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.
In a few short weeks, we're headed to New York, Vermont and New Jersey to visit family and see my sister Zoe get married. In starting to think through the trip and do a little planning, I found Oliver the cutest tiny-person dress shoes I've ever seen (and he's quite smitten with them), sussed out childcare options for the night of the wedding, and found what feels like the most expensive (and last) rental car in the state of New Jersey. I try very hard not to be one of Those People that begins lamenting the loss of a season before it's remotely appropriate to do so, but this year, as we'll be gone much of September, I've felt a bit of a 'hurry, make all the summery things!' feeling set in. So we've been managing increasingly busy days punctuated with zucchini noodle salads, gazpacho, corn on the cob and homemade popsicles (preferably eaten shirtless outside followed by a good, solid sprinkler run for one small person in particular. Not naming any names).
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.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
I had a weak moment on our honeymoon in Italy when I decided that I should be making gelato for a living. My enthusiasm for Italian gelato wasn't surprising to anyone. I'd done extensive research, made lists, had Sam map out cities in terms of where the best gelaterias were. I took notes and photos and hemmed and hawed over flavor choices: Sicilian Pistachio! Chestnut Honey! Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig! In truth, on that particular trip, I cared far more about treats, sunshine, and cobblestone walks than I cared about famous landmarks or tourist attractions, often leaving the camera back at the hotel in favor of my small black notebook which housed detailed jottings on dessert discoveries in each city we visited. Our friends Matteo and Jessica happened to be in Naples on the one night we were there, and we all went out for pizza together followed by a long stroll around the city. At some point the conversation turned to gelato (as it's bound to) and Matteo brought up the famous school in Bologna where many renowned gelato artisans study. My wheels were spinning. Maybe we should visit Bologna. I should see this school! I should talk to these students! I could make Sicilian Pistachio; Chestnut Honey; and Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig each and every day of our lives. Or at the very least, travel to Bologna to learn how and then come back to Seattle to take our Northwest city by storm. Well here we are six months later, back to reality, and the impetus to pack up my bags and head for Bologna has subsided for the time being ... but not the unwavering gusto to sample. That part will always be with me. It's been awhile since I mixed up a batch of ice cream at home, but the other day a beautiful new cookbook landed on my doorstep and I flipped right to a recipe for dark chocolate sorbet with toasty, salty almonds. I didn't need much convincing.