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Hidden Pockets of Opportunity

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.

Cardamom Snacking Cake
Adapted from: River Cottage Cakes
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.

Serves: 8

20 green cardamom pods (yielding 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup superfine sugar
8 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups crème fraîche*
1/2 teaspoon orange zest
1/4 cup pistachios
confectioners sugar, for dusting

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!

  1. megang
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 8:19 am

    Yes!! Happy Sunday, Deb.

  2. Shila
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:57 am

    I love love love your writing. It reminds me of dana velden’s weekend meditations. It elevates the ordinary in such a beautiful homey way. And I mean ordinary in the best sense of the word; the simple daily things and moments that make the meat of our days, but I might not savor or notice so beautifully.

    Thank you.

  3. megang
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    Hi Shila. Thanks so much for your sweet comment about the blog. Yes, Dana’s writing is quite something, isn’t it? We write together on The Kitchn and I always look forward to her pieces. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog and take the time in your day to drop in. Have a wonderful week, ~m

  4. Posted May 1, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    Megan,

    I’m pretty sure I’ve already commented on this one. But that was before. I’m doing it again. Because I am grateful. And also, it is after.

    I made this cake, today. Well, not this cake, exactly. I actually ordered the book, when I first saw this post, purely on your recommendation. It’s now prickly like a porcupine with sticky notes. We waited (impatiently) for an opportunity to bake it. Turns out, our stuffed penguin had a birthday party today. Bingo! Turns out I’m also horrible at metric conversions and seed pod assumptions. I added a full Tablespoon of cardamom. It was DIVINE.

    But what I’m grateful for, what I wanted to tell you, is this space. I’m so please to have found it, thanks to your dropping notes months back. It’s a little sparkle in a week, a drop of sunshine (and rain, all in due measure, I love them both). And it brings me a smile, always. No small thing.

    Also, I’ve got a (second) batch of the buttermilk yogurt straining as I type. Hot dog, that stuff is good…

    Cheers to you,
    Molly

  5. megang
    Posted May 2, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    Molly-
    Your note thrills me to no end, largely because I’m such a fan of YOUR blog and it’s so nice to see you’re enjoying this space as much as I’m enjoying yours. Also, for some reason I thought you were still in Seattle and I was harboring thoughts of becoming coffee pals soon. Shoot.

    I’m so glad you liked the cake and bought the book. It is such a fabulous book, isn’t it? I need to revisit it and choose another cake. If you like this style of cake, do you have Nigel Slater’s newest book, Ripe yet? He’s the master of great, simple snacking cakes and I think you’d very much like it. And be easy on yourself: I think everyone’s bad with seed-pod conversions. I was skeptical and really wanted to just use ground cardamom, but I think it really does make such a difference: didn’t the kitchen smell incredible??

    So thank you for stopping by and saying hello and leaving this sweetest of comment. I hope you’re having a wonderful week.
    ~m

  6. Posted December 5, 2013 at 1:01 am

    I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme.

    Did you make this website yourself or did you hire someone
    to do it for you? Plz respond as I’m looking
    to create my own blog and would like to know where u got this from.

    cheers

  7. megang
    Posted December 5, 2013 at 8:17 am

    Hi Patricia! I helped with the colors / layout ideas but I had a company called Webdev Studio do the backend for me. Thank you + glad you’re enjoying it!

One Trackback

  1. […] Recipe link: Cardamom Snacking Cake – by A Sweet Spoonful, adapted from The River Cottage. * I used a mortar and pestle and did grind […]

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