Those who know me well know that hosting my cookbook club gatherings has become my biggest passion this year. I enjoy every aspect of it: from choosing the next book, to sifting through all the bookmarked recipes to arrive at a cohesive menu, to curating and crafting every last detail. And the details are many, location being one of the more challenging ones. While most people in Santa Barbara (including me) live in pretty tight quarters, we are truly blessed with endless outdoor options to host a crowd of any size, from a casual picnic with a few friends to a large wedding celebration, and everything in between.
As beautiful and accessible as an outdoor space can be, in most cases it resolves the imminent challenge of just that—space—as everything else has to be hauled in. From real to makeshift tables to crates and totes full of dishes and glassware, I certainly hope that I will never run out of schlepping favors with my husband, Brett, and my gracious guests who help load it all back into the trusted Honda Element. But what can I say? Providing a beautiful space for people to commune over a delicious meal and conversation is just so incredibly rewarding. Read on for photos of a recent outdoor gathering I hosted and the recipe for Pear, Blackberry and Hazelnut Cake we all enjoyed at the end of the meal.
All photos are by Lerina Winter.
Our last gathering featuring Diana Henry’s newest book, How to Eat a Peach, was held Santa Barbara’s West Beach, and was pretty much the sum of all the challenges that an outdoor space can present. But what hurdles cannot be overcome in the name of the meal that tastes as delicious as it looks, with cake and homemade ice cream to top it off? I certainly can’t think of many.
Why am I writing about a beach party at the end of October, you may ask, when most people find themselves firmly planted with both feet in the pumpkin patch, apple cider in hand? Because with all the hustle and bustle of the new school year, I completely forgot to tell you what I did last summer, which still hasn’t quite transitioned into the next season in my part of the country. This brings me the point I have been trying to articulate for a while now: given the effects of climate change, fall (or any season for that matter) has to become a state of mind rather than the weather report alone.
To help anchor our gathering space on a widely-stretched public beach, I chose to work with The Cabana, Santa Barbara’s only resort-style cabana, umbrella, and beach chair rental service. Their team helped me with the key necessities for a successful beach gathering: shade, seating, and shelter. In addition, the bold white and red stripes of The Cabanas’ material were the perfect complement to the iconic West Beach setting, visually reaffirming once again our town’s rightful nickname—the American Riviera.
THE TABLE SETTING
To keep the sand out of the food, and the food away from the sand, I used two tables: one—a proper, albeit basic folding table—to serve the food, and another—a table of sorts—to gather around to enjoy the meal. The latter presented yet another challenge, logistical mostly, but in the end proved to be a worthwhile effort. A set of doors (hardware intact!) borrowed for the day from Restore, Habitat for Humanity’s building and home refurbishing warehouse, rested on wooden crates that were used to carry supplies to and from the beach. Layers of linen cloths covered both tables and provided much needed hiding space for extra supplies and containers.
Culling an entire menu from How to Eat a Peach was not hard, and it honestly felt like I could not go wrong with any of the possible combinations. Henry’s recipes are easy to fall in love with, but to know that she herself is the master of putting menus together (starting from the age of 16) is a fact that can hang over your head should you read the preface of the book. Nonetheless, the menu came together beautifully, and we managed to find the best of local produce (even some late harvest peaches in September) to use in our respective dishes.
melon and goat cheese with red wine & lavender dressing
ceviche de sierra
zucchini, ricotta & pecorino fritters
green salad with hazelnut dressing
roast tomatoes, fennel & chickpeas with preserved lemons & honey
sarassou + lamb kofta + sweet pickled cherries
olive oil-braised leeks with harissa & dill
pear, blackberry & hazelnut cake
pink grapefruit & basil ice cream
white peaches in chilled moscato
To keep the food safe from birds (yet another challenge in outdoor settings), I used various covers which I collected over time and refurbished with driftwood and palo santo sticks as handles.
Having hosted a few potluck events for Cookbook-ish, I am now able to easily spot the recipes that will stand the test of time and distance. Time, as in make-ahead recipes that don’t look stale or soggy the next day. Distance, as in easily transportable without any special containers. This Pear, Blackberry and Hazelnut Cake checked all the boxes and many more. I hope it will become your go-to dessert to bring to any gathering, indoor or outdoor. I know it is already my favorite.
Pear, Blackberry and Hazelnut Cake
from How to Eat a Peach by Diana Henry
unsalted butter, for the pan
1⅔ cups all-purpose flour, divided
1 large pear, peeled, cored, and chopped
1 cup blackberries, plus more to serve
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup packed soft light brown sugar
pinch of sea salt flakes
1 cup plain full-fat yogurt
½ cup regular olive oil
3 large eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
finely grated zest of ½ orange
⅓ cup hazelnuts, toasted and very coarsely chopped
confectioner’s sugar, to dust
Preheat the oven to 375ºF and butter a loaf pan measuring 9½ x 5 x 2½ inches. Line the bottom with nonstick parchment paper.
Toss 2 big spoonfulls of the flour with the pear and blackberries. Put the rest of the flour in a large bowl and add the baking powder, sugar, and salt.
Mix together the yogurt with the regular olive oil in a cup and the eggs, vanilla, and orange zest.
Stir the wet ingredients into the flour mixture, making sure the flour is properly mixed in, carefully fold in the floured fruit, and then the nuts. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake 50 minutes to 1 hour, or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.
Leave in the pan for 10 minutes, then carefully run a knife between the cake and the pan and invert onto a wire rack. Turn the cake over so it is the right way up. Let cool, then dust with confectioners’ sugar.
Serve in slices, with extra blackberries on the side.
Diana henry suggests serving sweetened crème fraîche or whipped cream with it, but we enjoyed a scoop of pink grapefruit and basil ice cream with it, also from the book.
Cheers to summer, friends—past, future, or the kind that likes to linger well into November!
In the Shop:
Cookbook-ish is a book club and a community of like-minded foodies and creative people in my hometown. I curate the book selection and ask everyone to choose 2-3 recipes they'd like to make. I then come up with a cohesive menu based on everyone's selections. We cook at home and bring our respective dishes to share in a potluck style dinner. Next month's book is SIMPLE by Yotam Ottolenghi. Not in Santa Barbara? You can still participate by cooking and tagging your posts with #cookbookish_sb.