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Our Own Lives | Spring Panzanella

Our Own Lives | Spring Panzanella

Spring Panzanella | Delightful CrumbI’ve been frustrated lately with the food media—that is, the larger publications that (still) drive the category, not blogs or independent zines or the like. I know I’m not the only one: Tim Mazurek and Amelia Morris are two people who quickly come to mind for their thoughtful critiques of food media and culture (which are sprinkled throughout blog and Instagram posts containing excellent writing and recipes and all that other good stuff). And this isn’t really anything new for me, but my complaints right now are specific. My sense is that food publications, and the realm of food/beverage/lifestyle media more generally, are responding to a surface-level idea of what people want, and the resulting content is rather uninspiring. And also pretentious, and generally unhelpful.

Case in point: the May issue of Bon Appétit focused on travel, highlighting excursions and recipes from such places as Taiwan, London, some cool city in British Columbia called Tofino and, of course, Oaxaca, the it-girl of the moment (I could focus more specifically on the problems with the current, sudden, surface-level obsession with Mexican life and culture, but I’ll save that rant for another day). This is not a terrible concept, and there were some okay articles and good recipes included in the issue. I also see the logic: people love to look at other people’s Instagram photos of travel and adventure and meals! It’s one of our favorite pastimes, isn’t it?! Yes. Sure. We like looking at pictures of other people’s beautiful lives…kind of. Except that it makes us sad and jealous and less present in our own lives. I don’t believe we’re actually looking for more: more images of gorgeous meals at hot new restaurants in cities we don’t live in, more articles about far-off destination we can’t afford to visit, another picture of a beautiful, skinny white girl with the perfect shade of lipstick holding, but not eating, a bright pink popsicle (sorry—paleta). Why not a guide to planning a stellar weekend getaway that can be adapted to any part of the world, or a 101 to road-tripping across the country, or a simple primer for traveling well in Europe? Why not offer something general that would be exciting and useful, not just “aspirational”?

I think we are tired of wishing we were doing other things, living other lives, being other people. I think we actually want advice and inspiration—strike that: just a little encouragement!—for living our own lives, with our own partners and babies and friends, in the perhaps imperfect spaces in which we live, in whatever city we might call home, with the jobs we’ve got right now. I don’t want to be “inspired” if the definition of the word is, apparently, to be jealous of other people’s lives. I want to be encouraged to live my life—my imperfect, messy, confusing, technicolor, wild and wonderful, beautiful life. People actually want help packing good lunches, and coming up with an idea for dinner tonight, and making vegetables taste fantastic, and figuring out how to fit all this into a busy schedule. When I cook for friends and family, the thing I am asked about most is how I make salad dressing, and/or how I build a tasty, interesting salad. I get questions about the simplest food that I post on Instagram: grain bowls and pretty toasts and simple quick breads and the like. It’s the advice I seek as well—how did my friend Celia make that classic creamed kale at Thanksgiving, and that dreamy risotto before that, and what are her tips for assembling such perfectly satisfying spreads of appetizers and picnic provisions? How did our chefs at Good Eggs keep such staples as crème frâiche and sourdough starter brewing at all times? What’s the trick to keeping all of those lacy ends tucked into the poached egg on my restaurant toast? Why are my mom’s blueberry muffins and my grandmother’s rhubarb pies still the best I’ve had? It’s not the fancy, complicated, time-consuming stuff that’s most attractive at the end of the day, but the everyday good stuff.

Let me be fair, Bon Appétit does address these questions occasionally. They have a dinner column that I think is great, and a new “Healthyish” initiative that is sometimes annoying but actually very much aligned with what and how I like to eat. And maybe what I’m envisioning is too idealistic and wouldn’t sell magazines. But in this moment of food mania, I’m keeping the bar high. I think they could do better. I think a lot of publications could.

On a brighter note, I can tell you who IS doing better, and that is Samin Nosrat! Ironically enough, there’s an article about her and a crop of lovely recipes she wrote in the June issue of Bon Appétit, so good on them for that. But what I really think you should do is seek out her new cookbook, SALT FAT ACID HEATwhether you want to learn the basics of cooking, or you are a very good cook but want to better understand the principles behind the techniques you know, or you just like clever illustrations. Samin outlines the principles behind great cooking—salt, fat, acid and heat, as you may have guessed—and she explains not just how they work but why. It’s a primer based on all she learned from years cooking at Chez Panisse and elsewhere, traveling the world and teaching these techniques to others, not least our man Michael Pollan. And Samin is a fantastic teacher, the sort who roots for you and wants you to succeed. It’s a bit of an investment to actually sit down and read this whole book, but for those who are curious about cooking or working on improving, it’s entirely worthwhile—and super charming to boot, thanks to illustrations by the very talented Wendy MacNaughton.

Because Samin really does want you to learn how to cook, the book also includes lots of variations with each specific recipe. The whipped cream recipe, for example, includes a full 19 variations on that theme! It also includes fantastic tips that you’ll remember well beyond the first time you follow the specific instructions here, like putting your bowl and whisks in the freezer before you get going. For this panzanella recipe, Samin offers an iteration for each season, which is great because we should definitely be eating panzanella beyond tomato season. The crouton recipe included here includes a cheesy variation that I tested back when the book was still in development, and those were, no joke, the most perfect croutons I’ve ever eaten.

The point, though, is that this is a book about being a cook, not dreaming of cooking in another life that isn’t yours. There is a time and place for that sort of thing, I realize, and I own plenty of cookbooks that I happily flip through but don’t often use. But what I think we need now is more of this: empowerment and tips and kindness and a really good dinner.

So pick this one up if you want to live your own life…with, perhaps, just slightly better food. As a start, here’s that killer salad.

Spring Panzanella | Delightful Crumb

Spring Panzanella with Asparagus, Feta & Mint

Slightly adapted from Samin Nosrat’s SALT FAT ACID HEAT

Serves 4 generously as a side, or 2 generously as a main

Salt

1/2 medium red onion, sliced thinly

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, plus additional

1 1/2 pounds asparagus (about 1 1/2 or 2 bunches), woody ends removed

4 cups torn croutons (recipe follows)

Somewhere around 25-30 large mint leaves

3 ounces feta cheese, plus additional for topping if desired

Batch of red wine vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Set a large pot of water on to boil over high heat. Season it with salt until it tastes like the summer sea (that is a direct, wonderful quote from Samin). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

In a small bowl, toss the sliced onion with the vinegar. Set aside and let the mixture sit for at least 20 minutes.

If the asparagus is thicker than a pencil, “stripey peel” it: press lightly with a vegetable peeler, removing just the outermost skin from about 1 inch below the blossom to the base. Then, slice the asparagus on a bias into 1 1/2-inch segments. Blanch the asparagus in boiling water until it’s just tender, about 3 minutes, less if it is very thin. Taste a piece to determine doneness: it should have a faint crunch in the center. Drain and allow to cool in a single layer on the prepared baking sheets.

In a large salad bowl, combine half of the croutons with about 1/3 cup of vinaigrette. Let them sit for 10 minutes.

Add the remaining croutons, asparagus and macerated onions with their vinegar. Tear the mint leaves in small pieces, and add those, too. Crumble in the feta in large pieces. Dress with an additional 1/3 cup vinaigrette and seasons well with salt, then taste. Adjust the seasoning with more salt, vinaigrette and extra vinegar as needed. Toss, taste again, and serve at room temperature. A final sprinkling of feta and/or more mint leaves on top make for a pretty presentation.

For the torn croutons

Makes 8 cups (about twice what you need for the recipe above)

1-pound loaf of country or sourdough bread, preferably day old

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. If you want particularly tooth-friendly croutons, remove some or all of the crusts of the bread. Cut the loaf into inch-thick slices. Cut each slice into inch-wide strips. Working over a large bowl, tear each strip into inch-size pieces. You can also tear croutons directly off the loaf, but this method helps get more even but still rustic croutons.

Toss the croutons with the olive oil to coat them evenly, then spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet or two. You want them to have plenty of space so that they don’t trap steam, so an extra sheet is usually worthwhile.

Toast the croutons in the oven for about 18 to 22 minutes, checking them after 8 minutes. Rotate the pans, switch their oven positions, and use a metal spatula to turn and rotate the croutons so that they brown evenly. Once they begin to brown, start checking every few minutes, continuing to rotate and turn. Bake the croutons until they’re golden brown and crunchy on the outside, with just a bit of chew on the inside. If some are done while others still need time, start removing them as you check their progress.

Taste a crouton, and sprinkle the warm croutons with a pinch of salt if desired.

When the croutons are done, let them cool in a single layer on the baking sheet(s). Use immediately, or keep in an airtight container for up to a few days. Refresh stale croutons in a 400-degree oven for 3 or 4 minutes.

Note: That cheesy variation I mentioned? Just add 3 ounces (about 1 cup) of finely grated Parmesan and lots of coarsely ground black pepper after you toss the bread with the olive oil. Toss well, and then proceed as directed above.

For the red wine vinaigrette

Makes about 1 cup (a bit more than you’ll need for the recipe above)

2 tablespoons finely diced shallot or red onion

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt

Freshly cracked black pepper

In a small bowl or jar, let the shallot or onion sit in the vinegar for about 15 minutes to macerate, then add the olive oil, a generous pinch of salt, and a small pinch of pepper. Stir or shake to combine, then taste and adjust salt and acid as needed. Leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

An Italian Bread for Easter | Potizza al Dragoncello

An Italian Bread for Easter | Potizza al Dragoncello

Potizza | Delightful CrumbThis past summer, I had the amazing opportunity to go to Italy for work. My boss and I traversed the north of the country, gathering information to build classes and content we’d share with our members. It was a fantastic experience. I hadn’t been to Europe for years, and I also hadn’t “learned experientially,” as I like to call it, for a very long time. Exhausted after a full day, I’d realize how much information I’d picked up along the way. It was like an adult field trip. We also ate and drank extraordinarily well, a not-insignificant perk of the job.

There is a lot I could say about that trip—so much that for months, I had an awful time trying to write anything about it beyond what landed in my journal. It was such a meaningful experience for me, and though it seems backwards, the things that matter most tend to be the hardest to put into words.

But that’s not the only reason for the long delay in writing this: I had to figure out the potizza. Let me back up.

On this trip, we crossed nearly the whole northern part of the country by car. We watched the landscape morph and change, actually grasped how far one place was from the next, stayed in a variety of cities large and small. We started in Turin and went west first, then reversed course and came east. At the far edge of the country, we arrived in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy’s last stop before Slovenia. We pulled off the highway and started down winding roads en route to our destination for the night. Rounding a corner, we were suddenly confronted with the most amazing view: vibrant green rolling hills dotted with deep brown houses, vineyards twisting through the landscape, dark hills hovering at the horizon topped with puffy white clouds. I will never forget that moment. I swear to you, this place looks like something out of the pages of a fairy tale.

i Clivi | Delightful CrumbAnd then we arrived at La Subida, in the comune of Cormons, part of the province of Gorizia. I have been to few places so charming as this. La Subida is a hotel of sorts—a rustic, upscale bed and breakfast, you could say. Sitting amidst the vineyards of the Collio Goriziano, it’s made up of a bunch of little houses and structures tucked into the woods on both sides of the road. They have horses and gardens and trails and two excellent restaurants and bright yellow Vespas you can rent to tour around for the day. We checked in with Mitja Sirk, whose family owns the place, and he jumped on his bicycle to lead us to our rooms down the street. When my boss and I met back up for dinner, he said he’d just texted his wife to tell her he’d someday bring her here. I’d texted Ben the very same thing. That’s the kind of place this is, one that begs to be shared with the person you love.

But it wasn’t just La Subida. I was enamored with the whole region, which felt like magic. In the morning, I would run down the trails near my room, turning a corner to see an epic landscape, literally running through vineyards, stopping to admire a four-inch slug, my shoes sticking in bright red clay wet from the rains. I loved every winery visit, too, where the winemakers were thoughtful and fascinating and humble and sweet. I highly recommend the wines of i Clivi, Borgo del Tiglio and Skerk, producers with vastly different but equally earnest styles. (More on that here, if you’re interested in geeky wine info as well as baked goods.)

Dinner at La Subida, where Mitja oversees a fantastic wine cellar, was refined yet rustic. But breakfast was exceptional, too. The spread included thick local yogurt with lots of toppings: big pumpkin seeds, fat raw hazelnuts, poached prunes, various jams. There were breads and cheeses and cured meats and fruits. And there were pastries. Every morning there were several different ones, usually a fruit tart with perfectly latticed pastry, a dense cake and an option more akin to a bread. They were humble and not too sweet, just my kind of treat. In the three days we were there, I sampled a few; all were lovely.

La Subida | Delightful CrumbBack home, still thinking fondly of Fruili, I asked Mitja if he might be able to share a recipe for one of their morning baked goods. Generously, he did. It was for a cake that had caught my attention, a yeasted affair with swirls of a slightly sweet herb spiraling throughout. Mitja explained that this was potizza, a bread made with fresh ricotta and dragoncello, a local variant of tarragon.

The recipe he gave me was written in Italian, for an enormous quantity of cake. It called for brewers yeast and included a line that translated to “give it the shape of potica.” Clearly, I had some work to do.

Research revealed that the bread goes by various names depending on the country: putiza or potizza (Italian), potica (Slovenian) and povitica (Croatian). It is a yeasted dough that’s rolled thinly, filled, tucked into a pan (various shapes are acceptable) and baked. The most common and traditional filling is a mixture of walnuts with honey or sugar.

But the ricotta and tarragon cake is special and, as far as I can tell, limited to a very small corner of the region. I found only one English-language reference in my searching, from the Wikipedia entry for tarragon: “In Slovenia, tarragon is used in a variation of the traditional nut roll sweet cake, called potica.” The bread, Mitja explained, was historically made for Easter, blessed that day, and eaten for luck. Only the rich could afford the ricotta and herbs; those with less means simply made the bread.

It took me a few rounds, but I have a beautiful recipe to share, just in time for Easter. The tarragon adds a lovely and unexpected savory note, with hints of licorice and an herbal sweetness. It swirls through the bread, reminiscent of the green hills of Friuli. I’m totally charmed every time I make it, swept right back to that magical place.

And this is something I love: there’s this tiny corner of Italy I once knew nothing about that enchanted me more than I can possibly express, where Italy’s culture and history bump up into Slovenia’s, and the hills curve and roll from one tiny town to the next, and a drive down the street might take you over the border and back. In this breathtaking region, people eat a variation on a rolled sweet pastry that isn’t replicated anywhere else in the world, along with frico and beautiful pastas and local cheeses, all washed down with white wines of various stripes and rustic Schioppettino and bracingly bitter amaro. And I had no idea that it existed.

What a wonder, this world.

Happy Easter, my friends.

Potizza | Delightful CrumbPotizza | Delightful Crumb

Potizza al Dragoncello

Adapted from a recipe by La Subida, with thanks to Mitja Sirk

I really recommend a stand mixer for this dough; it’s quite firm and takes time to come together. I imagine you could do without, using your hands to knead if you have the strength and time, but I haven’t tried this yet myself. Let me know if you do!

I’ve given a range for the amount of ricotta. The original recipe called for 16 ounces, but as I tested the recipe, I inadvertently purchased containers at other weights, and I’ve had good luck with 12, 15 and 16 ounces. The more ricotta you use, the more fragile the cake, so you can go with less for an easier time—or just pick up whatever is handy at the store. Regardless, do spring for something of high quality, a ricotta that is tasty on its own and not too grainy.

I like to use a springform pan so that I can remove the cake easily for serving—it’s beautiful, after all! Make sure your pan has at least three-inch sides.

For the dough

500g/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional

75g/generous 1/3 cup sugar

1 packet (7g/about 2 1/4 teaspoons) instant yeast

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup whole milk

3 egg yolks

100g/3.5 ounces unsalted European butter, at room temperature, plus additional

For the filling

150g/3/4 cup sugar

Zest of 2 lemons

2 small bunches or 1 very large bunch of tarragon, about 30g, finely chopped (yields about 20-25g chopped leaves)

340-450g/12-16 ounces ricotta, drained if at all watery

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine the flour, sugar, yeast and salt. Mix gently as you add the milk in a steady stream. Then add the egg yolks, one at a time, followed by the butter in three additions.

Mix on a higher speed until the dough comes together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. This will take several minutes, so be patient.

Form the dough into a smooth, soft ball using your hands. Place it in a large, clean bowl and cover it with a clean dish towel. Let the dough rest in a very warm place until doubled, 60 to 90 minutes.

Shape the dough into three balls, about 320g each. Let them rest for another 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, add the lemon zest and chopped tarragon leaves to the 150g sugar. Blend them together with your fingers until fragrant. Fold in the ricotta and the vanilla.

Once the balls of dough have puffed up, on a lightly floured surface, roll out one ball of dough very thinly (about half a centimeter) into a large rectangle. It should be at least 12 inches on the shorter side. Spread a thin layer of the ricotta mixture on the dough (about 2/3 cups). Roll up the dough into a log, as you would if making cinnamon rolls, and squeeze the dough together at the ends so that the ricotta mixture doesn’t leak out.

Butter a 10-inch pan with at least 3-inch sides. Place the log of dough into the pan, then repeat the rolling and filling process with the other two balls of dough. The loaf will look beautiful no matter what, but if you’re looking for some direction, I usually curve the first log along the side of the pan, then overlap the second somewhat so the ends don’t line up, and keep going around the pan. I swirl the last one nicely in the center. Tuck in the ends as you go, and make sure your pan isn’t filled higher than the brim.

Let the dough rise again, for 45 to 60 minutes, until it has expanded in the pan, then bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes. If the cake is browning too quickly, tent it with foil for the last 5 to 10 minutes.

Set the cake on a rack to cool completely before removing from the pan, slicing and sharing!

La Subida | Delightful Crumb

You Are Alive | Cardamom Doughnut-ish Tea Cakes

You Are Alive | Cardamom Doughnut-ish Tea Cakes

Doughnut Tea Cakes | Delightful CrumbI was talking with friends the other night about narrow escapes—dramatic ones, where we might not have made it but did. There were a few harrowing stories, most notably from our friend who, back in some wilder time before we knew him, used to street race à la The Fast and the Furious. He’s a pretty mellow dude these days, so I have an awfully hard time imagining this, but apparently that’s the truth.

I don’t have any dramatic stories (thank God), but I feel this way all the time—like every day that I make it is a miracle. I imagine this is a more common experience for those of us who are anxious. There are so many things that could go wrong and do, for so many people, without rhyme or reason. When they don’t, I honestly feel as though I narrowly missed being hit by a bus. All of a sudden, I find myself standing in a room, going about my day, walking out in the the sunshine, and I realize I’m alive, and it didn’t have to be this way. It’s the feeling of sitting in the doctor’s office, hearing you’re okay. All of those awful things you feared would happen…didn’t. It’s like springtime, bursting forth when you’d stopped even hoping it would come.

(This week, I listened all the way through the seven episodes of S-Town, the incredible new podcast from This American Life and Serial. Among other things, it made me think about how the very experience of life can sometimes feel like an “insurmountable challenge.” I’ll say nothing more for fear of ruining the surprises, but if you are a lover of story and/or podcasts…go listen.)

Sometimes I am struck by how deeply I experience things, how immediate and intense my life feels to me, and I cannot wrap my mind around the fact that this is what we’re all experiencing, millions and millions of us on this planet, all the time.

And this is why I think it’s important to eat cake. Because you are here, and you are alive, today, right now. This particular recipe comes from the cookbook by Jessica Koslow of Sqirl fame, which is titled Everything I Want to Eat. And you know, sometimes it’s okay to do that—to eat everything you want to eat. There are times for diets, sure, but especially for the generally healthy among us, there are lots of times for no diets. There’s a big difference between eating wholesome food and some of the toxic “health” trends that sweep through the internet and our lives these days. I’m not immune to all of this, of course, so my I-can-hardly-believe-I’m-alive moments of revelation are always helpful in kicking me in the rear and reminding me that I should enjoy, as best I can, every moment of life that I’m given. And this includes midday cake, scones, elevenses, etc., which probably top the list of things that make me inexplicably happy.

Koslow’s cookbook has gorgeous salads and delicious things on thick slabs of toast and also dessert, and frankly that IS exactly what I want to eat. I will take my turmeric tonic with a side of cake, thank you very much.

These tea cakes remind me of my childhood, though they’re entirely different from the treat they call to mind. My mom baked amazing old-fashioned cinnamon-and-sugar-coated doughnuts that we all gobbled up when I was a kid. It was a family recipe, and she’d make them for my grandfather, her father, and he’d savor them, keeping them in the freezer and eating them one at a time until they were gone. I like to think of him eating those doughnuts, enjoying his life.

As their name suggests, these little cakes are seriously reminiscent of doughnuts. I must admit that I am not indiscriminately fond of doughnuts, but these charmed even me. They have the sugared coating of a doughnut but the dense crumb of a tea cake. They are excellent at any time of day. They will remind you that you are alive, and that this is something to celebrate.

Doughnut Tea Cakes | Delightful Crumb

Cardamom Doughnut-ish Tea Cakes

From Jessica Koslow’s Everything I Want to Eat (aka the Sqirl cookbook)

Makes 12

These really, truly are “doughnut-ish”—strikingly so! They are best soon after they’re made, but they last a couple of days, tightly wrapped, and reheat nicely in a low oven.

For the tea cakes

10 tablespoons (150 g) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for the muffin tin

2 cups (255 g) all-purpose flour

2/3 cup (135 g) sugar

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 large egg

1 cup (240 ml) whole milk

For the topping

1/3 cup (65 g) sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

Pinch of fine sea salt

Unsalted butter, melted (a couple of tablespoons should do the trick)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Butter the bottom surfaces (not the sides) of a standard muffin tin.

In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients: flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cardamom and salt.

In a smaller bowl, crack the egg, then whisk to break it up. Gradually add the melted butter and milk, whisking. Pour the wet mix into the dry one, stirring with a spatula until just combined. It’s okay if the batter is somewhat lumpy.

Scoop the batter evenly into the muffin tin, filling each well about three-quarters full. Bake until the tops are light golden brown and spring back when you press them, about 25 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes in the tin.

Meanwhile, make the topping. Stir together the sugar, cinnamon, cardamom and salt. Put the melted butter in a small bowl. Once the cakes are cooled somewhat, turn them out of the tins, using a knife to loosen the sides if necessary. Dip each top into the melted butter, being sure the whole muffin top gets coated in butter, then into the cinnamon sugar. Brush any bald patches with melted butter and dip into the sugar again.

These are best eaten immediately but can be stored overnight, wrapped tightly.

Nothing Like This | A Few Old Favorites

Nothing Like This | A Few Old Favorites

Chocolate Rosemary Cake | Delightful CrumbA recent evening, after a long, lingering dinner with a friend, I came home not quite ready to turn in for the night, hopped up on soul-filling conversation and good, simple food. I pulled out a few cookbooks I hadn’t looked at in some time and started flipping through, looking for a cake recipe for an upcoming dinner party. Unwittingly, I’d chosen several cookbooks that were my staples when I was first starting to really love food and cooking, when I was 23 or so, living in Grand Rapids in an apartment all my own, single but falling for Ben, dreaming of the ways my life might unfold. That night, sitting on my couch in Oakland, California, cookbook open in my hands, I was flooded with nostalgia. Memories of food are so visceral and powerful, tied to much more than just a dish on a plate. Flipping through these cookbooks, passing recipes I recall making for the first time, others I made many times over, I was brought right back to my little orange kitchen, to my amazement at yogurt cakes and rustic tarts and diverse flours and runny yolks and creamy polenta. I was reminded how far I’ve come when it comes to my food knowledge and skill, shocked to realize that cookbooks I relied on back then don’t have weight measurements for baking, and that an olive oil cake was novel to me—and apparently many others—in 2010.

I’d forgotten how good these old books make me feel. I love them, and their recipes, for both their inherent charms and that feeling. I don’t pick them up all that often these days, too distracted by other cookbooks, but I should. It’s nice to be transported. The recipes from five or so years ago, when we moved here and everything felt topsy turvy (ricotta toast, ice creamlemongrass cake, anything with figs, Sara Forte’s veggie burger, savory cake), are almost there but perhaps not quite; the rough edges of that season are smoother but not soft. But I’ll get there. And someday, I’ll feel this way about the recipes that are easing into our routine today, and then the ones that define the next season, and the one after that, and on and on forever. This is the power that cooking and the simple, necessary act of eating can hold. It’s amazing, and near to holy if not entirely so.

I just finished Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, which closes with “Goodbye to All That,” an essay that I somehow managed to miss entirely in the course of my liberal arts education. This paragraph is the truest thing I’ve read in a long time—and, at its heart, not actually new in the slightest:

Some time later there was a song on all the jukeboxes on the upper East Side that went “but where is the schoolgirl who used to be me,” and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that. I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later and no matter what he or she is doing, but one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.

Do you remember that feeling? “Was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you that someone was,” reflects Didion a paragraph on. Life felt so hard and fresh and new and strange and glorious and everything in between. I didn’t necessarily love that season back then, but recalling it is a different thing entirely.

As it turns out, I’ve already blogged about most of my favorite recipes from this particular window (age 23 through the midpoint of 25, if I am being specific). Though I could make the parallel to another season, or hypothesize about what will someday remind me of this one, it feels right to focus on the first time this ever happened to me, the time when it seemed “that nothing like this…has ever happened to anyone before.” Here are a few of the recipes that were precious to me then and have stood the test of time, from a few cookbooks that defined that season of my life.

In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite, by Melissa Clark

Olive Oil & Maple Granola

Whole Wheat Cinnamon Snacking Cake

Rhubarb Big Crumb Coffee Cake

Cook This Now, also by Melissa Clark

Panfried Asparagus with Ramps, Lemon & Fried Eggs (wherein runny eggs were new to me)

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, by Mark Bittman

Warm Chickpea Salad with Arugula

Good to the Grain, by Kim Boyce

Olive Oil Cake with Rosemary & Chocolate (the recipe that sparked this musing, pictured above and just as good as ever)

Baking: From My Home to Yours, by Dorie Greenspan

Swedish Visiting Cake

What about you? Does this resonate? I’d love to hear about the cookbooks or recipes that defined a specific season for you.

30 | Everyday Chocolate Cake

30 | Everyday Chocolate Cake

Everyday Chocolate Cake | Delightful CrumbThis has been quite a month, for a whole host of reasons. It’s a new year, and I always find that exciting. I turned 30, which feels like a big deal, except for when it doesn’t. We went to Healdsburg to celebrate. We got the stomach flu when we came home. As everyone knows, a lot of things have happened and are happening in US politics, most of which I find depressing and/or alarming. I worked, got out of bed every day (save for that first ridiculously awful day of the flu), cleaned the apartment, ran around the lake, made resolutions, made dinner. Big things and small ones, all jumbled together.

My reflective nature is something I can’t shake, so of course I’ve thought about turning 30. I’ve always had lots of older friends, starting with my sister right out the gate: cool, smart, interesting people who have kept me from worrying about growing older. Starting especially with those in their thirties, my older friends are notably calm and self-assured, and they don’t give a damn about things that don’t really matter. Plus, women with gray hair are sexy.

Nonetheless, I found myself a little unsure as my birthday approached. I blame it on the societally imposed questions I found ringing in my ears: Have I done what I thought I’d do by now? Have I accomplished what I’d hoped for? Am I on the right track?

The truth is that I couldn’t answer these questions if I wanted to. I never had a clear-cut plan for my life. I’ve always been driven to succeed professionally, but there were plenty of different careers I thought I might want along the way. I did picture myself going off and living somewhere new, and I’ve done that. I wanted a partner; I have an amazing one. And yet, the cascade of questions came anyway. Am I successful enough? Did I follow the right thread of my career? Is there somewhere else I should be living? Should we have tried to have a kid by now? Am I doing this right? And have I appreciated my youth? I will never be as young or as thin or as physically resilient or as sweetly naive as I once was! Is it all downhill from here?

The day after my birthday, I gathered a group for a casual evening of wine and chocolate cake at Bay Grape, the wine shop my friend Stevie and her husband own. Some close friends couldn’t make it, but I figured I’d cast the net anyway, just see who might come. By the end of the night, we filled the one long table, chairs squeezed in, wine flowing, and I sat there looking at my friends, thinking about how little of my life has actually gone as expected.

On my right was Alice. We worked together at Good Eggs but weren’t close until we were laid off together and bonded over shared anger and resume writing. I can assure you, I did not plan that. On my left, Erin, who I met while job searching after that same (devastating) layoff. We had an informational interview of sorts, the job opportunity dissolved and we became fast friends. I ended up finding a totally different job which led to my current job, in large part thanks to Stevie, and now there I was, sitting in her wine shop, which I visited well before I called her a friend. I knew the girls working that night, and several guests, and which wines I wanted to drink, all thanks to this chapter in a career I didn’t plan. Our church small group was represented around the table, a wonderful, surprising, diverse collection of people that couldn’t have found one another otherwise. And Ben, of course. I figured I’d get married around 29, but I found the guy I wanted to spend my life with several years earlier, a reality I found annoying until I realized it was a tremendous blessing. Before that, ten or so years ago, I wanted desperately to move to DC. I didn’t. But I did move to California, a possibility I never even considered, and none of the rest of this would have happened if not for that.

The thing, you see, about those silly have-I-made-it questions is that in trying to answer them and thus second-guessing our lives, we run the risk of missing all of the really amazing things we didn’t expect.

And, after all, so much of that unexpected good stuff is what sustains us, keeps us going in this mad world, lends our lives some much-needed warmth, reminds us to be grateful. In the end, it’s all one grand surprise. Here’s to welcoming that with open arms in the year ahead, and always.

Everyday Chocolate Cake | Delightful Crumb

Everyday Chocolate Cake

From Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, who adapted it from Allysa Torey’s At Home with Magnolia

This cake is well known on the internet; Deb herself has published multiple versions. But when I made it again for my little birthday celebration, I was reminded of how ridiculously good it is, verified by approving friends. The fact that it’s super simple to make is just a bonus. Sure, it isn’t flashy, but it is delicious, and sturdy, too, with a nice crisp top crust. I’ve made it in a loaf pan and a round one; both work perfectly.

Its flexibility does not extend, however, to the cocoa powder, so if you have natural or non-Dutched cocoa powder, see Deb’s instructions in the headnote to the original recipe for amended leavening quantities.

I find this cake particularly excellent when accompanied by a dollop of whipped cream, perhaps bolstered with something tangy like sour cream or crème fraîche and a bit of lemon zest.

1/2 cup (4 ounces or 1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup (6 7/8 ounces) firmly packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup (4 ounces) granulated or natural cane sugar

1 large egg, at room temperature

1 cup buttermilk (I always use 1 tablespoon white vinegar/lemon juice plus enough milk to equal 1 cup, left to rest for 5 minutes, then stirred well)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups (6 3/4 ounces) all-purpose flour

3/4 cup (2 5/8 ounces) Dutch cocoa powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

Powdered sugar, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter and lightly flour a 9-inch pan (preferably springform if you have it), or a 9x5x3 loaf pan. If you like, line the pan with parchment, and butter/flour that as well for extra ease in removing the cake.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugars and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and beat well, then add the buttermilk and vanilla and mix to combine. Don’t worry if the batter looks uneven at this point.

Add the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt to the wet ingredients (I typically measure them by weight in a separate bowl, stir briefly, then add them). Stir together with a spatula until thoroughly combined, being careful not to over mix.

Pour the batter in the prepared pan and smooth the top with an offset spatula. Bake for 60 to 70 minutes, until a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a rack for 10 to 15 minutes, then remove from the pan if you like.

Dust the top of the cake with powdered sugar and serve with whipped cream, if desired.