Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How the cake fits into my day

I am moments away from literally chaining myself to my desk chair. I am desperate. I've been pacing all morning, trying to beat down that monster some brilliant man called Resistance.

How did I learn to cook, after all? I went to grad school, of course. I'm pondering a doctoral program so I can become a world-famous pastry chef.

In the meantime I am writing this book. This blasted, wretched, wonderful book. The funny thing that is not so funny is I can never manage to describe the darned thing to anyone who asks. They are casual: "Oh, you're writing! Well, what are you writing? A book! Well, now, what's the book about?"

"Uhh--well, now, let's see. It's about land, er, California, and uh, it's about spirituality...and it has a lot of fire in it...yes, it is definitely elemental. In short, it's,'s about a lot of things."

I say this, when I should say something more like this: "I am writing a coming of age book following my move from Redding to Vancouver, and finally, home. It is about identity and place, and how they are inexplicably linked. My hope is for the book to be a fresh example of of what Kathleen Norris did in Dakota, Annie Dillard did in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Terry Tempest Williams did in Leap. There will be poetry, history, geography, and personal essay."

That might sound intelligible, as if I were actually the one writing it.

Instead, I sound like I have eaten too much cake (which I admit, I have) and have washed it down with too much coffee, or port, or fairy water, and am having an awkward time making sense.

That is how I sound all the time, which is, perhaps why I am having trouble writing.

This obviously has nothing to do with this really good cake I made for my sister-in-law's baby shower a couple weeks ago. But it is how this cake fits into my day today. The cake we had then and the time we had it in was much more civilized than today: it was all tea, cake, conversation, presents, and prayer. Now we are verging on delirium. It is a different cake (a second bake-off to be sure, very sure of the proportions), and a different time. It is December. For me, it is Advent, which means coming. It is about waiting. I've only been pacing, but it's time to settle down--to not pace but be patient. Time to be expectant--that means hopeful, not distraught (at my complete lack of productivity). This is, in fact, the beginning of the liturgical year. It seems every other second I am talking about beginnings, but for some of us, beginnings are what life is about. Every day, God, don't I pray, is a beginning. The cycle can calm. It can take me out of pacing and slicing off bits of cake and structure my life a little more soundly.

Look, I'm calmer already.

About the cake: You may want to know that the cake is suited for many occasions: baby showers of course, late-night planning sessions with your spouse or partner, early morning treats to get you writing, afternoon snack with tea, Christmas parties, generic holiday parties, mid-morning nibbles, or midnight munchies after a movie. The possibilities are endless. I advise you to not slice the cake too generously though. I find the cake tastes best in slivers no wider than a half-inch. Go back four times if you must, but let the slices be small. It tastes better that way, I swear.

Chocolate-Pumpkin Marble Cake (adapted from Sunset Magazine)

For this cake, the chocolate glaze makes it look fabulous, and the pistachio makes it taste fabulous. They are what makes the cake special. If you have a favorite ganache recipe of your own, use it instead of the glaze. Just be sure the chocolate you use is edibly delicious and semi-sweet. As for the pistachio creme, I would toy with adding even more next time, though it may disrupt the baking time perfection. As it is, be sure not to over bake this one. I did the second time around, just barely, so that no crumbs were left on the skewer, and I could tell.

1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, room temperature
3 cups sugar
6 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/4 cups pumpkin puree (or canned pumpkin)
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 ground cloves
3/4 cup Dutch-processed unsweetened cocoa
2/3 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup pistachio creme*
Chocolate glaze (recipe follows)
1/2 cup slivered pistachios**

1. Make the pistachio creme (preferably the day before so you don't wear yourself out). I used Heidi's fabulous recipe, with a couple specifications and tweaks: A) Take two cups shelled, raw, unsalted pistachios and blanch in boiling water for a minute or two. Drain and cool a bit until easily handled. Then, proceed to pinch off the skins. If they are beautiful pistachios, and truly raw, the skins slip in one determined pinch. If not, you'll be pawing them off for a while. Use this quiet, repetitive time for meditation, conversation, or movie-watching. B) When you're done, put the pistachios and 1/2 cup hot water, in a large bowl. Using a hand blender, puree the pistachios until smooth and creamy. (I could never get rid of the soft bits of texture--which I liked. Store bought is closer to normal nut butters, my homemade becomes more of a pistachio mousse.) Alternatively, I assume you could use a food processor. Blend the nuts and add the water through the feed tube. C) When smooth, add a large pinch of salt and 3/4 cups plain sugar--not agave nectar (which I have tried and disliked). Stir well. Store in the refrigerator for who knows how long-- a couple weeks at least. I'll keep you posted.

2. In a large bowl with a mixer on medium speed, beat butter and sugar until well blended. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla. Scrape half the mixture into another bowl.

3. To make pumpkin batter: Beat pumpkin into half the butter mixture until well blended. In another bowl, stir together 1 and 3/4 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Add flour mixture to pumpkin mixture and beat on low speed or fold in with a flexible spatula just until blended.

4. To make chocolate batter: In another bowl, mix remaining 1 cup flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and the cocoa. Add flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk to the other half of the butter mixture (starting and ending with flour mixture), beating after each addition just until blended.

5. Spoon half the pumpkin batter into a buttered and floured 12-cup bundt pan. Pipe half of the pistachio creme in a circle or zigzag with either a pastry bag and tube tip or a plastic baggy with the corner cut off. I used about an inch wide tip, but if you want to zig-zag, use a little smaller. Drop half the chocolate batter by spoonfuls over (but not entirely covering) the pumpkin batter. Pipe the remaining pistachio creme as you repeat to spoon dollops of the remaining pumpkin and chocolate batters in pan. Gently run the blade of a butter knife around the center of the pan a couple times and around the outer edge too, then draw the knife across the width of the pan in 10-12 places to swirl batters.

6. Bake in a 350 degree oven until a wood skewer inserted into center of cake comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, 55-65 minutes. Let cake cool 10 minutes in pan, then invert onto a rack, lift off pan, and cool cake completely.

7. Pour warm chocolate glaze over the top of cake, letting it drip down the sides. Sprinkle glaze with pistachio slivers, if desired. Let stand until glaze is set, about 2 hours, or chill about 30 minutes. I think it improves with age. Enjoy!

Chocolate Glaze:

In a heatproof bowl, combine 4 ounces chopped semisweet chocolate, 1/2 cup whipping cream, 1 tablespoon butter, and 1 teaspoon corn syrup. Bring an inch or two of water to a boil in a pan that the bowl can nest in, then remove from heat. Place chocolate mixture over water and let stand, stirring occasionally, until melted and smooth, about 10 minutes.

*I originally just wanted to buy the pistachio creme (for another cake, actually). I didn't have time to order it online, though you could easily (for a price) get it here, or here. I tried to track it down in stores and ran out of patience. In the end I am glad I made it at home. I have worked with prepared creme before (lovely)--the texture is very different than what developed in my kitchen. For this cake, I recommend homemade.

**I did not have any more pistachios on hand to top the cake, but against the dark chocolate glaze, the added green would look stunning. And although I have never actually seen slivered pistachios for sale in my humble natural-foods store, I am sure you can order them online if you, like me, cannot track them down otherwise. Or, just skin and chop some extra skinned pistachios from your creme makings and use those.


  1. I would like to:

    a) Eat that cake.

    b) Read the book you are writing.

    c) Own the plate the piece of cake is sitting on.

    Miss you lots!


  2. Yes yes yes. I want to read the book too.

    And I wouldn't turn down a slice of cake. :)


  3. Amanda, I giggled through this post and am so happy to have discovered (clearly late in the game), that you are back at blogging. I look forward to catching up on your writing/cooking, and to savouring the days with you again.
    Happy New Year--Sarah