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.
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.