Here we are: a rare, quiet afternoon with blocks strewn all over the living room floor, leftover coconut rice and cucumber salad for lunch, and the front yard strewn with fall leaves. I’m behind on business bookkeeping and was going to try to borrow a neighbor’s lawnmower to mow our back grass, but instead thought I’d sit down and share a recipe with you, which I’ve been working away at slowly instead of rushing urgently, feeling like you all MUST HAVE CAKE in your life this very minute. I mean, don’t get me wrong: this cake is a MUST HAVE CAKE kind of cake, but after listening to an episode of Death, Sex and Money with Ellyn Burstyn talking about the importance of having “should-less days,” I’ve taken more time than usual with this one, giving myself a little more grace with all the niggling “shoulds” that prevail.
Last weekend we had a bunch of friends over to celebrate Sam’s birthday with games and cocktails. As is typical of 1920’s Tudor homes, our dining room seats all of four people comfortably (six if you squeeze), so I brought a card table home from Marge and we set up camp in the living room, eventually fogging up the windows as the night went on, listening to records, drinking wine and hard cider out of paper cups and eating thick slices of layer cake: the carrot cake I always make for Sam’s birthday (and truly, the best I have ever had) — and a new chocolate cake recipe from Ottolenghi’s new cookbook, Sweet. I knew I’d make carrot cake; that’s a birthday must around here, but a few days before the party, when we received enough RSVP’s to realize I’d need to bake two cakes, I started flipping through Ottolenghi’s book for more inspiration; the Take Home Chocolate Cake and the Apple and Olive Oil Cake with Maple Frosting caught my eye. Ultimately I dove into Camp Chocolate, and the day after the party as we were cleaning up, ever-so slightly hungover (although Sam always avoids this fate) with a high-octane shirtless toddler racing around the house, I was both pleased we didn’t have a crumb of cake left (they liked it!) and dismayed that we had not a crumb of cake left (I’d liked it, too!).
The next day I hit the grocery store on the way home from work to pick up a few apple cake ingredients, and practiced a particularly “should-less” day while Oliver was at daycare: baking, photographing and eating cake. I can’t recommend it enough. While we did end up sharing quite a bit with friends (let’s be real: it’s a big cake and there are only two cake-eating adults here in the house), I have to say that it keeps well in the fridge for almost a week, and there’s something really nice about slicing off a small wedge of lightly-spiced apple cake with rolling peaks of maple frosting at the end of a long day when the kitchen is (finally) clean, the evening is crisp, and the days are getting noticeably shorter, week by week.
While Ottolenghi advises using Granny Smith or Bramley apples, I used big Honeycrisps here instead, and it turned out wonderful. You may feel like it’s a lot of apples, but it’s supposed to be and they all soften and hunker down a bit, so you’re doing everything right. Because I just can’t help it, I added some buckwheat and whole wheat pastry flour here instead of using solely all purpose as the recipe instructs; the flavor of buckwheat with apples is one of my favorites, and given the proportions here, it’s not at all overwhelming. Try it! That said, feel free to use 100% all-purpose flour if you’d rather not pick up additional whole grain flours. Last, the recipe calls for you to slice this cake in half and frost in between the layers and then on the top. But I loved the stature (so tall!) of the cake as well as an extra thick layer of frosting on the top, so I kept it simpler. Of course, you could forego the frosting altogether and just do a dusting of confectioners sugar. You choose whichever makes you happy.
Lightly adapted from: Sweet
For the Cake:
For the Frosting:
Preheat the oven to 350 F / 180 C. Grease the base and sides of a 9-inch/23-cm round springform pan and line with parchment paper. The paper should rise 1-inch/3 cm above the sides of the pan (Note: I don’t own this size springform, so I just used a regular 9-inch cake pan, sprayed it with cooking spray, lined the sides with parchment and made sure the parchment extended an inch above the rim of the pan, and sprayed it again for good measure. This worked great.)Set aside.
Place the raisins and 2/3 cup (160ml) of the water in a medium saucepan. Simmer over low heat until all the water has been absorbed, then set aside.
Sift all of the flours, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder and salt together into a bowl and set aside. Peel and core the apples, then cut into 1-inch/3cm dice and set aside in a separate bowl.
Place the sugar, olive oil, whole eggs, vanilla and lemon zest in the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment in place. Beat on medium speed for 6-7 minutes, until the mixture is light in color, doubled in size and has thickened a little. Don’t be tempted to increase the speed of the machine when mixing; this will create air bubbles, which you don’t want. Remove the bowl from the machine and, using a large spatula, add the sifted dry ingredients and gently fold to combine. Add the apples, raisins, and the remaining 1/3 cup (80ml) water and stir to combine.
Place the egg whites in a separate clean bowl and whisk to form soft peaks; there’s only a small amount of egg white here so you might need to do this by hand (I used electric hand beaters). Gently but thoroughly fold the egg whites into the cake mix, then scrape the batter into the pan. Level the top with a spatula and bake for 55 -60 minutes (slightly longer if using Granny Smiths as they take longer to soften), or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool in the pan.
To make the maple frosting: While the cake is cooling, place the butter, brown sugar, and maple syrup in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat until light and airy, then add the cream cheese, a quarter at a time. Continue to beat for about 2 minutes, until thick and smooth.
When the cake is completely cool, remove it from the pan. Spoon the frosting on top and spread evenly.
Storage notes: Covered in plastic wrap, the (unfrosted) cake lasts for one week. Bring it to room temperature and frost it on the day you’ll serve it. Alternatively, we found the cake was just fine for 4 days, frosted, when covered in the fridge and the flavor actually improves the second day.
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.