Food Friday: Basil Bonanza

There are so many fruits and vegetables in season right now that we are having a trouble keeping up with them. There is a veritable glut of strawberries, asparagus, rhubarb, carrots, spinach and more. And lurking on our back porch is the biggest basil plant we have ever grown.

We haven’t done anything special to it except transplanting it from its grocery store plastic pot, and plunking it into the large pot it shares with a burgeoning heirloom tomato plant. I do mutter incantations over them when I water every morning, but that is it. No extra feedings of bionic growth elixir. No Miracle-Gro. The basil has decided to grow, and we are rushing to keep jogging along at its side.

We are always big fans of Caprese salad – it is so delicious and such an easy supper to whip up when it has been a frantic day in the Spy test kitchens. We tend to have a line up of tomatoes on the kitchen window sill all summer long (and it has been so hot so early that I am thinking of breaking out my bathing suit before Memorial Day!)and with the basil growing like kudzu on the back porch, there is no excuse not to invest in tomato futures. I plan to indulge in a fresh ball of mozzarella every couple of days to help keep our basil plant well-trimmed and busy.

Mr. Friday couldn’t find the dried up, gray parsley flakes he tends to favor for his Sunday morning eggs last week. He tossed in a couple of roughly torn basil leaves instead, and had a religious experience. Maybe this means we can go through the spices and toss out the decades old sage, rosemary and thyme, too!

We like a nice light pesto sauce for fresh pasta when the temperatures rise. Years ago we stopped adding the pine nuts, and instead make a nice thick paste of basil, olive oil, garlic gloves, salt, pepper and fresh Parmesan cheese, that we swirl around the mini-food processor for a moment or two. If it seems too thick, we thin it with a little pasta water. We gave up the pine nuts because they were hard to find, are chock-full of cholesterol, and are expensive. Some people substitute walnuts, but I don’t like walnuts, so I have opted for simplicity.

Basic Pesto á la Spy
2 cups fresh basil leaves (no stems)
2 large cloves garlic
½ cup olive oil
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Combine basil leaves, oil and garlic in a food processor and process until very finely minced, and then smooth. Add the cheese and process very briefly, just long enough to combine. Store in refrigerator or freezer, because you will need a container of sunshine in your fridge for a rainy day.

Mr. Friday has a new wok, and has been assiduously tempering and seasoning it. I play sous chef, and shop, and chop, and slice, and dice. One of his new recipes for a Chinese stir fry calls for the addition of fresh basil, tossed in the wok at the very last minute of cooking. Wow. So many ingredients (and two trips to the Oriental market!) but so deelish!

On our weekly Friday night pizza nights we have broken all the rules in our shambling learning process. We had the heat too low, or the cooking time was too long, or we put the cheese on first, or we burnt everything to a crisp. (When preparing something every week for years and years, it is amazing how many disasters we have had – and yet the pizza is always delicious!) It was companionable way to spend time with our children, practicing measuring, rolling out dough, learning kitchen skills and messing about in clouds of flour. I cannot recommend it too highly. We used to add fresh basil as a topping, but didn’t realize that like the Chinese recipe, the basil is so much more flavorful, and is still pungent and GREEN, if added at the very end of the cooking process. Instead of the basil turning into a crispy, flavorless cinder after baking at 550° F for 8 minutes, now it emerges from the oven, slightly limp, but oozing flavor and basil-ness. And it looks pretty; always a plus.

Go rescue a basil plant, and give it a nice home on your back porch. It will feed you all summer.

Here is a weekend challenge for you:

“Everyone is guilty at one time or another of throwing out questions that beg to be ignored, but mothers seem to have a market on the supply.
“Do you want a spanking or do you want to go to bed?”
“Don’t you want to save some of the pizza for your brother?”
“Wasn’t there any change?””
-Erma Bombeck

Food Friday: Roll Out the Rhubarb!

Isn’t spring great? That’s if you can be flexible about the weather, and endure a couple of unexpectedly soggy days which can ruin your weekend plans? As you wander through the farmers’ market, or even the more prosaic grocery store produce department, you can see piles of lovely, gleaming, jewel-like fruits and vegetables, and you can feel the excitement of the recent discoveries of all the prescient food editors. Suddenly, you can see why Bon Appétit has a page about the beauty of rhubarb. Just look at it! Look at those pinks! Admire that green! Rhubarb could be a charming vintage Lilly Pulitzer print, without all the cumbersome Palm Beach pretenses. Rhubarb, that coy herbaceous perennial, is here, but it isn’t going to last forever, so get out your thinking caps.

As you might suspect, there are many ways in which to indulge your rhubarb yen. When the Spy was a shiny new publication, our esteemed colleague, Nancy Taylor Robson, shared a family recipe for her Orange-and-ginger-infused Crisp, which is still on the Food52 website, because it is brilliant, and very tasty, too. Nancy buried her lede, because this orange-and-ginger-infused-crisp also contains four cups of rhubarb. It is, as we like to say, yumsters. And four cups of rhubarb will help thin the rhubarb plant in your back yard.

Nancy emailed me the other day to say she had recently baked a couple of strawberry rhubarb pies. Note that she did not include an invitation to eat said pies. One can imagine that a pie baked by Nancy is quite divine. I am going to try my hand at this recipe by Deb Perelman and her Smitten Kitchen: Her pie has been featured on NPR, and will be fact-checked and verified delicious.

I have a new website that I am exploring, and I hope you like it, too. I like a little levity, because all is too grim these days. Endless Simmer has a cheerful attitude. And some mighty fine recipe ideas. And I think Strawberry Scones (with chunks o’rhubarb) are a fabulous idea. Rhubarb doesn’t have to be just for dessert. It can be for breakfast, too. An tea! It is an all-purpose rhizome.

But where would we be without some helpful hints from our clever friends at Food52? Not only do they have access to the extravagant resources available to New Yorkers, they are cutting-edge home cooks. I think their strawberry-rhubarb ice cream is so much better than last week’s asparagus ice cream. (I found dried angelica root here:, but I am just skipping that ingredient. )

But I am saving the best for last – a Rhubarb Collins. This is the way to enjoy spring, a nice tall Collins glass in hand as you sit on the back porch, watching the cardinals dart from the bird feeder, while that bunny sits calmly in the back yard, nibbling the grass that you have no intention to mow today. Pour some more Champagne, please!

Rhubarb Collins

1 stalk rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1/2 -inch pieces (about 3/4 cup)
1/2 cup sugar
2 ounces gin
1 ounce lemon juice
2 to 4 ounces Champagne

Make a simple syrup with the rhubarb and sugar: combine the rhubarb and sugar with 3/4 cup water in a small pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to moderately low and simmer until slightly thickened and bright pink in color, about 20 minutes. Let the syrup cool then pour through a colander set over a bowl. Press down gently and toss the solids. (The rhubarb simple syrup can be made in advance and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one week.)
Combine one ounce of the rhubarb simple syrup in a cocktail shaker with the gin and lemon juice. Fill the shaker with ice and shake vigorously until completely mixed. Strain into a chilled highball glass and top with Champagne or Prosecco. Add a straw, and a strawberry for decoration. Drink. Repeat. Enjoy. Spring is fleeting!

“Well, art is art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does.”
-Groucho Marx

Food Friday: An Abundance of Asparagus

What a great time of year! You will be groaning under the weight of the asparagus harvest you will be hauling home from the farmers’ market in your re-usable bags this weekend. It’s asparagus time, and it’s time for a little asparagus boot camp to get you ready to enjoy all that copious sweet green goodness.

Asparagus might not be quite as versatile as the potato, but you can bake it, grill it, stir fry it, roast it, steam it, or toss it into a salad. How about some tasty tips in your eggs on Sunday morning? Don’t feel like a big dinner production? Get out a baking sheet and fire up the broiler. In a few minutes, with a judicious drizzling of olive oil, a smattering of salt, and a quick squeeze of lemon, you have an elegant dish that you can eat with your fingers out on the back porch as you count the first fireflies of the season. Seize the moment, and all the asparagus plenty that you can carry.

Roasted Asparagus

Grilled Asparagus
This is almost as much fun to prepare as our Big Love Pizza. It is time to get the grill out of the garage and back up on the back porch. Grilled asparagus is deelish and there are no cookie sheets to wash! Be careful that you don’t burn your fingers as you gobble up these rich, sweet asparagus spears.

Baked Asparagus
This isn’t quite as spring-y, but it is deeply satisfying. Who doesn’t love molten cheese?

Pasta with Asparagus-Lemon Sauce
Because we all have a vegan friend or two, and they will love this at your next dinner party:

And if you are not a vegan, but are ready to swim in lemon-y cream:

This recipe has a slightly simpler approach – cooking the asparagus along with the pasta.

Asparagus Toasts
Sometimes written recipes can just look so intimidating because every step is bulleted, numbered or set in bold-faced type. Heavens to Betsy! We make a lot of bruschetta because inevitably we have French bread that is stale-ish and should be tossed to the ducks if we don’t use it up soon. We slice it into rounds, and grill it under the broiler. Then we rub garlic cloves on the (cooled) crunchy toasty rounds. Then we drizzle the bread with a little olive oil, and pile on the chopped tomatoes, cilantro, basil, green onions and crumbled feta cheese before putting it back under the broiler to melt the cheese. Easy peasy, right? Now, go back to the step right after we rub the bread with garlic. Instead of piling on the vegetables, we schmear the bread with sweet fresh ricotta cheese, and plunk down some tender green asparagus spears, which we have trimmed to fit the bread. Back under the broiler. Then into our greedy mouths.

Now here is a many-stepped recipe:

Asparagus and Bacon
Of course, Martha would combine two of the best ingredients known to humans:

But I have saved the best for last: Asparagus Ice Cream. Yumsters.

“… asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible changes to their white feet, still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed: a rainbow-loveliness that was not of this world.”
-Marcel Proust

Food Friday: Growing Season

We are still fussing with the plans for our new raised garden bed, so I am concerned that we will not be getting the tomatoes in the ground this weekend. Last night I ran out to the grocery store for a bottle of cheap white wine (it’s been a week) and I saw some sad, limp and leggy tomato plants for sale on a table set up just outside the entrance. “2 for $5” read one sign. “$10/plant” read another. Yikes!

I’m too late to start seeds for this season, but I have started looking around for a good balance of plants, hybrid and heirloom, so I can hope to have at least a modestly successful harvest. The plants at the grocery store were not labeled, so one can only imagine what sort of homes they came from. I am not sure I need to be completely artisanal, choosing only heirloom, Brooklyn-worthy plants. I tend to lunge at the bright shiny objects, or the ones with vaguely poetical names: Brandywine (I think Andrew Wyeth would approve), Early Girl, Mortgage Lifter, Cherokee Purple or Green Zebra.

For the Mid-Atlantic states, Mother Earth News suggests Amish Paste and Brandywine tomatoes.

I like to have slicer tomatoes lolling in the sun on the windowsill. I can always make a happy lunch of a tomato sandwich, Pepperidge Farm white bread and a thick schmear of mayonnaise. With some potato chips, please. There is nothing better than a nice sun-warmed tomato. But then Mr. Friday is fond of some cherry tomatoes, which he likes to sear under the broiler, and serve with burrata, basil and good olive oil as dressing. He might prefer growing some Sungold or Sweet Million cherry tomatoes.

Mother Earth News also suggests putting plants in every couple of weeks. This staggering spreads out the growing season. I am stealing that idea as pure genius, and to cover for the fact that I am so late starting seeds. And then I can keep up with the weeding.

There are plenty of places on the Eastern Shore you can visit to get your tomato fix: CSAs and farms and farmer’s market abound.

And what will you prepare with your summer-long tomato bounty? Besides deelish tomato sandwiches?

This is the most popular salad recipe on Pinterest:

Cucumber Tomato Avocado Salad


2 avocados
1/4 cup cilantro
1 English cucumber
1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons of juice)
1/2 red onion, medium
1 pound Roma tomatoes (or run through the garden, and see what beauties you have)
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt (we prefer Maldon, just like the Queen!)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Our clever friends at Food52 always have something delightful to say about tomatoes. I was particularly charmed when a period of time was described as a “load of laundry” – my kind of time frame. This is a slightly more involved tomato dish, but it will be fabulous in a few weeks, when your first green tomatoes are harvested:

The USDA has a price per pound and a price per cup listing for most fruits and vegetables. They are not so specific about the myriad tomato varieties – just grape and cherry, Roma, and beefsteak make their catchall list. In 2015 grape and cherry tomatoes were more expensive than beefsteak – but only just: $3.29 per pound versus $3.16. Romas were the bargain at $1.24 per pound. In the dead of winter I buy Romas at the grocery store, because they have more flavor than the soulless slicing tomato option. I bet our tomato crop this year is going to set us back a few more dollars that we would have spent at the grocery store – but I will save a lot of seeds, and stick a PostIt on my 2018 calendar, and I will get cracking earlier next year.

Update: today at the garden center, while also eyeing the foxgloves, I bought four starter tomato plants: two Black Cherry, hybrid cherry tomatoes for Mr. Friday, and two German Queen heirloom tomato plants for me. Let the garden games begin!

“I feel old and vulnerable. I now realise that I knew nothing and know nothing, but back when my career was beginning, I thought I was a man when, in fact, I was a dewy-eyed boy who’d not seen an avocado or eaten a tomato.”
– James Nesbitt

Food Friday: A Soupçon of Danger

As a enthusiastic home cook, I invest in gadgets that claim to make food prep easier. Perhaps I am just fantastically lazy. I have a drawer full of good intentions. I just love those bright, shiny, time-saving and ultimately, dangerous widgets. I can rummage through that drawer and remember all the blood that was drawn, the toes that were smashed, the knuckles that were scraped, and the fingerprints that were artfully grated. But my prepared dishes were beautiful. I obviously listened to my high school art teacher. When Mr. Preu was instructing us in the proper way to use the paper cutter, he warned us to never get blood on the artwork.

One of my favorite details in the original Jurassic Park film was the car mirror that had a helpful warning label: “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear.” Do the characters in the movie pause to consider this valuable information? Of course not, because then the movie would have ended abruptly and without any teeth-gnashing fun. The show had to go on.

My first brush with kitchen equipment peril came when I was standing in a store, reading the side of a kitchen mandoline box. I had wanted one for a long time, and here I had found quite a fancy one, and it was on sale! A mysterious woman passing by reached out and tapped the box with a long, bony finger. “They are so dangerous! I had to go to the emergency room the first time I used mine!” Heavens! Were perfect waffle fries worth the pain? Certainly. Could I endure exsanguination for wafer thin cukes in a translucent Scandinavian salad decorated with frothy bits of lacy dill? Yes, I could. And so far, except for minor, shallow, and quickly staunched wounds made while fitting the cunningly complicated blades into the apparatus, I have not been seriously scarred. I do use the clumsy “safety food holder” provided by the manufacturer (no doubt at the urging of their liability lawyers) to keep my fingertips protected from the guillotine-sharp blade when slicing. And doubtless one of these days I will learn the double-weave-waffle-technique. It takes a lot of potatoes to master all of the cutting techniques.

I recently bought a microplaner, because I kept seeing it mentioned in recipes and because, unlike the mandoline, it can go in the dishwasher. Last week I used it to grate cheese, garlic and lemon zest. And my right thumb. All for one pasta recipe. But, still. It is dishwasher safe. And the hydrogen peroxide got rid of the blood stains on the tea towel.

Grilling season is almost upon us. It’s time for me to start making shish kabobs and pricking my fingers like a latter day Sleeping Beauty. The skewers are not so dangerous when I am actually skewering the meal and veggies; they are sneaky, and poke me when I am rooting around in the drawer looking for something completely different – like the basting brush or the cork screw.

In the dishwasher there lurk other pointy objects – like the steak knives that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named continues to put in the basket with the sharp tips pointing upwards. Ouch.

Be careful in the kitchen. Don’t perform home vivisections with any of the groovy mod cons. Even slicing a bagel can be dangerous. And since dining out nightly or 24/7 room service are not practical alternatives, listen to my old art teacher: don’t get blood on your creations.

Pasta with Lemon, Garlic and Parmesan Cheese,
with a Soupçon of Microplane Danger

Serves 4 to 6
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Maldon salt
1 large clove garlic, grated with dangerous microplane
1 lemon, zested with lethal microplane, and juiced (watch out for seeds!)
1 pound pasta (I prefer Penne)
2 to 3 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, grated with menacing microplane
Freshly ground black pepper for a flourish
Decorative parsley

Combine in a large bowl oil: salt, garlic, lemon juice and zest. Cook the pasta according to the directions on the box, retaining some water. Quickly throw the pasta into the bowl. Toss everything together well, and then add the parsley, cheese, and pepper before tossing again. Yumsters. Add salad, garlic bread and cheap wine. Bliss.

“…Goldfinger could not have known that high tension was Bond’s natural way of life and that pressure and danger relaxed him.”
― Ian Fleming

Food Friday: Raspberry Ricotta Cake

Easter isn’t just about chocolate eggs or marshmallow peeps. Or even jelly beans or chocolate bunnies. Spring is blooming all around us, and we need to revel in it. And in cake. And thrill to raspberries. And whipped cream. And more raspberries.

Mr. Friday happened to look over my should as he passed through the studio the other day, when I was watching a video from the clever folks at Bon Appétit magazine. He immediately longed for this light, spring-y cake. And so it was baked.

It is easy peasy. I only had to shop for ricotta and for the raspberries. (I used frozen, because fresh were prohibitively expensive – $4.99 for a pint of fresh!) I used an 8-inch springform pan, because I haven’t unpacked the other cake pans yet. At least, I hope I have packed the other pans, and haven’t mislaid them. Nothing surprises me these days. This is easier than most cheesecake recipes, and very light. I have been sneaking small slices out of the fridge all week – they have made for a couple of very yummy breakfasts.

Raspberry Ricotta Cake
8 servings
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
1½ cups ricotta
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup frozen raspberries or blackberries, divided

Preheat oven to 350°. Line a 9-inch-diameter cake pan with parchment paper. Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.

Whisk eggs, ricotta, and vanilla in a medium bowl until smooth; fold into dry ingredients just until blended. Then fold in the melted butter, followed by ¾ cup raspberries, taking care not to crush berries. Scrape batter into prepared pan and scatter remaining ¼ cup raspberries over top.

Bake cake until golden brown and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 50–60 minutes. Let cool at least 20 minutes before unmolding.

Here is the video which launched our Raspberry Ricotta Cake Experience:

Now, if you have time on your hands, and really can’t think of anything better to do, you could make some homemade marshmallow peeps for your own Easter egg hunt.

No. Don’t do it. You really should get out in the garden instead of rolling confectionaries in bowls of colored sugars. Though I come from the school that believes that the best peeps are eaten a couple of weeks after Easter, when they have gotten a little stale, and crusty. (Hint: you have to poke a hole in the plastic wrap, otherwise I suspect peeps are like Hostess Twinkies and will never degrade by themselves. You have to encourage them.) Plus you can get Peeps on sale at the grocery store starting on Monday. And you can use this time instead to read a good book, and take a nap. Or maybe admire the tulips. Have a daydream. Perhaps even weed. Deadhead the daffodils.

“All gardening is landscape painting.”
-Alexander Pope

Food Friday: Better with Butter!

I am wandering around our new garden this year, playing CSI, Suburban Garden, identifying new shoots and leaves planted by the former owner. I am remembering my mother’s garden, which was complicated and themed, as my gardens will never be, but the early training has paid off in that I can still recognize the plants that herald spring. For example, my mother had a woodland corner, with jack-in-the-pulpits, Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot, trillium and bluebells she had transplanted from our former little house in the woods. Later in the spring there would be ferns and hostas (and slugs) and bleeding hearts. There was never anything so banal as a hydrangea in her garden. Everything needed to be vetted and researched and carefully chosen. And so knowledge was imparted.

I was a pesky child, because I wanted to pick all her flowers and bring them indoors, and she was horrified at my brutality. She had just spent a long winter, cooped up with kids, waiting for the moment that the jack-in-the pulpit finally emerged from under the layers of wet leaves. Who could want to pick daffodils after their long journey up through the frozen ground, when they blazed in golden yellow triumph? Look at those violets! Aren’t they cunning in their little niche under the lilac bush? Are there any white violets this year? There were some in the corner by the mossy steps last year.

I have wickedly enjoyed picking a few handfuls of daffodils from my late fall bulb planting. Exhibiting adult restraint, I cut only a few at a time, to have in a vase on the kitchen table, where daffodil scent would waft through when a breeze came through the window. I left enough to make me Google Wordsworth and the Lake District, with my modest first year display of 200 daffodil bulbs bobbing and weaving in the back yard. The previous owner had planted a paltry patch of daffodils near the front stoop, but not the impressive sea (small ripple of a pond) of yellow, nodding heads that I proudly surveyed.

I have planted some peonies in a bed near the front door because my mother had peonies, and some day lilies, too, so I tippy toe around looking for signs of growth every morning. Luke the wonder dog despairs. And near the corner of the garage I have found other peonies sprouting near an ancestral (and hopefully vulgar and florid) hydrangea, and yesterday several spears of amaryllis poked through the ground like small green blades. The shoots of what I thought was wandering jew have turned into little mounds of blue flag, and there is an iris bed in another corner of the back yard that is packed and teeming with plants. I guess I will be learning how to thin irises this spring. Mr. Friday takes my word for all these CSI discoveries. His family didn’t garden. Luke just wants to play ball, and so has no interest.

I found lily of the valley rhizomes in the produce section grocery store a few weeks ago! My mother would be amazed. I haven’t figured out where to plant them in this garden yet. When I was growing up there was a lush squeaky and fragrant bed of them on the west side of the house, just under the dripping hose, so that should give me a clue about where to transplant my own. Right now they are nesting in a little clay pot while I get to know the lay of the land.

But it is spring, and we are all finally emerging from out little huts and caves and cottages, blinking in the light and reaching for the sunscreen. Can life on the porch be resumed? And who is bringing the snacks? Thank you, New York Times.

I cannot believe that I have careened through life this long without trying radishes, salt and butter. I have always been a big fan of bowls of icy radishes, scored to form petals (or not), waved under a salt shaker and consumed in loud munching rabbit bites. The addition of butter has been a revelation. This is the perfect snack to enjoy on the back porch, wrapped in a light sweater, as you perch on a damp porch swing, looking out on the back yard, and contemplate all the possibilities that a spring garden can bring.

“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
-William Wordsworth

Food Friday: Spring Forth with Cake!

Food Friday has gone on a Spring Break. This is one of our favorite springtime recipes for cake – which is the perfect food. We’ll be back next week!

One of the perils of working from home is that I don’t get out much. Some days the only conversations I have are with the clerks at the grocery store. My studio companion, Luke, the wonder dog, and I take a couple of walks every day. Luke is an enthusiastic and charming fellow, but his conversational skills are minimal. I can’t remember the last book he read, and he never minds that I do the crossword puzzle in ink. He might comment that I will never catch a squirrel, or that I don’t sniff mailboxes with gusto. And he would be right.

When Luke and I go on walkabout I usually have my earbuds firmly planted. I listen to several podcasts, and often feel that the folks on these podcasts are my real co-workers. Podcasts are the intimates of solitary freelancers, nursing mothers and the sleepless. Every week Julia Turner, Dana Stevens and Stephen Metcalf charm my socks off. Their Slate Culture Gabfest podcast is full of good humor, insight, wit and bon mots. They merrily discuss popular culture with aplomb; dissecting current memes, television, music, and movies. Where else can I go for brilliant water cooler conversation? And one week, a couple of months ago, Julia (Yes, I do call her “Julia” in my cheeky fashion.) rhapsodized poetical about a recipe she had found in the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook for the perfect cake. I looked up the recipe and filed it away for another day.

And today is the day! It’s time to forget about winter, and move on to celebrating Spring! I have had the delightful television baking experience of The Great British Bake Off to fan my enthusiasm for home baking, and what better way to pay homage to Spring than with Smitten Kitchen’s Best Yellow Layer Cake? While you are poking through the brown oak leaves under the side yard hedge, looking for tender green daffodil shoots, you will be much happier knowing that there will be a slice of cake and a tall cold glass of milk waiting for you in the kitchen. The squirrels have retreated, so Luke has to stick with kibble, which always makes him very happy.

Smitten Kitchen’s Best Yellow Layer Cake

“Yield: Two 9-inch round, 2-inch tall cake layers, and, in theory, 22 to 24 cupcakes, two 8-inch squares or a 9×13 single-layer cake
4 cups, plus 2 tablespoons cake flour (not self-rising)
2 baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon table salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups buttermilk, well-shaken

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans and line with circles of parchment paper, then butter parchment. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture will look curdled). Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated.

Spread batter evenly in cake pan, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then run a knife around edge of pan. Invert onto rack and discard parchment, then cool completely, about 1 hour.”

The Smitten Kitchen goes on to suggest that you use a chocolate icing, but I am feeling too cheerful and full of new spring hope. I am making a light, lemon-y icing instead.

Lemon Buttercream Icing

1 stick butter – room temperature
3 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons half and half or milk

Beat the butter in the bowl with and electric mixer until it is fluffy. Add the confectioner’s sugar just a few tablespoons at a time. Add the salt and vanilla extract. Continue adding confectioner’s sugar, alternating with splashes of cream (or milk) and lemon juice Add more cream (or milk) if you like thinner frosting. You will need to double this recipe if you want to have tidy frosted sides to the cake.

Scrumptious! Thank you, Julia Turner!

You can find more charming intelligent folks on the Slate Panoply podcast network who discuss sports, finance, politics, the Supreme Court and even our friends from Food 52 with a podcast called Burnt Toast:

More recipes:

More of Julia, Dana and Stephen:

“In Britain, a cup of tea is the answer to every problem.
Fallen off your bicycle? Nice cup of tea.
Your house has been destroyed by a meteorite? Nice cup of tea and a biscuit.
Your entire family has been eaten by a Tyrannosaurus Rex that has travelled through a space/time portal?
Nice cup of tea and a piece of cake.
Possibly a savoury option would be welcome here too, for example a Scotch egg or a sausage roll.”
― David Walliams

Food Friday: The Siren Song of Seeds

Seed packets are tiny perfect jewels of graphic design. On the front there is a romanticized illustration of a freakishly perfect tomato; it is round and looks sun-warmed. So unlike the cardboard tomatoes we have been buying all winter at the grocery store. On the back there are instructions about sowing the seeds after all danger of frost has passed. I can tell you that those frosts are still a danger. I have lost four geraniums to my misguided enthusiasm, and belief that spring is right around the corner. I am ready to hang up the turtlenecks, and get out in the garden.

I have been waiting all winter for this – I admit it. I have been thumbing through seed catalogues and feverishly imagining my new and improved sunny, raised garden bed, fecund and lush and spilling over with cukes, and beans, and sun-warmed tomatoes. I have been thinking about all those tender, fresh, aromatic herbs that I will manage to coax along this year. I have picturthe the extra little flourish and the modest bow I will take when I humbly present our salad greens at the Fourth of July picnic. Envisioning how I will please, delight, and amaze Mr. Friday when I whip out a fresh, homegrown shallot for the salad dressing. I am still considering how I will take revenge on the idiot neighbor who mows his lawn on Sunday mornings – zucchini is the perfect passive/aggressive payback.

So let’s get hopping! These tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, cabbage, beans, lettuce, beets, carrots, and radishes will not plant, water or weed themselves!

It’s time for a little elbow grease action – which is much more healthier than hot yoga. But don’t get so enchanted by the beauteousness of the seed packets to take on more than you can chew. Buy a few easy veggies, and a couple of happy flowers. Marigolds or nasturtiums go well in both a vegetable garden, and in the salad bowl.

I have learned over the years with my sandy back yard, and my short attention span, that I am easily distracted and disappointed. Now I keep my exposure to a minimum. I am happiest (and most successful) with a little container garden. I have fresh herbs and I do a couple of tomato plants every year. I am upping our game with a couple of blueberry bushes I have planted in the ground. We now have a blueberry farm. Maybe if I remember to water every day they will have a real shot at making it to the table.

I had a successful little run with lettuce a couple of years ago. We had a few awfully fresh salads. I doubt if it was very cost effective to wrangle my own little Bibb lettuces, but it felt so good to wander outside with the kitchen shears, and judiciously snip a leaf here, another leaf there, and know the salad was good and fresh, and I was leaving modest carbon foot print. Obviously I do not factor in the air pollution generated from multiple trips to the garden center…

If you do not feel not up to the responsibilities of growing your own vegetable garden this season, now that the snow has melted, and the daffodils are popping up every where, please think about supporting your local farmers at farmers’ markets and farm stands and CSAs. They were cool (and essential) long before Brooklyn and all its mustachioed, plaid-sporting, artisan, organic, heirloom, microcosmically hip farmers, soap makers, tanners, butchers, chicken farmers, bakers and baristas. We like homemade and all the virtues associated with it.

It is oh, so very pleasant to wander outside in your jim-jams on a summer morning, pausing to watch the sun rise, while munching meditatively on a dewy green bean that you have just twisted off a vine, before you ever have a cup of coffee or read the newspaper. Instagram cannot replicate that real delight. Honest.

“From December to March,
there are for many of us three gardens:
the garden outdoors,
the garden of pots and bowls in the house,
and the garden of the mind’s eye.”
– Katharine S. White

Food Friday: A Flock of Muffins

Sitting in a corner of the living room is a large cardboard box from Burpee Gardens, which contains elements of my fantasy summer life: two hydrangea plants, two wisteria plants, and two teeny, tiny blueberry bushes. They arrived last week, back when we thought we were hurtling into spring, flip flops and lemonade on the porch. Brrr.

It’s too early to set them outside right now. I hope next week, when I feel pretty sure that the danger of frost has passed, I’ll unpack them. In the meantime I murmur warm assurances to them as I pass by. “Soon! Soon you will all be knee-deep in rich soil, reaching up to the warm sun, burgeoning with fruit and blooms galore!”

The blueberries are the real experiment. I have never tried to grow berries before. I think it is too early to worry about rabbits and deer, but our back yard is a veritable United Nations of birds.

The round of robins enjoy some crazy rain dances in and around the holly bushes. I have watched the many robins sitting on branches that are already heavy with holly berries and rain, unconcerned that they are the only birds outside in a deluge, as they drunkenly nosh on the gleaming red berries. Sometimes I have watched the birds fall to the ground, only to see them then spring straight up in the air to grab at some more berries from the low hanging branches. Awkwardness and determination have never been so adorable.

An echo of scolding mockingbirds also spends time in the holly bushes. Luke the wonder dog does not avail himself of those bushes. He doesn’t like to getting dive-bombed as he patrols on his doggie missions. Although there are some squirrelly boys who like to hang around an nearby oak tree, tempting him with their rodent wiles…

In the back corner of the yard, tucked up in ivy trailing along a brick wall, a jar of nuthatches call out with their raspy, click-click-clicking sound of veiled threats. I’m sure if Luke ever saw how tiny they were he wouldn’t give them a second glance, but they sound like large machinery ratcheting back before a putsch. They might even have their beady little eyes on our blueberry potential.

Along the neighbor’s wall we have seen a few berry-eating birds: thrushes, cedar waxwings, blue jays, woodpeckers, catbirds, bluebirds, and doves. While they wait for me to plant the blueberries they have finished harvesting the dogwood and the juniper berries. No wonder they are impatient for spring to begin.

Mr. Friday likes berries on his bowl of cereal most mornings. I doubt if we will be saving any money by planting our own blueberry bushes, but as part of my summer fantasy, I will wander out into the back yard, with a little basket in hand, and I will pick some blueberries for his breakfast. Just imagine me bathed in Disney-diffused light, with the friendly birds singing sweetly; me with flowing tresses and a trailing gown instead of my usual Andy Warhol-hair and comfy yoga pants glory.

I prefer my blueberries in muffins or pancakes, which are serious weekend food, because, as you know, Gentle Reader, I am not very likely to get up early to bake. But this could be my fantasy summer vacation, where I would be wont to trail around the kitchen in a leisurely, and dream-like, un-rushed fashion; lovingly cracking organic free-range eggs and sifting dry artisanal ingredients. Instead of the real-life workday, when I am grouchy and harried, and gnawing on a frozen bagel and swigging Diet Coke. No, the Fantasy Me will sip fragrant Lapsang souchong tea from a precious antique bone-china cup, while I peruse the Times of London, and I complete the crossword without a single tempting, cheating, go-ahead-and-look-it-up-on-Google thought – in ink.

The heat just roared on again. It’s time to get cracking. Bake some muffins this weekend, and let me know how your spring garden plans are shaping up!

“Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.”
-Wendell Berry