Happy November, friends. I’m sorry it’s been so long since I’ve posted a new recipe. There’s been a lot of newness around here lately and I’ve been so looking forward to telling you about it, but then I sit down to write a post and the words haven’t felt quite right. I’ve gotten good at realizing this means it’s time to step away until I can’t wait to sit down and pick it up again — and that’s exactly how I felt this morning. So at long last, a new recipe for a truly delightful boozy apple cake using apples we picked in the Eastern part of the state a few weeks ago (I have a fall crush on this cake, and know that it will be a ‘do again’ in our kitchen very soon). And also at long last: some news I’ve been excited to share with you.
The past few months have found me negotiating a lease (with help from my savvy Dad and uncle Richard) and securing a new kitchen of our own for Marge Granola. In addition, we launched new packaging (have you seen the sweet, squatty boxes that Sam designed?) I’ve known about the kitchen space for awhile, but I have a funny suspicious nature that it’s never good to talk about things until they’re actually written in stone, and I can tell you after many days of priming, painting and sealing concrete floors that this thing. is. on.
The new kitchen space was not at all on my radar or in the grand plan. Marge has always worked out of shared commercial kitchens, both in California and here in Seattle, and they have wonderful benefits — and definite drawbacks, too. On the plus side of things, it’s much more affordable and in the beginning, it’s nice to work around other food companies who you can share information with or piggyback on an ingredient delivery. When something breaks, it’s not your responsibility to fix it. And the equipment is often much nicer than what you may be able to afford on your own. The drawbacks? You generally rent a certain number of hours and your schedule is restricted to those hours alone. There’s often not much storage for packaging and it’s generally ill advised to leave more expensive equipment or computers / printers there, so there’s inevitable schlepping. So Much Schlepping. If there are messy food companies working alongside you, it becomes your problem. If you have a busy week and need extra hours for production, it becomes your problem. You get the picture.
So a few months ago I heard word that a caramel corn company was going out of business and they’d built out a new kitchen with a giant hood (what you need to place above a commercial oven, typically costing thousands of dollars), sinks, floor drains, plumbing — all the expensive infrastructure. They were looking for another food company to come in and relieve them of the lease. While it’s more space than we need for Marge Granola and not really the perfect time as my book comes out late next month and I’ll be busy promoting it — it was too good to pass up. It quickly became the right time. It quickly became the next new project.
In the past few weeks, I’ve learned things I never knew there were to learn: the best way to remove caramel corn gunk from walls, how to seal a concrete floor, how to assess if a used oven is a good buy or not, and how to negotiate at the restaurant stores (much of the time unsuccessfully, but I’m persistent!). I bought a used refrigerator, a few big prep tables, and two large ovens — one a used dinosaur that I’ve named Bertha for now. I hope she’s in it for the long haul, too.
But the hardest part of the whole experience wasn’t cleaning the walls or sealing the floors. The hardest part was in walking into the leasing office to sign my name on the dotted line. I’ve never, ever had to say to to myself definitively that Marge is what I do, what I’m doing. As many of you know, I went to graduate school to be a teacher and when I was laid off I started working in the food industry and eventually began Marge from there but quite passively, to be honest. Initially I just thought it would be fun to do farmers markets while I planned to open a larger bakery. And then I got some unexpected national press. And then customers and stores started ordering the granola. So I put one foot in front of the other and kept at it, slowly picking up the nitty-gritty business knowledge (bookkeeping, accounting, costing spreadsheets) along the way. But I never had to say to myself: I’m in 100%.
For a long time Marge was a side project, a very part-time job. But she’s growing up quickly now, and in signing the three year lease I had to truly commit to her, commit to this. It took a lot of late night pacing and early morning phone calls to family and friends to circle around the decision. But here we are: keys in hand, ovens purchased, and I have contractors (!) coming on Thursday to finish things up. We hope to be up and running in the new space December 1. The best part? I’ll have a little office there (or at the very least, a desk), so I will no longer take phone calls and orders at our kitchen table. And we can come in any old time and bake and package granola with zero regard for anyone else’s schedule. While I’m lucky to have Sam and friends who have helped out this week, I’ve been in the space a lot alone and I have had many moments where I just sit there and look around and smile. I can’t quite envision what it will be like, but I don’t doubt for a second that it was the right decision. And that always calls for boozy cake, does it not?
This cake is an example of one of my favorite kinds of fall or winter baking recipes: the humble loaf. It’s from a new book called Wintersweet: Seasonal Desserts to Warm the Home by Tammy Donroe Inman. While a lot of cookbooks come across my desk in the fall season, this one caught my attention because it really celebrates winter fruits and flavors like pears, apples, citrus, nuts and chocolate. I tend to do a lot of off-the-cuff cooking and baking in the summer, but I can feel a bit more restricted in the late fall and winter months as most of the colorful, ripe produce has dropped off. Truthfully, on the sweet side of things, I think this book is going to help change that this year.
This loaf cake in particular is named after the author’s great grandmother who lived in the Appalachian hills of Virginia and was known for making applesauce cakes. The recipe uses warm spices in a most perfect, subtle way and the dried fruits soak up a little of the bourbon making it almost a cheater’s fruitcake — but more delicious, I’d say. In fact, as written, the recipe says that you can wrap the loaf cake in cheesecloth saturated in bourbon, store it in a plastic bag, and keep in the refrigerator or a cool pantry for around a week. I didn’t try this, but if you end up doing so I’d love hear how it tastes. For my version, I changed things up by using whole grain flours, cutting the sugar in half, and experimenting with my favorite blend of dried fruits and nuts.
Some of the photos in this post were taken when Sam and I went apple picking with our friends Olaiya and Beau. We drove four hours to a wonderful orchard and rode on tractors to different parts of the orchard — picking six different varieties and somehow taking home 70 pounds of apples (oops!). I had a mild panic attack when we walked up to the scales and learned how carried away we’d gotten, but I’ve been really glad to have them around. For eating, for applesauce, for pie, and for humble loafs like this one. I hope you enjoy it.
As written the recipe recommends pouring the bourbon over the cake in little bits over the course of an hour, but I found the cake to be thirsty enough that this wasn’t necessary; I poured the entire bit of bourbon over the cake in two rounds, with just a few minutes inbetween both. If you’d like to make the cake without the bourbon, I think it’d be just as delicious — it’s quite moist and flavorful on its own, too. While I used my favorite blend of wintery dried fruits and nuts, you can certainly mix it up instead: toasty pecans, crystallized ginger or dried cranberries would all be really nice. So use what you have on hand and what makes you happy.
Adapted from: Wintersweet
Preheat the oven to 325 F. Grease a standard 9 x 5 – inch loaf pan.
In the bowl of an electric mixer or standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed, and add in the vanilla.
In a separate large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, clovers, allspice and salt.
Add half of the dry ingredients to the egg mixture, and mix on low until incorporated. Add half of the applesauce, and mix. Repeat with the rest of the dry ingredients and applesauce, mixing until just combined. With a wooden spoon or spatula, fold in the raisins, currants, cherries and nuts. Spoon the batter into the prepared loaf pan.
Bake for 55 -60 minutes or until the top of the cake is dark golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove the pan from the oven and allow it to cool slightly, then pour the bourbon over the cake a few spoonfuls at a time — pausing for a few minutes in between pours to allow the cake to soak in the liquid.
Healthy Comfort Food
People describe raising young kids as a particular season in life. I hadn't heard this until we had a baby, but it brought me a lot of comfort when I'd start to let my mind wander, late at night between feedings, to fears that we'd never travel internationally again or have a sit-down meal in our dining room. Would I ever eat a cardamom bun in Sweden? Soak in Iceland? I loved the heck out of our tiny Oliver, but man what had we done?! Friends would swoop in and reassure us that this was just a season, a blip in the big picture of it all. They promised we'd likely not even remember walking around the house in circles singing made-up songs while eating freezer burritos at odd hours of the day (or night). And it's true.
Oliver is turning two next month, and those all-encompassing baby days feel like a different time, a different Us. In many ways, dare I say it, Toddlerhood actually feels a bit harder. Lately Oliver has become extremely opinionated about what he will and will not wear -- and he enforces these opinions with fervor. Don't get near the kid with a button-down shirt. This week at least. He's obsessed with his rain boots and if it were up to him, he'd keep them on at all times, especially during meals. He insists on ketchup with everything (I created a damn monster), has learned the word "trash" and insists on throwing found items away on his own that really, truly are not trash. I came to pick him up from daycare the other day and he was randomly wearing a bike helmet -- his teacher mentioned he'd had it on most of the day and really, really didn't want to take it off. The kid has FEELINGS. I love that about him, and wouldn't want it any other way. But, man it's also exhausting.
I just finished washing out Oliver's lunchbox and laying it out to dry for the weekend. My favorite time of day is (finally) here: the quiet of the evening when I can actually talk to Sam about our day or sit and reflect on my own thoughts after the inevitable dance party or band practice that precedes the bedtime routine lately. Before becoming pregnant for the second time, I'd have had a glass of wine with the back door propped open right about now -- these days though, I have sparkling water or occasionally take a sip from one of Sam's hard ciders. Except now the back door's closed and we even turned on the heat for the first time yesterday. The racing to water the lawn and clean the grill have been replaced by cozier dinners at home and longer baths in the evening. You blink and it's the first day of fall.
I'd heard from many friends that buying a house wasn't for the faint of heart. But I always shrugged it off, figuring I probably kept better files or was more organized and, really, how hard could it be? Well, I've started (and stopped) writing this post a good fifteen times which may indicate something. BUT! First thing's first: we bought a house! I think! I'm pretty sure! We're still waiting for some tax transcripts to come through and barring any hiccough with that, we'll be moving out of our beloved craftsman in a few weeks and down the block to a great, brick Tudor house that we wanted the second we laid eyes on it. The only problem: it seemed everyone else in Seattle had also laid eyes on it, and wanted it equally as much. I'm not really sure why the homeowner chose us in the end. Our offer actually wasn't the highest, but apparently there were some issues with a few of them. We wrote a letter introducing ourselves and describing why we'd be the best candidates and why we were so drawn to the house; we have a really wonderful broker who pulled out all the stops, and after sifting through 10 offers and spending a number of hours deliberating, they ended up going with ours. We were at a friend's book event at the time when Sam showed me the text from our broker and I kind of just collapsed into his arms. We were both in ecstatic denial (wait, is this real?! Did we just buy a house?) and celebrated by getting chicken salad and potato salad from the neighborhood grocery store and eating it, dazed, on our living room floor. Potato salad never tasted so good.
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Porridge is not the sexiest of breakfasts, it's true. It doesn't have a stylish name like strata or shakshuka, and it doesn't have perfectly domed tops like your favorite fruity muffin. It doesn't crumble into delightful bits like a good scone nor does it fall into buttery shards like a well-made croissant. But when you wake up and it's 17 degrees outside (as it has been, give or take a few, for the last week), there's nothing that satisfies like a bowl of porridge or oatmeal. It's warm and hearty and can be made sweet or savory with any number of toppings. The problem? Over the years, it's gotten a bad rap as gluey or gummy or just downright boring or dutiful -- and it's because not everyone knows the secrets to making a great pot of warm morning cereal. So let's talk porridge (also: my cookbook comes out this month! So let's take a peek inside, shall we?)