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.
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?)