There is a place in South Carolina, about an hour south of Myrtle Beach and an hour north of Charleston, called Garden City Beach. There is a woman my mom knows who owns a condo where Garden City Beach meets the Atlantic. There is a family -- mine -- that has been going down there every summer for at least 12 years to spend time on the beach relaxing, lounging, playing bocce, swimming and perhaps imbibing in a piña colada or two or more. And there are two young boys -- my nephews -- who refer to this vacation destination as "Grandma's Other House," even though Grandma has not ever and does not currently own it.
Grandma's Other House is a place to which you can raise your glass.
I look forward to the yearly pilgrimage to Garden City Beach because it is one of those vacations that does not ask anything of the traveler. No plans. No tours or activities or museums. The only activity that could possibly be construed as "scheduled" is that time around 4:00 p.m. when we all gather on the lanai to watch this rickety old "party boat" go by, so that we can point at it and laugh like hyenas.
If you want to sleep until noon, you can sleep until noon. If you want to watch "Days of Our Lives," you can watch "Days of Our Lives."
(That's "Days" up there...an episode that ran during that boring Lucas-is-married-to-Carrie-and-Austin-is-engaged-to-Sami-but-really-Sami-is-lying-about-Carrie's-and-Austin's-supposed-genetic-incompatibility-that-would-result-in-an-unhealthy-baby-and-that-is-the-only-thing-keeping-them-apart-because-they-are-soul-mates-but-Sami-wants-Austin-for-herself storyline. That's a Bloody Mary on the table.)
If you want to sleep all afternoon and then go to Wal-Mart (hi, Dad!), you can sleep all afternoon and then go to Wal-Mart. If you want to bury your husband in the sand, you can bury your husband in the sand. If you want to watch people set off fireworks from the beach in a manner that is likely to cause bodily injury, you can watch people set off fireworks from the beach in a manner that is likely to cause bodily injury.
Vacationing at Grandma's Other House is the ultimate in what my family likes to call, "doing strictly." Which is to say, doing strictly what you want with no judgement, no one to whom you must answer. (Unless you are my husband, in which case you will be expected to do what I want to do, at least most of the time.)
Several years ago our friends Amy and Jeff joined us at the beach. No strangers to a good time, Any and Jeff fit right in with the general atmosphere of jackasserie and relaxed foolishness. Indeed, we have them to thank for one of the most enduring jokes to emanate from our South Carolina vacations.
To get to the strip of condos on the beach, you must turn off the main north-south thoroughfare (Hwy. 17) and cross an area of low-country marshland. At that turn, right next to the Kroger parking lot, there is a small farm stand that has been in operation at least as long as we've been visiting the area. They sell sweet corn, strawberries, peaches -- just about what you'd expect from a farm stand in the middle of summer. They also sell bags of ice. The hand-painted wooden sign that advertises the ice stood out to Amy the first time she saw it:
Bag ice, no space. In big red capital letters.
She turned to me and Mom and said, "Bagice? [she pronounced it, "Bag-eechay] Sounds interesting." Never one to miss an opportunity, I replied, "Bagice. It is an Italian vegetable, a Ligurian staple." I do not know why I said this, why that particular Italian region popped into my mind. But needless to say, that is how my brain works -- my mind is a strange place. "That Ligurian staple, bagice" became a recurring joke throughout the trip; indeed, the phrase persists to this day. I have a sense that we will keep laughing about this long past the time when any of us can remember the joke's origin.
(I know that perhaps you had to be there to enjoy fully this anecdote, but bear with me, here, as this story inspired the addition of one hell of a cake to my recipe box.)
Ever since that week, if/when I find a recipe that is credited as being traditionally Ligurian, I must cook or bake it. I must present it to my family, and Amy and Jeff, if only to get a laugh. The recipe that follows, however, is no laughing matter -- it is seriously delicious. I found it one day when I was searching for a not-too-sweet cake involving fruit for Dad's birthday. The name of the cake jumped off the screen: Ligurian lemon cake. I knew this dessert was destined to become a regular part of my baker's repertoire.
Ligurian lemon cake does not contain any bagice, but does call for 2/3 of a cup of extra-virgin olive oil, as well as nearly a stick of butter. Somehow -- even with all that fat -- the freshness of the lemons and the juicy sweetness of the whole raspberries suspended throughout the crumb are able to elevate the finished confection to a very light and airy place. The meringue on top is a surprising and tasty way to finish the cake, adding another layer of sweetness and texture to the dessert.
Though you might not be able to track down any bagice, do find yourself some of the finest fruit summer has to offer, bake yourself this wonderfully bright cake and toast Liguria. And South Carolina.
LIGURIAN LEMON CAKE
Adapted from "Martha Stewart Living"
The meringue topping on this cake is technically optional, but it adds such a wonderful textural dimension that I'd advocate for including it. If, however, you wish to focus on the tart lemony elements of the cake or if you like things a little less sweet, go ahead and omit the meringue -- it does bring quite a bit of sugar to the party.
If you so desire, you can decorate the top of the cake with more raspberries or other fresh mixed berries -- or if you'd like a more rustic-looking dessert, you can just leave well enough alone. But with all the scrumptious berries making their grand entrances at the farmers' markets, maybe you can't resist the extra frill....
The lemon cake can be made a day in advance. Store the cooled cake, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, at room temperature or in the refrigerator. Make and apply the meringue shortly before serving.
For the cake:
7 T. unsalted butter, melted
1 3/4 c. flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1 c. sugar
Zest of 2 lemons
4 eggs, room temperature
3 T. whole milk, room temperature
1 T. freshly-squeezed lemon juice
2/3 c. extra-virgin olive oil
1 pint fresh raspberries
For the meringue:
1 egg white
1/2 c. granulated sugar
Confectioner's sugar, for dusting
Mixed berries, such as raspberries, strawberries or blueberries (optional)
Make the lemon cake. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a 10-inch round cake or springform pan, dust with flour and tap out any excess. Alternatively, spray the pan with that new-fangled Pam for baking that includes flour. Since I am a trifle lazy, I find the Pam is much simpler to use (obviously), and the cake slides out of the pan effortlessly.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder. Set aside.
Place the sugar and lemon zest in the bowl of an electric mixer. Using your hands, thoroughly incorporate the two ingredients together until the sugar is moist, grainy and has absorbed as much of the zest as possible. Return the bowl to the mixer.
Using the whisk attachment, beat the eggs into the sugar-zest mixture on medium-high speed until the mixture is pale yellow and thick, about 3 minutes. With the mixer on the lowest speed, and still using the whisk attachment, beat in the milk. Add the flour mixture and beat until it is incorporated. Add lemon juice, melted butter and olive oil; mix until blended, stopping the mixer a few times to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Pour about one-third of the batter into the prepared pan. There should be just enough batter to form a thin, even layer; use a rubber spatula to distribute gently the batter across the bottom of the pan. Arrange the raspberries on top of the batter. Pour the remaining batter over the raspberries and use a rubber spatula to spread the batter so that it runs down between the berries, just covering them. (The top layer of batter will be relatively thin.)
Bake the cake until it's golden brown and pulling away from the sides of the pan, and until a toothpick or bamboo skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, 35-50 minutes. The baking time can vary based on the type of pan you're using, so be sure to keep an eye on it, testing every five minutes or so until the skewer comes out clean. I use a springform pan and it takes about 50 minutes.
Remove the cake from the oven and immediately unmold it onto a wire rack. Invert the cake so it is right-side up and allow to cool to room temperature. Once cooled, you can wrap and store it for serving the next day, or you can proceed with the meringue.
Prepare the meringue by first preheating the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the cooled cake on a Silpat- or parchment-lined baking sheet; set aside.
In the clean, dry bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg white to soft peaks. (Alternatively, you can use a hand mixer for this step -- in fact, I find it easier considering you're only beating one egg, which doesn't provide a lot of volume, and sometimes the KitchenAid whisk attachment doesn't "reach" all the way to the bottom of the bowl. One of the few design flaws of an otherwise perfect machine!) Add the sugar to the egg white in a slow, steady stream; continue beating until stiff, glossy peaks form.
Using a metal off-set spatula or a spoon, immediately spread the meringue in a thin layer over the top of the cake. Using a fine wire-mesh sieve, dust the meringue with confectioner's sugar.
Bake the cake until the meringue is lightly browned. about 4-6 minutes. Garnish the cake with mixed berries, if you so desire.