Orange cardamom yogurt cake

November 9, 2012 § 90 Comments

Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t have been a pastry chef.

In general, I like to think of myself as more of a cook.  I find some self-satisfaction in my inaccurate – or more appropriately, unprecise –  stirring together of a pinch of this and a handful of that until I’ve made a meal of it.  I don’t think of myself as precise enough for baking and pastries.

And yet…And yet, at the end of a very long week, a week  where – let’s just say hypothetically – the workdays have been 12 hours long and the brain has taken the spirit captive, I find that precision is what I want.  The precision is a respite.

Structurelessness can be a tyrant, and precision and strict guidelines can actually offer solace.  In those moments, I take comfort in measuring an exact teaspoon and a half or creaming for exactly three minutes.

I also love pastries for their sheer un-utilitarian-ness.  Sometimes when there’s a lot to do, the wise decision is to make those calls or do that laundry, to stop avoiding and cross some things off your list.  But sometimes the wise decision is instead to do something that delights you, that has nothing to do with the list.

You don’t need sweets in your life, to be sure, but I think sometimes you do need little things that are “just because,” that aren’t necessities for the body, but may be for the soul.  Life needs to contain both basics and beauty, both bread and roses, or perhaps both stews and pâte feuilletée. « Read the rest of this entry »

Little pistachio and cherry cakes

June 28, 2012 § 20 Comments

I’m leaving this afternoon to visit my family in Norway for two weeks.  So I baked.

I completely forgive you for the raised eyebrows and incredulous pursing of the lips.  Who bakes when they’re about to leave for two weeks?!  Who bakes while they are still scrambling to make sure they have packed for every possible type of weather?! Who bakes while they’re frantically attempting to get the house cleaned and the dog prepped for having a stand-in puppy mamma?!  Just how addled in the brain am I?!

But, you see, I have an explanation.  These are travel cakes.  Or, at least, they were meant to be, but more on that later.

You may now be asking, “ok, well, what are travel cakes?”  My answer, I’m afraid, is I don’t exactly know.  But, I decided to go ahead and try to make some anyway.

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Ginger banana bread with cardamom crunch topping

January 12, 2012 § 36 Comments

Banana bread and I go way back.  Way.

It was “my thing” for a while, actually.

Growing up, my mother’s baking repertoire was very nearly purebred Norwegian, and concentrated solely on holidays.  The rest of the time the oven’s use was confined to roasts and braises.  If it wasn’t boller, birthday cake, or a Christmas cookie, it didn’t get baked at our house.

But, every now and then at a friend’s house I would be invited to have a bite of something wonderful for a snack.  A lace-thin slice of intensely moist, banana flavored, bread-cake, shot through with the little black squiggles that banana bread develops, and now and then with melting chocolatey chunks.  Best. Snack. Ever.  I was convinced of it.  I would dream of it often during the long, stark periods during which I had to do without.

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The Italy for me, plus an amazing hazelnut cake

October 14, 2011 § 13 Comments


I have found my Italy!  The Italy that looms large and glorious, sun and wine drenched, vignetted in my dreams.  It’s real!  And it’s in the Langhe part of Piemonte, the region of Italy around Alba, Barolo, Barbaresco…names that may sound awfully familiar to you if you take any interest in wine.

It’s the part of Italy where Nutella was originally invented.  For real.  Just think about that for a moment.

It is the food and wine lovers region of Italy, I think, even more so than Tuscany.  Though it is gorgeous and extraordinary, with sweeping vistas of rolling hills covered with a patchwork of vineyards and hazelnut trees, the bulk of tourists don’t go there, I believe because it’s not really near or on the way to anything else.  So, if you go, it is your chosen pilgrimage, in search of food and wine, and the ridiculously quaint stone villages – complete with a castle and church – perched on every hilltop.  Villages built in the 12th century, and still so tied to their pasts that the day the tower was destroyed in 1275 is embedded in the collective memory and still seems to evoke feelings of pain.

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Love and lemons (lemon pudding cake)

February 13, 2011 § 8 Comments

“Love is a many splendored thing.  Love lifts us up where we belong.  All you need is love…”  And here we have a whole holiday to celebrate it!  Sort of.  Valentine’s days have paraded by me through the years wearing many different colors, but I must admit that very rarely have they had that much to do with actual Love.  I’m afraid Valentine’s day has more often been about the performance of the play that I had written in my head and entitled “Love.”  Or love with a candy coating – usually one well suited to my age.

Remember the days of grade school, when Valentine’s Day was all about accumulating sweets and Valentine’s in your decorated cardboard shoebox?  About worrying over which card to give to the boy you had a crush on, and about saving the best candies for your friends. It was all about lollipop love, innocent, simple, saccharine.  As I grew, Valentine’s day became about boyfriends and dates.  About melodramatically driving to the ridge to look at stars and receiving ridiculous bouquets of roses and baby’s breath.  This was love en flambe, blazing but superficial, burning out quickly and leaving everyone unscathed (except, perhaps, a little caramelizing around the edges…).

Then with age came Valentine’s days with heartache.  Regrets, mistakes made, opportunities missed, new love found.  I coated love with bittersweet chocolate, mistaking the fear of losing love for Love itself.

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Yogurt cake with pear and dark chocolate

January 29, 2011 § 32 Comments

I don’t know if this is the case in most places, but in the town where I grew up, when you graduated from high school, you had a big open house and invited all your high school friends, teachers, and neighbors. Scheduling was, of course, a nightmare, since come June you suddenly had over a hundred kids all trying to schedule parties within the span of a couple weeks while trying to keep from overlapping too much with anyone else.

During those few weeks there was absolutely no need for parents to attempt to cook because we all wound up hopping from party to party, filling up our bellies from the deli platters, crudites trays, and tiered stands bedecked with bars of all flavors – lemon bars, blondies, 7-layer bars… All in all it was a 3-week showcase of quality Midwestern fare (and truly, I say that with a great deal of fondness).

At that age I had developed the standard teenage angsty sense of needing to show how special I was. And since full out coolness wasn’t in the cards, I instead cultivated an interest in high culture, which, while sophomoric and stilted, also turned out to be sincere. I preened and announced my affection for opera and T.S. Eliot. I sketched and wrote pretentious essays about my thoughts. And I liked fine foods (while also being perfectly happy to stuff my face with Oatmeal Cream Pies or Chewy Chips Ahoy topped with Cool Whip. Ah, the teen years. I’m afraid the cream pies and chips ahoy are the only things I’ve fully outgrown.).

So, for my graduation open house, I asked my mother to have it catered with Indian food, which had only just become available in our area. And, I’m pretty sure I mostly did this because my boyfriend at the time loved Indian food. My party dovetailed with that of next door neighbor, who was (and is) also one of my best friends. We had decided that my house would be the savory food stop, and then she had a dessert buffet. I’m pretty sure I left my party early to go to hers and hover with our friends over the chocolate cakes. « Read the rest of this entry »

Apple cake with caramel glaze for the New Year

January 3, 2011 § 2 Comments

I am one of those people who cleaves strongly not only to tradition, but also to superstition.  This is what happens when you’re raised by a folklorist – you can’t help it.  Sometimes my level of superstition may appear to border on the near-insane.  I have a rock I pretty much refuse to go on an airplane without; my pockets are always jingling with pennies; I pick four-leaf clovers but not five-leafers; I wear silver around the time of the equinoxes and solstices; I spit over my shoulder whenever I see a black cat and knock on wood a lot; I won’t kill a spider.  But then again, how much of human behavior doesn‘t seem pretty crazy?  Superstitions are our little human attempts at making sense of and controlling the uncontrollable world around us, just as much as science and technology are.  As long as you’re not hurting yourself or others, I don’t know that a little dose of superstition should be considered a problem.  Plus, I have an inkling that it sometimes creates a helpful placebo effect – your talisman or other superstitious action relaxes you enough that you can go with the flow of things, and then those things really do go better.

All this is by way of approaching the subject of our New Year’s Eve dinner.  Around the world, all sorts of traditions have come up with foods that they believe are lucky to eat when bringing in the New Year.  We did our best to include as many as we possibly could, while still having a remotely reasonable and coordinated menu.  Lobster is considered unlucky (because it scuttles backward), so that was out of the question (not too hard).  On the other hand, leafy greens, lentils, and other things shaped like coins are considered lucky.  So are pig products, because they’re rich.  We managed to squeak all of those in.  Including leafy greens made into coin shapes!  (Pancakes.  They do wonders.  I’ll share that recipe at some point too, because it was fabulous!)  But, one of the favorite lucky charms for many a New Year’s party is a cake shaped like a ring…Cake?!  No need to ask me twice!

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