[Flowers in West Marin, March 2010.]
Hey April, I have a bone to pick with you. I know Mr. Eliot called you ‘the cruellest month’ and then there’s all that nonsense about April showers bringing May flowers or some such (and, I swear, that had better come to pass), but what about, you know, the fact that it’s spring? Spring means flowers and green fields and sunshine and and and! Not this wintry cold grey-day Easter Sunday that makes me glad I’m baking a small something for lunch with my family later, just so I can have an excuse to turn on the oven and heat up my apartment a little bit. I am glad for the rain that even now while is filling up the parched reservoirs of my fair state, but y’know I’m a sun baby, and I’m wistful for last weekend’s gorgeous weather.
But then again, April, maybe I shouldn’t be so very hard on you. You’ve had your moments already. I’ve seen riotous forget-me-nots in the forest. Today I brought home armfuls of sweet peas from the farmers’ market, and made the most delicious fennel-and-carrot salad with lemon dressing for dinner. Asparagus and strawberries are cheap and plentiful again. I shouldn’t complain so awfully much. I’ve also baked Alice Waters’ 1-2-3-4 cake and if you, dear April, give me nothing else but this I will remain ever grateful.
[Cupcakes for Whitney, April 2010.]
The thing about Alice Waters is that not only is she awesome, but her recipes are awesome, too. I probably like her so much because her philosophy is very similar to mine: eat a lot of vegetables, grown locally and in season, and which are as fresh as possible and taste of themselves. If you look at any of her cookbooks you’ll find a plethora of simple soups that are often not much more than a vegetable (say, a cauliflower), with an onion and garlic sauteed first off in the soup pot, then that vegetable added in with good stock or water (me, I go for the vegetable broth as I’m a vegetarian but a from-scratch chicken stock I think is her preferred base), then it’s all cooked down together and pureed with a bit of milk or cream until silky smooth. This is pretty much how I make the majority of my soups, though I tend to eliminate the dairy just because when I make main dishes I lean toward cooking veganly and I do love that clean, pure vegetable taste.
But while I’ve happily chopped leeks for stew or drizzled pesto over poached eggs a la Ms. Waters for ages now, I’d never baked one of her recipes before. Then, on a rainy night in December, I was flipping through and landed on that that really is the be-all end-all of chocolate cakes. I baked it — without a hand mixer and proper cocoa powder, I might add, though that is another story for another time — and it stopped me in my tracks. I’m open to trying another chocolate cake but I’d be hard put to like it, much less make it my standard. Alice Waters and cakes: who knew? I certainly did not. So when I kept hearing about her vanilla cake, also from The Art of Simple Food, I knew it had to be next on my list.
Now, I don’t know about you but when I bake a cake it’s usually chocolate chocolate chocolate with a side of more chocolate and I don’t often make a white or yellow cake. I should, though. I forget how good they are, especially when you use good, sweet butter and milk and fresh eggs. Or maybe it was just this recipe; I don’t think I’ve ever baked a vanilla cake I’ve liked as much and really I have baked my fair share, penchant for chocolate aside.
I halved the recipe here, baked the batter as cupcakes, and frosted them with a simple vanilla buttercream in keeping with the theme of a very important for which they were meant. It was fine but lacking that certain little bit of, well, OK, yes, chocolate. Next time, however, oh for sure a chocolate buttercream or a coffee (!) one, or perhaps even a chocolate ganache. The crumb is sweet and tender and light and not-too-sweet, and while I limited myself to just a half of one (many other delicacies on which to nosh, and I was trying to be good), it was all I could do not to gobble up the whole dozen. I’m already trying to come up with an excuse to bake another batch.
This is a Sunday-afternoon cake, a rainy day cake, a cake for parties or just to savor with a big cup of tea after dinner (or to have with your morning coffee; I’m easy). It’s one I will make again and again and again — and no doubt will rely upon to steer me through this very rainy, very ‘cruell’, very April-est of months.
1-2-3-4 Cake, from “The Art of Simple Food” by Alice Waters
Yield One nine-inch, two-layer cake
4 eggs, separated
1 cup milk
3 cups cake flour (sift and then measure)
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsweetened butter, softened
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter two 9-inch baking pans and line the bottom of each with parchment paper. Butter the paper and dust the pans with flour, tapping out the excess.
Stir baking powder and salt into cake flour.
In another bowl, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the four egg yolks one at a time. Add the vanilla to the mixture.
Add the flour mixture and milk alternately, starting and ending with one third of the flour. Stir just until the flour is incorporated.
In another bowl, whisk egg whites to soft peaks. Stir one third of the egg whites into the batter, then gently fold in the rest. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 to 40 minutes.
* The recipe can be divided among three cake pans for a three-layer cake. It also makes 24 to 30 cupcakes or it can be baked in a 12 x 18-inch sheet cake pan. Bake cupcakes or sheet cake for about 20 minutes.