Friday, July 11, 2014

The Farmers Guild Potluck and The Brown Butter Mace Cake

It is Monday night: I slip a version of this Brown Butter Mace Cake onto the passenger seat of my car, and I drive east to my first Farmers Guild potluck. It is a luring evening, uncharacteristically humid and partly cloudy, with a soft, hopeful  haze.

I've been thinking of going to a Guild potluck since I heard of the gathering a few months ago. The gist: farmers need camaraderie and resources, young farmers need insight and experiential wisdom, and first generation young farmers need all the help they can get. And because I've heard some good things about The Farmers Guild, and because a few of my farmer friends were going, I baked a cake, arranged a sitter, and got in the car. This is no small feat.
At dinner I mostly eavesdrop. There are conversations about tomatoes and water shortages and killer roosters, and I get caught listening at one point to an idea in-the-works for a women's farm collective. When my beer is gone I let my chicken lady friend introduce me to the Guild team, first to food activist Tiffany Nurrenbern and then to Guild founder (and chicken farmer) Evan Wiig, who both came out from the coast for the shindig. And they tell me The Farmers Guild story.

For those of us who are new to this, The Farmers Guild is a grassroots movement started a few years back by Evan in Sonoma county, California. It was and is a connecting point for farmers and friends of farmers to convene, share ideas, share ploughs, eat food, and drink a few beers at a common table. As of this writing there are seven Farmers Guilds across Northern California, and last week they gained  official non-profit status. There are no membership dues or fees, so the growing Guild is now getting creative scraping together resources to keep things going and expanding. Right now they are running an official campaign, in case anyone wants to help out.

I am here because the Guild is open to folks like me, people who want to help, want to write, want to rally around farmers and do whatever we can to keep them growing the food we need to bake with, cook, and eat. 

And so it delights me that by the time I mosey back to the food tables for dessert all that is left of the sweet stuff is my slightly out-of-place cake plate ringed with fine brown crumbs, and a nearby pile of sliced watermelon. Over dinner I listened to a woman describe my cake, unaware I was the one who baked it. It was a tea cake with pretty peaches on top and powdered sugar. She hadn't served herself any. It seemed inappropriate, she had said, to crowd a slice of cake in next to a tangle of soba noodles. But she hoped it would still be there when she returned.

And it did feel strange: cake alongside crustless quiche, grilled chicken, and spicy blackberry sauce, but I only passed it up the first time because I had forgotten a knife, and the kitchen fairies looked busy and I didn't want to wait around for a piece of my own offering. So now I eat watermelon. And I talk to my egg people about the green coriander I've been meaning to get from them for a couple weeks. And I sneak a taste of homemade mead. And then grandma calls and Eden is awake and inconsolable, so I say my toodaloos and get back in the car.

So then, I am driving with time to think. What on earth, apart from an empty plate, did I gain from the potluck? And what did I give?

More than watermelon, that is for sure. And hopefully more than cake.

There is a need amongst young, "under 58," food and farm folk, and the Guild seems to be a place to meet it. What exactly that need is feels familiar and obvious, but hazy. They claim the need is both practical and social: a network, a connecting point. But what the Guild does to fill the need seems larger than that. It all feels like the weather, and I can't quite put a name to it. Support? Organization? Community?

What is clear is that something hopeful and electric and wide is happening. Summer is here, yes, but the weather is brooding and changed. There is a breeze. The sun has disappeared completely behind the coastal mountains. I am driving home again. And all I can think is, I can't wait to see what tomorrow brings.

Just so we're clear, all opinions here are my own, and no one is paying (or goading) me to say anything. For more information about The Farmers Guild, visit their website, To support the cause, go to their official campaign (with some creative prizes for pledgers) on Barnraiser.

Brown Butter Cake with Mace

Adapted from The Daring Kitchen's Bakers' Challenge, August 2010

What about the cake? This cake is actually a pound cake, but it works just as well in a round as it does in a bundt or loaf. The spice is essential, in my humble opinion. And the brown butter isn't just for show, it lowers an otherwise high-flitting, rather boring loaf into a deep, nutty, sandy masterpiece. Not to over sell it, but this was my initial favorite out of the pound cakes. There is something haunting about the texture and spice.

This recipe makes one 9x4-inch loaf, two 6-inch rounds, or one 8 to 9-inch round. The loaf is horribly homely, but it might be my favorite. And (!) I have added a wee bit of fruit to this with great success. This is a recipe that keeps the fruit stately on top, so if you'd rather it be on the inside and down low, fold it in after the flour is almost completely incorporated.

19 tablespoons butter
2 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup sugar
3 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup of fruit (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 325°F/160°C. Butter your cake pan, line the bottom with parchment, butter the parchment, and dust lightly with flour.

2. Place the butter in a saucepan over medium heat and let boil and brown the butter until the milk solids are a dark coffee brown and smells nutty, about 10 minutes. Note: don't pull it off too soon, but don't make charcoal either. I tend towards overdone. The milk solids start out looking ruddy, like cinnamon, and will end up resembling coffee grounds. Call me unsophisticated, but I go for the grounds. Let cool a bit and pour into a shallow dish and chill in the freezer for about 45 minutes, until just set.

3. Sift together the cake flour, baking powder, salt, and mace, then whisk to combine.

4. Beat the brown butter, dark brown sugar, and granulated sugar in an electric mixer until lightened and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Beat in the eggs one at a time and vanilla, mixing well after each addition.

5. Stir in the flour mixture until just combined.

6. Scoop the batter into the greased and floured pan(s) and smooth the surface. Top with a cup or so of sliced peaches or blackberries, if you wish, and bake the the preheated oven until golden brown, a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, about 50-65 minutes.

7. Cool in the pan(s) 10 minutes, run a knife along the edge, and invert right-side-up onto a cooling rack to cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar while it is still hot, and/or top later with crushed berries and whipped cream. Or serve it plain, with tea. However you eat it, note the subtle, subversive piquancy of mace, and enjoy.

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