Here we are: a rare, quiet afternoon with blocks strewn all over the living room floor, leftover coconut rice and cucumber salad for lunch, and the front yard strewn with fall leaves. I’m behind on business bookkeeping and was going to try to borrow a neighbor’s lawnmower to mow our back grass, but instead thought I’d sit down and share a recipe with you, which I’ve been working away at slowly instead of rushing urgently, feeling like you all MUST HAVE CAKE in your life this very minute. I mean, don’t get me wrong: this cake is a MUST HAVE CAKE kind of cake, but after listening to an episode of Death, Sex and Money with Ellyn Burstyn talking about the importance of having “should-less days,” I’ve taken more time than usual with this one, giving myself a little more grace with all the niggling “shoulds” that prevail.
Last weekend we had a bunch of friends over to celebrate Sam’s birthday with games and cocktails. As is typical of 1920’s Tudor homes, our dining room seats all of four people comfortably (six if you squeeze), so I brought a card table home from Marge and we set up camp in the living room, eventually fogging up the windows as the night went on, listening to records, drinking wine and hard cider out of paper cups and eating thick slices of layer cake: the carrot cake I always make for Sam’s birthday (and truly, the best I have ever had) — and a new chocolate cake recipe from Ottolenghi’s new cookbook, Sweet. I knew I’d make carrot cake; that’s a birthday must around here, but a few days before the party, when we received enough RSVP’s to realize I’d need to bake two cakes, I started flipping through Ottolenghi’s book for more inspiration; the Take Home Chocolate Cake and the Apple and Olive Oil Cake with Maple Frosting caught my eye. Ultimately I dove into Camp Chocolate, and the day after the party as we were cleaning up, ever-so slightly hungover (although Sam always avoids this fate) with a high-octane shirtless toddler racing around the house, I was both pleased we didn’t have a crumb of cake left (they liked it!) and dismayed that we had not a crumb of cake left (I’d liked it, too!).
The next day I hit the grocery store on the way home from work to pick up a few apple cake ingredients, and practiced a particularly “should-less” day while Oliver was at daycare: baking, photographing and eating cake. I can’t recommend it enough. While we did end up sharing quite a bit with friends (let’s be real: it’s a big cake and there are only two cake-eating adults here in the house), I have to say that it keeps well in the fridge for almost a week, and there’s something really nice about slicing off a small wedge of lightly-spiced apple cake with rolling peaks of maple frosting at the end of a long day when the kitchen is (finally) clean, the evening is crisp, and the days are getting noticeably shorter, week by week.
While Ottolenghi advises using Granny Smith or Bramley apples, I used big Honeycrisps here instead, and it turned out wonderful. You may feel like it’s a lot of apples, but it’s supposed to be and they all soften and hunker down a bit, so you’re doing everything right. Because I just can’t help it, I added some buckwheat and whole wheat pastry flour here instead of using solely all purpose as the recipe instructs; the flavor of buckwheat with apples is one of my favorites, and given the proportions here, it’s not at all overwhelming. Try it! That said, feel free to use 100% all-purpose flour if you’d rather not pick up additional whole grain flours. Last, the recipe calls for you to slice this cake in half and frost in between the layers and then on the top. But I loved the stature (so tall!) of the cake as well as an extra thick layer of frosting on the top, so I kept it simpler. Of course, you could forego the frosting altogether and just do a dusting of confectioners sugar. You choose whichever makes you happy.
Lightly adapted from: Sweet
For the Cake:
For the Frosting:
Preheat the oven to 350 F / 180 C. Grease the base and sides of a 9-inch/23-cm round springform pan and line with parchment paper. The paper should rise 1-inch/3 cm above the sides of the pan (Note: I don’t own this size springform, so I just used a regular 9-inch cake pan, sprayed it with cooking spray, lined the sides with parchment and made sure the parchment extended an inch above the rim of the pan, and sprayed it again for good measure. This worked great.)Set aside.
Place the raisins and 2/3 cup (160ml) of the water in a medium saucepan. Simmer over low heat until all the water has been absorbed, then set aside.
Sift all of the flours, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder and salt together into a bowl and set aside. Peel and core the apples, then cut into 1-inch/3cm dice and set aside in a separate bowl.
Place the sugar, olive oil, whole eggs, vanilla and lemon zest in the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment in place. Beat on medium speed for 6-7 minutes, until the mixture is light in color, doubled in size and has thickened a little. Don’t be tempted to increase the speed of the machine when mixing; this will create air bubbles, which you don’t want. Remove the bowl from the machine and, using a large spatula, add the sifted dry ingredients and gently fold to combine. Add the apples, raisins, and the remaining 1/3 cup (80ml) water and stir to combine.
Place the egg whites in a separate clean bowl and whisk to form soft peaks; there’s only a small amount of egg white here so you might need to do this by hand (I used electric hand beaters). Gently but thoroughly fold the egg whites into the cake mix, then scrape the batter into the pan. Level the top with a spatula and bake for 55 -60 minutes (slightly longer if using Granny Smiths as they take longer to soften), or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool in the pan.
To make the maple frosting: While the cake is cooling, place the butter, brown sugar, and maple syrup in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat until light and airy, then add the cream cheese, a quarter at a time. Continue to beat for about 2 minutes, until thick and smooth.
When the cake is completely cool, remove it from the pan. Spoon the frosting on top and spread evenly.
Storage notes: Covered in plastic wrap, the (unfrosted) cake lasts for one week. Bring it to room temperature and frost it on the day you’ll serve it. Alternatively, we found the cake was just fine for 4 days, frosted, when covered in the fridge and the flavor actually improves the second day.
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.