I woke up this morning feeling a bit leaden.
I’ve been spoiled this past week, with generous amounts of delicious food and wine; feverless children; numerous family adventures; and time.
It often seems that there could not possibly be enough hours in the day to finish (let alone start) any one of the things on my various to-do lists. It can be difficult to live in the moment when one’s mind is constantly leaping forward to what the next moment, and the one after that, might hold.
This is, I think, a mother’s dilemma, and not an uncommon one at that.
But last week, my husband had some time off, and we slowed things right down. We did our best to accommodate the inevitable wildness that “springing forward” wrought on our kids’ sleep schedule. We put away our lists, and made no plans.
For seven whole days, and for the first time in what seemed like ages, it really felt like time was on our side, and it was nothing short of wonderful.
So I felt leaden this morning partly because our magical week had come to an end, and all of the pressing things that I had been ignoring were suddenly looming; partly because the view outside my window was an unpromising dull grey.
But I also woke up thinking about Japan, with the kind of helpless, hand-wringing horror that is the sole province of the distant bystander.
In my own life, lately, I have come to think of time as being the greatest and most elusive of luxuries, and I am grateful to have been able to revel in it last week.
But of course, as far as luxuries go, for my safe, beautiful, healthy family and me, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Devil’s Food Birthday Cake
adapted from Nigella Lawson’s “Kitchen”
I bet you think that I have been cooking my way through Nigella’s latest book, and you are right. I have been, and I had been loving every minute of it, until it came time to ice this luscious cake. The ganache-y topping that Nigella suggests took nearly four hours (and counting) to set, at the one moment all week when time was most definitely not on my side. So I’m offering up the icing that I made at the last possible minute as a replacement. The cake was perfect, and I bet the ganache-y icing would have been divine too, but I wouldn’t know.
For the cake:
50g cocoa powder
100g brown sugar
1c boiling water
125g soft unsalted butter
150g granulated (white) sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp vanilla extract
2 eggs, room temperature
For the icing:
175g best quality dark chocolate
675g icing sugar
350g soft unsalted butter
1-4 tbsp milk, as needed
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. lightly butter the bottoms and sides of two 8″ layer cake pans; line bottoms of pans with parchment.
Combine cocoa powder and brown sugar in a medium, heatproof bowl. Pour boiling water over cocoa mixture and whisk to combine. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together butter and granulated sugar until fluffy. In a separate small bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and baking soda.
Beat vanilla into butter mixture, then add one egg with mixer running. Keep mixer running while adding a scoopful of flour mixture, then second egg. Continue mixing while adding the rest of the flour mixture. Finally, scrape cocoa mixture into bowl, and beat well to combine.
Divide batter evenly between the two prepared tins and bake 20-25 minutes, rotating once halfway through cooking time, until a tester inserted into the centre of a cake comes out clean.
Let cakes sit in their pans on a rack 5-10 minutes before turning out onto rack to cool completely.
While cakes are cooling, make icing:
In the top of a double boiler set over barely simmering water, gently heat chocolate until just melted, stirring frequently.
Place icing sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to remove and lumps. Add butter and process until smooth. Scrape in cooled chocolate mixture; icing should be thick and spreadable, but if it is too pasty, add milk a few drops at a time until desired consistency is reached.
Place one cooled cake, top down, on serving plate. top with a generous dollop of icing, then place second cake on top, right side up.
Used remaining icing to frost the top and the sides of the cake.
Decorate, as my daughter did here, with coloured sugar, and serve with large glasses of milk.
I have mixed feelings on the subject of Lent.
I come from a family whose participation in organized religion has ebbed and flowed over the years, and my interest in being a member of any church is just about non-existent.
My grasp of the Catholic doctrine is murky at best, my idea being that it involves lots of sin with very little redemption; a fair amount of kneeling; incense; and confession-hearing priests who are closeted in more than just the literal sense.
And abstention isn’t, nor has it ever been, really my thing.
But these last few months have been challenging ones for my family and me, and I tend in times of high anxiety to eat the sort of foods that offer all kinds of comfort but somewhat little in the way of nutritional benefit (I’ve said it before, and I say it again: how do people who are not stress eaters cope with their stress?).
Essentially I have been existing quite happily since Christmas on bread, cheese, and wine. Which isn’t a bad thing on the short term, but I have noticed lately that my appearance has come to resemble that of the baked goods I’ve been enjoying:
I have become a little doughy.
I feel compelled to mention at this point (is it the guilt talking?) that my baking is, on the whole, pretty healthy. I use spelt flour and coconut oil and nearly always replace the sugar with apple juice concentrate or agave nectar.
But even still, too much of a good thing remains the very definition of excess, and I think that may be what we are dealing with here.
And so the other day, after my children and I had feasted the night before on stacks of fluffy banana pancakes drenched in maple syrup in honour of Pancake Tuesday, I decided to give up flour for Lent.
That’s right, even my spelt flour. Even my healthy baking. Most certainly the warm biscuits and bread sticks that take no time to prepare and can turn just about any meal into a feast.
For forty days and forty nights.
I can always pull my recently-neglected Babycakes cookbook off the shelf.
And I’ll still have my wine.
I love this dish, which features my beloved ras al hanout (which I bought here), for many reasons, but at the moment mostly because it doesn’t require any kind of bready accompaniment (although it is awfully good with couscous).
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp unsalted butter
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 large onions, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1 heaping tbsp ras al hanout
2 tsp ground cardamom
1 tbsp tomato paste
1/2c chicken broth (or a little more, as needed)
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 14 oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/2c coarsely chopped dates
1/2c golden raisins
zest of an orange
In a large, deep saute pan, heat oil and butter over medium-high heat. Add chicken thighs to pan and cook, turning once, until golden brown on both sides. Using a slotted spoon, remove chicken from pan and set aside.
Add onion and garlic to pan and cook, stirring frequently, until softened. Stir in ras al hanout and cardamom and cook a few minutes more, stirring, until onions are beginning to colour. Add tomato paste to pan and stir briefly before adding 1/2c chicken stock. Stir and scrape up any brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Return chicken to pan, then add tomatoes with their juice, chickpeas, dates, raisins, and orange zest. If mixture appears on the dry side, add a little more broth. Stir to combine and let mixture come briefly to a boil before reducing heat to minimum. Cover and simmer about 45-60 minutes, until flavours have blended and chicken is very tender.
In an ideal world, at this point I would turn off the stove and let this stew sit and, well, stew, for a couple of hours, and then reheat it just before serving. I expect you could also use a slow cooker here. But I don’t think either is necessary to the success of the dish.
Serves 4, generously, and 6 if accompanied by couscous.