Monthly Archives: March 2010

a persuasive cake

Here we are at the end of March. Spring has claimed her space and unpacked her bags, kicked off her shoes and accepted a glass of lemony iced tea. She’s fully settled in and ready to chat for awhile, her pony-tail bobbing enthusiastically as she shows you what’s in store for the next few months.

There are predictions of 83* sunny days in Charlottesville this weekend…83*! That is shorts weather, my friends, and tank tops and strappy sandals and [eek!] swim suits weather. It was all very exciting until I pulled out a pair of those shorts last night and realized that this month coming to an end, the month full of birthdays and cake and cocktails, has done a number on certain, *ahem*, areas. Those well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions set in January were shaken with the arrival of Brian’s birthday 29 days ago, and continued to slowly slip away as we celebrated our way through March.

This last weekend was the culmination of all of that good cheer. With my Daddy in town for four days spoiling us rotten, there were indulgent meals shared at favorite restaurants and bottles of wine Brian and I could never justify buying ourselves. As a “thank you!” for all of that generosity we had a little barbeque Saturday afternoon, complete with Double H Farm baby back ribs smoked on the Big Green Egg, the best baked beans I’ve ever had, salad with a hearty base of [local!] emerald green spinach and a delightfully moist lemon mousse cake. Although the air was a crisp 50*, we had a cloudless Caribbean-blue sky and a brilliantly radiant sun to warm our skin and confirm the departure of [old man] Winter.

And now today, with all of those birthdays behind us and the very last of that lemon mousse cake tossed away in the trash (but not before a bite or two passed my lips to verify its staleness) it is time to think of April, the second to last month before the water flowing steadily through our surrounding rivers warms to a point that justifies the loading up of kayaks and the donning of swim suits. It’s time to welcome the farmers back to downtown Charlottesville, to our Saturday morning City Market that starts this weekend(!), and to embrace the first gifts of Spring. It’s time to lighten up and brighten up, to take a break from all the sugary-sweet goodness of March and indulge in the green that comes with April.

But first, I want to give you more cake.

With a buoyant crumb that bounces back at the poke of a finger and an airy, lemon-tinted mousse so cool and refreshing you’ll have to fight yourself not to finish the entire bowl in one sitting, this cake seems to be the perfect welcome for Spring. It’s a persuasive cake, the kind that you want to always have under a dome on your counter, ready to share with important guests while sitting on the front porch drinking a tall glass of iced tea. It seems that, when being offered a cake like this one, it would be impossible for those guests to leave.

That’s my hope anyway, as I embrace Spring and ask her to stick around for awhile.

This is a very long recipe, but is actually very simple.  Especially if you divide the tasks between two days – the cake and lemon curd on the first, the mousse, frosting and assembly on the second.

Lemon Mousse Cake

from the greyston bakery cookbook, pg. 46

serves 8 to 10

Ingredients

for the cake

  • 5 eggs, separated
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/4 cups sugar
  • 2-1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 fresh lemon, seeds discarded

for the lemon curd

  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 2 medium lemons)
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 tsp finely grated lemon zest

for the lemon mousse

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup lemon curd

for the lemon buttercream frosting

  • 6 tbsp (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  • 3 tbsp heavy cream
  • 1-1/4 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp lemon extract

Method

make the cake (up to one day ahead)

  1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 350*.  Grease and flour two 8″ round cake pans and line the pan bottoms with parchment rounds.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the egg yolks, butter, milk and vanilla.  Set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, 1 cup of sugar, baking powder and salt to blend.  Add the egg yolk mixture and stir until well combined.  Set aside.
  4. In a clean dry bowl, using clean dry beaters, beat the egg whites on medium-high speed until they hold soft peaks.  Lower the mixer speed to medium and gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, beating the whites until they hold stiff peaks.  Stir about one-third of the egg whites into the batter to lighten.  Gently fold the remaining whites into the batter, in two batches, to blend thoroughly.
  5. Transfer the batter to the prepared pans, filling them equally.  Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the sides of the cakes begin to pull away slightly from the pans and a wooden skewer inserted near the center of the cake comes out clean.
  6. Set the pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes to cool.  Turn the cakes out onto the rack and carefully remove the parchment.  Reinvert the cakes and allow them to cool completely on wire racks.
  7. If making the cakes the night before (as I did), wrap them tightly with plastic wrap once entirely cool and keep at room temperature.

make the lemon curd (up to one week ahead)

  1. In a small saucepan set over medium-low heat, whisk the eggs and egg yolk with the sugar, lemon juice and salt.  Continue to cook, whisking constantly, for 10 minutes or until thickened.
  2. Remove the curd from the heat and add the butter, stirring until melted.  Strain the mixture through a mesh sieve into a small bowl.  Stir in the lemon zest.
  3. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic directly on the entire surface of the lemon curd to prevent a skin from forming.  Chill the curd in the refrigerator until firm.

make the lemon mousse

  1. In the bowl of an electric mixer set on medium-high speed, beat the cream until it holds soft peaks.  Working in three batches, gently fold the cream into the lemon curd.  Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before using.

make the lemon buttercream frosting

  1. In a clean bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter, sugar, cream, vanilla and lemon extract.  Mix on medium-low speed until well combined.

assemble the cake

  1. With a long serrated knife, trim the rounded top off each cake layer to create a flat surface.
  2. Squeeze half of the juice from the lemon over the cut side of one layer of cake.  Place that layer, cut side up, on a serving plate. Spread the lemon mousse evenly on top.
  3. Carefully place the next layer, cut side down, on top of the first layer.  Squeeze the rest of the juice from the lemon on top. Frost the top and sides of the cake with the lemon buttercream frosting.  Place the cake in the refrigerator for at least an hour to set.  Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

tall, dark, handsome and dreamy

March is a month full of birthdays, a month for celebrating family and friends.  Twelve family members and good friends, to be exact.  It seems that every other day Brian and I are passing a card between us, signing our names and licking an envelope, sending our best wishes and good cheer zipping across the country to loved ones. Each of these special days surely contributes to my attachment to this third month of the year, with so many excuses to reach out and connect with people we don’t see or talk to nearly enough.

It is a part of the start of Spring, the phone calls and cards and Facebook messages, a routine as comfortable and happy as the emergence of lemon-hued daffodils and the pop of blushing cherry blossoms.  We send wishes for a year better than the last, marvel at the changes that have come in just twelve months’ time.  Across the line there are promises to visit, promises to talk more, promises to write often. The phone disconnects and we return to our routines, our hearts a little more full with the knowledge that we are better for knowing that other person, for being able to share another year with them even if from a distance.

I’ve come to think of March as the beginning of the new year, with all of its fresh growth and rekindled promises to keep in better touch, rather than the dreary gray and reclusive hibernation that is typical of January.  I find myself with renewed motivation, making plans while seeking spontaneity, striving to keep up with the ever-changing state of the surrounding environment. Each new clump of tiny chartreuse leaves, each cotton ball puff of Bradford Pear blossoms is a reminder of time’s quick passage, a kick in the backside that jolts the gears in my head to life, prompts me to take action on the ideas swirling through my brain.

I realize that these feelings come in part because Brian and I each celebrate our birthdays in March, his falling on the 2nd and mine on the 29th. We can’t help but to reflect on years passed as yet another draws to a close, setting goals for the coming weeks or in our case, the next two years before we hit the big Three-Oh.  Three.  Oh.  Wow.

We’ve started a ‘thirty before thirty’ list, although I don’t think either of us has finalized the catalog of things we’re set to accomplish. A lot can happen in two years’ time, and I’ve come to terms with the reality that is a sliding scale of goals, an evolving list of priorities. The point is to think about it, to make an effort towards trying new things, towards bettering and challenging ourselves in the smallest or biggest of ways.

One of the ways I am seeking to improve upon what is already a lovely life is to increase the connections we have with distant friends and family beyond the every-few-months phone calls. I want to follow through on the March promises, pick up the phone more frequently to catch up with those we hold dear.  This is a goal I’m not willing to let slide, a priority at the top of my list as I embark on my 29th year.  Phone calls to loved ones.  Often.

And, if I had my way, along with those phone calls there would be more cake.  Shared on actual birthdays.  We’d sit across from each other at my dining table, forks in hand, three-layer pillar between us.  There would be wine and coffee, stories and laughter, a vase of Spring flowers in the corner.  It would be so simple if only I could convince each person we love to move to Virginia, to live within a few hours of Charlottesville. Perhaps a task for the ‘forty before forty’ list…

This cake I’m sharing today was made for Brian, on his 28th birthday, just 3 weeks ago.  It is the same chocolate cake that I baked for him last year, which was the first from-scratch cake I’d ever made.  When I asked Brian what I should make for his birthday this year he requested the same chocolate cake, and left the frosting and adornment up to me.

The praline was a good choice, the crunchy texture a nice contrast to the dense, moist crumb of the cake and the creamy, stick-to-your-tongue ganache.  The whole ensemble is tall, dark, handsome and dreamy, just like my Hubb.

Happy 29th year, my love.  I feel certain it will be a good one.

I said it last year and I’ll say it again, this is the best chocolate cake recipe.  Ever.

Double Chocolate Cake with Praline Topping

Makes 12-14 servings. Cake recipe from Epicurious, praline recipe from Bon Appetit

Ingredients

for cake layers:

  • 3 ounces fine-quality semisweet chocolate such as Callebaut
  • 1 1/2 cups hot brewed coffee
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 cups well-shaken buttermilk (for dairy free variation: mix 1 1/2 cups soymilk with 1 tablespoon cider vinegar and set aside to curdle)
  • 3/4 teaspoon vanilla

for ganache:

  • 1 pound fine-quality semisweet chocolate such as Callebaut
  • 1 cup heavy cream (or soy creamer)
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter (or margarine)

for praline topping:

  • 3/4 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 3 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup pecans, toasted, chopped

Method

make cake layers:

  1. Preheat oven to 300* F and grease two 10″ cake pans, or three 8″ or 9″. Line bottoms with rounds of wax paper and grease paper.
  2. Finely chop chocolate and in a bowl combine with hot coffee. Let mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.
  3. Into a large bowl sift together sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In another large bowl with an electric mixer beat eggs until thickened slightly and lemon colored (about 3 minutes with a standing mixer or 5 minutes with a hand-held mixer). Slowly add oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate mixture to eggs, beating until combined well. Add sugar mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined well.
  4. Divide batter between pans (pans should only be half full – if you use 8″ pans you will have some batter leftover) and bake in middle of oven until a tester inserted in center comes out clean, 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes for 10″ pans, 50 minutes for 8″-9″ pans.
  5. Cool layers completely in pans on racks. Run a thin knife around edges of pans and invert layers onto racks. Carefully remove wax paper and cool layers completely. Cake layers may be made 1 day ahead and kept, wrapped well in plastic wrap, at room temperature.

make ganache:

  1. Finely chop chocolate. In a 1 1/2- to 2-quart saucepan bring cream, sugar, and corn syrup to a boil over moderately low heat, whisking until sugar is dissolved. Remove pan from heat and add chocolate, whisking until chocolate is melted. Cut butter into pieces and add to frosting, whisking until smooth.
  2. Transfer frosting to a bowl and cool, stirring occasionally, until spreadable (depending on chocolate used, it may be necessary to chill frosting to spreadable consistency). I found that stirring this over a bowl of ice water did a great job of cooling it off quickly and evenly.

assemble cake:

  1. Use a serrated knife to cut off domes of cakes if needed (mine came out perfectly flat, so there was no need to take a knife to them).
  2. Place first layer on the plate you’d like to keep the cake on.  Spread a layer of ganache across the top of that layer, about 1/8-inch thick. Place the second layer on top of the first, and spread ganache on top of it.  Place the third layer on top of the second, and cover the sides and top of the cake with ganache.

make praline:

  1. Stir first 3 ingredients in a large, heavy sauce pan over medium-high heat until butter melts.  Boil 1 minute without stirring.
  2. Remove pan from heat, whisk in sugar and vanilla.
  3. Add pecans, stir just to incorporate.
  4. Pour praline over top of cake and spread to edges, working quickly to get even coverage before praline sets.

Cake will keep stored in an airtight container at room temperature for 3-5 days (and will stay incredibly moist, too!)

on a whim

As Spring quickly approaches, I’m finding that the evening meal has become a very relaxed affair. With daylight extending itself to an hour that allows for chatting with a glass of wine on the back deck after work, thoughts of dinner don’t start to cross the mind until the sun dips behind the trees and the temperature drops to a point that requires either a move inside or the addition of a lightweight sweater. It is only then that we notice the clock (and our bellies!) telling us that it is past 7pm, and time to pull something together in the kitchen.

I haven’t been planning our meals very far in advance, something that is unusual to my character. Typically our weekly menu is fully laid out by Saturday afternoon, neatly written in bright-white across our pantry doors coated with black chalkboard paint. I consider the menu carefully before finalizing my grocery list, receiving feedback from Brian and swapping days according to the longevity of ingredients to be purchased. The planned meals may vary slightly after Sunday’s trip to the store, when I discover that there are perfect golden beets that I hadn’t counted on calling my name, or that red cabbage has been particularly popular lately, and therefore its typical spot in the produce department is empty save for one sad, wilted purple leaf.

Lately our trips to the grocery have been more rushed than usual, the product of two very busy schedules finding only slivers of overlap in which to make the drive to and wander the aisles of the market. Oftentimes we wind up stopping in on our way to or from other errands, on days not typically designated as ‘grocery days’, leaving me standing in the middle of the produce department, overwhelmed and without a list. And so we rely on stand-by ingredients, items we purchase most weeks religiously, and add in whatever else looks or sounds good at that moment. I quickly assemble meals in my head, substituting ingredients in and out of pastas and soups, making sure that we’ll be able to use whatever we purchase and not be left with a bag full of yellow brussels sprouts at the end of the week. It still happens occasionally, but at least I try.

Which brings me back to the weeknight, post-7pm. Brian and I stand in our kitchen, him ravenous and me a little chilly, peering into the pantry and refrigerator, pulling out ingredients to assemble a spontaneous meal together. Our preferences are changing with the season, moving from heavy and hearty to light and bright.  ‘Quick’ is a new requirement now that we’re getting started on preparation later in the evening, and ‘warm’ still plays a role for me after having been outside, barefoot and sweater-less, after the sun has set. The results have been fantastic; pasta tossed with leftover chicken, local ham and a light parmesan broth; a mélange of roasted chickpeas, potatoes and brussels sprouts; an on-a-whim creamy soup of potatoes, parsnips and asparagus.

The best part has been creating these recipes, together, according to our own at-that-moment preferences rather than the recommendations of a book, magazine or blog.  It is easy, when I have a plan, to lose myself in the kitchen to the preparation of dinner, excusing Brian to take care of one of the many items on his ever-growing ‘to do’ list. But when there is no plan, and the task is to create quickly, we come at it from both sides, each tossing in our own suggestions to make a dish that is so much more than the sum of its parts.

I’ll admit that this egg drop soup is a recipe that has been in our repertoire for years, but it is so simple and satisfying, and we nearly always have its ingredients in our kitchen, that it is perfect for a spontaneous lunch or dinner.  It is not enough on its own, which lead to the creation of the vegetable fried rice variation below, on a whim.

Egg Drop Soup

serves 2

Ingredients

  • 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth, divided
  • chunk of fresh ginger root, 1/4-inch thick by 1-inch diameter
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh scallions
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 4 tsp cornstarch
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 egg yolk

Method

  1. Reserve 3/4 cup of the broth, and pour the rest into a large saucepan. Add the salt, ginger and scallions, and bring to a rolling boil.
  2. In a cup or small bowl, stir together the remaining broth and the cornstarch until smooth. Set aside.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and egg yolk together using a fork. Drizzle the egg a little at a time from the fork into the boiling broth mixture. The egg should cook immediately.
  4. Once all of the egg has been dropped, stir in the cornstarch mixture gradually until the soup is the desired consistency.

This dish was nearly spontaneous, the only forethought being that I made extra brown rice a few days prior, so that it would be ready and waiting in the fridge for some version of fried rice that had yet to be determined.  It just so happened that the night we decided to make egg drop soup was also the night that the leeks were starting to look a little haggard, and I wanted to use the brussels sprouts before they reached that same state.  Thus, a new star was born.

Fried Rice with Leeks and Brussels Sprouts

serves 6

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp peanut oil, divided
  • 2 medium leeks, sliced thinly
  • 1 pound brussels sprouts, ragged outer leaves removed, sliced thinly (a food processor is a wonderful tool for this task)
  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 4 cups steamed brown rice, cold (ideally, leftover from the night before)
  • sea salt and pepper to taste

Method

  1. Heat 1 tbsp of oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the sliced leeks and brussels sprouts, and saute’ until tender and bright green, about 5 minutes.  Remove from pan and set aside.
  2. Wipe skillet clean, then heat over high heat, until a drop of water vaporizes upon impact.  Add the remaining 1 tbsp peanut oil, swirling to coat pan evenly, and heat until just starting to smoke.  Add eggs, tilting pan and swirling eggs to form a thin, even layer, and cook for 30 seconds.  Add rice and stir-fry, breaking up eggs and letting rice rest several seconds between stirs, until rice is hot, about 2-3 minutes.
  3. Add the brussels sprouts and leeks, stir-frying to combine and heat through.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

ready and waiting

Many weeks ago, around the time of our last snowfall, I made a batch of bright, happy lemon curd. It was a chilly evening, but the sky was a lovely shade of blue dappled with streaky silver clouds, and the setting sun shone through the windows of our house at just the right angle. On our table sat a bowl full of Meyer lemons, so vibrant in color that they were closer to the shade of a tangerine than the typical pale, lemony yellow. Snow was forecast for the coming days, but it didn’t seem possible when you looked across the room at those orange globes streaked with the sun’s last rays.

The lemon curd was an effort to preserve some of that sunshine, to bottle it up and stash it away on a shelf in our fridge, ready and waiting for the gloomiest of days. 36 hours later, the snow started to fall…and fall and fall. Plump, wet flakes spiraling quickly and quietly from an endlessly gray sky, eventually coating the ground with a heavy, 15-inch blanket of white. After a quick run to the store for groceries and some DVDs, Brian and I settled in for the storm. Out came the lemon curd, with all of its promise of warmer days, ready to spread over almond scones just pulled from the oven. It continued to make appearances over the next week, on all manner of baked goods and even swirled into a bit of Greek yogurt, topped with thawed blackberries leftover from last Summer’s harvest.

Recently, we’ve had a few rainy, gray days here in Charlottesville.  I haven’t minded so much, really. The constant thrum of tiny drops hitting metal gutters has been quite soothing, and the misty air feels nice on skin dried from over-usage of our heater these last few months.  The temperature has been fairly warm with highs in the 50’s, leaving me thankful that it’s been rain falling from the sky rather than sleet or snow.  I can handle slipping on boots and a light waterproof jacket to dash outside to the car, rather than boots and coat and scarf and hat and gloves.  That gets a little old.

I did find myself craving sunshine yesterday afternoon though, and for some reason convinced myself that there must be some of this lemon curd still stashed away at the back of the refrigerator. After much rummaging and removing and rearranging I disappointedly concluded that, in fact, there was no remaining curd to be found. It was a silly thought, anyway, because any that was left would surely have been spoiled after weeks in a forgotten corner of the fridge. But still, I really, really wanted this curd.

And so I jumped onto Bella Eats to track down the recipe, going back through the last few weeks of posts to find the one where I’d shared it with you. And I realized, I never did! How silly of me, when Meyer lemons have been at their peak, when their deep golden flesh calls to you from across the produce department, begging you to take them home so that they can grace your fruit bowl with their beauty. Not that you need an excuse to purchase them, but if you’re looking for one, this is it.

Now go, hurry to the store, buy a bag of plump Meyer lemons before they disappear until next Winter, and make a pot of this lemon curd. We’ve got rainy Spring days ahead, and everybody can use a little sunshine in their fridge.

Lemon Curd

from Gourmet, December 2003

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp finely grated fresh lemon zest
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cut into bits
  • 2 tbsp cornstarch
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 4 large egg yolks

Method

  1. Simmer lemon juice, zest, sugar, butter, cornstarch and salt in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over moderately high heat, whisking constantly for 1 minute.
  2. Lightly beat eggs in a small bowl, then add 1/4 cup of lemon mixture, whisking constantly.  Add yolk mixture to remaining lemon mixture on stovetop, then reduce heat to low and cook, whisking constantly, until curd is thick enough to hold marks of whisk, about 2 minutes.
  3. Transfer to a bowl and cover surface with plastic wrap.  Chill.

The almond scones weren’t quite right yet, so I’ll share the recipe once I’ve tweaked it a bit more.  In the meantime, if you’re craving scones, these citrus scones with cranberries and ginger are quite delicious this time of year…

the clearest route

Why, hello March! How sneaky of you, creeping up behind me quickly and quietly, propelling past February’s tail just outside of my peripheral vision. It was nice of you to bring gifts – warm, sunshine-filled afternoons set against a bright, sapphire sky.

Walking through the park on Thursday, I noticed that beds are filled with the lime green leaves of young daffodils, and the tiny bell-shaped snowdrops are in full bloom. I even unbuttoned my coat, let it drape open to expose my sweater-clad chest, loosening the protective shell I’ve encased my body in for months.

Friday morning I glanced out my kitchen window and a bright spot of yellow caught my eye. Crocuses(!), peeking out from underneath a layer of leaves and mulch.

And yesterday, out taking care of errands with Brian, wandering in and out of shops, I had to dig my sunglasses out from their hiding place in our car. Oh Ray-Bans, how I’ve missed you!

As I write this, there is bright southern light streaming through the back door of my kitchen, the pattern of the glass casting a gridded shadow across the floor. And the window right over the sink, open as wide as it will go, grants permission to the cool breeze to filter through, picking up the scent of banana bread before moving on to the rest of the house. So motivating, the near-Spring feel of the space is calling to me, luring me to the pantry to gather ingredients for my next project.

I am constantly amazed at the affect that weather has on moods, on preferences, on behavior.

I am inspired to cook again, to browse my books and magazines in search of the perfect use for the local spring produce arriving any week now. Arugula and swiss chard, broccoli and kale. Green, green and more green.

The need to see something grow, to cover my hands with soil and coax tiny seeds to life, is overwhelming. The desire to walk out my back door with clippers in hand, returning with arms full of fresh produce, is palpable. Soon, so very soon.

Oh, and we’ve been talking about moving. Wanting to start over on a new (old) house, to tackle different renovation projects and to pick out brighter paint colors. I am addicted to our local real estate site, checking my email for new listings first thing each morning.

And then there’s photography, which I’ve been practicing regularly. Photographs of people and flowers and jewelry and food are popping up on my newly established Flickr page. It seems that inspiration is everywhere, and I am desperate to capture it all.

It’s a very nice change, this desire to invent, to create, to produce in place of the urge to sit still with a mind devoid of motivation. I credit the Spring-ish weather, feeling as if I am emerging from hibernation, stretching my legs and taking confident strides towards goals set with the new year. Some personal, some professional. Some big, some small. All important.

At any given moment my mind is flickering between half a dozen thoughts, trying to decide which to settle on and move forward with.  I am often overwhelmed, the trails in front of me not entirely clear and me standing at the head of them with my shoes laced up, ready to go but not sure of which to choose.

But when the kitchen is an option, it is undoubtably the route that I embark on.  Always the clearest, with a succinct set of instructions to accompany me, the outcomes are mostly joyous. Even if I get lost. And then there’s that southern light, and the crisp breeze, and the possibility of banana-scented air.  Who can say no to that?

And so, in this time of overwhelming possibility I’ve busied myself with baking, covering my hands (and face, and hair, and thighs) with flour, watching cakes and cookies rise to gentle domes through the oven door. I enjoy the satisfaction of this productivity, of harnessing some of the energy emanating from the Earth as it prepares for this next season, directing it towards bowls of sifted sugar and flour, creamed butter and silky eggs. As my hands work to chop walnuts and mash bananas my mind is able to wander, to slowly wrap itself around all those other thoughts, to sort through and file them away for a different time when the sun isn’t shining through the window quite so perfectly.

This cake, while not the prettiest kid on the block, certainly has the possibility of being the most popular with its stellar personality. So dense, so moist, the banana-scented crumb is perfectly balanced with dark chocolate and toasty walnuts. I brought it in to share with my office, a group notoriously hesitant about sweets, and it was polished off within a day.  That says something, something very good, I assure you.

banana cake with dark chocolate and walnuts

from gourmet, february 2008

serves 8-10

Ingredients

  • 2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened, plus 2 tbsp, melted and cooled
  • 1 cup sugar, divided
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1-1/4 cups mashed very ripe bananas (about 3 medium)
  • 2/3 cup fat-free, vanilla, greek yogurt
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 (3-1/2 to 4-ounce) bar bittersweet chocolate, or 1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 1 cup walnuts, toasted, cooled and coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 375* with rack in middle.  Butter a 9-inch square cake pan.
  2. Stir together flour, baking soda and salt.
  3. Beat together softened butter (1 stick) and 3/4 cup sugar in a medium bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy.  Beat in eggs one at a time until blended. Beat in bananas, yogurt and vanilla (mixture will look curdled).
  4. With mixer at low speed, add flour mixture and blend until just incorporated.
  5. Toss together chocolate, nuts, cinnamon, melted butter and remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a small bowl.  Spread half of banana batter in cake pan and sprinkle with half of chocolate mixture.  Spread remaining batter evenly over filling and sprinkle remaining chocolate mixture on top.
  6. Bake until cake is golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35-40 minutes.  Cool cake completely before cutting.

retail relay

Charlottesville folks, have you heard of Retail Relay?  I had my first experience with the company last week, and am so impressed by the service they are providing to local consumers and businesses.  It’s a one-stop shopping experience for most of your favorite local food providers, at no additional cost to you.  Our order included items from Foods of all Nations, Feast, The Organic Butcher, Belle Haven Farm Bakery and Mona Lisa Pasta. I’ll be doing a post about the experience soon, but wanted to extend a coupon code they’ve offered my readers as soon as possible.

**For $10 off your Retail Relay order of $50 or more, enter ‘bellaeats‘ in the coupon bar on the online order form.**