Happy November, friends. I’m sorry it’s been so long since I’ve posted a new recipe. There’s been a lot of newness around here lately and I’ve been so looking forward to telling you about it, but then I sit down to write a post and the words haven’t felt quite right. I’ve gotten good at realizing this means it’s time to step away until I can’t wait to sit down and pick it up again — and that’s exactly how I felt this morning. So at long last, a new recipe for a truly delightful boozy apple cake using apples we picked in the Eastern part of the state a few weeks ago (I have a fall crush on this cake, and know that it will be a ‘do again’ in our kitchen very soon). And also at long last: some news I’ve been excited to share with you.
The past few months have found me negotiating a lease (with help from my savvy Dad and uncle Richard) and securing a new kitchen of our own for Marge Granola. In addition, we launched new packaging (have you seen the sweet, squatty boxes that Sam designed?) I’ve known about the kitchen space for awhile, but I have a funny suspicious nature that it’s never good to talk about things until they’re actually written in stone, and I can tell you after many days of priming, painting and sealing concrete floors that this thing. is. on.
The new kitchen space was not at all on my radar or in the grand plan. Marge has always worked out of shared commercial kitchens, both in California and here in Seattle, and they have wonderful benefits — and definite drawbacks, too. On the plus side of things, it’s much more affordable and in the beginning, it’s nice to work around other food companies who you can share information with or piggyback on an ingredient delivery. When something breaks, it’s not your responsibility to fix it. And the equipment is often much nicer than what you may be able to afford on your own. The drawbacks? You generally rent a certain number of hours and your schedule is restricted to those hours alone. There’s often not much storage for packaging and it’s generally ill advised to leave more expensive equipment or computers / printers there, so there’s inevitable schlepping. So Much Schlepping. If there are messy food companies working alongside you, it becomes your problem. If you have a busy week and need extra hours for production, it becomes your problem. You get the picture.
So a few months ago I heard word that a caramel corn company was going out of business and they’d built out a new kitchen with a giant hood (what you need to place above a commercial oven, typically costing thousands of dollars), sinks, floor drains, plumbing — all the expensive infrastructure. They were looking for another food company to come in and relieve them of the lease. While it’s more space than we need for Marge Granola and not really the perfect time as my book comes out late next month and I’ll be busy promoting it — it was too good to pass up. It quickly became the right time. It quickly became the next new project.
In the past few weeks, I’ve learned things I never knew there were to learn: the best way to remove caramel corn gunk from walls, how to seal a concrete floor, how to assess if a used oven is a good buy or not, and how to negotiate at the restaurant stores (much of the time unsuccessfully, but I’m persistent!). I bought a used refrigerator, a few big prep tables, and two large ovens — one a used dinosaur that I’ve named Bertha for now. I hope she’s in it for the long haul, too.
But the hardest part of the whole experience wasn’t cleaning the walls or sealing the floors. The hardest part was in walking into the leasing office to sign my name on the dotted line. I’ve never, ever had to say to to myself definitively that Marge is what I do, what I’m doing. As many of you know, I went to graduate school to be a teacher and when I was laid off I started working in the food industry and eventually began Marge from there but quite passively, to be honest. Initially I just thought it would be fun to do farmers markets while I planned to open a larger bakery. And then I got some unexpected national press. And then customers and stores started ordering the granola. So I put one foot in front of the other and kept at it, slowly picking up the nitty-gritty business knowledge (bookkeeping, accounting, costing spreadsheets) along the way. But I never had to say to myself: I’m in 100%.
For a long time Marge was a side project, a very part-time job. But she’s growing up quickly now, and in signing the three year lease I had to truly commit to her, commit to this. It took a lot of late night pacing and early morning phone calls to family and friends to circle around the decision. But here we are: keys in hand, ovens purchased, and I have contractors (!) coming on Thursday to finish things up. We hope to be up and running in the new space December 1. The best part? I’ll have a little office there (or at the very least, a desk), so I will no longer take phone calls and orders at our kitchen table. And we can come in any old time and bake and package granola with zero regard for anyone else’s schedule. While I’m lucky to have Sam and friends who have helped out this week, I’ve been in the space a lot alone and I have had many moments where I just sit there and look around and smile. I can’t quite envision what it will be like, but I don’t doubt for a second that it was the right decision. And that always calls for boozy cake, does it not?
This cake is an example of one of my favorite kinds of fall or winter baking recipes: the humble loaf. It’s from a new book called Wintersweet: Seasonal Desserts to Warm the Home by Tammy Donroe Inman. While a lot of cookbooks come across my desk in the fall season, this one caught my attention because it really celebrates winter fruits and flavors like pears, apples, citrus, nuts and chocolate. I tend to do a lot of off-the-cuff cooking and baking in the summer, but I can feel a bit more restricted in the late fall and winter months as most of the colorful, ripe produce has dropped off. Truthfully, on the sweet side of things, I think this book is going to help change that this year.
This loaf cake in particular is named after the author’s great grandmother who lived in the Appalachian hills of Virginia and was known for making applesauce cakes. The recipe uses warm spices in a most perfect, subtle way and the dried fruits soak up a little of the bourbon making it almost a cheater’s fruitcake — but more delicious, I’d say. In fact, as written, the recipe says that you can wrap the loaf cake in cheesecloth saturated in bourbon, store it in a plastic bag, and keep in the refrigerator or a cool pantry for around a week. I didn’t try this, but if you end up doing so I’d love hear how it tastes. For my version, I changed things up by using whole grain flours, cutting the sugar in half, and experimenting with my favorite blend of dried fruits and nuts.
Some of the photos in this post were taken when Sam and I went apple picking with our friends Olaiya and Beau. We drove four hours to a wonderful orchard and rode on tractors to different parts of the orchard — picking six different varieties and somehow taking home 70 pounds of apples (oops!). I had a mild panic attack when we walked up to the scales and learned how carried away we’d gotten, but I’ve been really glad to have them around. For eating, for applesauce, for pie, and for humble loafs like this one. I hope you enjoy it.
As written the recipe recommends pouring the bourbon over the cake in little bits over the course of an hour, but I found the cake to be thirsty enough that this wasn’t necessary; I poured the entire bit of bourbon over the cake in two rounds, with just a few minutes inbetween both. If you’d like to make the cake without the bourbon, I think it’d be just as delicious — it’s quite moist and flavorful on its own, too. While I used my favorite blend of wintery dried fruits and nuts, you can certainly mix it up instead: toasty pecans, crystallized ginger or dried cranberries would all be really nice. So use what you have on hand and what makes you happy.
Adapted from: Wintersweet
Preheat the oven to 325 F. Grease a standard 9 x 5 – inch loaf pan.
In the bowl of an electric mixer or standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed, and add in the vanilla.
In a separate large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, clovers, allspice and salt.
Add half of the dry ingredients to the egg mixture, and mix on low until incorporated. Add half of the applesauce, and mix. Repeat with the rest of the dry ingredients and applesauce, mixing until just combined. With a wooden spoon or spatula, fold in the raisins, currants, cherries and nuts. Spoon the batter into the prepared loaf pan.
Bake for 55 -60 minutes or until the top of the cake is dark golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove the pan from the oven and allow it to cool slightly, then pour the bourbon over the cake a few spoonfuls at a time — pausing for a few minutes in between pours to allow the cake to soak in the liquid.
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.