Cake & Cupcakes
There always seems to be a bit of rush when the first stalks of rhubarb hit the market, and this year we were gifted a big bunch from my sister Zoe's garden up the road and ended up freezing it as we couldn't get to it soon enough (kids, man). So today I had a blissful day off from work to do a little planting in the backyard, much-needed errands around town, and baked this humble skillet cake using up that vibrant harbinger of spring. Zoe's about to go into labor at any moment, so I'm going to deliver a few slices for them this evening, trying to create even more superstitions around food and labor out of thin air (eat this rhubarb cake and it'll for sure do the trick! So far we've tried this with lemon bars, McDonald's french fries and brownies and nothing has yet been THE ONE. But never say never).
There have been moments – many of them, if I'm to be honest – when I sit down to write a blog post and am not entirely sure how to begin or what to say. This current moment we find ourselves in is, of course, one of those times. In Washington state today, many businesses are closed to honor a day of silent protest. I'm up here at my desk still working, tying up loose ends before we leave for a family road trip this weekend – sitting here trying to decide what to tell you about cake. Do you need to hear about cake today? Do you need to hear about it from me? We're full of questions right now about how to share, what to share, and when to share it. And on this rainy Friday as I'm hustling to get laundry done and figure out how to keep the kids occupied in the car for two days, we're finding a lot of solace in little slices of this strawberry cake. So I'm sharing it today, thinking you might, too.
This is the third week I've been back at work, and it's finally starting to feel normal enough. Of course I miss my days with Frances terribly, and the shuffle of dropping Oliver off at preschool, joining the morning commute to get to the office, and then turning around and doing it all over again on the way home took some adjustment. Sometimes I spend almost three hours a day in the car, and am not always a happy camper walking in the door, met with the question of dinner, the task of packing lunch for the next day, filling the bath and so on. One morning at breakfast last week, Oliver and I were talking about our upcoming day: he asks me what I'll do at work and then we talk about the weather and what he's excited about. Typically his list involves wearing his astronaut helmet on the drive to school and helping me water the flowers when he gets home. As he was rattling on, I got up to make more tea and noticed it'd started to rain. I was dreading the drive into work, and my mind started spinning thinking about all the things I could do if I didn't have such a long commute (exercise! bake! meditate! play with Frances!) Then I heard Ollie's little voice from the table, "Mom I think the sun will come through the clouds today for me and for you, too."
We went over to my friend Julie's house for dinner a few weeks back - one of those early Friday night gatherings because we all have kids and they start to unravel at a certain point come the end of a busy week. Julie made saucy meatballs and garlic bread, we brought a big Italian salad, and while the boys played after dinner we all cozied up on the couch while Julie sliced generous pieces of gingerbread ... from my book! Sam kept asking with amazement, "this is your recipe, Megan?!" Even I hardly recognized it: Julie had the genius inspiration to add a layer of maple frosting and a sprinkle of flaky salt to the top, elevating it from a whole grain breakfast we've eaten many times (mmhm, Sam) to a really special dessert.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We've been waking up early these days with baby Oliver. I've always been a morning person, so this isn't particularly challenging for me -- although the middle of the night feedings have proven to be really tough. There has been a lot of finessing of sleep schedules and figuring out how Sam and I can both get enough to function well the following day. And just when we think we have it down ("gosh, aren't we lucky we have a baby that sleeps?"), everything changes. When I was in the final weeks of pregnancy and would talk about how I couldn't wait for the baby to be here, all of my friends with kids would advise me to sleep as much as possible -- and now I get it. I should've napped more. I should've listened. In getting up at odd times throughout the night with Oliver, I've had the chance to occasionally see some really brilliant sunrises (although not this past week which has been a particularly dark one in Seattle); I've made up some wacky baby tunes that I'm happy no one else can hear; and I generally have a good hour in which I can put him in the sling and walk briskly around the house trying to soothe him back to sleep while also putting away a dish or two or making a quick cup of coffee. In that hour, I can usually get something productive done and this past weekend that something was pear gingerbread.
It has indeed been quieter around here than I'd anticipated or planned for but it's taken us a bit longer to bounce back from moving than I'd imagined. I mentally kept telling myself we were just moving up the street -- that it'd be no big deal and I could do small trips throughout the week. And I did this. And it kind of felt like no big deal at the time. But the small trips all started to realllllly add up after awhile. We did have a lot of help on the actual moving day, but by that time I was pretty much ready to lie down in the guest room and take a day-long nap, which of course wasn't an option. In fact! It turns out our box spring didn't fit up the staircase so Sam had to saw it in half in the basement while I kept myself nervously busy, and by the time we got it upstairs and all set up I think both of us were more than ready to collapse. We felt pretty proud that at least there was a bed in the midst of all those boxes. Suffice it to say, there has been more painting and unpacking than cooking around here lately. We've been eating a lot of quick takeout from the co-op, my famous-only-to-Sam chicken salad, and easy open-face quesadillas. But a few nights ago, I decided it was time to bake something proper. So here we are. I've missed you!
A wintery spiced ginger, citrus and graham cookie recipe made with 100% whole-grain flour. Wonderful with tea and coffee, and surprisingly moist, tender and chewy.
Happy November, friends. I'm sorry it's been so long since I've posted a new recipe. There's been a lot of newness around here lately and I've been so looking forward to telling you about it, but then I sit down to write a post and the words haven't felt quite right. I've gotten good at realizing this means it's time to step away until I can't wait to sit down and pick it up again -- and that's exactly how I felt this morning. So at long last, a new recipe for a truly delightful boozy apple cake using apples we picked in the Eastern part of the state a few weeks ago (I have a fall crush on this cake, and know that it will be a 'do again' in our kitchen very soon). And also at long last: some news I've been excited to share with you.
Spring has stumbled upon our doorstep. I know this for a fact because rhubarb has been popping up at the farmer's market two weeks in a row, and each time I visit I ask the vendors anxiously how long it'll be there. Four more weeks? Maybe five? Last year I bought so much that we ended up freezing quite a bit to use in pies, muffins and scones. I don't often have this stock-up mentality, but when it comes to rhubarb I find that it's fleeting and always disappears before I've had a chance to truly enjoy it. Fully.
This past Sunday morning found Sam in the living room reading the paper and listening to records and me taking mad scientist notes in the kitchen, working on this humble beauty. I'd stumbled across a recipe for a honey cake that I wanted to make but as I was converting the grams into standard cup measurements for you all, I began tinkering. And tinkering. And downright altering the recipe until it really was no longer the honey cake recipe I'd become enamored with. I just couldn't help but think it should have cornmeal in it, and that spelt flour would make for a really delicate crumb while whole-wheat flour would hold down the fort, so to speak. Sam was reading the Book Review; I was crossing my fingers, staring in at the cake and wondering what I'd done.
Hello from the other side! I realize we haven't been back here for a few weeks, and I'm sorry for dropping into a little black hole. My cookbook deadline was Monday, so I've been a writing and editing machine, stepping away from the computer to occasionally clean the house like a crazy person or throw together a most random lunch or dinner. But somehow it all came together although there was something strangely anti-climactic about sending it off: In the days when you'd print out your manuscript and have to walk to the post office and seal it up carefully to send to the publisher, I imagine it would feel much more ceremonial and important --you could stroll out of the building and do a cartwheel. Or high-five a fellow customer on your way out. Instead, I was sitting in our dining room on an incredibly rainy, dark Monday afternoon unable to hit "send." My sister Zoe told me to just close my eyes and do it. Sam gave me the thumbs up. So around 3 p.m. that's what I did. With the click of a button, just like that: it was finished.
Time moves differently in the summer. I swear this to be true. It was one of the crueler jokes bestowed upon me when I began teaching: you put all of your energy and every dream of a chunk of freedom into this magical thing, summer vacation, and it'd be over before you could blink. I'm feeling a little of that as I sit here now with just a few days of July left, writing to you on a foggy Friday afternoon with a messy kitchen, a broken washing machine, and an empty refrigerator. Don't get me wrong: it's been a good day. We shared a messy biscuit sandwich for lunch from a new spot downtown and lingered over coffee longer than usual before starting the work day. A good week, really. But time has been moving quickly and I'm sure you notice that, too.
I've been thinking a lot about how I spend my time lately. Mainly because, more than ever, I feel like at the end of the day I plum run out of it. And the feeling of balance seems to be skirting around me. There are so many pieces to each day, between making and shipping granola, sourcing ingredients, trying to gain new granola vendors, writing online columns and freelance articles, writing a proposal for a bigger project, working on the house, planning a little housewarming party -- there's a lot going on. I know I'm not the only one. I know you're busy, too.
I have a very full, spirited life. But sometimes when it comes down to the Christmas spirit it can be a little different. I can be a little tardy in this department. I always make it to the dance, but I can be fashionably late. Getting excited about Christmas can be funny when you're 32-- an in between time when, in my case, you're no longer a child but don't yet have children of your own. The magic doesn't descend upon you any longer. You have to keep your eyes peeled for it. You may even have to go and seek it out.
This past week was one in which I found out that one of my good friends is pregnant with her first child, and another friend and her partner just bought a new home and moved to Oakland. A friend across town had thrown out her back and another was just returning from a long trip, exhausted and jet-lagged. It was time to bake a little something. Something that was equal parts celebration (a baby!) and 'take it easy.' Something with ingredients I had on hand and that I wouldn't have to rush around to shop and prep for. Something like Harvest Apple Coffee Cake.
It's undeniably September, but I'm going to refrain from writing that kind of a post. On evening runs, it's getting darker just a touch earlier and, like clock-work, summer is kicking into swing full-force in the Bay Area. We're good for Indian summers and we're also known for forgetting they happen each and every year. We all walk around shocked that it's hot in September when it's always hot in September. So while I'm excited for all that fall brings, let's look back at summer for just a second and then talk about cake, shall we?
Two weeks ago while Sam was visiting, we threw a small dinner party. I think it was his idea, actually. I'd yet to have a get-together in my new-ish Oakland apartment and the thought of the two of us spending an afternoon cooking for a room full of my friends was pretty darn nice.
Mary Oliver is a wise woman. I'd love to have tea with her someday. Or take a really long walk. Apparently she loves birds and I could pretend that I really loved birds for that one afternoon (I hate birds). But in all seriousness, she's one fine poet and has given me great perspective on living life to the fullest and coming to terms with death. I came across one of her poems last week and have been rereading it almost daily ever since. It's a good one. I want to share it with you and then we're going to talk light, fluffy cupcakes and salted caramel. Deal?
So my blog's birthday came and went. I was never the type of person to bake my blog a cake (although I think it's awesome that some of you do) but I have to say, I was surprised when I realized the other day that it's been just over a year since I started. How'd that happen? Birthdays are cool for a few reasons. First and most importantly, cake. Second, cards and family and friends and a check from your grandma. If you're a member of my family and you happen to be home at the time, you get to wear the beat up, pink glittery birthday crown. That thing's been around the block. Let me tell you. But the other cool think I notice as I get older is the element of reflection when birthdays roll around--thinking about the past year and how you want the next year to pan out. I began A Sweet Spoonful never having published a piece of writing but always wanting to. I started it late one night on a complete whim figuring at least it was one place where I'd see my work in print. Now, one year later, I'd call myself a writer. I started out with small local publications, peeing my pants with each acceptance letter and now you can occasionally find me in national rags and, if you flew Frontier this winter, you saw me in your trusty in-flight magazine. I talked about fried chicken and grits and all my friends who read it had a good chuckle.
It's been a long weekend. Not long like 'yay, it's a holiday' long. More like 'hours piling onto hours piling onto more hours' long. I'm pretty firm about this remaining a food blog, so I won't bore you with the details of what's been going on in my life. But let's just say I'm cooking more for one now than for two. Moving has a way of highlighting problems rather than solving them. So after twelve years of comfort, stability, laughs, road trips, cups of coffee, holidays, birthdays together, apartments spanning the country--I'll be spending a bit more time alone. I've actually written this paragraph many times trying to just come out and say it. So there it is. And I've had enough sleepless nights, tears, and a rather lousy appetite because of it. So hell. Today it was time to bake a cake.
Although it's one of my favorites, I haven't had a piece of pumpkin pie yet this fall. Actually, in the spirit of full disclosure, I did have a few bites of a piece from Mission Pie but that doesn't really count. I seem to have a tendency to over-do it with pumpkin pie and get a little tired of it before Thanksgiving. So I wait, thinking of other ways to use pumpkin. I was leafing through my recipe binder the other night and stumbled across this recipe for Pumpkin Semolina Cake. Semolina flour is available in most supermarkets, so you shouldn't have much trouble finding it. It's often used to make homemade pasta and pizza dough because it has a higher gluten percentage, making pasta stretch easily rather than breaking apart. While Italians use it for pastas, it's traditionally used in Greece, North Africa and the Middle East to make crumbly baked goods. Because of the high egg content in this recipe, the cake is almost pudding-like with a large, moist crumb (thanks to the semolina flour). I'd never baked a cake in a water bath before, although I'd heard of people doing so with cheesecakes. It turns out, it's a common practice with delicate foods and egg-based desserts (of which this is one) because it allows them to cook at a lower, even temperature. This cake is best served warm with a dollop of homemade whipped cream. And I think it's especially nice served with cinnamon or mint tea. It should tide me over until Thanksgiving when I'll savor my first real piece of pumpkin pie. However, I loved this cake so much that--dare I say--it could even be a nice substitute.
As many of you know, Linnea and I currently live at my mom's house. It's a long story that involves my mom going back to graduate school, the family dogs, her eventually moving home, and me losing my job. It's very temporary and while I never envisioned being thirty and living at home--really, it's wonderful. I've gotten to spend so much time with my mom: sitting at the counter watching her cook; obeying her nonsensical driveway parking rules; talking about books, celebrities, Obama's charm. But Linnea and I have set a date that January 1 we'll be moving out. It's time. I can't wait to live right in the city, where you can get a piece of pizza after 9 p.m. (you can't get anything after 9 p.m. in Marin) and walk out your door in the morning to grab a cup of coffee and hop on the bus. I miss the constant buzz of a city, the way the sun glints off the buildings, and the proximity of your neighbors. That being said, Linnea, my mom and I all had a lovely (albeit quiet) suburban Halloween. We baked, we drank, we ordered a pizza, we drank some more, we carved pumpkins, and we handed out mini candy bars to the --drumroll, please-- one trick-or-treater who dropped by. I had big plans for my pumpkin this year. I was going to carve a cupcake on the front, and it was going to be epic. Well suffice it to say, my vision fell flat (pumpkin below is mine, the two below that are my mom's and Linnea's). Blame it on failing high school geometry or that second glass of wine, but it really ended up looking like a pumpkin with the entire front carved out. Oh well. At least one thing turned out just as planned: Rose Levy Beranbaum's English Gingerbread Cake.
Our bocce team is no longer in last place. I think we're second to last-- but still, let's celebrate the small victories. Chocolate seems to help. We definitely play a little better. I noticed this when I made Katherine Hepburn's brownies a few weeks back--so last week, I decided to test Amanda Hesser's recipe for her mom's Chocolate Dump-it Cake (found in Cooking for Mr. Latte), a birthday staple in the Hesser household. I was intrigued because you make the cake all in one saucepan and I hadn't tried sour cream frosting before. Hesser claims, "For the icing, you melt Nestlé's semisweet-chocolate chips and swirl them together with sour cream. It sounds as if it's straight from the Pillsbury Bake-Off, but it tastes as if it's straight from Payard. Everyone loves it." She wasn't kidding--the icing was remarkable. It's substantial (unlike occasionally whimpy buttercream), smooth, and has a creamy chocolate depth.