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.
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.