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.
Glimpses of Spring
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
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.