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!
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.