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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Let Them Eat Cake...on a weeknight

Let's talk about cake.
I don't like cake, said no one, ever, right?


When I was a kid, cake only made appearances for very special events... birthdays, weddings and the like. Everyday desserts were store bought, and they were usually some kind of packaged cookie. There was the classic pack of Archway oatmeal cookies, my father's favorite. (BO-ring.) Or a mixed selection of boxed “butter” cookies (and yes, the quotes mean I seriously doubt any butter came within a mile of these) that my brother and I would fight over and then ration in a very specific order...first the chocolate-vanilla pinwheels, followed by the shortbready spritz cookies topped with a tough, dehydrated blob of red jam, after which it didn't much matter what was there because now the “good” ones were gone.

Visits from my aunt usually included an eagerly awaited large box of Hostess Twinkies or Ho Ho's meaning my brother and I would perch at the window like two Pavlovian dogs, awaiting the arrival of our relations, only to bolt once said box of Twinkies was safely in hand. And right now, I have to think long and hard about what made the tubes of factory-processed yellow cake piped with sugary white frosting so great. I'm not entirely sure, so we'll chalk that one up to what was an evolving palate.


Actual home baking rarely happened at our house and, if my mother was in charge, convenience was fully embraced in the form of tubes of pre-made cookie dough, boxed cake mixes and pre-made frosting in small, round tubs.

I don't know that I really understood that one could make a cake or dessert from scratch until I was well into my teens and saw a friend of my mother's actually making a batter for a cake, from scratch. Like, with eggs and butter and sugar! Talk about a young mind being blown. Incidentally, this is the same person who told me she was making tomato soup one day and I was puzzled by her term “making”. Like, what's there to “make” with a tomato soup? Pick up can opener. Attach to can of Campbell's Tomato Soup. Open. There's no “making” tomato soup. Come to find out, you can “make” tomato soup ,and it's quite good!

Come to find out, one could “make” cookies... cakes... and all kinds of desserts from scratch with the added bonus that people were disproportionately impressed with you if you did!


Baking has never been my event though. It took a while, but I finally figured out that it had to do with my, ahem, imprecise nature. I'm not a big stickler for measurements, and in regular, savory cooking you can get away with a dash of this, or a splash of that...and follow it all up with a sip of wine. But bakers... sigh...they are sticklers for detail...the detail that makes up the complex chemical reactions which help souffles puff or cakes rise. So if you want success, you must be precise. Once I understood this, and applied it, my ratio of things-you-might- actually-want-to-consume to baking wreckage went way up.




So there's detail, and then there's process...and there is something very pleasing to me about the process part. Following the specific steps of a recipe can be very soothing at times. After we had to put Henry down, I was a walking, talking zombie. Going to work, apparently functioning, but draped in sadness that seemed to touch everything. My friend, C. suggested that I do some serious baking. The process: buttering pans, measuring, sifting, whisking...gave me refuge from the sad. Maybe it was the basic requirement to focus my mind on the task at hand that freed me from “thinking”? C. calls it “butter therapy” and for me it was an antidote for grief.

But the thing I love most about baking is the fragrance. It's hard to beat that cozy feeling that comes from the smell of a cake in the oven. I've read that the smell of baking cookies is often used by realtors when showing a home, so consider yourselves warned. People get all warm and fuzzy about things when the smell of chocolate chip cookies is wafting about. I know I do. And, really, to be honest, all I want in life right now is to enjoy the delicious fragrance of a cake baking in the oven on a weeknight. So, my life's mission has focused on finding a weeknight cake to do just that.

Home baking comes with varying levels of difficulty. And there will always be people who are drawn to recipes that are the Mt. Everest of baking. You know them...the show offs who are creating croissants or macarons at home. Let it be known: I am not one of these people. And, clearly, none of these items will make the cut in my quest for a weeknight cake. Neither will pie. Pie is not weeknight cake. Tortes are not weeknight cake. Nor are cookies.


Weeknight cake is all about ease. And simplicity. It needs to be something you can whip up in one bowl, pour in a pan and toss in an oven, so you can swiftly move to that delightful warm-and-fuzzy-cake- in-the-oven fragrance part.
Voila! Say hello to your new weeknight cake. Tested and approved, by yours truly.




This is the real deal, and it's called Raspberry Ricotta Cake.

From the current issue of Bon Appetit, the cake was featured in a photo that caught my eye initially. Raspberries? In a cake? But it's “winter”! Raspberries are sent to us from the southern hemisphere at this time of year. They travel great miles and (here's where I will go all locavore on you) I won't touch them. It's simply not their season, BUT, frozen raspberries or blackberries are another thing entirely! Easily obtainable at Trader Joe’s for a modest price, they're local, and actually quite good in a cake like this, where they add additional moisture to the surrounding cake batter. The cake batter itself is surprisingly ricotta- based, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is some kind of icky cheesecake. The ricotta here gives this cake a beautiful rich texture making it easy to love with just a light dusting of powdered sugar. 



I could even see this being a big hit at a brunch, so let's not restrict it to just weeknights. It's a win-win for everyone!

So, let’s say it's a Wednesday night. Maybe you ordered some Thai takeout or brought home a pizza and are planning to catch up on the most recent episode of The Good Wife. Measure out your ingredients, carefully, and follow the instructions for a moment of zen. 


Sit back and let that golden smell of baking cake envelop you in a warm embrace.  And then, go ahead and enjoy a moment of smugness. It’s ok. That’s what comes with having baked a weeknight cake.


Raspberry Ricotta Cake

(adapted from Bon Appetit)
8 servings

1-2 tablespoons softened butter, for brushing the cake pan

1 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour 1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder 3⁄4 teaspoons kosher salt

3 large eggs
1 1⁄2 cups ricotta
1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla
1⁄2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 1⁄2 cups frozen raspberries or blackberries, divided


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush a 9” cake pan with softened butter and line with parchment paper round. Brush the parchment lightly with butter.


2. Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl.


3. Whisk eggs, ricotta and vanilla in a medium bowl until smooth. Fold into dry ingredients just until blended. Then, fold in melted butter, bollowed by half the raspberries, being careful not to crush the berries. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Scatter the remaining berries across the top.


4. Bake the cake until golden brown and a tester comes out clean, about 45 to 50 minutes. Start checking at 40 minutes. Let cool at least 20 minutes before unmolding.


Store cake up to two days, tightly wrapped at room temperature. 

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