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.
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.
We walked to the library last week and I had a strange realization standing in line watching Sam check out his usual massive stack of books: Will I ever have the time to read stacks of books again? I used to be much more of a reader than I am today -- a fact I'm not at all proud of. But when evening rolls around and the more formal workday ends, I find emails and other odds and ends creep in. Walking home from the library, I began obsessing over free time for reading, asking Sam if we'd ever be those two old people who study bird manuals and can recognize birds on walks. I want to have the time to read bird manuals someday. For now though, we're young and we're working a lot. We did sneak away on that one-night camping trip I told you about, and cooked some interesting, haphazard meals which I hope to share with you soon. For now though, for summer: a strawberry dessert recipe.
Much like friends, types of Sunday mornings, or books -- there are many different kinds of desserts. Sometimes you may be in the mood for a light French cake piled high with summer fruit. Other days, a thick slice of fragrant pound cake will do. And then there are those days when you crave a rich chocolate mousse that you share after a night of good conversation and a little too much wine. But let's be honest. When it comes right down to it, the most basic and unassuming dessert of all is sometimes the only one that will do. A good and simple affair. Vanilla ice cream. So I want to talk about that today--about a dessert that withstands the test of time, that will always be there for you. A dessert that is far from trendy, that doesn't play favorites or trick you into thinking it's something that it's not. It's a good foundation. A solid beginning.
[ Pie. if you've been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I'm particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.