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.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I had every intention of starting a new tradition this year and hosting a cookie swap with some of our local friends, but somehow the season really got the best of me and it just hasn't happened. But! That hasn't stopped me from getting a head start on holiday baking; I posted a photo on Instagram the other day of some of my very favorite holiday cookbooks, and asked if there was a way we could all just take the whole week off to bake instead of work. Judging from the responses, it seems I'm not the only one who thinks this would be a really great idea. But back here in reality, cookie baking is relegated to later evenings or, I hope, this weekend we'll find some time to eek in a few batches (the recipe for Sam's mom's Nutmeg Logs is up next, and I'm set on making gingerbread men to take with us down to the Bay Area). Right now on our countertop, we've got a batch of these crumbly, chocolatey, whole grain shortbread that have proven to be a big hit. The ingredient list is small and simple, the technique foolproof, and I think they're a real standout in a sea of holiday cookies.
Hello from the other side! I realize we haven't been back here for a few weeks, and I'm sorry for dropping into a little black hole. My cookbook deadline was Monday, so I've been a writing and editing machine, stepping away from the computer to occasionally clean the house like a crazy person or throw together a most random lunch or dinner. But somehow it all came together although there was something strangely anti-climactic about sending it off: In the days when you'd print out your manuscript and have to walk to the post office and seal it up carefully to send to the publisher, I imagine it would feel much more ceremonial and important --you could stroll out of the building and do a cartwheel. Or high-five a fellow customer on your way out. Instead, I was sitting in our dining room on an incredibly rainy, dark Monday afternoon unable to hit "send." My sister Zoe told me to just close my eyes and do it. Sam gave me the thumbs up. So around 3 p.m. that's what I did. With the click of a button, just like that: it was finished.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
We've been waking up early these days with baby Oliver. I've always been a morning person, so this isn't particularly challenging for me -- although the middle of the night feedings have proven to be really tough. There has been a lot of finessing of sleep schedules and figuring out how Sam and I can both get enough to function well the following day. And just when we think we have it down ("gosh, aren't we lucky we have a baby that sleeps?"), everything changes. When I was in the final weeks of pregnancy and would talk about how I couldn't wait for the baby to be here, all of my friends with kids would advise me to sleep as much as possible -- and now I get it. I should've napped more. I should've listened. In getting up at odd times throughout the night with Oliver, I've had the chance to occasionally see some really brilliant sunrises (although not this past week which has been a particularly dark one in Seattle); I've made up some wacky baby tunes that I'm happy no one else can hear; and I generally have a good hour in which I can put him in the sling and walk briskly around the house trying to soothe him back to sleep while also putting away a dish or two or making a quick cup of coffee. In that hour, I can usually get something productive done and this past weekend that something was pear gingerbread.