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.
Glimpses of Spring
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).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
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.