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.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.