Yesterday my husband asked me to stop baking.
He was joking, because he can’t resist a slice of cake with a glass of cold milk, cookies piled on a plate, breakfast muffins that are healthy, I swear it. He was joking, but there was truth behind the joke.
I am trying to cook my way out of the void.
In the first chapter of this newsletter, I wrote that I was finding true and genuine comfort in the kitchen. This continues to be the case. Cooking gives me purpose, useful work to do. It keeps me busy. It allows me to nurture my family. Without it, I think I would be lost right now.
Sometimes I look up from chopping an onion, stirring a pot, frosting a cake, whatever task has taken me away momentarily from reality, and I remember where we are. It is surreal: The world is ending and I make dinner. “After enlightenment, the laundry,” as the Zen proverb has it. In the face of the monumental, mundane life goes on.
If we are lucky. Lucky enough to be healthy. To not be out of work, out of money, out of food. The lines of cars waiting at food banks across the country stretch for miles, the images breathtaking: the bread lines of 2020, engines idling.
I cannot cook my way out of the void. I am lucky — for now — to have the option to keep at it anyway.
This newsletter has arrived in your inbox for 14 days. It was conceived of as a project that would run the length of a quarantine period. Going forward, it will continue on a weekly basis, as I turn back toward writing more about the world outside my kitchen.
But first: dessert. Dessert is a celebration, and we need to celebrate in the face of sorrow. I baked a cake yesterday, though it was no one’s birthday. Well, it was someone’s birthday somewhere. Happy birthday, dear someone! We ate pizza and salad, and I opened a bottle of wine that was a pandemic splurge, and we drank it out of the beautiful, brittle glassware I usually save for special occasions. If we break it, we break it; we will enjoy it in the meantime. We played Uno at the table, and then we cut fat, fudgy slices of cake and polished them off. It was a wonderful night. It was an ordinary night. I hope I remember it forever.
Right now we need recipes we can rely on, that aren’t profligate with ingredients, that offer dependable results. Like this chocolate cake from Moosewood. It is a delicious vehicle for all kinds of frostings, whipped cream and strawberries, or a simple sprinkle of confectioners’ sugar. It can be made into cupcakes or doubled for layer cakes. It is easy to assemble, dirties a bare minimum of dishes, and happens to be vegan. You can mix it right in the baking pan if you’d like, but I usually do it in a bowl and transfer to an oiled pan lined with parchment, so I can serve it on a plate. My sister and I once made this cake in a Maine cottage as a surprise for our parents’ 50th anniversary, right under their noses, without them even noticing (or, at least, they graciously pretended not to). That’s how quickly it comes together.
Six-Minute Chocolate Cake
Makes one 9-inch round or one 8-inch square
1 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup cold water or coffee
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Oil a 9-inch round or 8-inch square pan and line the bottom with parchment.
2. Into a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar.
3. In a 2-cup measuring cup, measure and mix together the oil, water or coffee, and vanilla. Pour into the dry ingredients and mix together until the batter is well combined.
4. Add the vinegar and stir quickly, just until the vinegar is evenly distributed throughout the batter. (You will see pale swirls as you stir; that’s the vinegar interacting with the baking soda.)
5. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. Set on a rack to cool before inverting onto a plate. Adapted from “Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts,” by the Moosewood Collective
Other things to try
- The lemon and poppy seed cake from the wonderful “Sweet,” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh. This is easily the most-requested dessert in my house.
- Marian Burros’s justifiably famous plum torte, which can be made with different fruit and adapted all kinds of ways.
- This citrus-scented olive oil cake, from New York restaurant Maialino.
- The super-easy Atlantic Beach Pie from Crook’s Corner chef Bill Smith. (The crust is made from crushed saltines; I’ve done it with matzo for the Passover table, with great results.)
- Bailey’s hot fudge sauce, adapted from “The Way We Cook,” by Sheryl Julian and Julie Riven: Melt together 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate and a stick of unsalted butter, then remove from heat. Take a 1-pound box of confectioners’ sugar and a 12-ounce can of evaporated milk: Add 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, then a little evaporated milk, then 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, and so on, alternating until all the sugar and milk are added. Set the pan over medium heat and cook until small bubbles appear on the sides. Let it bubble steadily, stirring occasionally, for 8 minutes. Stir in 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla. Remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Store what you don’t use and reheat later when you need chocolate.Question of the day: Are you craving sweets more than usual? What have you been baking?
Thinking of you, good people.