Depending on where you live, spring is or is not showing her face. She sure does seem to be a big tease this year, doesn’t she? I remember late February last year walking around the UW campus admiring the cherry blossoms, and this year they’re finally drooping and draping across streets and we’re creeping our way through April. I’ve been on the hunt for local rhubarb and tender asparagus and it seems they’re taking their sweet time, too. So in the meantime, thankfully, we’ve always got chocolate.
We’re going to an Easter Friendsgiving of sorts this year: a non-denominational gathering of friends who don’t necessarily have family obligations or hard-and-fast traditions but like to get together and share a springtime meal. I volunteered for dessert, and have been mulling my contribution this past week while we’ve been on vacation (more on that soon!). When I think about spring baking, lemon desserts come to mind as do strawberries, rhubarb, and fluffy meringues or pavlova — not necessarily a deep, dark chocolate loaf cake, but then again, this hasn’t been a traditional spring. And chocolate is always reliable, always in season, never goes out of style, and always stands by your side.
So that’s where I started, with chocolate, and from there I thought about using one of my favorite whole grain flours along with almond flour, which I’ve been experimenting a lot with in baked goods lately. If you do much gluten-free baking, you know almond flour is a staple and while I don’t have to bake gluten-free for health reasons, I do always love experimenting with nut flours for the flavor and tender crumb they impart (and the extra hit of protein!). If you’ve never worked with almond flour, I’ve sung the praises of Bob’s Red Mill before and that’s the brand I generally reach for: their almond flour is always fresh and super accessible, and has become a pantry go-to for us this season.
In truth, I made this cake three times to get it just right for you. Again, if you do much gluten-free baking, you know there’s some science with a capital S involved, and I set out initially to do the whole thing with almond flour and the cake was delicious although we lovingly called it Chocolate Pudding Cake, which was a bit generous as it was actually quite raw in the center. But Sam is an eternal optimist and thought that I’d discovered a whole new genre of desserts — that I was really onto something here. While I love his genuine and sincere admiration for new strides in (literally raw) desserts, deep down I knew that one wouldn’t do. The second round was better but the flavor felt one dimensional and not all that exciting, and so commenced further late night cake testing. The third round was spot on: I added espresso powder for depth and a bunch of chopped dark chocolate to the batter at the very end. Because really, why not?
The result is a fragrant, tender chocolate loaf cake studded with chunks of dark chocolate that’s special enough for a celebration, but simple enough to be an everyday dessert, too. It’s unfussy as most loaf cakes should be — a two bowl, mix-by-hand situation, and is just as good for dessert with whipped cream or coconut whipped cream as it is for breakfast with dark coffee or tea. It’s a cake to get us set up for the next season ahead, to get us poised for rhubarb and outdoor picnics and later dinners with warm breezes. I can almost just sense it all right around the corner.
Cook’s Note: I wanted to say something quickly about the difference between almond meal and almond flour as I know this can get confusing when you’re at the grocery store. Almond meal and almond flour are often used interchangeably — almond flour is just ground more finely. While I did use a finely-ground almond flour for this cake, I think for a forgiving recipe like this one, either will probably be just fine.
A decadent, rich chocolate loaf cake that’s just as comfortable at the casual brunch table as it is as part of a more elegant dessert spread. Made without refined sugars and with a big hit of almond flour, it’s at once delicate and light but also sturdy enough to eat on the go or hold up to the weight of a generous dollop of whipped cream. And the best part? You can mix it by hand and will only dirty two bowls.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly coat a 9×5 inch loaf pan with nonstick spray and line it with parchment paper, ensuring 1-2 inches hang over the sides (this helps remove the cake after it’s baked).
In a medium bowl, whisk together the spelt flour, almond meal, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt.
In a separate large bowl, whisk together the eggs, banana, sugar, maple syrup, coconut oil, milk, espresso powder and vanilla extract. Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients and whisk until combined. Fold in the chopped chocolate.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the almonds on top. Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out relatively clean. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for at least 20 minutes, then take each side of the parchment paper and unmold the loaf, setting it on the wire rack to cool completely.
Slice the cake and serve with a dollop of coconut whipped cream (or regular whipped cream), sliced almonds and berries, if you’d like.
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?)