Spring has stumbled upon our doorstep. I know this for a fact because rhubarb has been popping up at the farmer’s market two weeks in a row, and each time I visit I ask the vendors anxiously how long it’ll be there. Four more weeks? Maybe five? Last year I bought so much that we ended up freezing quite a bit to use in pies, muffins and scones. I don’t often have this stock-up mentality, but when it comes to rhubarb I find that it’s fleeting and always disappears before I’ve had a chance to truly enjoy it. Fully.
In addition to shopping for rhubarb and hosting our friends from Eugene, flipping through Pema Chodron’s Taking the Leap kept me occupied last weekend. Chodron is an American Buddhist and writes a lot about becoming comfortable in our own skin. In this book she discusses a concept called Shenpa, or the feeling of being “hooked” by something – or stuck. Lately I’ve been feeling hooked by my own thoughts more than usual, my mind racing from one thing to the next. I’m not sure if it’s a function of essentially having two jobs (food writing and Marge) and always — inevitably — thinking of the pulls of one while tackling the other. Pema Chodron would probably say that I’m captive to these to-do lists and the constant narrative in my head of what needs to happen next. I’m being held by them.
Chodron’s suggestion on becoming unstuck and uncaptive is to recognize what’s happening, lean into it, and then quietly move on so that it doesn’t become a contest that you’re winning or losing. Sounds like a lifetime of work, really. But the part that struck me is that you’re not trying to change anything or run away or make a drastic move — you just recognize it and actually move in upon it. You can listen to the chatter without doing much about it. I chuckled this past weekend while at the market buying the rhubarb in these photographs as I did just that — listened to my own thoughts: what if the rhubarb disappears this year before I get a chance to make something I’m excited about? Where to begin? What recipes had I bookmarked? Should I buy extra? Should I start stocking up now?
Now please know, I realize there are bigger problems in the world — obviously– than the potential lack of rhubarb on a sunny spring day. That’s not at all what I aimed to write about here. Instead, it’s worth noting that a breakfast cake can teach small lessons. It helped banish that annoying, unnecessary chatter, at least momentarily. There will be other rhubarb recipes in our kitchen in the coming weeks (and maybe even one on the site — who knows?), but for now I’m just trying to enjoy this humble cake slowly, slice by slice. I’m not sure you can ever really experience something fully if you’re constantly wondering and anticipating what will come next. This is true with the projects I do for work, the time I spend with Sam on the weekends, and what I’m baking in the kitchen. This rhubarb cake elicits enough contentment to banish the urge to stock up on rhubarb or to think about what, exactly, I’ll make next. It is good just the way it is — for today.
Now I thought long and hard about what to call this recipe as it’s really not so much a light and airy cake as it is a big, crumbly scone. I love it because it’s simple and quick — no rolling pin, no chilling of dough, no fussing. And it’s a great way to use your favorite seasonal fruits. It does have a bit more sugar than I’d typically use in a breakfast recipe, but keep in mind that rhubarb really needs sugar because it’s so tart. When using sweeter fruits, you could most certainly cut down on the amount of sugar stirred into the fruit mixture, likely by up to a 1/4 cup. All told, it’s not nearly as sweet as a cake and is great served with a generous dollop of plain yogurt and a chunk of time away from your nagging to-do list.
If you’d like to experiment and try different flours, feel free. I do love using barley flour when baking with fruit, but if you’d prefer to substitute all-purpose or another flour (oat flour would be really nice), go right ahead: this is a rustic, forgiving recipe. You could also use any fruits that you like here. Next time I’m going to stir in some strawberry slices to accompany the rhubarb. To carry the cake through the seasons, it’d be wonderful with thinly sliced pears and cardamom in the fall, apples and quince in the winter and a heap of berries in the summer.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter a 10-inch enamel or glass pie pan.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flours, 1/2 cup of the sugar, ginger, cardamom, baking soda, baking powder and salt.
Work the butter into the flour mixture with your fingertips (or use a pastry blender if you prefer) until it’s incorporated and resembles small coarse peas. Add the beaten egg, 1 cup of buttermilk, vanilla extract and lemon zest. Using a fork or a wooden spoon, stir until it’s no longer crumbly and becomes a dough that you can gather together easily with your hands.
In a small bowl, combine the sliced rhubarb and remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Stir to combine.
Divide the dough into two and pat the first half into the prepared pan and pat down so it’s uniformly covering the bottom of the dish. Turn the rhubarb mixture out onto the top and spread evenly. It will be pretty heaped up–that’s okay. Take the second round of dough and pat it out into a rough circle on a clean work surface. Cover the rhubarb with the second round of dough as best you can (the top needn’t look perfect like a pie — it’s a rustic dish and you won’t have exactly enough dough to cover the rhubarb perfectly. If there are holes or open spots, no need to worry).
Using a pastry brush, brush the remaining 1 tablespoon of buttermilk across the top of the cake. Sprinkle the top with remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar.
Bake for 60-70 minutes, or until the top is golden and the rhubarb is bubbly and quite soft. Allow cake to cool for 15 minutes after removing it from the oven. Slice in wedges, much like a scone. Serve warm with a generous dollop of whole-milk plain yogurt. As with many whole-grain baked goods, this cake is best enjoyed the day it’s made. If you do have leftovers, wrap well and keep at room temperature for up to 1 additional day.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
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.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.