Two weeks ago while Sam was visiting, we threw a small dinner party. I think it was his idea, actually. I’d yet to have a get-together in my new-ish Oakland apartment and the thought of the two of us spending an afternoon cooking for a room full of my friends was pretty darn nice.
Sam took charge of the hummus and tabbouleh; I made pork tenderloin and laid out cheeses and olives; we roasted asparagus and plum tomatoes. Sam made a great play-list and a few basil juleps to sip before everyone arrived. A drizzly evening, laughter and umbrellas, Proseco and champagne, and chocolate cake with a weighty sour cream frosting.
But beside the food, I just kept smiling as I looked around the room seeing everyone together with exactly enough chairs (barely) catching up with each others’ families, work drama, restaurant drama … all the stuff of life. All the stuff that needs to be shared, that begs to be shared. And after everyone goes home and you wash a few dishes and turn down the lights and look around your empty living room — you feel like you just can’t wait to do it all over again. The type of gathering that’s so often overshadowed by the busyness of our days, traveling for spring weddings and other obligations, or just plain ol’ deflation at the end of a long week. The type of gathering that should really happen more often around here.
At the end of the night, the light rain had stopped. Empty wine bottles were piling up. And a chocolate cake sat near a cracked window. And not just any chocolate cake. This is a cake I had made just days before for my mom’s 60th birthday party. And it’s a cake she’s made every single birthday since I can remember — for myself and my two sisters. It’s a cake I can’t quite believe I haven’t written about until now.
Sure, we’ve talked about Amanda Hesser’s Chocolate Dump-It Cake and some of you may have baked Smitten Kitchen’s Everyday Chocolate Cake or Ina Garten’s Beatty’s Chocolate Cake. But this one has them all beat. The key is beginning with 2 cups of sour cream. Then you add the perfect amount of cocoa powder and eggs, a little vanilla, a good dash of salt. And then, the secret ingredient. The one people kind of puzzle over when you tell them. There it goes: the potato. Just do it. Don’t ask questions. The shredded potato and the sour cream make this cake one of the lighter, more eloquent chocolate cakes I’ve ever come across with the perfect depth of flavor and springy crumb. It’s a keeper. And in a land teeming with worthy chocolate cakes, that’s saying a lot.
I can’t credit this recipe’s origin because I’m not entirely sure where my mom got it. And she’s not either. It’s been scrawled on the same index card for quite some time and has undergone a few changes and tweaks throughout the years. As written, it makes a 9 x 13 cake but I tend to love layer cakes so I multiply the recipe by .5 to get enough batter to make a 9″ layer cake. Or you can do as my sister does and double the recipe so you have enough batter to bake off a second cake later in the week. The batter holds up surprisingly well for at least four days in the refrigerator. So go to town. Enjoy. Because visits from Seattle, dinner parties with friends, birthday dinners for mothers, and stellar chocolate cakes –the stuff of life– are something worth celebrating. Every day.
Sour Cream Frosting:
Preheat oven to 350 F and butter a 9 x 13 inch pan. Dust with flour. Add all ingredients except the shredded potato into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or a large mixing bowl in which you’ll use hand beaters).
Turn on the mixer and beat for 2-3 minutes until batter is well-combined and silky. Add the shredded potato and stir in with a wooden spoon. Transfer mixture to prepared pan.
Bake until tester comes out clean, 35-40 minutes. Cool cake in pan on a wire rack before inverting and preparing to frost.
Make the frosting: Using the whisk attachment on a stand mixer (or traditional beaters), beat all frosting ingredients together until smooth, about two minutes.
Note: If you don’t finish it all in one evening, wrap with plastic wrap and leave room temperature for up to three days. The frosting will firm up quite a bit in the refrigerator, so if you’d prefer to store it there that’s fine as well.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
We walked to the library last week and I had a strange realization standing in line watching Sam check out his usual massive stack of books: Will I ever have the time to read stacks of books again? I used to be much more of a reader than I am today -- a fact I'm not at all proud of. But when evening rolls around and the more formal workday ends, I find emails and other odds and ends creep in. Walking home from the library, I began obsessing over free time for reading, asking Sam if we'd ever be those two old people who study bird manuals and can recognize birds on walks. I want to have the time to read bird manuals someday. For now though, we're young and we're working a lot. We did sneak away on that one-night camping trip I told you about, and cooked some interesting, haphazard meals which I hope to share with you soon. For now though, for summer: a strawberry dessert recipe.
Much like friends, types of Sunday mornings, or books -- there are many different kinds of desserts. Sometimes you may be in the mood for a light French cake piled high with summer fruit. Other days, a thick slice of fragrant pound cake will do. And then there are those days when you crave a rich chocolate mousse that you share after a night of good conversation and a little too much wine. But let's be honest. When it comes right down to it, the most basic and unassuming dessert of all is sometimes the only one that will do. A good and simple affair. Vanilla ice cream. So I want to talk about that today--about a dessert that withstands the test of time, that will always be there for you. A dessert that is far from trendy, that doesn't play favorites or trick you into thinking it's something that it's not. It's a good foundation. A solid beginning.
[ Pie. if you've been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I'm particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.