I could get used to this weather.
I love the cool breeze coming through the window, the need for a duvet at night, and pulling out a beloved old cashmere cardigan to walk my daughter to school in the mornings.
I love that this feels like the beginning of autumn, which is my favourite season for a number of reasons, not least of which is the sense of redemption and renewal I feel at this time of year. When the sky is this particular shade of blue, the one that I see looking out my kitchen window right this minute, I feel like I can do anything.
And I am especially excited to get my running shoes on and hit the road.
Although my plan to literally run my ass off this summer was derailed by extreme heat, too many parties and far too much wine, the temperatures in our city these days have lent themselves quite nicely to exercising outdoors. In weather like this, I feel like I could run and run and run.
Not that I am doing that, exactly.
Among other things, I am working on a recipe for homemade poutine.
And watching these girls, whom I find inspiring on so many levels, over and over and over:
And just this morning, while my daughter was at school I could have been running, I made this cake with my son. It was our first time baking just the two of us, and it was delightful. It felt like the two of us could do anything together.
It felt like the beginning of something wonderful and new.
Pear and Gingerbread Cake for New Beginnings
adapted from Gourmet magazine
Thank heavens for my back-issues of Gourmet, which are endlessly inspiring. Although I should warn you, this came from the “Quick Kitchen” section, and grating enough fresh ginger to get a quarter of a cup is anything but quick. I’m just saying.
1 1/2c whole wheat pastry flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
dash of ground nutmeg
1/2c unsalted butter
1/2c packed brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/4c grated peeled ginger root
2 medium pears
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8-inch square baking pan.
In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, cinnamon and nutmeg. Melt butter and water together over low heat.
Using an electric mixer, beat together brown sugar and molasses. Add eggs one at a time, beating well between additions. Beat in flour mixture at low speed until just combined. Stir in vanilla and ginger.
Pour batter into prepared pan. Peel pears if desired (I didn’t) and cut into small pieces. Scatter over batter.
Bake in centre of the oven until a tester inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean, about 40-45 minutes.
Cool slightly before turning out onto a rack to cool some more.
May be served warm, with whipped cream, or cold, in the early morning, with a hot cup of coffee.
These are the last two slices of the most greedy-making cake I have ever known.
It was my son’s birthday cake, and I am quite serious about the greed: I am not a little ashamed to admit that when I was cutting a portion of this cake to send home with a friend, I actually short-changed her a little bit. And that the two pieces you see here are on the small side because I ate a very large serving all by myself after everyone had gone to bed the night before.
I am not actually a rabid eater of sugary things. I know that there is a certain comedic currency to be had in the “woman eating a whole cake while standing alone in a darkened kitchen in her nightgown” thing, but I would normally want to distance myself from that as much as possible.
In this case, when I realized this morning that the cake was all gone, I very nearly made another one immediately – this despite the humidity and the solo-parenting chaos in my house and the fact that there is not a legitimately cake-worthy occasion in sight on our calendar for the first time in several months.
I somewhat reluctantly fed it to my kids for breakfast the day after my son’s birthday, working under the shady logic that it contains bananas and is therefore a healthy choice (do I need to tell you the reason for my reluctance? Could there be any doubt? It was not motherly concern for my kids’ health and well-being. It was greed).
They loved it. Even my daughter, who is not much for cake, licked her own plate before reaching for her brother’s.
The recipe has been in my family for at least 40 years, its taste attached to more sensory memories than I have the means to articulate; so it felt especially appropriate to make it this week, when my mom has, incredibly, come to town.
I am revelling in every minute of her visit, and I know exactly what she will say when I tell her I am thinking of making this cake again (possibly even today) before she leaves:
“Go for it!”
Banana Cake with Peanut Butter Icing
1 1/2 c flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 c sugar
1/3 c soft unsalted butter
1 c mashed banana (from 3 average bananas)
2 tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease two 8″ round cake pans.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, stir together flour, baking, powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and sugar.
Add butter, banana, and milk, and beat for one minute.
Add eggs and vanilla and beat for another minute.
Divide batter evenly between prepared pans and bake 20-25 minutes, until cakes are light golden and spring back when touched. Cool five minutes in pans, then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.
When cakes are cool, make the icing:
1/2 c soft unsalted butter
2/3 c smooth peanut butter
4 c sifted icing sugar
2 tsp vanilla
4-6 tbsp milk
Using an electric mixer, beat together butter and peanut butter until smooth. Beat in icing sugar on low speed, then vanilla. Add milk a tablespoon at a time, until icing reaches a thick and spreadable consistency.
To assemble the cake:
Using a serrated knife, gently cut off the domed tops of both cake layers so that the tops are even. Place one cake on a cake stand and top with just over a third of the icing. Top with second layer, and cover top and sides of cake with remaining icing.
Serve generously, devour, and repeat.
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.
Of course, there are exceptions – when my mom comes to town and bakes us a pie, for example – but generally speaking, the sweet-treat-after-dinner thing is just not our thing.
This is partly because my children, who are very early risers, are usually bundled off to bed mere moments after putting down their forks, so feeding them sugar just prior to that seems a little counter-intuitive (if not slightly masochistic, from the parents’ perspective).
It’s also partly because I love desserts so much that I’d prefer to have them be the main event, rather than relegate them to the end of the meal, when everyone is already drowsy from the wine and a little full.
There is nothing I like more than having a cupcake or leftover piece of pie first thing in the morning, preferably with coffee (and cake in the afternoon is the perfect way to push through the glassy-eyed no-man’s-land that constitutes the hours between three and five o’clock).
The only trouble is, because I avoid making that kind of thing unless it is a special occasion, there is rarely a leftover slice of something yummy to be had in my house in the mornings.
And that, friends, is why I am such an avid fan of the breakfast cake. It is treaty enough that you can fool yourself into thinking that it’s an indulgence, and healthy enough that you can fool yourself into thinking you’re starting your day with something nutritious.
This particular one came together so simply and quickly this morning that it’s going to be on heavy rotation around here until we run out of peaches (and by “we” I mean every fruit stand within a 10-block radius of our house).
Peachy Breakfast Cake
1 1/2c light spelt flour (you could use all-purpose too, or – better still – whole wheat. I am just really enamoured of this spelt flour I discovered recently, so I am using it in everything)
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cardamom
1/2c frozen apple juice concentrate, thawed
1/2c melted butter or coconut oil
1 heaping cup diced peaches (I used 3 medium)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a bundt or other tube-shaped pan.
Sift together flour, baking powder and cardamom in a large mixing bowl.
Whisk together apple juice concentrate, butter or coconut oil, buttermilk and eggs in a large measuring cup with a spout.
Gently stir liquids into dry ingredients until just combined. Stir in peaches until evenly distributed through the batter.
Spoon batter into prepared pan and bake 30 minutes, until cake is slightly golden on top and beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan. Cool in pan on rack 10-15 minutes, then run a knife or spatula around the outside of the pan and invert cake onto a plate.
I know how cliche this sounds, but I really don’t know where the year went.
When my daughter turned one, I was thrilled. I marveled at her existence every single day, and each milestone was another chance to celebrate: she was learning, growing, turning more and more into this amazing little person I was so excited to get to know.
When I met other mothers who greeted their babies’ first birthdays with a little less enthusiasm, I was completely perplexed. Why mourn time passed, I wondered, when the present – and presumably the future – was brimming with wonderful things?
These days, I think I understand that ambivalence a little better.
My son’s birth was a harrowing experience, one from which I feel, in many ways, that I am still recovering. After he was born he spent days in the NICU, having his lungs and tiny belly filled by machine, while I was in another room on a morphine drip, feeling like I’d thrown a party to which the guest of honour hadn’t shown up.
After those first dire days came weeks, then months, of management: me learning to manage my pain, my guilt, my disappointment in myself and my inability to bounce back the way I’d have liked.
A series of difficulties, more and less agonizing, arose for me to manage that fall: my son had colic, my husband had to travel extensively for work. A beloved friend and crucial part of my day-to-day support was killed in a bizarre and tragic fashion.
We found out we had to move, and it took us six months of searching before we found a new place to live.
Somewhere in that period, I realized I had spent more than half of my baby’s life distracted by a haze of worry and grief and pain, and I found it utterly crushing to think that I would not get those first months of his life back, ever.
Eventually, as is always the case, we made our through that period of crisis. The big concerns were settled, and the idea of returning to some kind of balance began to seem not so far-fetched.
Throughout my high-wire act, my daughter continued to be the amazing little person I had taken all of the time in the world to get to know, and my son’s personality began to emerge – and he is awesome. Sweet like his sister, and adoring in the way that makes all mothers of boys secretly swoon. He’s smart and quick and daring, chubby and charming.
I am thrilled that he is one whole year old, that he is strong and healthy, that he is learning and growing so quickly. He and I are as thick as thieves, our relationship none the worse for all of my feelings of anguish and guilt.
But if I could, I would turn back the clock – I would stop time. I would go back and marvel at his existence, every single day, from the moment he was born.
Buttermilk Birthday Cake with Milk Chocolate Icing
(adapted from Nigella Lawson)
I know that it seems counter-intuitive to post such a recipe in these last, dog days of summer, but please, do us both a favour and take note of it for the next time you have a birthday cake to make. Trust me, you won’t regret it – and I promise I will be back tomorrow with something a little more seasonal!
For the cake:
1 2/3c all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4c plus 2 tbsp buttermilk, at room temperature
1 tbsp vanilla
1/2c very soft unsalted butter
3 large eggs, at room temperature
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and line with parchment two 8- or 9-inch round cake pans.
Sift together flour, baking powder, and baking soda in a medium bowl and set aside.
Whisk together buttermilk and vanilla in a glass measuring cup (or other vessel with a spout) and set aside.
Combine butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat at medium speed until light and fluffy. Reduce speed slightly and add eggs, one at a time, beating 30 seconds between additions. Add flour mixture and buttermilk mixture in alternating increments, beating well between additions, until a smooth, pale golden batter forms.
(You may find, partway through or even towards the end of the mixing, that your batter looks slightly curdled. Please don’t be alarmed – this has happened to me without fail every time I have made this cake, and it doesn’t affect the end result whatsoever.)
Divide batter evenly between the two prepared pans and bake about 25 minutes, rotating pans halfway through cooking time. The cake is done when it is slightly burnished and beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan. Cool in pans 10 minutes on a rack, then turn cakes out onto the rack to cool completely.
For the icing:
250g milk chocolate, coarsely chopped (or use milk chocolate chips)
3/4c unsalted butter
6 1/2c icing sugar, sifted
1 tsp vanilla
1-2 tbsp milk, if needed
Melt chocolate and butter together in a saucepan over VERY low heat, or in a double boiler, or (although I have never tried this) in a microwave. Transfer to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and beat in icing sugar and vanilla at medium-low speed. If icing is too thick, thin with a little milk.
When cakes have cooled completely, trim of the domed top of each cake. Place one cake, cut side up, on a platter or cake stand. Scoop a generous amount if icing onto this bottom cake (there will be plenty of icing, so don’t be skimpy on the filling) and spread it out evenly with an offset spatula or table knife.
Invert second cake onto the iced bottom layer. Use remaining icing to generously frost the top and sides of the cake (there may be some icing leftover).
The passing mention of this new habit in a recent post did nothing to reveal how momentous a difference ordering food online, and its subsequent delivery, has wrought; so let me just say, unequivocally and on the record:
It has changed my life.
I have always loved shopping for food (and most other things, too), but lately it had been starting to feel like a bit of a chore.
We have several big household expenditures coming up, so we have been making an effort to be more frugal – which has meant less shopping at the pretty little jewel box-like shops along our strip in favour of trips to the vast, faceless and uninspiring (but ultimately more economical) supermarket at the outer fringe of our neighbourhood.
Because I find going to that store the worst kind of drudgery, my husband has been doing the grocery shopping of late – and although his is an errand of mercy and I should be grateful that he does it at all (and I am grateful, really!), I am not always pleased with what he comes home with.
It’s not that he’s a bad shopper – I’d just prefer to do it myself.
(For a while there, because of my control issues, we were making our trips to said giant grocery store en famille, and that was the worst kind of gong show:
Picture the four of us, largely disgruntled and at least one of us hungry, hurtling through the aisles in an attempt to make good choices and buy everything on our list before someone had a major meltdown and we were forced to leave without anything.)
Enter the life-altering on-line supermarket, where the aisles are empty, there is never a line at the checkout, and you don’t have to pay in cash or bag your own groceries.
Yesterday, I ordered everything on my list while nursing my baby and watching my daughter do a 300-piece puzzle.
And then this morning, before I had even finished making my coffee, there was a man at the door with four boxes of fresh food for my family and me.
I was so delighted by the whole thing, I made us a cake for breakfast to celebrate.
Spiced Carrot Breakfast Cake
The disadvantage of this over, say, muffins, is that it takes considerably more time to cook. That said, it also seems to go a lot further (don’t ask me why, since the ingredients are virtually the same), and the presentation is awfully pleasing. Besides, who can resist the notion of cake for breakfast?
1c wheat germ
1/2c applesauce (unsweetened)
1/3c oil (once again, I use coconut, but any vegetable oil will do)
1/2c agave nectar OR thawed apple juice concentrate
1 2/3c whole wheat flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp nutmeg
about 2c grated carrots (I grate 2 fairly big carrots – not enormous, but not medium-sized either)
1/2c chopped pitted dates
1/2c chopped almonds
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a tube pan.
Place wheat germ in a large mixing bowl.
Combine buttermilk, eggs, apple sauce, oil, and agave nectar in a large glass measuring cup and whisk until smooth. Pour over wheat germ in bowl and stir to combine.
In a separate large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg. Stir in carrots, dates, almonds, and craisins.
Add flour mixture to buttermilk mixture and stir until just combined. Scrape batter into prepared pan and bake about 40 minutes (check after 35), or until a tester inserted into the cake comes out clean.
Cool 10-15 minutes in pan, then run a knife around the sides to loosen the cake and invert it onto a wire rack.
Serve immediately, or let it cool a little longer before serving.
Makes at least a dozen slices.
I didn’t love doing it, if I’m being totally honest – I was pretty anti-wedding at that point in my life, and I also felt very uncomfortable with the highly-charged emotional force-field that seemed to surround every bride I encountered.
I also found that when people asked for a special cake for an occasion, they tended to forget that the cake is also actually food, and not just an elaborate decorative extravaganza to be endlessly manipulated.
I often wound up feeling like an artist (remember, I was in my twenties) whose medium was not being respected.
Still, I kept at it for some time, partly for the money, but also because I got a secret thrill out of the look on the recipient’s face when they saw the finished creation.
Even though I didn’t often know them well (and on some occasions I didn’t even wish them well), it pleased me to play a small part in making their special day go a little better.
Once those wedding and specialty cake-baking days were safely behind me, though, I never looked back.
Until this weekend.
I have to tell you that I loved every minute of making this cake.
I made it for a dear friend’s daughter (who is also my daughter’s dear friend). She was turning four, and she is deeply embedded in her mermaid phase. Her mother, like me, is pretty ambivalent about the idea of little girls having barbies, but we both agreed that maybe a mermaid barbie wasn’t too too bad – and besides, the kitschy nature of this made it irresistible to both of us.
(And really, the idea of wrapping a barbie up in saran wrap and plunging her into the middle of an edible skirt? As my mother pointed out, there is probably an on-line community of people who fetishize that kind of thing!)
The birthday girl was thrilled, which would have made it all worthwhile even if it hadn’t been fun; and when one of the other mothers at the party asked me if I did this kind of cake-creation on a regular basis, I was happy to be able to answer that I only do it for people I know and love.
Mermaid Barbie Birthday Cake
Here’s what I did, and if anyone out there wants more specifics, please let me know:
I used my favourite layer cake recipe (one that makes two 8″-round cakes) and doubled it, twice. I divided the first doubled recipe between a 9″-round wedding cake pan and a medium-sized Pyrex bowl, both buttered and lined with parchment. The second doubled recipe went into two 8″-round layer cake pans, also buttered and parchment lined.
I baked the cakes two at a time in a 350-degree oven. They took between 30 and 45 minutes (the one in the Pyrex bowl took the longest).
Once the cakes were cooled, I used a champagne flute to make a barbie-sized hole in the middle of each layer.
Then I made a double batch of my favourite basic butter icing recipe, and coloured it with sky blue food colouring gel. I set half the icing aside for the final coat, and used half to fill the layers and cover the outside of the cake for a thin crumb coat.
Once the crumb coat was set, I wrapped the barbie in plastic wrap (I made a plastic turban for her hair) and plunged her into the centre of the cake, arms up.
Then I did the final coat of icing, reserving a bit to pipe onto barbie’s naked chest to create the appearance of a bodice for the dress.
I decorated the cake in keeping with the undersea theme, and once all of the icing was set I took barbie’s hair out of its plastic-wrap turban.
Et voila! Mermaid cake for 20!