A Stroll Through the Park with Melissa Clark (Recipe: Figgy Demerara Snacking Cake)

A Stroll Through the Park with Melissa Clark (Recipe: Figgy Demerara Snacking Cake)

Melissa cradles her nectarines.

Melissa Clark is one of those people who talks to strangers. Or more accurately, strangers talk to her. We were discussing okra at the Union Square Greenmarket.
Or more accurately, since I have zero experience cooking the little green fellows, Melissa was teaching me about okra. While sifting through a bin overflowing with them, she shared advice gleaned from Sylvia Wood, proprietor of Sylvia’s Soul Food in Harlem (whose cookbook she co-authored).

“Sylvia taught me to never buy okra bigger than your thumb,” she said, holding one up to her own hand to demonstrate.

“Yes, that’s right,” the man next to us chimed in. He and Melissa dove into a conversation about the vegetable (his secret to minimize the notorious sliminess: put okra in a colander, salt generously, and leave on a windowsill for several days), his travels, and the book he was about to publish. Though she was clearly thrilled to learn this new kitchen tip, Melissa made no mention of her own book, which had gone on sale just the day before.

Melissa and I met in a similar way—we’d chatted briefly at BlogHer Food, but when I bumped into her a few months later at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket, I mistook her for Olga of Sassy Radish. She looked at me funny, since she and Olga are friends. Just then a New York Times reporter interrupted to ask if either of us was willing to be interviewed about something or other. “Olga” said she couldn’t, because she herself writes for the Times. Holy crap, I thought, this is Melissa Clark! Writer of my favorite Times column, A Good Appetite, and the much-loved cookbook based on it. We had a nice chuckle over my flub, then talked food and parenting while our kids cavorted around us.

Though Melissa had no idea (until I told her last week), I was among the earliest readers of that book, In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite: 150 Recipes and Stories About the Food You Love. At the time, I wrote all the copy for her publisher’s catalog. For most of their books, reading the introduction or just a few chapters was enough to tell me what I needed to know. With Good Appetite, though, I read every single page of the manuscript, pulling out and stacking up the recipes I intended to make—which turned out to be a pretty large pile. Melissa’s recipes rock. They’re impeccable, in terms of both flavor and doability.

And now, Melissa has a new cookbook. Cook This Now: 120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can’t Wait to Make is for farmers’ market devotees, focused on what’s available each month—which is why, as her pub date approached, I invited Melissa to stroll with me through the Greenmarket in Union Square and talk seasonal inspiration. But it’s also for those who are intimidated by the idea of seasonal cooking, of shopping what’s fresh that week, that day, taking it home, and cooking it.

“There are no ‘cheffy’ ingredients in the book,” she said. “No artichokes or fava beans, nothing that will be unfamiliar to most home cooks.” It’s her kitchen diary, a record of what she cooked over the course of a year for her husband and their young daughter. After one too many requests for “that chicken dish,” the one everyone loved but Melissa couldn’t replicate since her daily cooking is so improvisational, her husband bought her a notebook to keep by the stove. That notebook became Cook This Now.

“I wish there were more pears in the book,” she said as we paused by a booth filled with the fruit. “But it’s what I really cooked, and I just didn’t use pears much last year.”

The recipes are presented monthly, with a handful of simple, appealing dishes using of-the-moment ingredients that truly do make you want to Cook This Now. It’s also packed with shopping tips and advice for the farmers’ market novice—if you love apples, buy an heirloom variety and see what happens. Love cauliflower? Try romanesco when it’s available.

I asked Melissa which recipes she couldn’t wait to cook again, and she reeled off a quick list of dishes so perfectly delicious-sounding, I can’t wait to try them myself:

  • Carroty Mac and Cheese (October! You really can cook this now—and you’ll find the recipe on Three Many Cooks)
  • Sticky Cranberry Gingerbread (November. Soon!)
  • Braised Leg of Lamb with Garlicky Root Vegetable Puree (December; “Don’t you just want to make that for Christmas?” she asked. YES)
  • Grilled Sausages with Celery Root Salad (February)
  • Shrimp Scampi with Pernod and Fennel Fronds (July)
  • Roasted Pepper and Celery Leaf Crostini (September—but I won’t tell if you make this today)

And the last one she mentioned, I ran home and tried that afternoon: Figgy Demerara Snacking Cake. Oh lord, it made me happy. It made Stephen happy. It made Stephen’s office happy (the recipe feeds a crowd). It made Harry happy, until he hit a fig and remembered his pledge to stick to dried.

I also brought home a small pile of okra, which I promptly put in a colander, salted, and set on a windowsill. Where it sat, taunting me, until I finally threw away the shriveled mess, yesterday. Oy, what a waste.

I’m pretty sure Melissa’s okra turned out better than mine.

Figgy Demerara Snacking Cake
Reprinted with permission from Melissa Clark’s Cook This Now: 120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can’t Wait to Make
Serves 12 to 14

2 dozen fresh figs, halved lengthwise through the stem (I used closer to 3 dozen—they were small!)
2 1/4 cups whole wheat flour, plus more for the pan
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the pan
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons brandy (I used Poire William)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons Demerara or raw sugar

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Toss the figs with 1/4 cup flour; set aside.
  2. Grease an 18 x 13 x 1-inch baking sheet (a half-sheet pan) with butter and dust with flour; set aside. In a large bowl, beat together the butter, granulated sugar, brandy, and vanilla with a hand mixer on medium speed until pale and fluffy. Add the egg; beat until incorporated.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining 2 cups whole wheat flour, baking powder, and salt. With the mixer running on low speed, alternately add the flour mixture and milk in 3 batches to make a batter. Spoon the batter onto the reserved baking sheet and smooth evenly. Nestle the figs into the batter evenly all over the top. Sprinkle with the Demerara sugar. Bake until the cake is golden brown, 45 to 50 minutes. Let the cake cool 30 minutes before serving.

MAKE BABY FOOD: The texture of the figs will be lovely for an early eater, but due to the added sugar the cake itself should be reserved for special occasions.