I’ve got to say, book club was definitely one of my better ideas. I don’t normally toot my own horn, but in this case toot toot toot. When else would I be able to get together with a bunch of chatty, intelligent women about Mormons, murders and Massachusetts poets? More importantly, however else could I possibly be able to make as good an excuse to basically bake and eat and ton of buttery, rich food?
I had agreed to host our get-together, but it was so very hot, and the idea of turning on the oven or the stove was starting to stress me out. I did cave in and do some baking the night before, after the sun had set because I knew I wanted to serve some scones — since they are both easy and delicious; I adapted a basic recipe for an orange-rhubarb as well as a chocolate-cherry. Earlier in the week, I had dug up an old issue of Gourmet, from which I had pilfered a recipe for a really simple crumb cake that I knew I could throw together with great results. To cool us down, I chopped up some citrus and mint for a refreshing salad.
This month’s choice was a piece of nonfiction from author Sarah Vowell. Called Assassination Vacation, the book follows Vowell and a few of her family and friends on a series of road trips visiting sites related to the nation’s first three presidential murders. With her distinct style, Vowell not only guides the reader back to the times of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, but also details the truly surprising thread connecting them all.
Please note: when I say “distinct voice,” I am not only referring to Vowell’s vivid style of writing; she literally has what could only be described as an extremely recognizable voice, one that can often be heard on NPR as well as in The Incredibles (she’s Violet Parr).
In the end, we all seemed to like Assasination Vacation. It’s peppered with humorous anecdotes, Vowell’s musings on history and interesting excerpts from interviews the author conducted during the course of her research. Not only that, but Vowell’s depiction of her charming group of chauffeurs is so funny; an avid non-driver, she is completely reliant upon a combination of public transit, mass transit and friends and family to help her reach to her far-flung destinations. I think our collective favorite of her travel buddies was Vowell’s then-three-year-old nephew Owen, whom she writes about quite fondly. Take this, for example:
…[My sister Amy] phoned me, saying, “I asked Owen what he wanted to do today and he said, ‘Go look at stones with Aunt Sarah.’ Do you know what he’s talking about? What these stones are?”
I do. “He means tombstones,” I told her. “When you were off parking the car at the cemetery in Cleveland, Owen and I walked around looking for John Hay’s grave. Owen climbed on top of it and hollered, ‘This is a nice Halloween park!'” (That’s what he calls cemeteries.)
Here’s another description of Owen, one I personally love:
He’s truly morbid. When he broke his collarbone by falling down some stairs he was playing on, an emergency room nurse tried to comfort him by giving him a cuddly stuffed lamb to play with. My sister, hoping to prompt a “thank you,” asked him, “What do you say, Owen?” He handed back the lamb, informing the nurse, “I like spooky stuff.”
Now that’s my kind of kid.
(Incidentally, Stephanie suggested that book club volunteer to drive Vowell around for the next topic’s researching. So, if you’re reading this, Ms. Vowell, there are six food-loving book groupies in Massachusetts willing to give you a ride.)
Jam Crumb Cake, from Gourmet
Makes six to eight portions
For the cake:
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
1 ¾ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ stick unsalted butter, melted
½ cup milk
1 large egg
½ cup raspberry jam or preserves (I used half strawberry, half raspberry, since that’s what I had in the fridge.)
For the crumb topping:
¾ stick unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
¾ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle. Generously butter a nine-inch square or round cake pan. Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Whisk together butter, milk, and egg in a large bowl, then whisk in flour mixture until just combined. Pour batter into cake pan. Dollop jam all over surface, then swirl into batter with spoon.
- Whisk together butter, sugars, cinnamon, and salt until smooth. Stir in flour, then blend with fingertips until incorporated. Sprinkle crumbs in large clumps over top of cake.
- Bake cake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean and sides begin to pull away from pan, about twenty-five minutes. Cool in pan on a rack five minutes.