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Who You Are In That Place | Fresh Ginger Cake

Spicy Ginger Cake | Delightful Crumb

I don’t know about you, but I’m in need of some coziness. It’s not only because the regular afternoon temperatures in Chicago have reached the approximate deep-winter lows for Oakland, though that’s part of it. There’s also the fact that California is burning, and my heart aches for my old home—disoriented, not relieved, to not be there myself. And I’m weary. All of this newness takes a toll.

The thing about being new to a place is that it’s not just the place that’s new, but also who you are in that place. My identity seems to be floating just a few inches above me, a reminder of the fact that I do indeed know who I am, if not what it means to be myself in this new place and season. It’s a normal byproduct of a big move—but it is disorienting and strange.

Someone asked me recently if I felt a resonance with California when I lived there—if I felt like a Californian. I have more than one answer to that question. When we arrived, I didn’t at all. I felt like a fish out of water, perhaps more than anything because people told me I was. They pointed to my Midwestern-ness with a set of assumptions that, like any set of assumptions, only partly fit but also gave me a window into what people had perhaps always assumed about someone “like me.” I probably let myself linger in this space for too long, seeing only the ways I might not fit. The fact that I was freelancing and baking at odd hours for little pay while looking for something more steady, new not just to Oakland but my marriage, 25 but mistakenly thinking that was well beyond the age for taking big risks or being unsteady . . . well, none of that helped.

But then, at some point, I turned a corner. I could guess about when that was, probably a year and a half in. But I didn’t realize it right away. More accurately, I woke up one day and found I fit in just fine. California is supposed to be for the people on the fringes, after all, so what does it mean to fit in anyway? And so, beginning one unidentified day somewhere in the first quarter of my California life, there I was, attached to this strange, beautiful place even when it confused me.

We labeled ourselves as Midwesterners in California, which summed up a set of things that was true of us in a way that was sufficiently accurate, even for someone as desperate to be understood as me. I could give people that and know they would understand at least two or three things about me, or at least they’d be confused in the right direction. We made friends with other Midwesterners-in-California, spotting each other from miles away, commiserating about the long trips to see our families and the lack of seasons, while also appreciating the absence of snow.

The person who asked me about feeling Californian told me that he moved to New York at 22 and felt 100% a New Yorker two months in—because he was 22 and it was New York. He was trying things on for size, which is precisely what one should be doing at that age. But it’s not quite right for the emotionally healthy 30-something. The young-person narrative is the one we’re most accustomed to discussing—there are so many movies about it, after all!—but plenty of us leave or arrive or otherwise change much later in life. My friend, by the way, left and left again. Or arrived, if you’d prefer to see it from that version of the map.

And so what of the Midwesterner who lived in California for seven years, then moved back across the country but not quite so far as where she is from? What about the me who lives in Chicago? I’m not sure yet. But I’m practicing patience, for as long as it takes.

It is in this spirit that I bring you ginger cake, just in case you need some comfort for autumn or adjusting or whatever season you are in. I read Samin’s story about this recipe and knew I had to make it. She talks about early mornings when she was new at Chez Panisse and working from the walk-in at very early hours, not her preferred time of day (nor mine). She would eat spicy slices of leftover ginger cake with steaming tea on her break, and who can refuse something warming both to body and soul on a tired morning or week or year? Not me. Let’s not even pretend resistance.

Fresh Ginger & Molasses Cake

Adapted very slightly from Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat

Makes 2 9-inch cakes

This cake is spicy and a little sticky and full of flavor. (If you’re looking for an option that is likewise nicely spiced but less sticky and more toward the bread side of the gingerbread/cake spectrum, I recommend this one, which is also delicious.) Samin’s rendition reminds me of the ginger cake from Crixa Cakes in Berkeley, CA, a high complement indeed. If you’re baking for everyday consumption, I recommend serving one cake fresh and saving the other in the freezer. Alternately, however, you can stack the two cakes for a fancy, layered presentation.

Spicy Ginger Cake | Delightful Crumb

2 1/3 cups (12 ounces) all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup (4 ounces) peeled, sliced fresh ginger

1 cup (7 ounces) sugar

1 cup grapeseed (or other neutral) oil

1 cup molasses (not blackstrap)

1 cup boiling water

2 large eggs, at room temperature

Whipped cream or powdered sugar, for serving

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Set a rack in the upper third of the oven. Butter or oil two 9-inch cake pans, then line with parchment paper. Grease the parchment, too, then sprinkle generously with flour, tap out the excess and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, spices, pepper, salt and baking soda.

In a food process or blender, purée the fresh ginger and sugar together until completely smooth, about 4 minutes. Pour the mixture into a medium bowl and add the oil and molasses. Whisk to combine. Add the boiling water, whisking again until evenly combined.

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and gradually whisk in the water-oil mixture until incorporated. Gradually whisk in the eggs and stir until smooth. The batter will be quite thin.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. Drop the pans onto the counter from a height of 3 inches a couple of times to release any air bubbles.

Bake in the upper third of the oven for 38 to 40 minutes, until the cakes spring back from the touch and just pull away from the edges of the pans. An inserted toothpick should come out clean.

Cool the cakes completely on a wire rack. Unmold them from the pans and peel off the parchment. They will be delicate, so take care as you do so.

Serve the cake as you like: dusted with powder sugar, topped with cream cheese frosting or with whipped cream or ice cream alongside. Or, stack the two cakes for a more dramatic presentation. To fill and decorate with whipped cream, you’ll need about 2 cups of cream. Place one cake on a cake plate. Spread with whipped cream, then gently place the second layer atop. Spread the remaining cream onto the center of the top layer and chill for up to 2 hours before serving.

Tightly wrapped, the cake will keep for four days at room temperature, or for up to two months in the freezer.