Tag Archives: 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!

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Smoky Pear Tea Cakes

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As it turns out, I am a giant nerd. I’ll gladly take an evening in with a good book just about any day. I take books to all family gatherings and long road trips. I have no problem sitting in a room full of people, disengaged from the small talk, reading. Like a true nerd, I love libraries and bookstores, and of course, good old-fashioned books.

 

Nerdism started early but back when I learned to read, I was a slow learner and had to go to Mrs. Ashcraft’s for special reading class. After Mrs. Ashcraft worked her magic, I was reading giant chapter books far beyond my grade level in a matter of weeks. To this day, reading is among my favorite pastimes. I still have little girl Jane Austen fantasies about long afternoons in the parlor with all my best gal pals reading and eating tea cakes. The one time this came even close to happening was last year in Victoria with William. We stayed at a B&B with a serious library, complete with fireplace, cozy chairs, a pot of English tea, and a good book. Those quiet mornings in the library were magical.

 

Back in reality, I’m often asked if I like to read. Though I’m open about my interest in books, I often share only the lighter things I’m reading when people ask–and it is a rare day when I snag more than 10 minutes or so at a time with a book. Since The Recipe Redux theme for this month is quick bread and I can think of no better time to enjoy a slice or two than on a slow weekend with tea and reading materials, I’m sharing all the good books I particularly enjoyed in the past year. If you are in need of a new one to read or cook from, or need gifting ideas for the holidays, read on. Or skip to making these smoky pear tea cakes and enjoy a slice over something from your own selection.

 

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Non-Fiction

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, Terry Tempest Williams

This is the book I’ll gift to my former English-major friends. It is a memoir on Williams’ experience with her mother’s death and the resulting discovery of finding her voice. Of all the books in this list, it is the most beautiful and capturing to read.

 

Me and My Mate Jeffrey, Niall Breslin

Written by former professional rugby player and singer, Niall tells of his struggle with extreme anxiety disorder, how he kept the panic attacks and chronic insomnia a secret for 15 years, how it led him to give up on several careers, and ultimately to become a spokesperson leading the way for the discussion of mental health to be less stigmatized in our society. I can identify with much of Breslin’s mental struggles (though not how they present themselves) and his finding of endurance athletics and mindfulness to manage them. I can’t wait to see what happens when we as a society let go of the shame surrounding this topic and address it as we do other areas of health. I highly recommend this book to just about everyone.

 

The Five Elements of Self-Healing: Using Chinese Medicine for Maximum Immunity, Wellness, and Health, Jason Elias

I picked this one up at the library randomly and I’m glad I did. This book focuses heavily on addressing health from the standpoint of whichever Chinese Medicine element an individual identifies with most strongly. It also gives tools to balance oneself and delves deep into many common illnesses, starting with the most exterior (cold and flu) and moving to the most interior (diabetes and cancer). I’m super fascinated with Traditional Chinese Medicine and this was an easy to understand book that I will refer to again.

 

Between Heaven and Earth, Harriet Beinfield and The Web That Has No Weaver, Ted Kaptchuk

Both Between Heaven and Earth and The Web That Has No Weaver are great introductory texts that explain Traditional Chinese Medicine and bridge the gap between eastern and western medicine. I really enjoyed Between Heaven and Earth and am still making my way through The Web, but am adding it to the list anyway because I often find myself taking copious notes from it. I would definitely consider purchasing either of them to use as a reference when life gets chaotic.

 

Eating on the Wild Side, Jo Robinson

The premise of Eating on the Wild Side is that our modern foods have lost the rich nutrient content of their wild ancestors–and few of us are going to go gather wild herbs to eat every day to make up the difference. Instead, Robinson provides an exceptional resource on the most nutritious varieties of common fruits and vegetables, including how best to store and prepare them to ensure as many nutrients as possible actually arrive to our bodies. I took this book to work and made a handout for parents in our programs. My co-worker, who teachs a preschool parent-child health and nutrition class, says this is the number one handout that parents ask for and repeatedly refer to.

 

Lentil Underground, Liz Carlisle

This book is about a group of renegade farmers in Montana who eschewed the norms and started an organic lentil and bean farming revolution in an area that was typically conventional dryland wheat. I was able to listen to Liz Carlisle in person, as she and the farmer, David Oien, presented at my university a few months ago. The number one thing that stood out to me from this story was the sheer amount of work–double decade long lifework–that comes with eschewing the norm and following your dream. If you are at all interested in the food movement and sustainable farming systems, this is definitely one worth reading.

 

Running With Joy, Ryan Hall

I own this book and refer to it often for spiritual guidance. Essentially, it is Ryan Hall’s daily training journal as he prepared for the 2010 Boston Marathon. For me, it reads as a runner’s daily devotional. It’s a good one for gaining perspective on finding joy both in running and in life. 

 

Fiction

Skippy Dies, Paul Murray

When it comes to fiction, I often look to the award winners and the books that are short-listed. This one is a weighty novel (600+ pages) about a boy at a Catholic boarding school. The title gives away what happens and Skippy dies right away within the first chapter. This is a captivating journey into the world of teenagers, drawing the reader into their often nonsensical thinking patterns and how the opposite sex can become an all-consuming obsession. Rife with humor, drama, backstabbing, teenage confusion, mental health problems, and of course death, this book reminded me of both what it was like to be a teenager, and how the teens I work with often view the world from a very different lens than my own. And finally–this book is exceptionally well written. Murray has a special kind of voice as only the most gifted writers do.

 

The Master, Colm Tóibín

Tóibín is an exceptionally talented writer and this novel is about the famous novelist, Henry James. I loved the imagery that took me into James’ life, and Tóibín was able to make the seemingly drab doings of a writer come alive. I also learned an amazing tactic both to navigate uncomfortable social settings and to view life as a writer does. If you haven’t read this or any of Tóibín’s other novels, I highly recommend him. His books are gold.

 

Ella Enchanted, Gail Carson Levine

One of my favorite pre-teen stories, I reread this one recently (again) and as always, loved it just as much as my 11-year-old self. This fun and easy remake of the Cinderella Story is actually a good one and is FAR better than the horrible movie that was made out of it.

 

Cookbooks

Green Kitchen Travels, David Frenkiel

Written by Swedish and Danish couple David and Luise of the lovely blog, Green Kitchen Stories, this is the cookbook that most aligns with my style of cooking. Sometimes simple and easy, sometimes off-the-wall combinations of textures, ingredients and flavors, and often vividly colored. I have been cooking through this all year long. I like it even better than their first cookbook and refer to it often for both inspiration and to make recipes as-written. A word about their diet: David is vegetarian, Luise is health-minded. Together, they share recipes that are always both but can contain dairy, eggs, and gluten, but often do not. I find it super easy to sub these ingredients and have loved nearly every recipe I’ve tried.

 

Ard Bia Cookbook, Aoibheann MacNamara

This book, titled after its namesake restaurant, is lovely to simply leave on the coffee table because it is so beautifully put together. Whenever I read it, I want to cozy up in a lovely restaurant near the ocean on a dreary day and drink tea and watch the other customers leaf through newspapers and chat about scholarly things. The pantry section is my favorite part and leaves me super happy that a restaurant cookbook provides more than just recipes for meals. There are exotic seed and spice mixtures, infused oils and vinegars, chutneys, and the like.

 

The Sprouted Kitchen Bowl + Spoon, Sara Forte

I love just about every one of Sara’s bowl recipes, and I’ve tried TONS of them. There is no way I could choose a favorite, but the lentil-stuffed poblano chilies over a butternut mash which I had recently was particularly good. Sara cooks with a vegetable-heavy hand and when she includes cheese, it is often as topping and is never missed by us.

 

Whole Grain Mornings, Megan Gordon

This is a lovely brunch book that I’ve checked out from my local library for several months (more than once). I love the sheer variety of breakfasty options all arranged by season, and the fact that 90% of the recipes can instead be eaten either as dessert or dinner. If for no other reason, Megan’s recipes for granola are the BEST, which should hardly be surprising as she founded a granola business.

 

What good book are you reading? I always need more inspiration.

 

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Smoky Pear Tea Cakes

We are enjoying Thanksgiving in eastern Oregon this year with my family. I can’t wait for a long weekend of cozy reading, hugging babies and toddlers, and catching up with the folks and relatives. Plus, I have a whole freezer of not quite good enough versions of this cake to hand over to my sugar-loving, thinks-he’s-sweets-deprived father, who will gobble it all up in no time. The trick with this cake is to find some good quality Lipsang Souchong tea which has a smoky flavor due to the leaves being dried over a fire. The pairing of the smoky tea and soft, ripe pears is subtle but prominent, especially when slightly warm. The smoke and sweet combo captures this time in the season perfectly. 

1 cup +  ~2 Tbs. boiling water
4 tsp. Lipsang Souchong tea leaves
2 Tbs. ground flax seed
6 Tbs. hot water
3/4 cup oat bran, certified gluten-free
1 1/2 cups gluten-free flour mix or flour of choice
3/4 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. baking powder 
3/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups cored and shredded soft pears (~ 2 medium)
1/2 cup honey
1/3 cup canola oil
1 Tbs. pure vanilla extract
  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Oil and flour four mini-loaf pans or one 9×5-inch loaf pan.
  • Bring about 1 1/2 cups water to a boil. Pour slightly more than 1 cup of it over the tea leaves and allow them to steep for a while.
  • In a small dish, whisk together the remaining 6 Tbs. hot water and ground flax seeds. Set aside to form a thick slurry.
  • In a large bowl, combine the oat bran, flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Mix well and set aside.
  • Grate the pears using the large holes of a box grater. Don’t include the core and seeds.
  • Strain the tea and pour 1 cup of it into a liquid measuring cup. Add the honey, oil, vanilla, pears, and flax mixture. Mix it all together thoroughly.
  • Pour the liquids into the dry mixture and stir the batter until just combined.
  • Fill the loaf pans equally and bake until a toothpick comes out clean, about 35-40 minutes for mini loaves or 50-60 minutes for a large loaf.

 


to go on

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I can’t go on. I’ll go on. – Samuel Beckett

We were headed back from the coast last weekend and I had been admiring the views and the changing season when I looked out and realized it is September(!) and I suddenly saw not the slow slide of summer into fall but the trajectory of my life these last few months. I realized that I have been so busy feeling my way through this year that I haven’t been able to truly see the world around me, much like that summer I was in Ireland for the second round and one of my co-interns spent so much of her time capturing the experience on her camera that she never stopped to appreciate the views beyond her lens. When I look up and out, it is so easy to feel and see the change in season right now, and as we drove back into town last weekend, there was a bittersweet sadness hanging in the air. This and the last few posts have reflected that bittersweet vibe, as I’ve been sharing bigger matters that have sat heavy with me this year.

 

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One of these is whether I’m even writing a food blog anymore. I have always had more of an interest in talking about life in this space than in hyper-focusing on the food. Over the course of the last few months, I’d like to think I’ve been doing more of that and through the process become more honest in sharing the bigger things that matter. As I’ve done so, I have contemplated moving away from sharing food at all because it often doesn’t seem to go with the message I’m conveying. I think about my readers too. What do you want from this space? Why do you come here? How much is too much information? And I think about why I began the site, to share life and food.

Food is important to me. I love learning about it. I love talking about it. I really like helping others with it. And if you are newer here, if you read back to this post, you’ll see the making and partaking in food is so much more to me than finding peace through this year’s challenges or in fueling life on the run. All my interests, joys, and even problems circulate and intersect in and around food. And though I’ll chatter your ear off in actual conversation until you politely ask me to shut up about it, I don’t particularly enjoy writing about food in this space anymore.

 

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In a recent conversation with a friend, the topic of my eating disorder and food came up and I shared, It’s not about the food. Just like every person has his or her tools or mediums with which to create a life (or destroy it), my strengths–and also weaknesses–are both food and words. Like my eating disorder, this space seems to be about food but is also not about food.

Inevitably, I have opted to continue with the recipe sharing because when I talk about the highs and lows of life here, I share the meals that feed my soul through the process, recipes that hold meaning not because they have this or that ingredient in or out, not because of any label or food trend but because they are simply feeding me through this life. I’ve considered deleting posts which I think are silly now or old recipes that I no longer partake in, but those too are all part of my experience. Those meals, like the more recent ones, fed me through those ventures into becoming the better person I am today. For that alone, I want to have them recorded.

 

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In this transition of seasons, I too feel as if I’m wading through a big life transition. As I take a deeper and bigger-picture look at my trajectory, as I sort through my life and organize my thoughts around the point of this space, I want to share with both the readers who have held on for the long haul and those that are just jumping in, the basic reason for this blog hasn’t particularly changed. It is a space where I can use my creative tools to share real life more honestly; to go on, when a part of me is actually afraid to share what I really feel, is afraid to move into life’s changing seasons, is often frustrated and saying simply, I cannot go on.

 

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When I am standing fearfully on one of life’s cliffs, not ready to jump yet somehow poised for whatever the next adventure brings, when I am at the point where I begin to question everything, when my mind wants to give up and fight like hell simultaneously, that is when I know I am right where I need to be. I will get through this changing season and I’ll be better for the challenge with which it came. I will be glad too that I was willing to share the experience here, rather than waffling on about some random ingredient.

After all, isn’t this life little more than the accumulation of these daily lessons and joys, of conversations and meals good and bad, of being vulnerable, of putting plans into action and seeing hard work pay off, or spinning wheels in useless worrying which we can’t seem to move on from, until, for whatever reason, we do?

 

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Two-Tone Fennel + Pistachio Zucchini Bread 

This zucchini bread has been a work in progress for many years and I’ve held off on publishing because every recipe, like the most vulnerable blog posts, is not quite ready to share. Originally adapted from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe, it has taken on a life of its own with the switch to quinoa, brown rice, and almond flours, two types of summer squash, fennel seeds, and pistachios. It is the type of recipe that feels right in this (nearly there) return to cooler days and comforting foods season, and it’s likely my last bout with zucchini this summer. My plants have been producing steadily since mid-June and they’re telling me their time has nearly come. Onwards!

1 lb. zucchini and yellow summer squash, (about 2 medium or 3 small)

2 Tbs. ground flax seeds

6 Tbs. hot water

3/4 cup  sugar

1 cup quinoa flour

3/4 cup brown rice flour

1/2 cup almond flour

1/4 cup tapioca starch

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. allspice

1/2 tsp. salt

2 tsp. fennel seeds

1/4 cup plain non-dairy yogurt (I used unsweetened coconut)

1 Tbs. apple cider vinegar

3 Tbs. coconut oil

1/4 cup toasted pistachios, chopped

  • Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Oil and flour the bottom and sides of a 8 1/2 x 4 1/2-inch loaf pan.
  • Shred the mixture of zucchini and yellow squash on the large holes of a box grater and then transfer to a fine-mesh strainer set over a bowl. Allow to drain for 20-30 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, mix the ground flax seeds with the hot water in a small dish and set aside to form a thick slurry.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk the flours, baking powder and soda, salt, cinnamon, allspice, fennel seeds, half the pistachios, and 1/2 cup sugar together. Set aside.
  • After the zucchini has drained, squeeze it dry between several layers of paper towels. Mix the dried zucchini with the yogurt and apple cider vinegar in a small bowl. Set aside.
  • Beat the remaining 1/2 cup sugar and coconut oil with a whisk in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Add the flax slurry and incorporate well. Add half the flour mixture and half the zucchini mixture and mix until just incorporated. Add the remaining flour and zucchini and mix once more until the mixture just comes together.
  • Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan and sprinkle the top with the remaining pistachios. Bake until the loaf is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with just a few crumbs attached, about 55 minutes. Cool the bread in the pan for 10-15 minutes, then tranfer the loaf to a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature, or once cool, slide into the fridge for a day or two, as the flavors really develop overnight.

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