I’ve been thinking a lot about how I spend my time lately. Mainly because, more than ever, I feel like at the end of the day I plum run out of it. And the feeling of balance seems to be skirting around me. There are so many pieces to each day, between making and shipping granola, sourcing ingredients, trying to gain new granola vendors, writing online columns and freelance articles, writing a proposal for a bigger project, working on the house, planning a little housewarming party — there’s a lot going on. I know I’m not the only one. I know you’re busy, too. In fact, a recent article in The Wall Street Journal discussed the state of being busy, and how many Americans claim to be so busy when, in reality, they aren’t as harried as they think. Writer Laura Vanderkam encourages logging the way your spend your time: how many hours do you really sleep? Walk the dog? Check Facebook? Vanderkam thinks you’ll be surprised with what you find: “We all have the same 168 hours per week — a number few people contemplate even as they talk about “24-7″ with abandon — but since time passes whether we acknowledge it or not, we seldom think through exactly how we’re spending our hours.” If we did, I think we’d actually find hidden pockets of opportunity.
Now I have absolutely no interest in logging the hours I spend on various activities throughout the day. While I’m certain it would be quite revealing, it also seems a bit obsessive. Regardless, I think there’s some good stuff here. We’re competitive folks. This extends even, oddly enough, to our own proclamations of how busy we are. It’s almost as if a lack of sleep or boasting about working 16-hour days gives you a cultural one-up, as if no one else could possibly understand everything you do in a day. I do this sometimes. You might, too. So here we are.
In a recent TED talk, psychologist Shawn Achor explores one of the biggest ways we spend our time: work. He says that we all believe we should work to be happy. If we work harder, we’ll be more successful and –you guessed it– happier. But Achor explains that it’s actually quite the opposite because every time your brain senses success, it changes the goalpost of what success looks like (good grade? need to get a better one next time) — your brain keeps upping the ante, so you never feel truly satisfied with your small gains. The trick is to not rely on notions of success for your own happiness. And to not measure success on how much you may get done in a day. One simple way to do this, Achor explains, is to think about 3 things you’re grateful for each day. If you do this for 21 days, he insists that your brain will start to reprogram itself to notice good things, no matter how insignificant, that fill up your time.
So while there’s no way I can log the way I spend my time, hour by hour, I can (and will) write down 3 things I’m grateful for each day. Little or big. Silly or substantial. And scan my day for hidden pockets of opportunity. That’s actually how this cake came to be. It happened last night around 11:45 p.m. in-between volunteering at The Pantry during their layer-cake class and getting some writing done with Sam in the breakfast nook (come evening, the nook often transforms itself into a dual office complete with crackers and cheese and bourbon-based cocktails). I didn’t spend much time thinking it through or debating if I really felt like baking, I just started grinding cardamom and zesting an orange and in no time the kitchen smelled of warmly-spiced, buttery cake. Always a good thing at 12:25 a.m.
This recipe is from the new River Cottage Cakes (a beauty of a book!). Sam picked up a copy at Booklarder and I’ve been thinking about the simple Cardamom Cake for days and days. It’s a decidedly English cake in that it’s simple and not fussy with overly sweet icing (or any icing at all, actually). It’s what I like to call a snacking cake: one layer, finished with just a dusting of confectioners sugar, and perfect in the afternoon or for breakfast. If you even remotely like cardamom, this cake will quickly assert itself into your dessert repertoire. I find snacking cakes to be an incredibly gratifying thing to bake. They’re comprised of such simple ingredients you likely have lying around the house. Making one is a good use of your time. It will, on first thought, add to your busy harried day. And once you’re mixing your butter and sifting your flour, all that jazz will seem a little less significant. And that is where hidden pockets of opportunity arise. Trust me.
I’m not assuming that you’d want to share 3 things you’re grateful for here, but in the case that you do, I’d love to hear them. Here are mine for today:
1. Exchanging photo texts with my mom and sisters about what we’re eating for dinner (my mom wins).
2. Little flakes of snow this morning while making a pot of coffee.
3. Sam’s lentil stew.
If you can, this cake is a good excuse to break out your spice grinder and grind your own cardamom. It is such a fragrant cake and the spice has center stage, so it really is worth the effort. Do be sure to use green cardamom pods as their seeds have a much brighter flavor. If you’d rather use ground cardamom from the store, I’ve given you measurements for that as well. I adapted this cake at the last minute, adding ground pistachios and a little orange zest. The ground pistachios gives it more of a loose, mealy crumb and the citrus brightens the whole affair. It will sink a little in the middle a little — that’s o.k. Dust a little more sugar over the top and embrace it.
Adapted from: River Cottage Cakes
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a 9-inch round cake pan and set aside. Split the green cardamom pods open, remove the seeds and grind with a (clean) coffee grinder or mortar and pestle. Sift the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda and ground cardamom seeds together in a small bowl and set aside.
Pour the sugar into a medium-sized bowl. Warm the butter in a small saucepan until just melted. Pour the butter into the sugar and whisk until well combined, about 1 minute. Add the crème fraîche and whisk until you have a creamy batter. Add the flour mixture, 1/3 at a time, folding it in carefully with a wooden spoon.
Grind pistachios in a food processor (or with a mortar and pestle) until fine and crumbly. Add pistachios and orange zest to batter and fold in to combine. The mixture can seem quite sticky at this point — don’t over mix.
Spoon batter into prepared pan and smooth out the top. Bake for 50 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the cake springs back slightly when touched. The middle should still seem a bit soft to the touch. All to cool for 10 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely. To serve, sift confectioners sugar over the top of the cake and slice generously. This cake is a champion, and will keep for 5 days in an airtight container.
*If you don’t have crème fraîche at home or would rather not buy it (it can be expensive) you can make your own by adding 2 tablespoons buttermilk into 1/2 cups of cream. Let is sit at room temperature for 24 hours. If it hasn’t firmed up, place it in the refrigerator and you should have crème fraîche in no time. Alternatively, I think the recipe could be successful with full-fat Greek yogurt. If you try this, let me know!
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.