I’ve been thinking a lot about how I spend my time lately. Mainly because, more than ever, I feel like at the end of the day I plum run out of it. And the feeling of balance seems to be skirting around me. There are so many pieces to each day, between making and shipping granola, sourcing ingredients, trying to gain new granola vendors, writing online columns and freelance articles, writing a proposal for a bigger project, working on the house, planning a little housewarming party — there’s a lot going on. I know I’m not the only one. I know you’re busy, too. In fact, a recent article in The Wall Street Journal discussed the state of being busy, and how many Americans claim to be so busy when, in reality, they aren’t as harried as they think. Writer Laura Vanderkam encourages logging the way your spend your time: how many hours do you really sleep? Walk the dog? Check Facebook? Vanderkam thinks you’ll be surprised with what you find: “We all have the same 168 hours per week — a number few people contemplate even as they talk about “24-7″ with abandon — but since time passes whether we acknowledge it or not, we seldom think through exactly how we’re spending our hours.” If we did, I think we’d actually find hidden pockets of opportunity.
Now I have absolutely no interest in logging the hours I spend on various activities throughout the day. While I’m certain it would be quite revealing, it also seems a bit obsessive. Regardless, I think there’s some good stuff here. We’re competitive folks. This extends even, oddly enough, to our own proclamations of how busy we are. It’s almost as if a lack of sleep or boasting about working 16-hour days gives you a cultural one-up, as if no one else could possibly understand everything you do in a day. I do this sometimes. You might, too. So here we are.
In a recent TED talk, psychologist Shawn Achor explores one of the biggest ways we spend our time: work. He says that we all believe we should work to be happy. If we work harder, we’ll be more successful and –you guessed it– happier. But Achor explains that it’s actually quite the opposite because every time your brain senses success, it changes the goalpost of what success looks like (good grade? need to get a better one next time) — your brain keeps upping the ante, so you never feel truly satisfied with your small gains. The trick is to not rely on notions of success for your own happiness. And to not measure success on how much you may get done in a day. One simple way to do this, Achor explains, is to think about 3 things you’re grateful for each day. If you do this for 21 days, he insists that your brain will start to reprogram itself to notice good things, no matter how insignificant, that fill up your time.
So while there’s no way I can log the way I spend my time, hour by hour, I can (and will) write down 3 things I’m grateful for each day. Little or big. Silly or substantial. And scan my day for hidden pockets of opportunity. That’s actually how this cake came to be. It happened last night around 11:45 p.m. in-between volunteering at The Pantry during their layer-cake class and getting some writing done with Sam in the breakfast nook (come evening, the nook often transforms itself into a dual office complete with crackers and cheese and bourbon-based cocktails). I didn’t spend much time thinking it through or debating if I really felt like baking, I just started grinding cardamom and zesting an orange and in no time the kitchen smelled of warmly-spiced, buttery cake. Always a good thing at 12:25 a.m.
This recipe is from the new River Cottage Cakes (a beauty of a book!). Sam picked up a copy at Booklarder and I’ve been thinking about the simple Cardamom Cake for days and days. It’s a decidedly English cake in that it’s simple and not fussy with overly sweet icing (or any icing at all, actually). It’s what I like to call a snacking cake: one layer, finished with just a dusting of confectioners sugar, and perfect in the afternoon or for breakfast. If you even remotely like cardamom, this cake will quickly assert itself into your dessert repertoire. I find snacking cakes to be an incredibly gratifying thing to bake. They’re comprised of such simple ingredients you likely have lying around the house. Making one is a good use of your time. It will, on first thought, add to your busy harried day. And once you’re mixing your butter and sifting your flour, all that jazz will seem a little less significant. And that is where hidden pockets of opportunity arise. Trust me.
I’m not assuming that you’d want to share 3 things you’re grateful for here, but in the case that you do, I’d love to hear them. Here are mine for today:
1. Exchanging photo texts with my mom and sisters about what we’re eating for dinner (my mom wins).
2. Little flakes of snow this morning while making a pot of coffee.
3. Sam’s lentil stew.
If you can, this cake is a good excuse to break out your spice grinder and grind your own cardamom. It is such a fragrant cake and the spice has center stage, so it really is worth the effort. Do be sure to use green cardamom pods as their seeds have a much brighter flavor. If you’d rather use ground cardamom from the store, I’ve given you measurements for that as well. I adapted this cake at the last minute, adding ground pistachios and a little orange zest. The ground pistachios gives it more of a loose, mealy crumb and the citrus brightens the whole affair. It will sink a little in the middle a little — that’s o.k. Dust a little more sugar over the top and embrace it.
Adapted from: River Cottage Cakes
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a 9-inch round cake pan and set aside. Split the green cardamom pods open, remove the seeds and grind with a (clean) coffee grinder or mortar and pestle. Sift the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda and ground cardamom seeds together in a small bowl and set aside.
Pour the sugar into a medium-sized bowl. Warm the butter in a small saucepan until just melted. Pour the butter into the sugar and whisk until well combined, about 1 minute. Add the crème fraîche and whisk until you have a creamy batter. Add the flour mixture, 1/3 at a time, folding it in carefully with a wooden spoon.
Grind pistachios in a food processor (or with a mortar and pestle) until fine and crumbly. Add pistachios and orange zest to batter and fold in to combine. The mixture can seem quite sticky at this point — don’t over mix.
Spoon batter into prepared pan and smooth out the top. Bake for 50 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the cake springs back slightly when touched. The middle should still seem a bit soft to the touch. All to cool for 10 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely. To serve, sift confectioners sugar over the top of the cake and slice generously. This cake is a champion, and will keep for 5 days in an airtight container.
*If you don’t have crème fraîche at home or would rather not buy it (it can be expensive) you can make your own by adding 2 tablespoons buttermilk into 1/2 cups of cream. Let is sit at room temperature for 24 hours. If it hasn’t firmed up, place it in the refrigerator and you should have crème fraîche in no time. Alternatively, I think the recipe could be successful with full-fat Greek yogurt. If you try this, let me know!
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
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.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.