When we first started planning our wedding, we didn’t really know what we were doing. Sure we’d been to our friends’ weddings but hadn’t paid much attention to details like chair set-ups or music or stemware. So when we sat down to talk about what we wanted our day to look like, we had only one goal in mind: we wanted it to feel like us. Nothing forced. Nothing to appease someone else or for the sake of an uncertain tradition. Throwing a bouquet and the whole garter thing wouldn’t feel like me so we ditched it. Stuffy venues and fussy catered meals wouldn’t do. In the end, we were lucky to stumble upon an incredible working farm on Whidbey Island, had a big family-style Southern meal at a long table under the stars, and some real-deal cake. Not the dainty slices of fondant-draped jewels you often see in wedding magazines. We had big slices of coconut cake.
Last week was our second wedding anniversary and we both wanted to do something special, but we’re also watching our pennies and wanted to be smart about it, too. The more I thought about what I wanted to get Sam, the more I wanted for us to have more time together — just the two of us. In the broad scheme of things, I feel like we’ve done a great job mapping out time for each other’s work life, social lives, even exercise — it’s all a very precise weekly balancing act. But we still haven’t completely figured out how to get more time together as a couple. We’ve been on a few dates since Oliver was born and had a rule that we don’t talk about work or the baby for the entire meal; it’s always eye opening how it takes a good chunk of time to fall back into a groove of talking about all those things that made you interested in one another in the first place. And I want us to be sure to remember those things.
So I ended up getting both of us a book (I chose this one!) as part of the new Megan and Sam Book Club. When Sam asked if it was monthly (with enthusiasm), I explained that it was most certainly not: it was a quarterly book club; I didn’t want to set us up for failure right out of the gate. The gist of the book club is that we both read the book by the agreed-upon date, then arrange for childcare, choose somewhere to eat or drink (or both) that we’ve been wanting to try, and come ready to discuss the book. I’ve got my highlighter ready.
About a week before our anniversary, Sam told me to block out a few days in the middle of the week — that we were going somewhere. He wouldn’t tell me where, and hints were quite slim. I knew Oliver was coming along and I knew that I should pack a few warm things but I didn’t know if we were flying or driving or what to expect. I have a horrible sense of direction, so in truth, setting out on the highway gave little away. But I started to have a sense of where we were going when we neared Deception Pass, heading towards Whidbey Island. Then the golden pastures started to look more and more familiar and I felt a tightness in my chest as I recognized the open roads and prairie. We were going back to the farm.
Sam had arranged for us to stay there for two nights last week; we slept in the room where I got ready on our wedding day, sat out on the back porch and watched the sunsets, and cooked most meals in the farmhouse kitchen. Sam brought along ingredients for us to make the dinner we had on our wedding night: fried chicken biscuit sandwiches, slow-braised pork, succotash, cocktails and — of course — that coconut cake.
I realize this is a blog and a space for the written word, but so often during those two days I felt at a real loss for words. And I still do. Looking out at the large lawn where we said our vows two years ago and seeing our baby son crawling around, dirtying his knees and constantly looking back to us for approval felt immensely moving. Oliver was a thought at the time, most certainly, but a faraway thought and having him join us in the house last week somehow made our vows feel even more special: we were doing it.
During the two days, we cooked a lot and ended up walking around the farm with Oliver. We went to Ebey’s Landing Park and hiked the bluff trail all along the water. We managed to forget the baby carrier, so we literally carried Oliver the whole way, trading off every few minutes, and feeling pretty exhausted by the time we got to the turnaround point. We drove the few miles into Coupeville one evening and walked down the pier to look at the boats, wishing we could sneak a baby into Toby’s for a beer, which we did the night of our wedding (sans baby, obviously). We also ate cake morning, noon and night. For our wedding, we ordered our cakes from The Wandering Goose, a great Southern cafe in Seattle. The owner, Heather Earnhardt, made us three different cakes: coconut, lemon and her Brownstone Front (a really special mash-up of cocoa, brown sugar and caramel). The great irony (as I’m sure some of you can relate to) is that we ate very little cake on our wedding night: there were so many people to talk to and a small window of time to dance — which left very little time for cake. So we’re lucky that we can stroll into the cafe and buy a slice if we like, but we’re even luckier that Heather just came out with her first cookbook, Big Food, Big Love with recipes from The Wandering Goose.
Sam baked the cake layers and made the frosting the night before we left for the farm last week and I kid you not when I tell you that this cake tastes exactly like our wedding cake: it really is the best coconut cake I’ve ever had. It’s not a dainty affair by any means, but I rarely want dainty when I’m craving a good piece of cake. It’s possible I snuck Oliver a tiny bite despite my plans not to give him sugar until he’s one (which I already let slip once). He started kicking his feet in excitement and grabbing for more until he became distracted by the hydrangeas on the side of the house and the roosters making a ruckus. And he was off again. I was off chasing him again.
Sometimes you get into a rut of work, baby, house project, work, baby, house project and then you get a reprieve in the week and an open prairie to look out on and a taste and glimpse back at your wedding day and realize how truly sweet and very big it all is.
The ingredient list here isn’t small, but keep in mind this is a very large cake! A few personal notes: we used coconut milk for the cake (although Heather says you could use coconut cream as well, which you’ll notice is included in the ingredient list). And while she calls for almond extract in the cake (and I’ve kept the recipe below true to the original ), I think the extract can often can taste artificial, so I choose to leave it out – totally personal preference and up to you. Because the cake is so moist, it’s good covered and refrigerated for up to 5 days. That being said, I think it’s absolutely best served room temperature, so let it sit out for a few hours before serving.
Excerpted from Big Food Big Love with permission from Sasquatch Books.
For the Cake:
For the frosting:
Thoroughly butter three 9-inch cake pans, making sure to coat the sides, and line the bot- toms with parchment paper. Butter the parchment and set the pans aside. Line three baking sheets with parchment paper and set them aside. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
In a large bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda together. In a small bowl, combine the coconut cream and extracts.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl after every two eggs. Reduce the speed to low. Add the flour mixture and the coconut cream mixture in alternating batches, beginning and ending with the flour. Mix in the coconut flakes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl again and pour the batter evenly into the prepared pans.
Bake until the cake springs back when you touch the center with your finger, and it is pulling away from the sides of the pan just a bit, 30 to 40 minutes, rotating the pans front to back and top to bottom halfway through baking. Let the cakes cool in the pans until you can touch the pans comfortably, about 15 minutes, then flip the cakes out onto the lined baking sheets to cool completely before frosting.
While the cakes cool, make the frosting. In the clean bowl of the stand mixer, mix the cream cheese and butter until no lumps remain. Add the confectioners’ sugar and extracts and blend until smooth. Frost between the layers, around the sides, and on top of the cake with the frosting. Decorate the top and sides of the cake with the toasted coconut.
Note: Toast the coconut flakes on a baking sheet at 300 degrees F until golden brown, about 10 minutes, stirring every 3 to 4 minutes. Be sure the coconut is completely cool before decorating the cake.
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.