This past Sunday morning found Sam in the living room reading the paper and listening to records and me taking mad scientist notes in the kitchen, working on this humble beauty. I’d stumbled across a recipe for a honey cake that I wanted to make but as I was converting the grams into standard cup measurements for you all, I began tinkering. And tinkering. And downright altering the recipe until it really was no longer the honey cake recipe I’d become enamored with. I just couldn’t help but think it should have cornmeal in it, and that spelt flour would make for a really delicate crumb while whole-wheat flour would hold down the fort, so to speak. Sam was reading the Book Review; I was crossing my fingers, staring in at the cake and wondering what I’d done.
The original cake recipe I’d been looking forward to trying is called “Gill’s Honey Cake” from the beautiful River Cottage Cakes by Pam Corbin. Remember this Cardamom Cake (from just about a year ago)? That was from the book as well. For this cake in particular, I used a generous glug of Bee Raw honey that was sent to us a few weeks ago. It’s a raw, unfiltered varietal honey (in very pretty jars, I might add); for this cake I used wild black sage from California (and the thick, dark Washington buckwheat has been wonderful in morning oats lately), though you could certainly use any honey you’d like.
As you may notice from the photo above, there were lots of notes, and then in the middle of cake baking, I thought I remembered a similar recipe from one of my grandmother’s cookbooks. I raced upstairs to go through some old papers to try and find it and, instead, came across a letter typed by my favorite high school English teacher, Mr. Miller, dated right after I graduated from college. It begins: “Dear Megs: Jesus, Megs; you can’t be that old, can you? Weren’t you just a baby-faced 10th grader yesterday? Remember when I said that the next time you turned around you’d be 30 and wonder what the hell? You’re well on your way.” I was more than on my way. The oven timer was going off and I was, quite suddenly, thinking, ‘what the hell?’ I was thrown back into the third row of Honors English listening to Mr. Miller read Catcher in the Rye out loud to us during 5th period, the class right after lunch. He read the entire book to us that way and to this day, if I read a passage of it, I hear it utterly and completely in his voice alone. He taught me to love Shakespeare. To really love Shakespeare. I read Macbeth in his class three times to try and understand all of the symbolism and nuance. And really, to prove to him that I got it. He was that kind of teacher. You wanted to prove to him you deserved to be there. Mr. Miller consoled me when I walked in one morning of my senior year crying over my SAT scores, convinced I’d never get into college. I forget his exact words now (although I’m sure they were colorful), but the gist of it was: it’s no big thing, Megs. You’re going to do just fine.
And while I wanted to sit, staring out my office window thinking about the letter, there was cake. I felt flustered returning to the kitchen, jarred out of memories of being lost in the pages of King Lear or The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I called Sam in for a little help, to do the honors of pouring the honey over the warm cake. We let it soak in for a good 30 minutes and sliced it to have with our second cup of coffee. And much like that single letter, it was quite a surprise: all of that tweaking and futzing and it worked! It was Sunday-morning worthy. In fact, I’m happy to tell you that it’s even better the second day, and might even make a good case for Tuesday-evening worthiness. Those are my favorite kinds of cakes. Forget the tall, towering sugary confections. I’ll take a crumbly, buttery honey cake that gets better as it sits any day. It’s a nice one to have at your desk as you begin to search for a particular address to send a long-overdue reply, and the right words to say to someone quite dear who made a big ol’ thumbprint in your life. Really, it’s that kind of cake.
One thing I love about this cake is that it’s not at all too sweet, so it doesn’t feel overindulgent or far too decadent. That being said, it sure is buttery. I was tempted to retest it using a touch less butter, but Sam insists its perfect and has made me promise not to touch it. The cake calls for ground almonds. If you have almond meal at home, great. Otherwise, just grind down sliced almonds using your food processor — it’s quick and easy. Last, I did use a 9-inch springform cake pan which made it really easy to pop the cake right out, although if you don’t have one I imagine a standard 9-inch cake pan will do just fine; you may just have to work a bit to wiggle it out.
Adapted from: River Cottage Cakes
Preheat the oven to 325 F. Grease a 9-inch springform cake pan and set aside. In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, whole-wheat flour, spelt flour and baking powder and set aside.
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large mixing bowl using hand beaters), cream the butter until pale in color, about 1 minute. Add the sugar and beat until very light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, adding a spoonful of the flour with each and beating well before adding the next.
Remove the bowl from the mixer and, using a wooden spoon, fold in the remaining flour mixture. Stir in the ground almonds until just combined. Spoon the mixture into the prepared pan, and spread evenly. Sprinkle sliced almonds on top of the cake and place on a baking sheet (it tends to leak a bit while baking). Bake for 50 minutes or until the top begins to turn golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Remove from oven and slowly drizzle the honey over the top of the cake while warm. Allow it to sit for at least 30 minutes to soak up the honey. Remove from pan, slice and serve. Cover and keep in an airtight container, and this cake will last up to 5 days.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.