Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Lemon-Soaked Ginger Pound Cake: Baking as a Feminist Act

This morning, on my Day Off from my forty-hour-workweek job where I serve affluent people dinner, I filled a bowl with granola and honey, closed the bedroom door on a kitchen full of household responsibilities, and curled up in bed with a book – For Her Own Good, by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English. Chronicling “150 years of the experts’ advice to women,” this treasure chest of feminist nonfiction traces the “Woman Question” – what does a woman do with her life? - from the era of industrialization to the present (relatively speaking – For Her Own Good was originally published in 1978).

As women struggled to reorient to a new, market-centric industrial society, the sun rose and spilled through the bamboo slats of my bedroom blinds. Unable to face the host of chores a Day Off might allow me to accomplish, I instead lounged in heaps of down comforter and studied the plight of the ethereal Victorian invalid female, how doctors attributed her misery not to her cinched waist or caged lifestyle, but to her impious “wandering uterus.” Pre-war housewives suffered bored isolation in the home and developed a new, expanded definition of domesticity as W. and I occupied our respective rooms, poring over our respective feminist literature, our respective dishes languishing in the sink.

And then…I felt an impulse to make a cake.

Now, this wasn’t the sort of cake-baking impulse that Julienne Moore has in “The Hours,” where she comes out of her isolated domestic anguish to bake the perfect birthday confection and then goes off the kill herself. But what else is a modern girl to do on her Day Off? In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan describes the frustrating predicament of the contemporary superwoman who is expected to simultaneously be a thriving career professional and a graceful, competent mother/wife/ cook/domestic laborer. While my job hardly qualifies me as a "career professional," and I have no kids and am not solely responsible for home maintenance (not to mention the relative ease of maintaining 350 square feet of New York apartment compared to a sprawling four-bedroom in the suburbs), I still experience the inherent contradiction of a Day Off and the weekly surfeit of awaiting domestic responsibilities. How is it that, fifty-three years after Friedan articulated the impossibility of the superwoman, I still find myself in that same paradox?

I feel that women of my generation face actually face an intensified version of Friedan’s dilemma. Bred by traditional families and mothers dedicated to the science of homemaking, we feel the impulse to dedicate all our energies to keeping immaculate, welcoming homes filled with healthful foods and relief from the commercial world (living in bustling New York City makes this last bit especially essential). Likewise, we are the daughters of the equal rights movement and are encouraged from childhood to develop skills and drive to hold the stations in the Market those women achieved for us. The stakes are then raised additionally by our modern addiction to consumption – to things, which imparts further pressure to make not just money, but lots of money. (Certainly, both men and women experience the ever-tightening stays on the job-market’s waistline.) On the other hand, industrialization has proceeded so far since the turn of the (last) century that very little specialization is essential. While the consumer market blooms with things, very few lucrative jobs exist anymore – and certainly none that would also allow us to flourish as homemakers.

I try to alleviate these various pressures somewhat by avoiding a consumption-driven lifestyle, by living in a manageably small place, by choosing a partner that willingly shares domestic burdens, and by forgiving myself daily for not meeting my own expectations. And by making cakes when I perhaps ought to be doing other things.

Recently, in response to my overwhelming enthusiasm for The Good Cookie by Tish Boyle, my favorite Creampuff alerted me to the existence of another cookbook by the esteemed Ms. Boyle, The Cake Book. Upon its arrival, The Cake Book filled me with an awe and pleasure not dissimilar to that I experienced reading For Her Own Good this morning - what comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand! Such clever writing, such authority and wit! How compelling, appealing, how tantalizing, this ardent feminism...this cake!

And so, this morning, my wayward uterus compelled me (or so Victorian doctors say; I’m inclined to believe it was my stomach) to bake…Lemon-Soaked Ginger Pound Cake. This is one of those delicious, easy cakes that's still just difficult enough, with a soaking syrup, to make you feel like a professional. My prowess in the Domestic Sciences also allowed me to make two small adjustments: I used crème fraiche instead of sour cream for a slightly buttery-er flavor and a softer crumb, and I substituted candied ginger puree for finely chopped candied ginger, because I don't like all those little chewy nibs in my cake. The subtle heat and snappy tang of the ginger and lemon commingle in a very unfeminine surge of palatal pleasure.

Lemon-Soaked Ginger Pound Cake


2½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup cake flour
2½ teaspoons ground ginger
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1¾ cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs at room temperature
2 tablespoons peeled and grated fresh ginger
½ cup finely chopped crystallized ginger, OR 3 tablespoons candied ginger puree
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream OR crème fraiche

1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2/3 cup granulated sugar

Confectioners’ sugar for dusting


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 10-inch Bundt pan.

Sift together in a large bowl: flours, ground ginger, baking powder and soda, salt. Set aside.

Beat butter in a separate bowl until light and creamy, about 2 minutes. Gradually add the sugar at medium-high speed until the mixture is light in color and texture, about 3 minutes (I found this to be a lot, but Tish usually knows what she’s talking about, so…). Beat in one egg at a time, beating 30-40 seconds after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Beat in grated ginger, crystallized ginger or puree, lemon zest, and vanilla extract.

At low speed, add the sifted mixture in three additions alternating with sour cream (or crème fraiche). Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth with a spatula.

Bake the cake for 50-55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a rack for ten minutes, then invert the cake onto another rack. Slide a baking sheet under the cake to catch the glaze drippings.

While the cake is baking, combing the lemon juice and sugar in a small, nonreactive saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring, just until sugar is dissolved remove from heat.

Using a pastry brush, dab the syrup generously all over the surface of the warm cake, allowing it to soak in before reapplying. Use the whole pan of soaking syrup and dab any extra that has dripped onto the baking sheet over the cake again.

Dust the top of the cooled cake with confectioners’ sugar just before serving.

Now, domestic instincts and skilled professional ego sated, I'll settle in for a slice.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Things to Eat Before You Die

When Melissa over at The Traveler's Lunchbox started this meme, I had only one response: this is the best meme EVER. Nothing makes me feel more warm and fuzzy inside than imagining foodie bloggers around the world perched in front of their computers pondering their favorite foods and salivating, pecking out a hurried Top Five, then dashing away to satisfy their singular cravings for a ripe fig, Brie de Meaux, a hot Krispy Kreme donut (I feel you on that one!).

Like everyone else, I've had a terrible time narrowing it down to five... in fact, I couldn't do better than ten. I know, I know, it's cheating...and I considered employing all the ways that others have cheated - making five categories, etc. - but finally I came to the conclusion that my readers wanted my extra five faves more than Melissa wanted me to play by the rules, dammit!
So I made two lists: a top five for Melissa, and a top ten for the rest of you:

Five (to Ten) Things to Eat Before You Die:

1. A perfect slice of key lime pie. No jiggly green jelly or mounds of Cool Whip here - we're talking smooth, creamy, tart key lime ecstasy; tender homemade graham cracker crust packed with butter; all accompanied by a dollop of whipped cream so fresh it still has sugar crystals, and a teeny twist of candied key lime zest. Heaven!

2. Seawater-fresh, plump, sweet oysters on the halfshell over ice - preferably eaten within sight of the beach, with wind in your hair. Malpeque, Blue doesn't matter as long as they're fresh, briny and delicious.

3. The warm goat cheese salad at Gnocco in New York. Inexplicably, this particular dish isn't featured on the online menu of this little East Village jewel - but I've had it dozens of times and still develop powerful midnight cravings. The farm-fresh herbed goat cheese is baked atop a thin, crisp round of flaky pastry, then served abed baby arugula and frisée tossed with golden raisins and toasted pine nuts, and drizzled with honey.

4. Lobster hot from the pot and served with salty clarified butter. Ain't nothing better.

5. Warm, flaky croissants with homemade blackcurrant jam and butter-straight-from-the-churn on the patio of a Provencal farmhouse. Some of my best food-memories are still from a trip I took with my parents to Provence when I was fifteen; we stayed at a little farmhouse called Mas de Gres in Isle sur Sourge. The owners and chefs, Thierry and Nina Crovara, prepared uniformly extraordinary breakfasts and dinners from their own farm and from local markets.

Those are for you, Melissa. Thanks for letting me participate in your wonderful meme/project!

And now, for the really dedicated readers, 6-10:

6. Homemade lemon curd on a hot, buttery scone. Lemon curd is one of life's simple, decadent pleasures. The scone is yummy but not necessary; curd is just as good on a spoon (or your fingers...).

7. Fondue at Dante's Down the Hatch. Call me crazy, but even after all my sophisticated New York dining experiences, eating a pot of Swiss cheeses with garlic and white wine with a loaf of crusty brown bread aboard a pirate ship with alligators circling below you is still one of my favorite gustatory adventures. Call three days in advance and you can order the astronomical honey-based Chocolate Fondue, served to a minimum of six guests. I grew up eating at least once annually at Dante's with my best friend, who was family friends with the illustrious Dante himself!

8. My mom's caramel cake. Fluffy white cake, tooth-achingly sweet caramelized sugar icing - this stuff is like crack.

9. A bellini made with fresh Georgia peaches in July. My two favorite things - Georgia peaches and champagne! But really, no matter how they were served (in a a paper bag...), those peaches would make this list. Nothing beats a juicy summer peach from Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge, Georgia.

10. An excruciatingly hot cup of jasmine tea on a cold, rainy morning. You curl up on the couch under the softest of all possible blankets, open a good book on your lap, and listen to the rain pound against the window while the floral steam licks your face. Be sure to buy premium tea with whole jasmine blooms; I get all my teas at

Now I have to go make a pot...

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Butternut Squash: Autumnal Optimism

Mom, a week ago: "You need to post right this minute. I just know you're losing all your readership...every time I click on Pie in the Sky, I just see that stupid Mac 'n Cheese, and it makes me go ugghhh."

J., two days ago: "You have to blog. Tonight, so you won't disappoint anyone else."

Email from Anonymous reader/straw that broke the camel's back, last night: "What's the deal, Kate? Don't you eat pie anymore?! I'M DYING OVER HERE"

I'm back and blogging, kids. Sorry for the hiatus.

There's so much to catch up on! Autumn, NEW-new employment, blueberry crumble, butternut squash (I just discovered it properly)...

Let me begin by saying that I'm feeling very optimistic about this season. There's something about seeing September hit the Greenmarkets like a steroid that puts me in frantic squirrel-joy-mode - So many acorns! I must collect ALL of them to store in my nest for winter!!!

My apartment isn't really suited to massive canning endeavors, preparation- or storage-wise (to my vast disappointment), so I can't stock up for winter with local tomatoes and green beans the way I'd like to, but I'm really looking forward to putting my winter diet into seasonal focus. Though for the last few years I've been passionate about local, seasonal eating, I must admit a little voice in the back of my head was always adding, except in winter, of course. I had this idea that in New England, surviving winter on the fruits of harvest wasn't really possible. How wrong I was! W. and I have just discussed continuing our CSA membership through the winter months, and enjoying the fruits of December: onions, turnips, potatoes, squashes, garlic, dried beans, granola...the best! And of course we'll continue getting eggs, yogurt, and cheese. So must potential for roasted root veggies and yummy the one featured here:

Butternut Squash Soup


1 2-lb. butternut squash
1 t. olive oil
1 t. sea salt
fresh-cracked black pepper, to taste

1 large shallot, coarsely diced
2 T. plus 1 t. salted butter
1 t. chopped fresh sage leaves, plus 5-10 fresh sage leaves for garnish
1½+ cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock, if you want ot keep this dish vegetarian)
1/2+ c. heavy cream
1/4 cup fresh-grated parmesan cheese
1/4 t. freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper, to taste


Cut squash in half and scoop out seeds. light oil cut sides of squash; sprinkle with salt and place cut-side-down on baking sheet. Bake at 370 degrees for 40-50 minutes, or until squash is very tender when pierced with a fork. Cool slightly; scoop out pulp, discarding the skin.

melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a small sauté pan over medium heat. When butter begins to froth, add onions; cook three minutes; add chopped sage. sauté for 2 more minutes, or until onions are tender and translucent. Melt additional butter in pan; add 1 cup stock and bring just to simmer. Remove onion mixture from heat and stir into squash pulp; puree in food processor in batches, adding more broth as necessary.

Pour pureed mixture into medium saucepan. Over low heat, stir in heavy cream, nutmeg, parmesan, and salt and pepper to taste (be sure to salt after adding cheese, which is salty itself!). Remove from heat.

Melt remaining teaspoon salted butter in small sauté pan over medium heat; lay whole sage leaves in butter and fry until frizzled and slightly brown. transfer to paper towel to drain; garnish soup with crispy sage leaves. (Hint: frizzle ribbons of prosciutto with the sage for a special garnish!)

Aside: nobody come visit me at Candela (the anonymous restaurant pictured in the Mac 'n Cheese post that makes my mom go uuggghh)...because I won't be there! I took a similar position at a different establishment...but more information on that later. Get very excited - we're talking NUMBER TWELVE on the New York Times' "Top 100 Places to Dine in New York" list!

Regular (twice-weekly, approximately) blogging is promised from here on out.

Love y'all.