2 cookbooks, 2 apple recipes, and defining ‘queer food’
In the queer community, the idea of chosen family is a powerful notion.
In a community where 39 percent of LGBTQIA-identifying folks reported they had experienced rejection from family and friends (according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study), the concept of a family outside relatives informs many queer relationships. These are the people who affirm us, and we in turn affirm. Acceptance is part of a chosen family, yes, but so is an unconditional love from and for someone whom we’re not related to.
Come fall, I practically keep my oven on at all times, whether I’m braising, roasting or otherwise cooking. Autumn weather brings out my domestic side — summer’s stifling heat is long gone, and my birthday and that of my partner fall within two weeks of each other. For this reason, I like to bake us a birthday cake. He’s my person, and cooking for him is as nourishing for me as it is for him. My chosen family starts with him.
Admittedly, I’m not much of a baker, but I obsess over cookbooks, so when two by prominent writers Julia Turshen and Nik Sharma landed on my desk, I tore through them. Turshen in October published her latest book, “Now and Again,” a follow-up to 2016’s “Small Victories” and “Feed the Resistance.” Sharma is a recipe columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and author of “Season,” and is also a well-known food blogger for his website, “A Brown Table.” Both authors also happen to be queer.
Interestingly, they have published similar-yet-different cake recipes using that quintessential fall fruit, apples. Both cakes are delightfully easy to make — Turshen’s can be assembled in one bowl — and even easier to eat. But because baking and cooking are, for me, a meditative act, I couldn’t help but think about the recipes as inherently queer. As I was baking the cakes for my partner, these recipes felt like an invitation to get to know the authors on a personal level while nodding to the concept of chosen family.
Celebratory: Check out Turshen’s Instagram, and you’ll see her excitedly sharing photos of readers making her wildly popular applesauce cake topped with sweet-and-tart honey cream cheese frosting, which in her book she introduces as a cake she makes for Rosh Hashana. (In her first book, Turshen also has a recipe called Happy Wife, Happy Life cake, dedicated to her wife, entrepreneur Grace Bonney.)
“A cake is not something you make for yourself; it’s something you share,” Turshen said in an interview. “There’s something celebratory about cake, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Try making a cake for no reason, and you create a moment to celebrate. I think there’s a parallel to queer culture — we as a community celebrate as many moments as we can, because certain things aren’t always guaranteed. I think taking joy and pride in a moment and all the implications of that — for me, cake physically embodies that.”
According to Turshen, “cookbooks have this amazing ability and power to normalize things like queerness.”
“As objects, they’re so familiar and ordinary, and easily accepted into homes,” she says. “Recipes are love letters, and to see our recipes made in other people’s homes and shared with their families, chosen or nuclear, that’s so powerful.”
Confidence: For Sharma, who opens “Season” with his personal story as a gay immigrant from India moving to America, his book is a manifesto for standing in one’s truth. “Once you cross the threshold of coming out, a lot of things become irrelevant,” he said in an interview. “After coming out, I became more confident. You like me or you don’t.”
When he started his blog, Sharma says he experienced a lot of negative comments because he features his brown hands prominently in his gorgeously photographed process shots, which he shot himself. He wavered briefly about continuing “A Brown Table” but barreled forward, writing about his experiences as a gay immigrant. Likewise, his book does not shy away from these stories. “At the end of the day, we’re all looking for acceptance,” he said, “but I think crossing that barrier, I became comfortable in the kitchen and myself.”
Whereas Turshen’s cake is an effortless treat, Sharma’s is a not-too-sweet confection inflected with complex-yet-pleasing flavors of masala and tea. “Season” explores the intersections of Sharma’s native India with American ingredients, while introducing home cooks to concepts such as building an Indian pantry, developing flavors and more. “These recipes help me talk about a part of me and how I move through the world,” he said. “My sexuality and skin color are immutable, and instead of hiding behind a door and trying to please everyone, I’m trying to feed my queer friends and family. My recipes are queer because I am.”
“Neither mine or Nik’s book have pride flags emblazoned on them,” said Turshen. “I get to share part of myself in a medium that people interact differently with, but my life is, in many ways, pretty boring. I’m married with pets at home, and I cook for the person I love, and I bake her cakes because she loves them. It’s intentional when I share that, and it’s powerful to see people cook with that same intent.”
Giving: It’s a cliched trope, “food is love,” but it’s hard to escape the truth of it, especially when considering that around this time of year, those queer folks who have been rejected by their families find one another, gather together and break bread with the tribe with whom they feel safe and nourished.
In the end, what is queer food? After asking a lot of questions and grasping for answers that wouldn’t materialize (over two well-received cakes, as it happens), I determined that it’s essentially the same as “straight” food, though the intent can seem more apparent. Queer food is a tangible expression of giving, a declaration to come as you are, pull up a seat, make a mess at the table and live life out loud.
Julia Turshen’s Applesauce Cake
From Julia Turshen’s “Now and Again: Go-To Recipes, Inspired Menus + Endless Ideas for Reinventing Leftovers” (Chronicle Books, $35)
Prep: 15 minutes
Bake: 55 minutes
Makes: 8 servings
For the cake
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground ginger
11/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk or plain yogurt
11/2 cups unsweetened applesauce
1/3 cup canola or other neutral oil
For the frosting
6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons sour cream
1/4 cup honey
Pinch of kosher salt
For the cake: Heat your oven to 350 degrees. Spray the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan with baking spray and line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper. Set the pan aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, ginger, salt and baking soda. Add the eggs, sugar, buttermilk, applesauce and oil, and whisk gently just until everything is combined. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the batter into the prepared pan, and then smooth the surface so it is even.
Bake the cake until it is just barely firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 55 minutes. Set the cake aside on a wire rack to cool to room temperature.
Use a dinner knife to loosen the edges of the cake from the pan sides and then invert it onto your work surface. Peel off and discard the parchment. Invert the cake one more time onto a serving platter.
For the frosting: In a large bowl, combine the cream cheese, sour cream, honey and salt, and whisk together aggressively until the cream cheese is slightly aerated. (You can also do this with a handheld electric mixer or in a stand mixer.)
Spread the frosting over the top of the cake and don’t worry too much about making this perfect. Cut into wedges and serve. Leftovers can be wrapped in plastic wrap and stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Nutrition information per serving: 361 calories, 17 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 63 mg cholesterol, 48 g carbohydrates, 24 g sugar, 6 g protein, 721 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
Apple Masala Chai Cake
From Nik Sharma’s cookbook, “Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food” (Chronicle Books, $35)
Prep: 20 minutes
Bake: 45 minutes
Makes: 8 to 9 servings
3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, cubed, plus more for pan
2 tablespoons loose-leaf Darjeeling or other black tea leaves
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
11/2 teaspoons chai masala (below or purchased at Indian or international grocery stores)
2 large Fuji or Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and diced
1 cup packed light brown sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
Confectioners’ sugar, to top
Seeds from 10 green cardamom pods
Seeds from 1 black cardamom pod
6 black peppercorns
4 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick (2 inches long)
1 tablespoon ground ginger
To make the cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch round baking pan and line bottom with parchment paper.
For chai masala, in a clean spice or coffee grinder, blend green cardamom seeds, black cardamom seeds, black peppercorns, cloves and cinnamon stick until finely ground. Add ground ginger and mix. Makes about 2 tablespoons.
Start the cake by grinding tea leaves to a fine powder with a mortar and pestle or in a clean coffee grinder. In a large bowl, whisk together ground tea, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and prepared chai masala. In a separate medium-sized bowl, toss diced apples with 2 tablespoons of the flour mixture to coat.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the cubed butter and the brown sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Stop mixer, add flour mixture, and beat on low just until no streaks of flour are visible, about 1 to 2 minutes. Remove bowl from mixer and fold in apples. (Alternatively, mix the cake with a hand-held electric beater.)
Pour batter into prepared cake pan and level it with an offset spatula. Bake, rotating halfway through, until cake is golden and a skewer inserted into center comes out with some crumbs adhering, about 45 minutes. Cool in pan on a wire rack, 5 minutes. Run a thin knife around inside of pan to release cake, then invert onto rack, remove parchment, and cool completely.
Before serving, dust liberally with confectioners’ sugar. Cake will keep up to 3 days at room temperature, in an airtight container lined with a clean kitchen towel to absorb moisture.
Nutrition information per serving (for 9 servings): 386 calories, 18 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 123 mg cholesterol, 52 g carbohydrates, 29 g sugar, 6 g protein, 262 mg sodium, 1 g fiber