When we first started planning our wedding, we didn’t really know what we were doing. Sure we’d been to our friends’ weddings but hadn’t paid much attention to details like chair set-ups or music or stemware. So when we sat down to talk about what we wanted our day to look like, we had only one goal in mind: we wanted it to feel like us. Nothing forced. Nothing to appease someone else or for the sake of an uncertain tradition. Throwing a bouquet and the whole garter thing wouldn’t feel like me so we ditched it. Stuffy venues and fussy catered meals wouldn’t do. In the end, we were lucky to stumble upon an incredible working farm on Whidbey Island, had a big family-style Southern meal at a long table under the stars, and some real-deal cake. Not the dainty slices of fondant-draped jewels you often see in wedding magazines. We had big slices of coconut cake.
Last week was our second wedding anniversary and we both wanted to do something special, but we’re also watching our pennies and wanted to be smart about it, too. The more I thought about what I wanted to get Sam, the more I wanted for us to have more time together — just the two of us. In the broad scheme of things, I feel like we’ve done a great job mapping out time for each other’s work life, social lives, even exercise — it’s all a very precise weekly balancing act. But we still haven’t completely figured out how to get more time together as a couple. We’ve been on a few dates since Oliver was born and had a rule that we don’t talk about work or the baby for the entire meal; it’s always eye opening how it takes a good chunk of time to fall back into a groove of talking about all those things that made you interested in one another in the first place. And I want us to be sure to remember those things.
So I ended up getting both of us a book (I chose this one!) as part of the new Megan and Sam Book Club. When Sam asked if it was monthly (with enthusiasm), I explained that it was most certainly not: it was a quarterly book club; I didn’t want to set us up for failure right out of the gate. The gist of the book club is that we both read the book by the agreed-upon date, then arrange for childcare, choose somewhere to eat or drink (or both) that we’ve been wanting to try, and come ready to discuss the book. I’ve got my highlighter ready.
About a week before our anniversary, Sam told me to block out a few days in the middle of the week — that we were going somewhere. He wouldn’t tell me where, and hints were quite slim. I knew Oliver was coming along and I knew that I should pack a few warm things but I didn’t know if we were flying or driving or what to expect. I have a horrible sense of direction, so in truth, setting out on the highway gave little away. But I started to have a sense of where we were going when we neared Deception Pass, heading towards Whidbey Island. Then the golden pastures started to look more and more familiar and I felt a tightness in my chest as I recognized the open roads and prairie. We were going back to the farm.
Sam had arranged for us to stay there for two nights last week; we slept in the room where I got ready on our wedding day, sat out on the back porch and watched the sunsets, and cooked most meals in the farmhouse kitchen. Sam brought along ingredients for us to make the dinner we had on our wedding night: fried chicken biscuit sandwiches, slow-braised pork, succotash, cocktails and — of course — that coconut cake.
I realize this is a blog and a space for the written word, but so often during those two days I felt at a real loss for words. And I still do. Looking out at the large lawn where we said our vows two years ago and seeing our baby son crawling around, dirtying his knees and constantly looking back to us for approval felt immensely moving. Oliver was a thought at the time, most certainly, but a faraway thought and having him join us in the house last week somehow made our vows feel even more special: we were doing it.
During the two days, we cooked a lot and ended up walking around the farm with Oliver. We went to Ebey’s Landing Park and hiked the bluff trail all along the water. We managed to forget the baby carrier, so we literally carried Oliver the whole way, trading off every few minutes, and feeling pretty exhausted by the time we got to the turnaround point. We drove the few miles into Coupeville one evening and walked down the pier to look at the boats, wishing we could sneak a baby into Toby’s for a beer, which we did the night of our wedding (sans baby, obviously). We also ate cake morning, noon and night. For our wedding, we ordered our cakes from The Wandering Goose, a great Southern cafe in Seattle. The owner, Heather Earnhardt, made us three different cakes: coconut, lemon and her Brownstone Front (a really special mash-up of cocoa, brown sugar and caramel). The great irony (as I’m sure some of you can relate to) is that we ate very little cake on our wedding night: there were so many people to talk to and a small window of time to dance — which left very little time for cake. So we’re lucky that we can stroll into the cafe and buy a slice if we like, but we’re even luckier that Heather just came out with her first cookbook, Big Food, Big Love with recipes from The Wandering Goose.
Sam baked the cake layers and made the frosting the night before we left for the farm last week and I kid you not when I tell you that this cake tastes exactly like our wedding cake: it really is the best coconut cake I’ve ever had. It’s not a dainty affair by any means, but I rarely want dainty when I’m craving a good piece of cake. It’s possible I snuck Oliver a tiny bite despite my plans not to give him sugar until he’s one (which I already let slip once). He started kicking his feet in excitement and grabbing for more until he became distracted by the hydrangeas on the side of the house and the roosters making a ruckus. And he was off again. I was off chasing him again.
Sometimes you get into a rut of work, baby, house project, work, baby, house project and then you get a reprieve in the week and an open prairie to look out on and a taste and glimpse back at your wedding day and realize how truly sweet and very big it all is.
The ingredient list here isn’t small, but keep in mind this is a very large cake! A few personal notes: we used coconut milk for the cake (although Heather says you could use coconut cream as well, which you’ll notice is included in the ingredient list). And while she calls for almond extract in the cake (and I’ve kept the recipe below true to the original ), I think the extract can often can taste artificial, so I choose to leave it out – totally personal preference and up to you. Because the cake is so moist, it’s good covered and refrigerated for up to 5 days. That being said, I think it’s absolutely best served room temperature, so let it sit out for a few hours before serving.
Excerpted from Big Food Big Love with permission from Sasquatch Books.
For the Cake:
For the frosting:
Thoroughly butter three 9-inch cake pans, making sure to coat the sides, and line the bot- toms with parchment paper. Butter the parchment and set the pans aside. Line three baking sheets with parchment paper and set them aside. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
In a large bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda together. In a small bowl, combine the coconut cream and extracts.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl after every two eggs. Reduce the speed to low. Add the flour mixture and the coconut cream mixture in alternating batches, beginning and ending with the flour. Mix in the coconut flakes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl again and pour the batter evenly into the prepared pans.
Bake until the cake springs back when you touch the center with your finger, and it is pulling away from the sides of the pan just a bit, 30 to 40 minutes, rotating the pans front to back and top to bottom halfway through baking. Let the cakes cool in the pans until you can touch the pans comfortably, about 15 minutes, then flip the cakes out onto the lined baking sheets to cool completely before frosting.
While the cakes cool, make the frosting. In the clean bowl of the stand mixer, mix the cream cheese and butter until no lumps remain. Add the confectioners’ sugar and extracts and blend until smooth. Frost between the layers, around the sides, and on top of the cake with the frosting. Decorate the top and sides of the cake with the toasted coconut.
Note: Toast the coconut flakes on a baking sheet at 300 degrees F until golden brown, about 10 minutes, stirring every 3 to 4 minutes. Be sure the coconut is completely cool before decorating the cake.
Winter Soups and Stews
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Last weekend it was so windy – apocalyptically stormy, you could say – that our tent at the farmers market was uprooted by gusts of wind that were not messing around. I wasn't there, but apparently despite being heavily weighted down and with four customers holding onto each corner, it quite literally blew down the block. Sam, from across town, was reporting trees falling on every block and traffic lights out across the city. The next morning on a walk with Oliver around Green Lake, we were met with that same biting wind and ended up retreating for a hot chocolate instead. 'Tis the season in Seattle: we all get a little giddy and ahead of ourselves when we spot the cherry blossoms and daffodils, and I always trick myself into thinking that with the start of daylight savings time, summer must be right around the corner. In truth, before we had Oliver, we'd often travel somewhere sunny for a little mood boost around this time of year. When I moved from California, many friends – other (empathetic) 'expats' now living in the Pacific Northwest – recommended this: if you know what's good for you, they'd all say, go find the sun in February or March, and we would follow that advice faaaaaithfully. But with a baby, this just isn't where our priorities are this year, and I've found myself relying on other antics like buying out of season strawberries, drinking white wine with dinner, buying a new pair of sandals that likely will not see the light of day for the next two months, and making big, colorful pots of feel good, springy soup. Let's not kid ourselves: Cherry blossoms or not, Seattle's no Palm Springs when it gets down to bathing in the sunlight. But if you step outside onto your little porch, smell the honeysuckle blooming, take notice of the longer, lighter days and think about how you simply can't wait to see your baby crawling around on the sand when it's warm enough to stroll down to the beach, it starts looking better in its own light.
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).
One of the things I wanted to accomplish before really returning to work in earnest was to print some of our honeymoon photos and get them into an album. This project has taken far longer than expected as I find myself daydreaming about the craggy streets of Naples and meeting up with our friends Mataio and Jessica for a late night slice of pizza which we ate sitting on the sidewalk before embarking on an aimless but wonderful stroll of the city. There are photos of our balcony by the sea, most with tanned limbs, sandy sandals and a Campari and soda gracing the periphery of the frame. There was the little grocery store up the hill from our apartment on the Amalfi Coast that had the sweetest, tiniest strawberries and the best yogurt in little glass jars. Tomatoes drying in the sun, Aperol spritzes and salty peanuts before dinner at the bar across from the church square where all the neighborhood kids played kickball. As I sit here typing this now, photos remain scattered on my desk and it's likely they may not make it into the proper slots in the album anytime soon. Of course, they have me dreaming of sunshine and long days with little agenda, but they also have me thinking about the simplicity of our meals in Italy and how truly easy it was to eat well. Coincidentally, a few days ago Rachel Roddy's lusty new cookbook (can we call it lusty?!), My Kitchen in Rome, arrived at our doorstep. Clearly it was time to set the photos aside and get into the kitchen.
And suddenly, it's fall. I find that realization always comes not so much with the dates on the calendar as it does the leaves on the ground, the first crank of the heat in the morning, the dusky light on the way home from an evening run. Because we were gone on the train for nearly a week, I feel like fall happened here in Seattle during that very time. I left town eating tomatoes and corn and returned to find squashes and pumpkins in the market. It was that quick. And so, it only seemed fitting that I make this soup, one that has graced the fall table of each and every apartment (and now house) I've ever lived. In fact, I'm surprised that I hadn't yet made it for you here, and delighted to share it with you today.