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.
Winter Soups and Stews
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Last weekend it was so windy – apocalyptically stormy, you could say – that our tent at the farmers market was uprooted by gusts of wind that were not messing around. I wasn't there, but apparently despite being heavily weighted down and with four customers holding onto each corner, it quite literally blew down the block. Sam, from across town, was reporting trees falling on every block and traffic lights out across the city. The next morning on a walk with Oliver around Green Lake, we were met with that same biting wind and ended up retreating for a hot chocolate instead. 'Tis the season in Seattle: we all get a little giddy and ahead of ourselves when we spot the cherry blossoms and daffodils, and I always trick myself into thinking that with the start of daylight savings time, summer must be right around the corner. In truth, before we had Oliver, we'd often travel somewhere sunny for a little mood boost around this time of year. When I moved from California, many friends – other (empathetic) 'expats' now living in the Pacific Northwest – recommended this: if you know what's good for you, they'd all say, go find the sun in February or March, and we would follow that advice faaaaaithfully. But with a baby, this just isn't where our priorities are this year, and I've found myself relying on other antics like buying out of season strawberries, drinking white wine with dinner, buying a new pair of sandals that likely will not see the light of day for the next two months, and making big, colorful pots of feel good, springy soup. Let's not kid ourselves: Cherry blossoms or not, Seattle's no Palm Springs when it gets down to bathing in the sunlight. But if you step outside onto your little porch, smell the honeysuckle blooming, take notice of the longer, lighter days and think about how you simply can't wait to see your baby crawling around on the sand when it's warm enough to stroll down to the beach, it starts looking better in its own light.
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
One of the things I wanted to accomplish before really returning to work in earnest was to print some of our honeymoon photos and get them into an album. This project has taken far longer than expected as I find myself daydreaming about the craggy streets of Naples and meeting up with our friends Mataio and Jessica for a late night slice of pizza which we ate sitting on the sidewalk before embarking on an aimless but wonderful stroll of the city. There are photos of our balcony by the sea, most with tanned limbs, sandy sandals and a Campari and soda gracing the periphery of the frame. There was the little grocery store up the hill from our apartment on the Amalfi Coast that had the sweetest, tiniest strawberries and the best yogurt in little glass jars. Tomatoes drying in the sun, Aperol spritzes and salty peanuts before dinner at the bar across from the church square where all the neighborhood kids played kickball. As I sit here typing this now, photos remain scattered on my desk and it's likely they may not make it into the proper slots in the album anytime soon. Of course, they have me dreaming of sunshine and long days with little agenda, but they also have me thinking about the simplicity of our meals in Italy and how truly easy it was to eat well. Coincidentally, a few days ago Rachel Roddy's lusty new cookbook (can we call it lusty?!), My Kitchen in Rome, arrived at our doorstep. Clearly it was time to set the photos aside and get into the kitchen.
And suddenly, it's fall. I find that realization always comes not so much with the dates on the calendar as it does the leaves on the ground, the first crank of the heat in the morning, the dusky light on the way home from an evening run. Because we were gone on the train for nearly a week, I feel like fall happened here in Seattle during that very time. I left town eating tomatoes and corn and returned to find squashes and pumpkins in the market. It was that quick. And so, it only seemed fitting that I make this soup, one that has graced the fall table of each and every apartment (and now house) I've ever lived. In fact, I'm surprised that I hadn't yet made it for you here, and delighted to share it with you today.