolate chunks (good quality, please)
- Preheat your oven to 350F and grease an 8 inch loaf pan with butter. In a small bowl combine all the dry ingredients (flour through salt). In medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, yogurt, eggs and vanilla until smooth. Then, stir in the dry ingredients, a bit at a time, until well blended. Finally, use a rubber scraper to fold the oil into the batter until it is fully incorporated.
- Pour about one-third of the batter into the greased loaf pan. Sprinkle 2/3s of the pear pieces and the chocolate chunks all over the batter. Then, scrape the rest of the batter on top of this and gently spread it smooth. Sprinkle the rest of the pear and chocolate over the top of the loaf and gently press all the pieces down into the batter to partially submerge them.
- Bake in the middle of the oven until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean – 55-60 minutes or so. Then, take the cake out of the oven and let it sit for about 5 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the cake. Carefully turn the cake out of the pan, and then put it upright on a cooling rack to cool the rest of the way. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. The cake will keep for several days (refrigerate if it’s more than 2 days), and slices are delicious lightly toasted before eating. Serve with sweetened whipped cream.