This cake came about around 8:30 a.m. this past Monday, a window of time in which many things seem to get done as it’s when Oliver goes down for his first nap. Sam had made a legendary fried rice with lots of mushrooms and fish sauce for dinner the night before, so I was snacking on leftovers with a cup of coffee and racing around the kitchen trying to finish measuring and whisking before Oliver woke. The goal was to bake something sweet (but not too sweet) to take with me to work the next day, and I knew of just the thing. In no time, the oven was preheating, I was on my second cup of coffee, licking the spoon, and patting myself on the back for pulling together homemade cake batter in under twenty minutes — all while silently deeming Sam the fried rice master of the universe. Or at least, our house. We’re entering one of my favorite seasons for baking: I love pumpkin desserts, holiday cookies and any excuse to bake for other people. But the season can get stressful too, as time gets tight and — if you’re anything like me — you start to become overwhelmed with the number of things you’re excited to bake (German apple pastry! Nutmeg logs! Cardamom rolls!) that ultimately you end up baking none of them. If this rings true, I think you might just like Julia Turshen’s new cookbook Small Victories as much as I do.
Small Victories isn’t a baking book – Julia covers your typical day, from breakfast to dessert and everything in between. But what I love about the book is its warm, encouraging tone: instead of feeling overwhelmed or daunted, Julia encourages you to just dive right in: “cooking doesn’t have to be complicated to be satisfying, or over-the-top to be impressive.” In fact, sometimes the best thing to come out of the kitchen all week is a fragrant afternoon cake that I’d argue is very well suited to be a morning cake, too. Or with a little whipped cream, it’s got evening cake written all over it.
Julia Turshen has helped write a number of cookbooks with folks including Gwenyth Paltrow, Mario Batali and Food and Wine’s Dana Cowin. She is a real-deal cookbook writer and I always trust that her recipes work and that her headnotes will guide me to where I need to go. The gist of her most recent project is that we should be celebrating all the small things that make up our journey in the kitchen: things like using fresh spices or cooking vegetables you normally serve raw. We’re talking small steps, tips, and even more philosophical ideas about cooking that ultimately make us all better. Because really, as Julia points out, “the only way to become a cook is to cook, and the road to becoming a good cook is paved not only with repetition but also with the intuition you gain along the way.” And this cake is a great place to start. According to Julia, “it’s seriously easy and hard for even a complete baking novice to screw up. It’s also one of those baked goods that just gets better if it sits for a few hours, even a day or two.” The small victory here is getting comfortable using parchment paper – for the cake pan, but also for your work surface: Julia cuts a piece and keeps it there while measuring flour and then simply picks up the edges of the paper when she’s done and scoots the excess flour back into the container. I like it.
I couldn’t help but tweak the recipe a bit, using a little buckwheat flour instead of 100% all purpose flour. For me, a small victory is incorporating whole grain flours into a great looking baking recipe and seeing it succeed, so I have a feeling Julia will forgive the futzing. Feel free to follow my lead here or go the 100% all-purpose flour route if you’d like. You can also swap in any citrus for the orange (grapefruit, clementines or blood oranges would work very well, Julia notes) or turn this lovely lady into a Lemon Poppy Seed cake by adding lemon zest and juice instead of the orange and adding 1 tablespoon of poppy seeds to the batter. If you’re generally hesitant to tweak a recipe to accommodate your own tastes or preferences, maybe this recipe can be your small victory? It’s so forgiving that I think it’s a great candidate. And when it’s done baking and you’ve popped it out of the pan, I’d like to suggest the following routine: Walk by the kitchen counter, slice off a tiny sliver, keep walking. Repeat.
A fragrant, humble, not-too-sweet cake that’s perfect with afternoon tea or a late morning cup of coffee. While Julia uses all-purpose flour, I used a little buckwheat flour as it’s earthy flavor compliments the citrus and almond meal so beautifully. The color of the cake is a darker brown because of the buckwheat flour — if you use 100% all-purpose flour it will be more of a light golden brown. To make the cake nut-free, simply omit the ground nuts.
Recipe slightly adapted from: Small Victories
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter the bottom and sides of an 8-inch cake pan, then line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper. For good measure, butter the parchment paper. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together both flours, ground nuts, baking powder and salt.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until the whites and yolks are fully combined. Add the olive oil and granulated sugar and whisk until the sugar is dissolved (test by rubbing some of the mixture between two fingers). Whisk in the vanilla, orange zest, and orange juice. Whisk in the flour mixture.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, being sure to use a rubber spatula to get it all out of the bowl. Hold the pan just a little bit above the counter and then drop it on the counter to eliminate any air bubbles.
Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 25-30 minutes. Transfer the cake, still in its pan, to a wire rack and let it cool completely.
Once cool, use a dinner knife to loosen the edges of the cake from the pan and invert it onto your work surface (you might need to give the pan a little whack). Peel off and discard the parchment. Invert the cake one more time onto a serving platter so the flat side is down and the domed side is up. Just before serving, dust the cake with powdered sugar.
* Note: Julia notes that any nut works well in this cake: walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios. Or purchase nut meal or nut flour at the store instead of grinding your own.
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.