This cake came about around 8:30 a.m. this past Monday, a window of time in which many things seem to get done as it’s when Oliver goes down for his first nap. Sam had made a legendary fried rice with lots of mushrooms and fish sauce for dinner the night before, so I was snacking on leftovers with a cup of coffee and racing around the kitchen trying to finish measuring and whisking before Oliver woke. The goal was to bake something sweet (but not too sweet) to take with me to work the next day, and I knew of just the thing. In no time, the oven was preheating, I was on my second cup of coffee, licking the spoon, and patting myself on the back for pulling together homemade cake batter in under twenty minutes — all while silently deeming Sam the fried rice master of the universe. Or at least, our house. We’re entering one of my favorite seasons for baking: I love pumpkin desserts, holiday cookies and any excuse to bake for other people. But the season can get stressful too, as time gets tight and — if you’re anything like me — you start to become overwhelmed with the number of things you’re excited to bake (German apple pastry! Nutmeg logs! Cardamom rolls!) that ultimately you end up baking none of them. If this rings true, I think you might just like Julia Turshen’s new cookbook Small Victories as much as I do.
Small Victories isn’t a baking book – Julia covers your typical day, from breakfast to dessert and everything in between. But what I love about the book is its warm, encouraging tone: instead of feeling overwhelmed or daunted, Julia encourages you to just dive right in: “cooking doesn’t have to be complicated to be satisfying, or over-the-top to be impressive.” In fact, sometimes the best thing to come out of the kitchen all week is a fragrant afternoon cake that I’d argue is very well suited to be a morning cake, too. Or with a little whipped cream, it’s got evening cake written all over it.
Julia Turshen has helped write a number of cookbooks with folks including Gwenyth Paltrow, Mario Batali and Food and Wine’s Dana Cowin. She is a real-deal cookbook writer and I always trust that her recipes work and that her headnotes will guide me to where I need to go. The gist of her most recent project is that we should be celebrating all the small things that make up our journey in the kitchen: things like using fresh spices or cooking vegetables you normally serve raw. We’re talking small steps, tips, and even more philosophical ideas about cooking that ultimately make us all better. Because really, as Julia points out, “the only way to become a cook is to cook, and the road to becoming a good cook is paved not only with repetition but also with the intuition you gain along the way.” And this cake is a great place to start. According to Julia, “it’s seriously easy and hard for even a complete baking novice to screw up. It’s also one of those baked goods that just gets better if it sits for a few hours, even a day or two.” The small victory here is getting comfortable using parchment paper – for the cake pan, but also for your work surface: Julia cuts a piece and keeps it there while measuring flour and then simply picks up the edges of the paper when she’s done and scoots the excess flour back into the container. I like it.
I couldn’t help but tweak the recipe a bit, using a little buckwheat flour instead of 100% all purpose flour. For me, a small victory is incorporating whole grain flours into a great looking baking recipe and seeing it succeed, so I have a feeling Julia will forgive the futzing. Feel free to follow my lead here or go the 100% all-purpose flour route if you’d like. You can also swap in any citrus for the orange (grapefruit, clementines or blood oranges would work very well, Julia notes) or turn this lovely lady into a Lemon Poppy Seed cake by adding lemon zest and juice instead of the orange and adding 1 tablespoon of poppy seeds to the batter. If you’re generally hesitant to tweak a recipe to accommodate your own tastes or preferences, maybe this recipe can be your small victory? It’s so forgiving that I think it’s a great candidate. And when it’s done baking and you’ve popped it out of the pan, I’d like to suggest the following routine: Walk by the kitchen counter, slice off a tiny sliver, keep walking. Repeat.
A fragrant, humble, not-too-sweet cake that’s perfect with afternoon tea or a late morning cup of coffee. While Julia uses all-purpose flour, I used a little buckwheat flour as it’s earthy flavor compliments the citrus and almond meal so beautifully. The color of the cake is a darker brown because of the buckwheat flour — if you use 100% all-purpose flour it will be more of a light golden brown. To make the cake nut-free, simply omit the ground nuts.
Recipe slightly adapted from: Small Victories
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter the bottom and sides of an 8-inch cake pan, then line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper. For good measure, butter the parchment paper. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together both flours, ground nuts, baking powder and salt.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until the whites and yolks are fully combined. Add the olive oil and granulated sugar and whisk until the sugar is dissolved (test by rubbing some of the mixture between two fingers). Whisk in the vanilla, orange zest, and orange juice. Whisk in the flour mixture.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, being sure to use a rubber spatula to get it all out of the bowl. Hold the pan just a little bit above the counter and then drop it on the counter to eliminate any air bubbles.
Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 25-30 minutes. Transfer the cake, still in its pan, to a wire rack and let it cool completely.
Once cool, use a dinner knife to loosen the edges of the cake from the pan and invert it onto your work surface (you might need to give the pan a little whack). Peel off and discard the parchment. Invert the cake one more time onto a serving platter so the flat side is down and the domed side is up. Just before serving, dust the cake with powdered sugar.
* Note: Julia notes that any nut works well in this cake: walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios. Or purchase nut meal or nut flour at the store instead of grinding your own.
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.