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.
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.