Depending on where you live, spring is or is not showing her face. She sure does seem to be a big tease this year, doesn’t she? I remember late February last year walking around the UW campus admiring the cherry blossoms, and this year they’re finally drooping and draping across streets and we’re creeping our way through April. I’ve been on the hunt for local rhubarb and tender asparagus and it seems they’re taking their sweet time, too. So in the meantime, thankfully, we’ve always got chocolate.
We’re going to an Easter Friendsgiving of sorts this year: a non-denominational gathering of friends who don’t necessarily have family obligations or hard-and-fast traditions but like to get together and share a springtime meal. I volunteered for dessert, and have been mulling my contribution this past week while we’ve been on vacation (more on that soon!). When I think about spring baking, lemon desserts come to mind as do strawberries, rhubarb, and fluffy meringues or pavlova — not necessarily a deep, dark chocolate loaf cake, but then again, this hasn’t been a traditional spring. And chocolate is always reliable, always in season, never goes out of style, and always stands by your side.
So that’s where I started, with chocolate, and from there I thought about using one of my favorite whole grain flours along with almond flour, which I’ve been experimenting a lot with in baked goods lately. If you do much gluten-free baking, you know almond flour is a staple and while I don’t have to bake gluten-free for health reasons, I do always love experimenting with nut flours for the flavor and tender crumb they impart (and the extra hit of protein!). If you’ve never worked with almond flour, I’ve sung the praises of Bob’s Red Mill before and that’s the brand I generally reach for: their almond flour is always fresh and super accessible, and has become a pantry go-to for us this season.
In truth, I made this cake three times to get it just right for you. Again, if you do much gluten-free baking, you know there’s some science with a capital S involved, and I set out initially to do the whole thing with almond flour and the cake was delicious although we lovingly called it Chocolate Pudding Cake, which was a bit generous as it was actually quite raw in the center. But Sam is an eternal optimist and thought that I’d discovered a whole new genre of desserts — that I was really onto something here. While I love his genuine and sincere admiration for new strides in (literally raw) desserts, deep down I knew that one wouldn’t do. The second round was better but the flavor felt one dimensional and not all that exciting, and so commenced further late night cake testing. The third round was spot on: I added espresso powder for depth and a bunch of chopped dark chocolate to the batter at the very end. Because really, why not?
The result is a fragrant, tender chocolate loaf cake studded with chunks of dark chocolate that’s special enough for a celebration, but simple enough to be an everyday dessert, too. It’s unfussy as most loaf cakes should be — a two bowl, mix-by-hand situation, and is just as good for dessert with whipped cream or coconut whipped cream as it is for breakfast with dark coffee or tea. It’s a cake to get us set up for the next season ahead, to get us poised for rhubarb and outdoor picnics and later dinners with warm breezes. I can almost just sense it all right around the corner.
Cook’s Note: I wanted to say something quickly about the difference between almond meal and almond flour as I know this can get confusing when you’re at the grocery store. Almond meal and almond flour are often used interchangeably — almond flour is just ground more finely. While I did use a finely-ground almond flour for this cake, I think for a forgiving recipe like this one, either will probably be just fine.
A decadent, rich chocolate loaf cake that’s just as comfortable at the casual brunch table as it is as part of a more elegant dessert spread. Made without refined sugars and with a big hit of almond flour, it’s at once delicate and light but also sturdy enough to eat on the go or hold up to the weight of a generous dollop of whipped cream. And the best part? You can mix it by hand and will only dirty two bowls.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly coat a 9×5 inch loaf pan with nonstick spray and line it with parchment paper, ensuring 1-2 inches hang over the sides (this helps remove the cake after it’s baked).
In a medium bowl, whisk together the spelt flour, almond meal, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt.
In a separate large bowl, whisk together the eggs, banana, sugar, maple syrup, coconut oil, milk, espresso powder and vanilla extract. Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients and whisk until combined. Fold in the chopped chocolate.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the almonds on top. Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out relatively clean. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for at least 20 minutes, then take each side of the parchment paper and unmold the loaf, setting it on the wire rack to cool completely.
Slice the cake and serve with a dollop of coconut whipped cream (or regular whipped cream), sliced almonds and berries, if you’d like.
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.