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.
My good friend Keena was working in India for the last few months and just returned to Seattle, eager to experience as much Pacific Northwest summer as possible in September. I'm with her on this one: It just so happens that towards the end of this month, the farmers markets I've been doing will also come to an end, so things seem like they're both simultaneously gearing up (hike! picnic! beach!) and wrapping up at the same time as I also feel a sense of wanting to cram in as much as I can before the days start getting noticeably shorter. And truly: there's no better recipe to commemorate such efforts than these fresh corn grits with oil-poached summer tomatoes.
For many years, I've always made a summer to-do list. I usually set to work on it right at the beginning of June when the days feel long and ripe with possibility. The list often involves things like learning to bake sourdough bread or making homemade ricotta, doing an epic hike I'd read about in a local magazine, training for a marathon, or reading specific novels. It is always a pretty aspirational list, and I generally don't make much of a dent in it -- resulting in the guilty feeling come late August that I'd wasted too many lazy afternoons when I could've been baking sourdough or making ricotta or doing memorable, epic hikes. But this summer is going to be a bit different: there will be no list. We wait so long in Seattle for long stretches of sunny days, and now that it stays late until 9:30 (or later?), I want to see more of our friends and find stretches of time to do not much of anything except catch up, tan our legs and eat farmers market berries. That's my list.
I received The Sprouted Kitchen Bowl + Spoon cookbook in the mail not long before we moved to our new house, and I remember lying in bed and bookmarking pages I was excited to try but also feeling overwhelmed with where to start: the truth is that this summer has been a relatively low-inspiration / low energy time in the kitchen for me. I'd been chalking it up to pregnancy but when I think back and if I'm honest with myself, my cooking style tends to be very easy and produce-driven during these warmer months. I rarely break out complicated recipes, instead relying on fresh tomatoes and corn or zucchini and homemade pesto to guide me. But last night I cracked open Sara's book and pulled out a few peaches I've had sitting on the counter, fearing their season may be nearing its end. This morning as I was making coffee, I sliced up the peaches, toasted the pecans and churned away -- having a bite (or maybe two) before getting it into the freezer to firm up.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
We just returned from my mom's cabin on Lake George in upstate New York where we often spend the 4th of July. As usual, each bedroom was packed with family members (this year the couch was even occupied for a night), and our days with reading, lounging on the dock, swimming a bit, maybe jogging down the road or playing tennis if you were feeling ambitious. We drank a notable amount of seltzer water; I managed to read three books and my mom threw us a family baby shower complete with balloons, chocolate cake and Mike's rhubarb bars. In previous years, my mom has planned most of the dinners and even some lunches, but for breakfast we'd all fend for ourselves. I'd often bake a pie or a batch of brownies in the afternoon and everyone would help out where they could, but she would largely do the shopping and brunt of the cooking. This year was different: having just moved from California to Vermont, my mom had a lot on her plate and sent out an email before the holiday weekend asking us all to chip in and help with the meals. Sam and I claimed Friday dinner: we grilled sausages and Sam made his famous deviled eggs. We cut up some unusually seedy watermelon that I found at the co-op in Burlington before we drove out to the lake, and I made a summery quinoa salad that I expected to be kind of epic. The trouble was that it wasn't. I overcooked the quinoa until it was kind of a congealed mush and everything just went downhill from there. But I knew that the idea was strong -- to pack a whole grain salad with all the things of summer (corn! tomatoes! basil!) -- so when we got home to Seattle I tried again. And this time it's a winner.