I have been writing a lot lately on a project of mine, about California and living here, getting to know this wild animal of a place again. And something I do think I've found is that one of the steps to making peace - with a place or person or subject - is to get to know it on its own terms. Fall here is a slow movement, three steps forward, two steps back. In the beginning of the month, when I'm wearing a tank top and am still sweating like it is July, I am tempted to get grumpy at the sight of squash. But this is what happens. All of the sudden it is All Hollows Eve and we're shivering at sundown. And there are other Autumnal oddities that are starting to make up for it: It is November and there are cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, and eggplant, still in the market stands. Still being harvested. In other words, there is this wide and somewhat wonderful California cross-over. It isn't summer staying on, it's just California, doing what she does.
I get October, but the month is gone, and I have to wait a whole year before I can really do it well. But November, it isn't quite clear yet. Will I make it? Will I stay tuned? I figure there will be more pumpkins. More pumpkins, and more spices, and then maybe some quince.
I should mention this: In the last days of that apple cake, I was smearing my mother-in-law's pumpkin custard over a slabs of it and sneaking bites before dinner. Take note. It sideswiped my usual four o'clock blood sugar plummet. It tasted pretty good, too.
And this cake: Obviously chocolate and pumpkin is a classic. That's why I made it. The chocolate cake is my favorite dark chocolate cake recipe while the buttercream is the accompanying pudding-based number from this summer. Both love. But I don't know, when I first made and iced it it almost seemed boring, ho-hum. Because there wasn't something new (!) and inventive (!!). I might not pick it out on a table of innovative gastronomic delights. But (!!!) to eat it is like a little fairy tale. It transforms. The chocolate is strong and stately, and ridiculously moist. And the pumpkin spice has enough intrigue to hold its own without overpowering anything. And again, the buttercream - it is all swoop and fluff, as if the cake were some midnight Cinderella, her billowing froth of a dress whooshing as she runs.
I wanted space, and now I think I have it. I've been clearing ground in the backyard, ripping out berry bushes and cutting back the California Bay in hopes that some day I might actually plant something and it might actually live. I'm doing the same at the desk. Writing long to-do's and then crossing it all off, filing it in the recycle bin. And writing what I want. There are only so many things we have to do (feed ourselves, sleep, breathe, take out the garbage). And there are even fewer things we must do: love, listen, and do our work.
It might be a long stretch, but something about this cake made me think of all that. There is the light and dark play of the layers. The spice. The quiet when you take a bite. It's a bit messy, but I like to eat it with my hands. And for once, I like not talking about it while I'm eating it, as if the silence gives it the space it deserves.
Happy November. Eat well.
Chocolate Cake with Pumpkin Frosting
I used my favorite dark chocolate cake recipe, halved. Below is the small version of the recipe. If you need to feed a crowd (or don't have 6-inch cake pans) pop over to my original write-up.
For a 6-inch Dark Chocolate Cake:
3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons dutch-processed cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup natural cane sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup strong, hot coffee
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter two 6-inch cake pans, then line the bottoms with parchment and butter those, too.
Sift together into a large bowl the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Whisk, whisk.
Combine the sugar, buttermilk, oil, egg, and vanilla. Pour and mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients slowly. Stir in the hot coffee. The batter will be very thin.
Pour into the prepared pans and bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until a cake tester poked in the center of the cakes comes out clean.
Cool at least 10 minutes in the pans, then invert onto cooling racks until completely cool. While you wait, prepare the frosting.
For the matching 6-inch Pumpkin Pudding Frosting*:
3/4 cup whole milk
5 tablespoons heavy cream
3/4 cup natural cane sugar
big pinch sea salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/16 teaspoon ground ginger
big pinch cloves
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3/4 cups (1 1/2 sticks) butter, unsalted, softened, cut into small bits
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 ounces pumpkin or squash puree
Combine milk, cream, sugar, spices, salt, and flour in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat until the mixture thickens to coat the back of a spoon. Transfer the hot pudding to the bowl of a stand mixer, and beat on medium high until completely cool.
When cool, add the butter, bit by bit while continuing to beat, until the buttercream is pale and fluffy and the butter is incorporated. Add the pumpkin puree in two parts, beating still at medium-high speed, until smooth and frothy and homogenous.
*For an 8 or 9-inch cake, use this for the frosting:
2 1/4 cups whole milk
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream
couple pinches salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
two big pinches ground cloves 2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
generous 1/2 cup (9 tablespoons) all purpose flour
2 1/4 cups (4 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened and cut into small slices or nubs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
10 ounces pumpkin or squash puree
Assemble the Cake:
Split both cake layers horizontally in two. Place the bottom of a cake round cut side up in the center of a serving plate and spread about a half cup of the frosting over the surface. Place the top half of the round on top, cut side down. Spread with another half cup of frosting. Repeat, but backwards, beginning with the second round top side down and cup side up, spread, cut side down bottoms up, so that you end with a frosted cake bottom down at the beginning and bottoms up at the end. This will give you a nice, flat surface to work with to finish.
Make a crumb coat and refrigerate until firm, then coat with whatever remaining buttercream there is, and decorate according to your whim.
The iced cake will be best freshly iced, where the buttercream is still in its frothy, whooshing state, but it should be refrigerated (for food safe reasons) if not eaten the same day. (Though, we didn't do this. We keep a cold house!) Whatever you do, serve at room temperature. And, enjoy!