cardamom + vanilla birthday cake

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I’ve noticed the last few months have brought little breakthroughs in my baking experiments, perhaps because I have not been practicing. I finally made a truly good gluten-free soda bread on my first attempt of the season. I wowed friends with this chocolate hazelnut cake. I made animal crackers that tasted better than any we’ve had before on the first try. Holiday pie crust and sourdough pizza, and likely more that I’m forgetting.

And without too much thought, after years of attempting and tossing out countless recipes and versions of gluten-free, dairy-free vanilla cake, I opted back to my very own chocolate recipe, transitioned it to vanilla and somehow topped it off with a truly amazing caramel-esque non-dairy “cream cheese” frosting to boot.

I’m not bragging by mentioning this so much as reflecting on this last year, my 30th, and reflecting on what it is I put my effort, intention, and attachment into. For sure it has not been baking, or recipe creation in general.

But I wonder sometimes what I have to show for that which I have put my focus towards? To hint, it’s been a lot of nutrition grad school, delving deeply into mindfulness and the often invisible soulwork, and running, always running. I wrote down three big goals for the year in early January and I’ve stuck them in a place where I see them regularly. Each time I’m reminded of the process, how it’s slowly unfolding, how I fail routinely and try again. My goals are process goals, not dependent on the outcome I’d like. But I’m coming to value the day in and day out of quietly working in the trenches, unknowing whether there’ll be a big payout.

In meditation lately, I’ve been envisioning myself sitting, floating on nothing, nothing above or below, nothing to grasp on to. This experience of complete lack, control over nothing, is absolutely uncomfortable even in a visualization exercise. And as I seamlessly transitioned into 31 the other day without much fanfare and devoid of celebrations minus a lovely cake in the flavors I craved that finally and unexpectedly worked out, I think I’ve come to understand a little more: the intentions I set, the high intentions, stories in my head and visions of “glory,” the culmination of work and work and work, on whatever it is I’m working on, very rarely pan out the way I envisioned. And that’s okay.

Because the real magic, I think, is in learning to become more comfortable in the floating, in the space between, in the process, in the unknowing.

Welcome to another rebirth-year. For sure, there’s at least really good cake.

 

Cardamom and Vanilla Birthday Cake, makes a 6-inch two-layer cake
Cardamom is a strong spice, one I love as an adult but was turned off by when younger. Add the amount you desire, starting with less, tasting, and adding more as needed. The frosting amount is intended to just slightly enhance the cake. Double or triple the amount for a fully frosted version.

120 grams / 3/4 cup brown rice flour
30 grams / 1/4 cup almond meal
2 tablespoons arrowroot powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 – 1 teaspoon. ground cardamom
3/4 cup sugar (I used the slightly less processed organic cane sugar)
1/4 cup coconut oil, soft, but not melted
2 tablespoons ground flax with 6 tablespoons warm water
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup unsweetened non-dairy milk

  • Preheat the oven to 350° F and line the bottoms of each cake pan with parchment paper.  Then rub a little coconut oil up the sides of the pans and set aside.
  • In a small bowl, stir together the ground flax and warm water to form a slurry.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together the flours and spices and then set aside.  In another large bowl, combine the sugar and coconut oil and whisk until it’s light and fluffy. Add the flax slurry and then the vanilla and milk; mix again until it is combined. Next, a bit at a time, stir in the dry ingredients and combine.
  • Divide the batter evenly between the cake pans and bake for 25-30 minutes. Check after out 20 minutes so as not to over bake.
  • Transfer the layers to a cooling rack and allow to cool for about 20 minutes; then remove layers and rest them until completely cool.

 

Cream Cheese Frosting
4 oz. or about half a cup of non-dairy cream cheese (I used a 1/2 batch of this recipe)
3 Tbs. coconut oil, melted
3 Tbs. brown rice syrup
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

  • While the cake is baking, make the frosting. If you want to make your own cashew cream cheese, you’ll want to start ahead to allow time to “culture.”
  • Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until creamy smooth.
  • Transfer to a bowl and place in the fridge for at least an hour to allow it to set up before frosting the cake.
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The Best (Humble) Carrot Cake

The Best (Humble) Carrot Cake

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I turned 30 this last weekend. It was a birthday that both crept up and one I had been thinking about for a while. When I was a teenager, I imagined I’d have my career and life 100 percent sorted by now, already fabulous at or well on my way to being a professor/dean/mom/farm wife/NGO executive/etc.

Hah. The last decade has taught me life doesn’t work so linearly. I’m only just beginning to give myself the opportunity to reach for the career I think will fulfill me–the one that doesn’t have more emphasis on the glamorous or romantic title or idea of it but will actually make me feel full in the daily in and out. And I know now I may well pivot in process. I’m learning we change our minds as time goes on.

I’ve also learned that second, third, fourth, and more tries are often necessary to get something right. For instance, and definitely on the lighter side, I made myself birthday cake. I do almost every year as I love the opportunity to experiment with exactly the flavors of cake I want to enjoy, but I also don’t care for cake or sweets often. Last year I made myself a cardamom vanilla cake with cashew cream frosting. I know because the (failed) recipe was sitting among my draft blog posts for the whole year. This year, I was torn between re-experimenting with that flavor combination and making my absolute favorite, carrot cake. I chose the cardamom vanilla. I even nerded out completely and experimented with three different frostings ranging the full spectrum from all natural/nutritious ingredients to completely not. I generally don’t even like frosting.

Anyway.
The finished cake was gorgeous.
Even if one finger lick of the frosting gave me an immediate sugar rush. 
It was pretty, rustic, and exactly the effect I was going for.
See?

 

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Looks can be deceiving.
I’ve learned that multiples of times over the past decade as well.
The vanilla cardamom was no good. Too dry even on the second attempt and following ratios I know should have worked. The cardamom’s flavor was barely apparent.

 

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Now over any desire to eat cake but with a fridge full of two more (much less sweet) frostings, I found myself with the overwhelming desire to go bake that carrot cake. I adapted this old favorite recipe.

It looked humble.
It tasted delicious.
I found myself eating much more than I needed* and not caring.

A light lesson for sure, but somehow it was fitting that my grand plans for a 30th birthday cake that had more outward beauty than actual enjoyable substance failed completely while the humble, comforting old favorite won out the day.

The same could be said for the day itself as I had visions of a big party or grand adventure to bring in the new decade, and ultimately decided to do exactly what I wanted, i.e. went out to a quiet dinner with William at a very Eugene restaurant, chose a table in the back corner that was a bit like we were eating in a cozy closet/backstage, enjoyed a meal that was basically a tasty plate of spinach, and then wandered home to watch an also very Eugene movie. And then I woke up the next day, my actual birthday, stayed home, baked cake, read, made a nice dinner but nothing more special than normal, and generally just relaxed.

It was the best.
*Also, no one really needs cake.
But sometimes the process–of failing, of trying again, of eventually succeeding, and of getting to share the experience and result with loved ones, whether it’s baking and eating cake or something much more challenging and life changing–is simply good for the soul.
I’m learning that too.

 

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The Best Carrot Cake (gluten-free + vegan optional)
makes two 6-inch layers 
 
1/2 cup raisins, soaked in warm water or black tea
1 cup whole-grain gluten free flour mix, below (or 1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour)
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. xanthan gum (omit if not making gluten-free)
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 plus 2 Tbs. canola oil
6 Tbs. aquafaba, 2 Tbs. ground flax + 6 Tbs. water, or 2 eggs
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups finely grated carrots (about 2 large)
cream cheese frosting:
4 oz. vegan (or regular) cream cheese
3 Tbs. coconut oil, melted
3 Tbs. maple syrup
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract 
  • Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.  Grease, flour, and then line cake pans with parchment paper.
  • Soak the raisins in a small dish of warm water or black tea.
  • Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, xanthan gum, cinnamon, and cardamom together in a medium bowl.
  • Whisk the brown sugar and oil together in a large bowl. Then add the aquafaba, flax mixture, or eggs; every method works well so use whatever you prefer. Then stir in the applesauce, vanilla, and flour mixture.
  • Drain the raisins from their liquid, and then fold them and the carrots into the mixture until combined. Divide the batter amongst the two prepared cake pans, and then gently lift and drop each filled pan on the counter to remove air bubbles. This will allow for more even baking and a flatter cake top. Bake until the layers are golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 35-40 minutes.
  • Remove the cakes from the oven and cool about 10 minutes before removing from the pans. Then set them aside on a rack to cool completely.
  • For the frosting:  Blend the cream cheese and coconut oil together in a food processor. Then add in the vanilla and maple syrup. Chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to set up before icing the cake.
 
My Whole-Grain Gluten Free Flour Mix
2oo grams brown rice flour
200 grams millet flour
200 grams sorghum flour
100 grams buckwheat flour
150 grams tapioca starch
150 grams arrowroot starch
  • Sift all the flours together.  Use 1 cup for this recipe and save the remaining for other uses.

 

If you’ve read this far, you’re in for a treat. Birthday playlist below!

Apple Cinnamon Doughnuts

Apple Cinnamon Doughnuts

 

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I made it to the end of a whole year of nutrition grad school and on the last day of finals I made doughnuts to celebrate bake off the mad I experienced when the server went down and locked me out of my four-hour final.

If this sounds overly dramatic, it is. I had really been looking forward to resting my mind from amines, amides, carboxyls, thiols, esters, etc., and waking up on a Saturday morning to finish it all off was last on my favorite list when all I really wanted was to go visit farmers at the market and finally get in the holiday spirit. In any case, I eventually got to take my final and do all of that because I finally regained access at 8:00 pm Friday evening and I decided to forge on and finish the class rather than waiting another day. Perhaps it was the extra study time, that I was better prepared than I thought, or that some of my fellow students are even more dramatic than me, but the final only took a little over three hours, wasn’t nearly as painful as I was envisioning, and I landed a solid score off the whole ordeal.

 

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Or maybe it was the doughnuts.

These apple cinnamon doughnuts are brought to you by my forced change of plans and at 2:30 pm on a Friday before the big final, they 1. tasted absolutely delicious 2. did not cause a sugar rush/crash that would have made a fun* experience even better and 3. may or may not taste exactly like a bakery doughnut because I haven’t had one since early high school.

You have been warned.

 

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As I mentioned in my last post with pie, and also back when I made cookies, I’ve really been torn when it comes to sugary, indulgent treats around the holidays–but also generally. I tend to eat a “treat” every single day after dinner, but often it is fruit and cereal or a bit of dark chocolate. When I do indulge in the more decadent desserts, I’m often shocked at how sweet they are and I retreat back to fruit pretty quickly. This wasn’t always the case.

Also, I get the urge to experiment for this space every few weeks or William requests some sort of dessert or friends bring over treats–so my life is not entirely devoid of sweets.

I learned about carbohydrate and sugar metabolism this last term and also did a bunch of research on which alternative sugars to recommend. The important thing is that all types of sugar are hard on our systems in too high amounts and we as a society eat way too much of them. Second, I favor alternative sugars because they contain just enough other nutrients to not tax our systems quite as much and most are a little less sweet. Fructose in its refined state, (think high fructose corn syrup and/or white table sugar) heavily taxes the liver and according to some research, leads to decreased leptin, our satiety hormone, and increased grehlin, which is our hunger hormone. So we crave more and more and are never really satisfied. Unlike refined fructose, the sugar in whole fruits doesn’t have the same effect and there is evidence that this is the case because some of the phyto (plant) nutrients like quercetin in whole fruits block or slow down sugar absorption.

One of the less processed sugars that I hadn’t tried until recently was coconut sugar. I had avoided mostly because I’ve slowly been reducing all sugar over the years but also because the coconut craze has had me questioning the sustainability of coconut water, oil, sugar, flour, etc., with it all being so popular. I was handed a big bag of coconut sugar recently, however, and after trying it out here, I liked the results. It didn’t make me jittery or crave more like regular white sugar and the doughnuts were quite sweet enough, but not too much so. Coconut sugar does have a lower glycemic index and more nutrients than regular sugar, and can be used cup for cup in recipes. If you’re baking this season, it might be a nice ingredient to experiment with.

 

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Apple Cinnamon Doughnuts, makes 4-5
1 Tbs. ground flax
3 Tbs. warm water
1/4 cup millet flour
1/4 cup brown rice flour
2 Tbs. coconut sugar
2 Tbs. almond meal
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. sea salt
1/4 cup almond milk
2 Tbs. applesauce
1 Tbs. coconut oil
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 an apple, peeled + medium-diced
2 Tbs. coconut sugar + heaping 1/4 tsp cinnamon for the topping
1-2 tsp. coconut oil, melted

  • Oil and flour the doughnut pan and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. If you’ve no doughnut pan, these can be made in a standard muffin pan; they won’t be doughnut shaped but they’ll taste just the same.
  • Whisk the ground flax together with the water in a small bowl and set aside for a few minutes.
  • Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix well and then go back to the flax mixture and add the remaining liquids to it. Stir it all together to combine.
  • Pour the liquids into the dry ingredients and stir briefly until the whole thing is just combined. Gently fold in the apples.
  • Spoon the batter into the doughnut pan, making sure not to overfill. Bake for 15-18 minutes until they are lightly golden brown at the edges. Remove from the oven and pan, and cool.
  • For the topping, switch the oven over to broil and then place a bowl of melted coconut oil and a plate of cinnamon sugar in an assembly line next to the doughnuts.
  • Dip the top of each doughnut into the oil mixture briefly and then dip and roll it in the cinnamon sugar. Set on a baking sheet or sturdy foil and repeat with the others. Then transfer them all to the oven, just under the broiler, and allow the sugars to caramelize briefly. This should take no more than 2-3 minutes and may take less. Be careful not to scorch their tops!
  • Remove from the oven and serve warm, if possible.