I have expressed in the past — oh, one, two, three, four, five, or perhaps 500 times — my adoration of cakes where the layers are thin and many and you have my word that one day, I will get to all of them so please tell me about your favorite here and now. For many years, I fiddled with ways to make cake layers thinner and thinner until I probably exasperated everyone, so it was just in the nick of time that I realized if I began with cookie-ish layers (say, soft macaroons or icebox cookies the size of cakes), and filled them with something fluffy that would soften them into “cakes” (whipped cream and its variants), it got easy enough that we could make them more often, which, after all, is the goal. Cookies aren’t limited by the number or size of your cake pans. Cookies can break and still stack into an excellent cake.
So, ahem [taps on microphone]… In the summer of 2014 I announced that I had not learned my lesson the first time and would be writing another cookbook. My editor and agent told me the second book always goes faster; it’s like they didn’t think I’d rise to the challenge. This 2015 release might have had some (tiny, adorable) effect on a rain-checked 2016 release, but as the first Smitten Kitchen Cookbook approaches its 5th birthday, the wildest thing has happened: this second book I promised you is (at last) out of my hands and headed to the printers.
Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant & Unfussy New Favorites will be released on October 24th and I cannot wait to share it with you. I hope more than anything that it’s worth the wait.
About a year ago, over a series of weekends I was up too early anyway, I went on a buttermilk pancake-making bender. I tried, well, not all, but several of the recipes I always read about, the loftys and the fluffys and the best-evers. I used, in turn, cornstarch and vinegar and unseemly amounts of butter, I separated egg whites, I rested batters, and every single one of these pancakes was consumed by happy children but not a-one of them stayed as tall as they left the pan for more than a few minutes and I was gravely disappointed. It was very possibly user error; all pancakes were made before 8:30 a.m. on weekends, pre-coffee. Regardless, I tabled it and moved on.
Recently, in an attempt to extract myself from the 1008-page book I began in the fall and needed to accept I was probably never going to cross the halfway point of, I read Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. I honestly didn’t know the narrator was a food writer going into it but this made it even more delightful.* (I promise, I’m getting somewhere with this.) In some passage that I now cannot find, she essentially says that there are very few truly new recipes, that most things have been made well before, and this led me to send my kid to take down the 1896 Fannie Farmer cookbook with and look up her pancake recipe. “It’s not in here.” “Yes, it is. Look in the index.” [I think library science lessons are a small price to pay for pancakes, don’t you?] “I did, there are no pancakes.” But I knew there were pancakes in there and grabbed the book from him and hrm, he was totally right, there were no “pancakes,” but there were many recipes for “griddle cakes.”
I realize that spring is supposed to be all flowers and pastels, lightness and lemon zest, but all of these cool, rainy days in the last month make me crave winter spices, no matter how many tomatoes and herbs I have planted this week (so many, eee) in hopes, despite all historical evidence, that this is the year I excel at container gardening. And so when a teacher at my son’s school brought me a bag of the most gorgeous, deeply red rhubarb (I really am this lucky), I knew immediately that this cake would have buttery, lightly caramelized stripe-y rhubarb topping draped over it. If you’re ever asking yourself if it’s been too long since you had an upside-down cake, the answer is always yes.
I have learned over the last couple years that there are people — smart, interesting people that I love very much — who do not care for rhubarb. They are not charmed by its perfect coloration (ranging from shimmery garnet through millennial pink and straight through to mossy green), its tart flavor that sings against vanilla and lemon and anchors the sometimes cotton candy-sweetness strawberries so you can better taste them, or by the fact that unlike anything else in my real life (hair, clothes, apartment), it’s incapable of looking bad. They do not see rhubarb as a sign that we’re near done with last winter’s vegetables and that berry season is nigh. They find it jammy or stringy or too wet or depressingly gray once cooked.
A side-effect of doing this cooking thing for 10+ years is that people seem to imagine I’m so sort of domestic diva, eating only homemade bread and milling my own grains and not just someone with an obsessive streak when it comes to making things exactly the way she wants them. Even though I’d love to live in some alternate universe where I’d always have time and energy to make my own, I’m unbothered by frozen breaded chicken things (erm, occasionally), tortellini, boxed stocks, and canned beans; the freezer almost always contains the first two (lunchbox heroes!) and the cabinets, the latter, which is why when friend told me a couple weeks ago kind of sotto voce, almost like a confession, the other day that she’d never cooked her own dried beans, I couldn’t even rouse myself to gasp in faux horreur.
But, I’ve been thinking since about when I bother cooking dried beans and when I absolutely do not and for me, when the beans are one ingredient among many or even with hummus, canned beans suit my needs perfectly. At times when you really want beans to be the star, and I’m going to make the argument that these could and should be, if you can find the time, it’s usually not as much as you think. I was shocked to find my (purchased 15 months ago) dried chickpeas that I’d soaked a little over 24 hours, totally softened after 20 minutes of simmering time, although I’d consider closer to 1 hour the norm. The benefit to cooking beans from scratch is not just deeper flavor but that you get to cook other flavors all the way into the beans, not just add them at the end as an afterthought.
Now that I’ve gotten a few bigger projects out of the way — hooray! And more soon on all of that, eee — I have a little more time again to do the things I like: read books with pages, fuss endlessly over our charges, get excited about summer events (I might make another wedding cake!), this year’s container gardening attempts, what color lipstick Refinery29 says was all the rage at Coachella this year (if I’m being completely honest) and more relevantly, cooking. Brainstorming earlier this week, Sara, who helps (I mean, she tries, she has only so many superpowers) keep me organized, said she’d had a really go pistachio cake at a coffee shop recently and I immediately wanted to try my hand at my own.
In my mind, the perfect pistachio cake would be absolutely green (my favorite color) with pistachio intensity, ideally with even more pistachios than flour but require no pistachio paste (not available everywhere and certainly not at, say, Sicilian quality), multiple bowls, or finicky steps. Usually, I start with recipes I’ve made before, trying to extract what I liked about them and apply them to something new, but I didn’t have a preferred template yet for a good, very nutty pound cake yet so I started pulling down books until I found ones that sounded promising. I landed on two, in fact, one from Yossy Arefi’s Sweeter Off The Vine and one from Rose Carrarini of Rose Bakery’s Breakfast, Lunch, Tea. They were so different, I had to make both. The first one was tender, moist, and honestly perfect, although I immediately wanted to swap out some flour with more pistachios to fulfill my dark green cake hopes and dreams. The second, which indeed had way more pistachios than flour, ended up so buttery, I am not even exaggerating when I say I could have wrung it out. I didn’t know where to go from there so I did something weird: I made some tweaks and averaged the recipes together. Like, grade school math. They teach this technique in cooking school, right?