Odette Williams' Plain Vanilla Cake

Odette Williams' Vanilla Cake

Bruno's fourth birthday was this past weekend. For months, he's been planning on whom to invite, painstakingly listing the names of his little buddies from KiTa on his adorable little fingers. Of course, ultimately, no one could come, but our sunny boy bore that with his signature good humor, which we have been leaning on so much recently that I feel almost badly about it. So we focused on the cake instead. After all, Hugo has never been particularly interested in birthday parties, much preferring to spend time thinking about which cake to request. Bruno, by contrast, couldn't have cared less about the cake, and only after much prodding by his brother and me, grudgingly gave in and said his cake it should be a yellow cake with, very important, pink and purple frosting.

Hugo was much chagrined, having hoped that his preference for a chocolate cake would be shared by his brother. But I was excited, because a couple years ago, I made the discovery of the best vanilla cake ever and I'm always thrilled to have an excuse to make it and I've been meaning to tell you all about it for, well, years. It comes from Odette Williams's book Simple Cake and is, in my mind, the very best plain yellow cake I've ever had. It's got buttermilk for a bit of tang, and quite a bit of vanilla (which is why, in the book, Odette calls it Very Vanilla Cake), and the batter, which comes together quickly with a mixer, has a gorgeous silky texture. But mostly, it's just a delight to make, as easy as easy can be.

I've made it as frosted cupcakes, as a simple round cake dusted with confectioners' sugar, baked in a tube pan and served plain, and split and filled and frosted, and it has been a slam dunk every single time. It's my forever yellow cake. I mean, I love the recipe so much that I have it taped with washi tape to the side of my fridge, an honor bestowed on only two other recipes! (One is Elise's buckwheat pancake recipe, the only pancake recipe I ever make, shall I tell you about it sometime? And the other is Diana Henry's mustard-panko baked chicken.)

Odette Williams' Plain Vanilla Cake

This time, I baked the cake batter in an 8-inch round pan that I had lined with parchment paper. I knew I was going to cloak the whole thing with swaths of whippy frosting ultimately, so I didn't really care what the sides looked like, and the parchment-as-sling really is just so easy. But obviously, if you want neater sides, you should cut the parchment to fit the bottom as well as make a collar and also possibly use a spring form rather than a regular cake pan.

Once the cake was fully cooled, I split it in half and spread about 3/4 of a jar of storebought lemon curd on one half. You could, of course, also make your own lemon curd! But I was grateful to have the shortcut. I placed the other half back on top of the cake. Then I made frosting out of whipped cream and ricotta, only because my husband didn't buy enough whipping cream and I had ricotta that had to be used up anyway. (It was 200 ml of heavy cream and a little less than 200g of ricotta whipped together with enough confectioners' sugar to make it sweet, but not too sweet.) I really don't like buttercream very much and making a meringue frosting was just not going to happen this time (though I think it'd be perfect here, honestly!), so the whipped cream frosting was where I ended up.

Odette Williams' Plain Vanilla Birthday Cake

I divided the cream frosting in half and tinted each batch pink and purple, then did a bit of swirly cake spackling. I will never win any beauty awards for my cake decorations, and ultimately, generously speaking, the cake looked more a cloudy sunset than anything else, but it tasted wonderful—the combination of tender cake, sweet-sour filling and whipped cream frosting worked absolutely perfectly—and everyone loved it and Bruno, our darling boy who is the cuddliest, loveliest, funniest little bunny, was happy. What more could I ask for?

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Plain Vanilla Cake
Makes one 8-inch/20-cm round cake
Print the recipe!

1⁄2 cup (120ml) buttermilk
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract (or the scraped seeds of 1 vanilla bean)
3⁄4 cup (150g) granulated sugar
1 1⁄2 cups (195g) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1⁄4 teaspoon baking soda
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (115g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 tablespoons mild-flavored vegetable oil

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C. Grease an 8-inch/20-cm round pan with butter and line the bottom and sides with parchment paper. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs together. Set aside. If using the vanilla seeds, use your fingers to work the vanilla bean seeds into the sugar in a small bowl. Remove any bits of pod that may have come off with the seeds. Set aside.

2. Place the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl and mix with a fork.

3. Using an electric mixer with beaters or a paddle attachment, beat the butter for 30 seconds on medium speed and then gradually add the sugar. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Continue beating on medium speed for another 4 minutes or until light in color and fluffy. If using the vanilla extract, add to the bowl and beat until combined.

4. With the mixer still on medium speed, gradually add the eggs. On low speed, add the flour mixture and then the oil and milk; mix until just combined. Don’t overbeat. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.

5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake in the center of the oven for 40-50 minutes. When a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, and the cake bounces back when lightly pressed, remove the cake from the oven and let it stand for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the cake to gently release. Invert the cake, peel off the pieces of parchment paper and cool on a wire rack.


Hetty McKinnon's Tomato and Egg Drop Noodle Soup

Hetty McKinnon's Tomato and Egg Drop Noodle Soup

Good morning! The sun came out today. Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. is president. Kamala Devi Harris is vice president. We stayed up late watching the various festivities and the virtual inaugural parade across America, which was far more moving than I expected. Our country, so broken in so many ways, still has so much energy and power, so much beauty and diversity. Don't underestimate what power that holds to the rest of the world. My Max, who grew up idolizing the United States, had his illusions broken over the past four years. His despair over the destruction of the country he had always believed in so much was almost painful to witness. To a child growing up in a divided Germany, Americans were saviors, protectors, benevolent and cool. America was always the land of possibility and enterprise and diversity and energy. Resplendent in its soft power, so often derided and misunderstood by the ill-intentioned or simply ignorant.

To be sure, that disillusionment was also necessary. To realize that the famed American experiment was meant for some but not for all, that its kindness and justice is extended to some but not to all, must be understood, grappled with by all of us. And fixed. Peeling back the layers to reveal the truth is both painful and necessary. It simply must be done.

But last night, as we watched Harris and Biden take their vows in the place so desecrated by violence and ugliness just weeks before, as we watched Amanda Gorman soar with her words, as we saw Majorettes and skateboarders, Native Americans and old ladies with walkers twirl and dance and kick, I could feel some of our trust being restored. It was good to be reminded all day long of just how colorful and beautiful our country can be. I kept breaking into tears and goosebumps.

Today, I feel hungover on nerves, jumpy and slightly frantic. It is so easy to sink into cynicism and dread, despite everything. After all, the road ahead looks hard and bumpy and there is so much to repair. I want to share this poem by Clint Smith that I came across this week that resonates so powerfully today:

When people say, “we have made it through worse before”
— Clint Smith

all I hear is the wind slapping against the gravestones
of those who did not make it, those who did not
survive to see the confetti fall from the sky, those who

did not live to watch the parade roll down the street.
I have grown accustomed to a lifetime of aphorisms
meant to assuage my fears, pithy sayings meant to

convey that everything ends up fine in the end. There is no
solace in rearranging language to make a different word
tell the same lie. Sometimes the moral arc of the universe

does not bend in a direction that will comfort us.
Sometimes it bends in ways we don’t expect & there are
people who fall off in the process. Please, dear reader,

do not say I am hopeless, I believe there is a better future
to fight for, I simply accept the possibility that I may not
live to see it. I have grown weary of telling myself lies

that I might one day begin to believe. We are not all left
standing after the war has ended. Some of us have
become ghosts by the time the dust has settled.

But I also want to revel in the moment. It's important to hold still and remember: This time a good man won over a malevolent one. A Jewish man and a Black man are Georgia's newest senators. We have our first female vice president who is both Black and Asian. Multiculturalism is being represented at the highest level and that matters.

It matters

Hetty McKinnon's Tomato and Egg Drop Noodle Soup Pot

And yes, I have another soup. I didn't plan this, I swear. If it is only just occurring to me now, at the age of 43, that January is a month for soups, then so be it.

A standard in Chinese kitchens, the recipe for this sweet-salty delight comes from Hetty McKinnon. I've tried a few variations on this soup recently, and this one has pleased me the most. You use the holy trinity of onion, garlic and ginger to enrich a simple base made of tomatoes and broth, then pour in beaten eggs to make long silky ribbons (in the photos, my eggs look rather a little curdled, because I mistakenly whisked them in). Sugar flavors the broth as well as soy sauce, and although I reduced the amount of sugar from the original, I wouldn't skip it.  A whorl of silky noodles completes the soup (I used pleasingly slippery rice noodles, though wheat ones are recommended). Then comes the best part, the dotting and drizzling on top of sauces and oils that form into little pools, and a pretty scattering of thinly sliced scallion.

The soup is a joy to eat, slurping with abandon, your mouth gently, sweetly afire. And somehow it feels quite fitting to pair this soup with this new day. It originated elsewhere, but is surely as at home in the United States as it is in Hong Kong.

Tomato and Egg Drop Noodle Soup
Print this recipe!
Serves 4
Note: The original recipe calls for 12 ounces of wheat noodles, which you cook in plenty of salted boiling water and divide among serving bowls, before topping with the finished soup. I used a slightly lesser amount of rice noodles, which I simply soaked in hot water and added to the pot just before serving.

1 small yellow or red onion
2 garlic cloves
1 1-inch piece ginger
1 scallion
8 ounces rice noodles
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth or water
4 large eggs
Salt to taste
Pinch of freshly ground white pepper
2 tablespoons light or dark brown sugar or granulated sugar
Toasted sesame oil or chili oil
Soy sauce, for serving

  1. If using rice noodles, place them in a large bowl and cover with hot water, then set aside. If using wheat noodles, cook them in plenty of salted boiling water.

  2. While the noodles are soaking or cooking, prep the vegetables. Peel the onion, halve, and thinly slice into half-moons. Smash and peel the garlic cloves, then finely chop. Scrape skin from ginger with a knife or spoon. Thinly slice ginger; stack slices two at a time and cut into matchsticks. Line up matchsticks and cut crosswise into tiny squares. Finely chop the scallion; set aside for serving.

  3. Heat the vegetable oil in a large pot over medium-high. Add onion and cook, stirring constantly, until soft and golden, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the diced tomatoes and broth or water to pot. Reduce heat to medium, cover pot with a lid, and cook broth until flavors have come together, 10–15 minutes.

  4. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs together with a teaspoon of salt and a pinch of freshly ground white pepper in a large measuring glass or a small bowl with a lip.

  5. Uncover broth and stir in the sugar, then add another pinch of salt salt. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. The broth should be slightly sweet and a little tart.

  6. Increase heat to medium-high and bring broth to a boil. Very slowly trickle beaten eggs into soup (no need to stir). Cook eggs until set, 30–60 seconds from when you start pouring. Remove soup from heat. The egg doesn’t need to be totally cooked through—it will continue to cook in the residual heat of the broth. Place the rice noodles in the pot, stir well and serve immediately. (If using wheat noodles, rinse them under running water to loosen, then divide them among the four plates before topping with the soup.) Top each plate with toasted sesame oil or chili oil and soy sauce to taste, and sprinkle with reserved scallions.

Rachel Roddy's Squash and Rice Soup

Squash and rice soup

There are a few soups that I have made so many times, I can cook them with my eyes closed. Minestrone, for example, a jumble of fridge and freezer veg, flavored with a Parmesan rind, as comforting and soothing as cuddling under a cashmere blanket on a sofa.  Or a smooth, silky purée of carrots and fennel, as pleasing to children, for whom I top it with crunchy croutons, as it is to adults, whose portions I dollop with crème fraîche and sprinkle with sumac. Then there's stick-to-your-ribs potato soup (check My Berlin Kitchen for the recipe) or lentil soup, studded with smoked ham, that I make when I have to produce a sturdy dinner, but I'm low on energy and grasping at straws.

I've been making these soups for twenty years now, and in the case of minestrone and potato or lentil soup, I've been eating them for forty years. As much as I am addicted to trying new recipes, reading new food writers' work and discovering new cultures through cookbooks, it is a tonic to know that, at the tips of my fingers, at the bottom of my subconscious, these one-pot meals await me and will really never let me down.

In recent years, I discovered a few soups that I fell in love with immediately, but none that I've made so frequently that it can be added to my little Rolodex of eyes-closed soups. Until this pumpkin and rice soup from Rachel Roddy strolled into my life, that is. Since first discovering it in the fall, I've made it so often that I no longer need the recipe, which I believe may be a record (for my frequently distracted and slightly enfeebled brain). It's as simple as they come, built on the classic soffritto, bulked out with cubed squash, thickened with silky grains of risotto rice, and given rich flavoring from Parmesan.

Whilst making it again and again, I adapted it to my needs, using Hokkaido squash rather than butternut, so that you can skip the peeling step and shorten the cooking time (plus, I find Hokkaido to be the sweetest, creamiest squash, the one that is easiest to love), and adding a Parmesan rind to amplify the savory flavor and give the cook a delectably chewy little treat. If not watched carefully at the end, the soup can quickly turn into a sort of soupy risotto, which is not a bad thing, per se. But if you're hoping for a slightly looser soup, be sure to add more water or stock at the end.

And here's the highest praise I've got: when I make this soup, my children run into the kitchen, telling me how good it smells. I smile because it smells like my mother's house, like Italy, like home. It tastes like it too.

In other news, dear readers, I've started a newsletter! It's called Letter from Berlin and it aims to fill the space between this blog and my Instagram account. If you'd like to subscribe, and I so hope you do, click here.

Squash and Rice Soup
Serves 4
Print the recipe!

A small lump of butter
A glug of olive oil, plus more for serving
1 medium onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 stick celery, diced
Salt and black pepper
About 1/3 of a small Hokkaido squash (approx. 400g), cubed
1 liter/4 cups vegetable or chicken stock, or water
180g/1 cup arborio or vialone nano rice
1 piece of Parmesan rind
Grated Parmesan
Hot red pepper flakes (optional)

1. In a large pot, heat the butter, olive oil, onion, carrot, celery and a pinch of salt, frying gently until the vegetables start to become translucent.

2. Add the squash and stir for a minute, then add the rice and stir well. Add the stock and the Parmesan rind, bring to a boil, then reduce, cover and let simmer for about 17 minutes. The squash should be soft and the rice should be cooked. You may need to add more stock or water. Taste for seasoning.

3. Serve, topping with grated Parmesan, a drizzle of olive oil and/or hot red pepper flakes.


Nigel Slater's Spiced Red Lentil Soup

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You may already be in the process of cooking your lentil soup for New Year's Day, but in case you haven't decided on one yet, may I be so bold as to suggest this one? It comes from Nigel Slater's wonderful book, The Christmas Chronicles, the only Christmas-themed book I've ever owned. Reading it in the quiet, stolen moments of December is swiftly becoming a tradition and it is as interesting (did you know that old-fashioned lametta is still made of silver plate in Tyrol?) as it is inspiring (daydreaming about a life in which you can spend each winter in Japan is not a terrible way to get through a pandemic). It makes more sense to read it in November, so you can prepare for all the wonderful things you'll do once Christmas rolls around, but this year I read it in the sleepy week between Christmas and New Year and it was also very nice to think about next year's Christmas, when things will hopefully look quite different.

Nigel says that the soup is styled, flavor-wise, after Indian rasam, which I've only ever seen as the thin, fiery broth that comes served with dosa or uttapam in South Indian restaurants. But this soup is thicker and more nourishing and stands alone very well on its own, no lacy thin fermented rice pancake alongside required. We made the quantity indicated in the book, but could have easily doubled it because it's the kind of soup that will have everyone wanting seconds (even our picky Bruno asked for more) and leftovers of it will be more than welcome. So use the recipe below if you want only a starter portion for four people and double it if it's your only dish. (The original has you make a spice paste, grinding whole spices and hauling out the food processor for ginger and garlic. I went the lazy route and streamlined things with no great detriment to the results. And I tripled the amount of tamarind concentrate, because I love its plummy, sour flavor.)

It feels so good to write here again. There were long stretches of time this past year where I basically came around to accepting the idea of this blog going dark once and for all. But it always felt weird and wrong. I miss writing here so much, having this space to play in. After feeling so trapped and stuck, both figuratively and literally, over the past 10 months, knowing that I can come here and feel free is very, very nice. I don't make New Year's resolutions anymore and haven't in years. But I very much believe in starting the year as you mean it to continue.

So see you again soon, I hope. And Happy New Year!

Spiced Red Lentil Soup                                                          
Serves 4
Print the recipe!

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
2 cloves garlic
A thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled
3/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 14-ounce/400 gram can peeled tomatoes
175 grams red lentils
2-3 tablespoons tamarind concentrate
Fresh cilantro, stemmed and washed

1. Put the olive oil in a pot over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and mustard seeds and cook, stirring, until they start to become fragrant.

2. Press the garlic through a garlic press and add to the pot, then grate in the fresh ginger. Cook, stirring, for another minute, then add the salt, pepper, cayenne, the tomatoes and 2 tablespoons of tamarind concentrate. Stir to combine, cook for just a minute, then add the lentils and stir. Fill the tomato can with water twice, and add to the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce the flame, cover the pot and simmer until the lentils are soft, about 20 minutes.

3. Puree half the soup with a hand-held blender. Taste and add the remaining tamarind, if desired, and season with more salt and pepper to taste. Serve topped with cilantro leaves.


Diana Henry's Roasted Tomato, Fennel and Chickpea Salad

Diana Henry's Roasted Fennel and Tomato Salad with Chickpeas

About once a week for the past I don't know how many years, I've sectioned a fennel bulb into eighths, washed a handful of cherry tomatoes, put them in a baking dish with a good glug of olive oil (more is better here) and some salt and then stuck it in a 200C/400F oven until the vegetables are tender as can be and the tomatoes have browned and slumped, about 30 minutes, though I confess I've never really timed it. I also let the dish cool in the hot oven, which helps the caramelization at the end and then I basically eat the entire thing, unless my husband is around in which case I share. I love this dish so much that I nearly lick the baking dish. It's easy, it can be made all year long, since even the yuckiest cherry tomatoes come alive with this treatment, and it tastes ambrosial. If I happen to be lucky enough to have some nice sourdough bread around, I pair the vegetables with that for an easy little meal and life feels good.

I love a ritualistic vegetable dish like this that keeps showing up in my life over and over, that never gets old, that I don't even have to think about when I cook it. Like roasted broccoli, stewed peas, sauteed zucchini - the all-stars of my cooking life. These are the things that flesh out our dinner table night after night and that I imagine my children will remember, either fondly or not, when they look back at the food of their childhood. However, as much as I love these dishes and the comfort they bring me in both flavor and preparation, they are not necessarily stuff for company. They are humble, regular dishes, not show-stopping or even really conversation-worthy. When you're having people over or if you need to bring a dish to a potluck, I think you kind of need to up your game a little. Not a ton, but enough to make a bit of an impression.

Diana Henry Roasted Fennel and Tomato Salad with Chickpeas

Of course, my culinary hero Diana Henry has a recipe for precisely this kind of elevated salad that used roasted fennel and tomatoes as the base, but pumps it up with all kinds of crazy flavorings, like harissa and preserved lemon and balsamic vinegar. It comes from her book How to Eat a Peach and is quite a stunner. The addition of chickpeas makes it a slightly more substantial kind of salad and fresh herbs make it beautiful - the kind of thing you can plonk on a buffet table and feel secretly smug about. And also consume rather obsessively. Which is the whole point. One more thing I love about it: the flavorings are so bold and fresh but actually this salad is essentially seasonless, so you can serve it in spring, when people are crazy for asparagus and rhubarb, and you can serve it in winter, when big roasts and stews prevail, and in both cases it just kind of works. Pretty neat.

As luck would have it, I discovered a similar kind of special version of roasted broccoli dish that you need to know about (as in, my father literally said WHAT IS THIS WITCHCRAFT THIS IS THE BEST BROCCOLI I HAVE EVER EATEN when he had it), but I'll have to save it for next time. My camera, beloved and trusty documentation device on this blog since 2007, died a few weeks ago. Like, right in the middle of taking these photos, which is why I don't have a photo of the final dish (here's one from Diana, though). I thought it just needed a little repair work, but the camera shop guy told me it wasn't worth it - the repair would cost far more to do than the camera is worth. I was unexpectedly gutted, I have to admit. I loved that camera. I salvaged the lens and put it on my husband's camera, which is only a few years newer than mine was, but requires a whole new education. So bear with me while I figure that out. 

Diana Henry's Roasted Tomato, Fennel and Chickpea Salad
Adapted from How to Eat a Peach
Serves 6

For the tomatoes
10 large plum tomatoes (or an equivalent amount of cherry tomatoes, left whole)
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1½ tbsp harissa
2 tsp sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the fennel
2 large fennel bulbs
Juice of ½ lemon
2 garlic cloves, crushed
½ tsp fennel seeds, coarsely crushed in a mortar or left whole
Generous pinch of chile flakes
2½ tbsp olive oil
400g can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed

For the dressing
2 small preserved lemons
2 tsp juice from the lemon jar
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
1½ tbsp runny honey
5 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp chopped parsley

1. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375 F). Halve the tomatoes lengthwise and lay in a single layer in a roasting pan or ovenproof dish. Leave whole if using cherry tomatoes. Mix the olive oil, balsamic vinegar and harissa and pour this over the tomatoes, tossing to coat well, then turn the tomatoes cut sides up. Sprinkle with the sugar and season.

2. Quarter the fennel bulbs, cut off the stalks and remove any coarse outer leaves. Pull off any tender fronds (reserve these) and cut each piece of fennel into 2.5cm thick wedges, keeping them intact at the base Add the lemon juice, garlic, fennel seeds, chile and olive oil, then season and turn everything over with your hands. Spread out the fennel in a second roasting tin and cover tightly with foil.

3. Put both trays in the oven. Roast the fennel for 25-30 minutes, until tender (the undersides should be pale gold), then remove the foil and roast for another 5-10 minutes, or until soft, golden and slightly charred. Roast the tomatoes for 35-40 minutes, or until caramelized in patches and slightly shrunken. Stir the chickpeas into the fennel and taste for seasoning. Leave both to cool to room temperature.

4. Now make the dressing. Discard the flesh from the preserved lemons and dice the rind. Whisk the preserved lemon juice with the wine vinegar, honey and olive oil, season and add the lemon rind and parsley. Taste for seasoning and sweet-sour balance.

5. Arrange the fennel, chickpeas and tomatoes on a platter, adding the juices from the roasting tins; there might be quite a bit from the tomatoes. Scatter any fennel fronds you reserved over the top. Spoon on the dressing. (Leftover dressing can be used on other salads or to zhuzz up mayo for chicken or tuna salad.)