Though I've been complaining about the cold and the rain these past few days, I have to admit that I'm secretly kind of thrilled to pull my trench out of the coat closet, belt it up snugly, and march off to work. It just feels so continental. Long pants and proper shoes, a cozy blanket for reading on the couch, swapping the air conditioning for a night breeze from the outside (a small victory for me, I might add, after weeks of negotiation and haggling with my overheated roommate) - these are all small pleasures that come from an unexpected autumn in August.
What's more, I've been struck by the baking bug that shows up so reliably each year when the sticky, swollen days of summer come to an end and that most exhilarating of seasons starts to reappear in the changing leaves and lengthening shadows. I've been eyeing my oven longingly, opening and closing cupboard doors to assess the sacks of flours and boxes of sugar, the leavenings and the flavorings standing at attention. I've run my finger down the spines of my baking books and plucked out more than a few to leaf through, fingertips humming with anticipation as they hone in and touch down on recipes I can't wait to try.
It's not quite bread-baking season yet, at least not in my house, but smaller ventures, ones less fraught with commitment and the prospect of floury floors, are the things I'm hungering for. Simplicity and ease, humble ingredients, a plain and rather homely crumb - I tell you, I'm not quite in the mood for show stoppers these days. Give me an hour in the kitchen, a few straightforward ingredients, and that age-old scent of baking that fills the air slowly and bewitches the people walking through my door and I'll be happy.
If there's one book that really fits the bill when I'm in this kind of mood, it's Home Baking, another home run of a book by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. A book that's just as at home on your coffee table as it is in your kitchen, bespattered and worn. If I had the time, I'd bake every single thing in it, like little date cookies and chewy, puffy flatbreads and banana-coconut loaves and crusty Vietnamese baguettes. The other night, when the sky grew dark too early, I settled on the simplest of cakes, one scented with honey and coffee and the barest fillip of cinnamon, one that could pass as easily for breakfast with a milky cup of tea as it could for a weeknight dessert, sliced thickly from the fridge and eaten out of hand.
I've eaten my fair share of pain d'epices in France, with chocolate and without, buttered and plain, industrially vacuum-packed and artisan-made, and it's fair to say that it is one of my favorite things - straddling the worlds of bread and cake with panache. So, I wondered, could this Ukrainian version, strictly spiced and dark with coffee, stand up to the feted Gallic model? It could and it did. What emerged from the oven was a light and airy loaf with a perfect crumb, an alluring scent of honey, and a barely-there hint of smoke and toast from the coffee. A night or two in the fridge firmed up the cake, but made it no less delicious. I'd say it might have even been improved.
We're still slated for a few more gaspingly hot days, a few more nights with the a/c humming, but until then, I'll be slicing off pieces of honey cake and waiting for fall. Impatient, now that I've had my first taste, for all that is to come.
A year ago, I thought long and hard about this little venture of mine. I'd blogged for a year and couldn't decide if I wanted to keep going or not. I thought about closing up shop on my one-year anniversary. Maybe I'd had enough, maybe I needed a break. I slept on it and then changed my mind the next morning, recommitting to another year. I'm so glad I did, because today, on my second anniversary in the blogosphere, I can only say that this second year has been even better than the first.
New friends, new readers, new ventures, new work - writing The Wednesday Chef has just been one reward after another. Thank you all for coming here, dearest readers, and giving me an audience.
Ukrainian Honey Cake
Makes 1 loaf-shaped cake
2 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup strong brewed coffee, cooled to lukewarm
1. Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-5-inch bred pan, then dust it with flour.
2. Beat the egg yolks and sugar until pale and smooth. Add the honey and melted butter and mix until blended and smooth.
3. Sift the dry ingredients into a bowl. Add half the dry ingredients to the egg mixture and stir in. Stir in the coffee, then stir in the remaining dry ingredients.
4. Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold them into the batter, then gently stir several times. The batter will be quite wet.
5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50 minutes to an hour, or until a skwer inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool for 10 minutes, then remove from pan and place on a rack to cool completely before slicing. Eat plain or buttered.