Favorites from 2019: books.

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I miss writing here like I used to, sitting down after work to jot notes about a recipe I was excited to share. I am so busy these days. I no longer work from home, so my more-challenging job (which I love) is coupled with a commute. Most nights I eat dinner, talk for a while with my husband, and fall into bed. I studied for and received my first professional license in September, practiced for and earned my driver’s license (yes, really, and finally!) the same month. Despite all the changes to my creature-of-habit routines this year, one practice I have been able to preserve is reading, and this year I read a lot. My goal was 100 books; I read 102. 78 were fiction, including 12 collections of short stories (which seems relatively low to me, as I traditionally gravitate toward stories). 72 of the books I read were written by women, including Ruffage by Abra Berens, my favorite cookbook of the year. I went outside of my comfort zone to read fantasy novels like Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James and translations like Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza. I discovered backlist gems: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, Sweet Talk by Stephanie Vaughn, and Edinburgh by Alexander Chee, to name a few. In reviewing my year of reading, I painstakingly narrowed down to a list of seven novels, one short story collection, and two books of essays that were my favorite reads of 2019*. Here they are– the books I savored and still think about, talk about with friends, give as gifts– presented to you in no particular order but with my emphatic recommendation.

Happiness by Aminatta Forna

A full third of my top 15 was read in January 2019, and Happiness is one of those books. My friend Debbie, who knows my taste so well that I will read nearly anything she recommends, mentioned how much she enjoyed this novel and encouraged me to give it a try. I knew nothing of the plot and was unfamiliar with the author. Within fifty pages I had a feeling that it would be a favorite, and I was right. This is the story of Jean and her foxes, Attila and his dancing, and their budding friendship. The language is smart, and the author has an impressive talent for weaving compassion and subtle humor through the narrative. A side note: this began a curious theme of foxes in 2019, popping up in books and movies, even spotted on the roadside as we drove home one night.

Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky

A marvelous little book, expected to be a fluffy summer read and in actuality one of the sharper novels I read all year. The intrigue begins right away with a college student and her professor behaving badly, progresses into an unlikely housing situation, and is chock full of drama until the last page. The moving pieces of the story– character interactions and plot twists– fit in unexpected, entertaining ways. So much fun, and a (dare I say) very nice read.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

I was bowled over by this novel, one I almost didn’t read: I picked it up once and read about ten pages, then put it down in favor of another book. Two days before returning it to the library, curious to understand why it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, I began reading again, and this time it caught me. It’s a difficult book to summarize. Told from the perspective of a dying prostitute, with 10 minutes and 38 seconds of life before her brain shuts down, the story progresses via flashbacks which introduce the people Leila loves and has helped and expose the nuance and richness of her short life. Notions and preconceptions are challenged as the reader learns how beloved and selfless Leila has been; this is made particularly clear in a scene near the end best described as comical. I loved Leila and her devoted friends and found the author’s method of plot reveal so clever and creative. And yes, I was able to return it to the library on time.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

In this novel, which must be called epic, I discovered some of the most beautiful descriptions I read all year. I had been intimidated by the size and scope of The Overstory and avoided starting it for a full eighteen months after acquiring a copy. Do not follow my lead: this is a lyrical, masterful book with more branches than the trees it describes, but it is not difficult to read. I have read other books by Mr. Powers and always marvel at his character development. Here there are a dozen, maybe more, and time is given to introduce each properly before connecting them. I found the details about each person, combined with the immense overarching narrative, thrilling. I remember very distinctly finishing the book on a warm, sunny day, sitting on the deck, listening to breeze in the tall pines around our backyard, wondering when I would find another novel as beautifully crafted as this one.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee

An essay collection that inspired so many feelings in me, including that of finishing a book on the third day of the New Year with absolute confidence that it will be one of the best books I read all year, and perhaps for many years. I was correct, at least about this year. The variety of these essays, the honesty and wisdom they contain, prompts me to say that Mr. Chee is and will continue to be one of my favorite writers and I will read anything and everything he ever writes. Here he discusses identity, literature, fitting in (or not), politics, love and roses, writing, teaching… and my summary list doesn’t even tell you about the quality and precision of his writing. I cannot choose a single highlight because the collection itself is so fluid, the chapters blend and flow in a way that I have rarely encountered in a collection of essays. To create flawless essays that fit together into a flawless volume– this is impressive, awesome, the best nonfiction I read in 2019. I will always remember that we both have grandfathers named Goodwin who farmed in Maine. 

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

With unquestionably the best title of the year, and starring my very favorite character, Janina (who does not want to be called that, thank you very much), Drive Your Plow is my first exposure to the translated work of Olga Tokarczuk, winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. I have struggled in the past with translations, but this book was so good I have been seeking out other translated work, to make sure I don’t miss anything as enjoyable. The novel is best described as a literary murder mystery starring independent, smart, opinionated, deeply sympathetic, quirky Janina and her nicknamed neighbors and friends. She loves animals, William Blake, and astrology and hates hunters. The rest you will have to discover on your own… and you should. Though I said my books are in no specific order, I have to admit that this was one of my three favorites of the entire year. Grab a copy if you haven’t read already.

Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest by Hanif Adurraqib

This collection of essays is a treasure chest of stories and an absolute joy. I still remember how giddy I felt reading, often on a public bus (I almost missed my stop, twice!) during the first few weeks at my new job, about the music I discovered in high school and college, my formative years.  A Tribe Called Quest is still in heavy rotation in my house: on Spotify while I work, on an ancient iPod during workouts, on CD in the car. The insight into the hows and whys of music-making during this era– writing, producing, group formation and dissolution, etc.– was nostalgic and pitch-perfect. I loved every page. The nods to Phife and his mom near the end were poignant, just beautifully done.

Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell

Orange World contains some of the weirdest and most wonderful stories, gifted to us by the reigning queen of magic realism. Immediately catapulted into my book pantheon, and undoubtedly one of the finest collections I have ever read, each story is wildly creative, seamlessly told, fascinating, sometimes funny, often touching, and usually bizarre (in the best possible way). I shamelessly thrust this book into the hands of anyone willing to take a chance, and my enthusiasm hasn’t missed the mark yet. The last story in particular is wedged in my brain; I can’t stop thinking about how strange and titillating it is. What it must be like to have a mind so creative, to conceive of such tales. If you are ever able to see or hear Ms. Russell speak, it is as much of a treat as reading her books.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

How to do justice to this book, with a simple-sounding plot (women talking in a room) and infinite layers of complexity (women with no power deciding the fate of their entire community, on a tight schedule)? Based on the true story of a Bolivian Mennonite village in which many women were drugged and raped, their reports of the attacks dismissed or attributed to the devil, Women Talking is set after the rapists’ arrests. Eight women from the community are meeting secretly while the men are away in the city to raise bail money for the rapists. The women’s discussions are tense and passionate: should they leave before the rapists return? Should they stay for the children? Should they fight back, and if so, how? The women are illiterate and have no societal power; they embody conflicting loyalties and opinions. There are men in the village they love. There is worry about the unknown of the outside world, as well as a fierce desire to escape being attacked again. It’s a slim novel, filled to bursting with tension and emotion. I read it breathlessly and have recommended it to many, including my favorite local librarian, who enjoyed it as much as I did.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

If forced to choose, this was my favorite book to read in all of 2019. From the start of the year Debbie recommended it adamantly, even sent me a readers’ copy, and her generosity and gentle pressure encouraged me to move it to the top of my reading queue. I think of it constantly: every time I hear or read about the Southwest border, children separated from parents, parents missing their children, road trips, love, loss, hope, frustration… Friends, it is a breathtaking novel. Here’s what I wrote on Goodreads in February; I can’t summarize any more eloquently:

‘Easily one of the best books I have ever read. I marvel at the brain that pieced this together; the planning and research to deftly include so many cultural references in a book about one of the greatest humanitarian crises in our history. The characters are spot-on: the children are believable, distinct, thoughtful, funny. The parents are frustrated, trying, failing, trying more, selfish, loving. The weave of the family narrative with the details of Geronimo and the Apaches and the stories of the lost refugee children is seamless. I can find no fault with this novel, other than the fact that is over and I can never again experience it for the first time. An immediate favorite, a book I will recommend forever and reread often.’

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What a thrill to reminisce about some of the books I enjoyed most in 2019. It is difficult to distill an entire year into a short list, and these are only highlights of what was a good reading year for me. If you would like to see everything I have read, or follow along with my reading progress this year, you are welcome to follow or friend me on Goodreads. Here’s to even more delightful books, and infinite time to read them all, in 2020!

*Honorable Mentions: Because narrowing 102 books to a short list of favorites is very difficult, here are five more books that just missed the cut, when I endeavored to be very strict and limit myself to ten: Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper, Inland by Tea Obreht, Dominicana by Angie Cruz, Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li, and Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong.

New England clam chowder.

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The temperature has been hovering in the 20’s (or lower) for the better part of two weeks. That, to me, is chowder weather. Though I grew up in Maine and have been back for 18 months, I had never before made a clam chowder. Drawing on elements I like in other versions, with the input of Mom and notes from Homegrown, I put together this one, and am so pleased with the outcome! I used canned clams because I didn’t like the fresh options I found (and frankly, didn’t want to deal with steaming and shucking multiple pounds, or the expense) and suggest that option, or a similar quantity of frozen clams. If it’s as cold where you are as it is here, my New England clam chowder makes for a comforting, warming winter supper.

New England Clam Chowder (serves 6-8)

  • 1 T. olive or canola oil
  • 6 strips thick-cut bacon, cut into lardons
  • 1 c. yellow onion, minced (1 small or 1/2 of a large onion)
  • 1 c. celery, finely chopped
  • 5 medium red potatoes, peeled and cut into 1″ cubes (about 1 1/2 lbs.)
  • 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. adobo seasoning* (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 T. flour
  • two 6.5 oz cans chopped clams
  • one 10 oz. can whole baby clams
  • about 2 c. chicken stock (see notes below**)
  • 1/2 – 1 tsp. kosher salt, to taste
  • 1 c. heavy cream

Heat a Dutch oven or stock pot over medium high heat. Add the oil, warm for 30 seconds, and then add bacon pieces; cook until the bacon is crisp and most of the fat has rendered out, about 5 mins. Use a slotted spoon to remove the bacon pieces to a bowl or plate covered with a layer of paper towel. Remove all but 2 T. of the rendered fat and discard or use elsewhere.

Add the onions and celery to the 2 T. bacon fat left in the pot. Cook for about 5 mins, until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the potatoes, smoked paprika, adobo, and pepper; sprinkle with flour. Stir until the spices and flour are distributed evenly; cook for 1-2 mins, stirring constantly. Drain the clam liquid from all three cans into a 4 c. (or larger) measuring cup; **add chicken stock until you have 4 c. total liquid. Add the clam stock mixture to the pot slowly, scraping the browned bits off the bottom as you go. The liquid should just cover the potatoes; add a touch more chicken stock (up to 1 c.) if needed.

Bring to a gentle boil, then reduce the heat to medium or medium-low, just enough to maintain a simmer. Simmer for 20 mins, until the potatoes are cooked through. Taste the broth for seasoning. Keeping the heat very low, add the cream, then clams. Heat through without allowing the chowder to boil, just 2-3 mins. Taste again for seasoning. Serve immediately, with reserved bacon crumbled on top.

The chowder will keep in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for 3-4 days.

*Adobo seasoning is usually available in grocery stores, sometimes in the spice aisle and sometimes in the Latin American specialty foods section. I like the tiny bit of garlic and oregano it adds, but it is optional.

Favorites from 2018: books.

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I look forward to this list every year, the chance to look back on the accomplishment of a year well read, revisiting books I enjoyed and even some I didn’t like at all. This year more than any in memory, books were a shelter: I read the day we said goodbye to our dog Maude, the day we learned our offer on a cute little house in a cute little town fell through, the day I discovered I would be making a career change in 2019. Without the escape of books I may have wallowed; instead, I escaped for a few hours (or days) and kept moving forward. There were happy reading times as well: I raced through There There by Tommy Orange on the porch at camp and Winter by Ali Smith on the coldest day of the year, snuggled with my Fennie. R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries is one I crowed about all year long, The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni was so good I read the rest of her books in the span of about five weeks, and I pondered the ending of Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry for days, even rereading it a few times for new perspective. There were countless impressive debuts (The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat, If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim, Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee), an exciting number of standout story collections (Back Talk by Danielle Lazarin, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld), and several new books by favorite authors (Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, Awayland by Ramona Ausubel, Fox 8 by George Saunders). I am surprised to see I attempted so few nonfiction books (14) and proud how many books I read by women (68). I read 106 books total, and for the first time in many years, did not agonize over my choices for this list. I loved what I loved, fiercely, and want everyone else to read and love them, too. Here they are, not necessarily ranked… though I have to say that The Incendiaries and Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck are in a tier of their own and I will count them as favorites forever. Here’s to happy reading in 2019!

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

Without a question, The Incendiaries is my favorite book of the year. I had this mental image of Ms. Kwon choosing words with tweezers and placing them just so until each sentence was perfect. The build of the story was even, controlled even as fraught details are uncovered, the narrative shift between characters executed so well. As I wrote in February: “The genius here is the author’s ability to pull you in, then push you all the way out to be an observer, or vice versa. I sympathized with Phoebe until it was time to see her from a distance, which was clever. I took notes about Will until it was time to see through his eyes, and I could.” I am planning to reread soon and I hope you will add it to your list if you haven’t read already. My heartiest, most emphatic recommendation!

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

It is a fluke that I picked up this book and thank goodness I did. This tidy novel is about a retiring professor of classics who becomes compassionately involved with a group of African refugees in Berlin. The subject is timely, as our national news tells cleansed and yet horrifying stories about border walls, migrant caravans, detention camps for children, and travel bans. The beauty of Go, Went, Gone is how easily Richard, the main character, offers simple advice or assistance that meaningfully helps strangers in need. He listens to their stories, offers information about getting to appointments around the city, shares books and music, advocates on the men’s behalf with local officials. From my notes: “And yet, as we learn from Richard’s past, he is by no means a perfect figure. He is not romanticized. The language and tone of the novel, with interspersed segments from classic literature and music, remains calm and reflective while the actions of and against the asylum seekers become increasingly chaotic and troubling. As emotional and fraught as the over-arching theme was, I found Ms. Erpenbeck’s approach honest, empathetic, and frank in a way I haven’t encountered before.”

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

My favorite story collection this year is Heads of the Colored People. The stories felt so fresh and modern, with unexpected twists and distinct characters that refuse the stereotype of a single, shared “Black experience”. The characters are relatable though not always likable, sometimes funny, sometimes sad. The title story was a favorite and I will be very excited to see Ms. Thompson-Spires future work.

There There by Tommy Orange

I try to avoid reviews and previews of books I plan to read and the buzz about There There was hard to miss. It was the novel of the hour, a depiction of an “off-reservation, urban Native American experience” like nothing previously written. Early on I was lost in the book, struggling to keep all the characters and their relationship to one another straight. All at once the intricacies made sense and I was able to lose myself in the story, which was as seamless as it was frenetic… and I could see immediately why everyone is so excited about Tommy Orange, his brilliant novel, and all the potential there is for future stories from him. Once again, as in Heads of the Colored People, we are seeing an author prove how limiting and limited it is to stick to literary stereotypes, instead showing us there is nothing cookie-cutter about these twelve characters– not emotions, intentions, histories, or pain.

The Sarah Book by Scott McLanahan

I still don’t know if this is a novel or nonfiction, and I don’t think it much matters. I admire Mr. McLanahan his ability to blur that line and create a book so emotional that I laughed on one page, was furious two pages later, and cried just after that. The Sarah Book is the story of a failing relationship, from the perspective of a husband desperately in love who sees that his wife is unhappy but can’t comprehend why or what to do about it. He writes love letters and makes awkward attempts at sweet gestures… but mostly he is swept along by her and seems to always be wrong, or behind, or misguided. There is a dog, Mr. King, and you will cry about Mr. King. I wanted to read this because of the title; I lucked in to a heart-rending story.

Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala

A slim novel I saw few others mention this year though I absolutely adored it– Speak No Evil is the story of a young man working diligently to follow his own passions while respecting his upbringing and the wishes of his parents. There is so much tension in this story, heartbreak and inner turmoil while Niru and his father, especially, try to “keep up appearances”. The ending is absolutely shocking and I still think of it all the time. I hope more readers find time for this book.

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

Perhaps the most epic of all the novels I read in 2018, The Great Believers tackles the enormity of the AIDs crisis in 1980’s Chicago. I was stubborn about this one, not wanting to read a thick “sad story” and have my heart broken, but once I got over myself I found so much to love here. First there is Yale: a good friend, a loyal companion, a conscientious employee, a lover of art. Seemingly in the center of a whirlwind of death and disease, he stays steady and true. My favorite part of the novel is Yale’s conversations with Nora about art and her time in pre-war Paris. I also very much enjoyed the current-day story of Fiona, the sister of Yale’s friend Nico, as she looks for her daughter in Paris. Though I usually don’t care for time jumps, the writing was so skilled, the narratives intertwined expertly. Thank goodness I made time for Ms. Makkai’s beautiful novel; I am richer for the experience.

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

Called a memoir but unlike any other memoir I’ve ever read, I was astonished by this book. I am familiar with Ms. O’Farrell’s novels and some part of me thought this was a novel when I started reading. It is unsettling and fascinating, a compilation of vignettes describing incidents or instances when the author might have died. As I read I reflected on my own life; I thought about reactions to stress and danger in a new way. As I said in April, writing notes about I Am, I Am, I Am: “I found myself scanning my own past to frame things as Ms. O’Farrell does… not intending to one-up the author, just to wonder if I could relate. And though my life hasn’t been nearly as exciting (harrowing?) I find that I can absolutely relate, and sympathize, and grow and learn from having read her words.”

Feel Free by Zadie Smith

A sublime treat, to have this giant, varied collection of essays from one of the world’s best authors. Though I didn’t realize at the time how much I enjoyed it, I found myself thinking all year about her words: on libraries and the importance of free public spaces, on privacy and social media, on literature, music, family, and climate change. She is wise, funny, honest, precise, and biting at times. I have so much respect for Ms. Smith’s opinions; hers is a brilliant mind.

The News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Not a new book, but one that bowled me over with its earnest grace. “Kep-dun” and “Cho-henna” will forever be two of my favorite literary characters, and the story of their relationship and building trust is one I will recommend frequently.

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More Books I Greatly Enjoyed: Florida by Lauren Groff, The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason, Washington Black by Esi Edugyan, Back Talk by Danielle Lazarin, The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling, Calypso by David Sedaris, and Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao.

Cheese balls, two ways.

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Well… it has been awhile! I hope you are all well, happy and healthy and enjoying the holiday season. I am dusting off the blog and remembering how to format just in time to share two recipes for cheese balls for your holiday entertaining needs. True, I missed Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and the first two weekends of December, so your holiday celebration may have come and gone… in which case you can make these for yourself as a snack. Because who doesn’t love a good cheese ball? and I have you covered with both sweet-ish and savory options. The sweet-savory cheese ball combines the flavors of mild bleu cheese and sweet dates with just a hint of garlic and Dijon mustard; the savory-savory has fresh chives and za’atar seasoning, similar to my favorite Cheese Spread with Za’atar and Scallions. If you’re not familiar with za’atar, it’s a seasoning mix with thyme, oregano, marjoram and sesame seeds, so adding chives brings you right into the realm of a classic herb dip/herbed cream cheese. Make one, make both: they’re easy, crowd-pleasing, fun in a kind of crafty way (you get to sculpt cheese with your hands!), and delicious. Happy holidays!

Bleu Cheese and Date Cheese Ball (pictured on the right)

  • 8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 3 oz. mild bleu cheese (Maytag, Rogue Oregon blue, Gorgonzola dolce, or similar)
  • 1 T. honey
  • 1 T. Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 tsp. crushed fresh garlic*
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
  • 3 T. finely minced dates
  • 1/4 c. chopped toasted almonds to coat

Use a stand or hand mixer to whip the cream cheese. Add the crumbled bleu cheese, honey, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, salt and black pepper and mix until combined. It’s okay to have some texture; the bleu cheese does not have to be whipped smooth. Stir in the dates by hand.

Tear off a large piece of plastic wrap (or parchment or wax paper), about 12″ wide by 18″ long. Dollop the cheese mixture in the middle and use the plastic wrap to form the cheese into a ball. Twist the loose ends shut and refrigerate overnight.

When you are ready to serve, carefully untwist the ends and unwrap the cheese. Sprinkle the almonds onto a plate or cutting board and roll the cheese ball until coated in almonds. Let sit at room temperature for about an hour for the best flavor. Serve with crackers, bread or cut vegetables.

*To crush garlic without a special tool, drag the side of a large knife over minced garlic on a cutting board. Repeat until you have a paste.

Za’atar and Chives Cheese Ball (pictured on the left)

  • 8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 c. finely shredded Monterey Jack, or mild white cheddar
  • 2 tsp. za’atar seasoning
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/4 c. minced fresh chives
  • 3 T. white or black (or a combination) sesame seeds to coat

Use a stand or hand mixer to whip the cream cheese. Add the Monterey Jack, za’atar and salt and mix until combined. The za’atar flavor will be mild, but will intensify overnight as it melds with the cheese. Stir in the chives.

Tear off a large piece of plastic wrap (or parchment or wax paper), about 12″ wide by 18″ long. Dollop the cheese mixture in the middle and use the plastic wrap to form the cheese into a ball. Twist the loose ends shut and refrigerate overnight.

When you are ready to serve, carefully untwist the ends and unwrap the cheese. Sprinkle the sesame seeds onto a plate or cutting board and roll the cheese ball until coated. Let sit at room temperature for 1 hr for best results. Serve with crackers, bread or cut vegetables.

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Your cheese balls can be stored in the refrigerator up to 48 hours before rolling in the toppings, and leftovers will keep for 5-7 days in a tightly sealed container.

Favorites from 2017: Books.

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When I look back on a year of reading, I tend to see the same trends: many cookbooks, a few memoirs or collections of travel essays to satisfy my self-imposed quota of nonfiction, and an equal mix of novels and short story collections, mostly published the same year. Not 2017. I broke most of my own molds last year. I still read cookbooks, because I love them, but I managed to finish only 9 short story collections. I read more nonfiction than in any year I can remember– mostly essays about feminism, systemic racism, and politics. (Go figure.) The novels I read were long and detailed. I rediscovered Salman Rushdie and Alice McDermott. I cemented George Saunders in my pantheon of Great Authors, and expect Jesmyn Ward to be there someday, too. I finally read James Baldwin, Ann Patchett, Anne Enright. I read books shortlisted for awards– Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Locking Up Our Own by James Forman, Jr., Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng– and adored others that were puzzlingly under-read, or at least under-reviewed, like The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam and Human Acts by Han Kang. As always, I am thrilled to have met my reading goal, shared true gems with my book friends, and assembled a to-read list that will carry me well into the new year, just in time for more highly-anticipated books to come out! Here are my Top 10 books of 2017, mostly in order of how much I loved them… and here’s to more great books and plenty of time to read them in 2018.

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

This is one of the first books I read last year, in the cold and still month of January, and I knew the entire time I was savoring it that it would be on this list at the end of the year. Here are my notes from January:

‘I can’t shake the feeling this may be the best book I read all year, even though it is only the 23rd day of 2017 as I write this. The essays contained within spoke to me so clearly– to my love of literature, my fascination with photography (even when it’s clear I don’t understand/see it with the same critical eye), my concern for social justice and anger about oppression and discrimination. There were curious parallels between my real life and the subject matter of the essays I read each day; nothing earth-shattering, just intriguing coincidences like reading about James Baldwin on the bus ride home from the book group meeting in which we decided to read The Fire Next Time; reading about Selma the week I watched the movie with the same name; reading about the four official languages of Switzerland just an hour after randomly discussing the same topic at work; reading about Naipaul the day I chose to add A House for Mr. Biswas to my library queue, after hearing President Obama was a fan of Naipaul’s work. (I never did like A Bend in the River…) I have been thinking a lot about the essay about Palestine– it might be the most clear and concise discussion of the reprehensible sociopolitical situation there I’ve yet encountered. My highest recommendation for this collection.’

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

Without question my favorite novel of the year, one I have been recommending to anyone who will listen to me gush. The protagonist is not entirely sympathetic, the plot jumps around in time, and geographically… but overall it is a nearly perfect novel, in my estimation. There are moments of poignant and heartfelt love, scenes to make you bark laughter at the absurdity of the situation described, and descriptions of calculated selfishness and betrayal, sometimes all at once. The opening scene is perfect, the ending is exactly what I wanted. I must recommend you add this to your to-read list if you’ve ever enjoyed John Irving or Salman Rushdie, or if you just want to be absorbed by a well-written, character-driven novel.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I can’t shed any new light on a novel that is perhaps the most-reviewed and most-discussed of the year. I, too, struggled with the format for a few pages… and then it clicked, and I fell in to the story, and I loved it deeply. I had the privilege of listening to Mr. Saunders explain the book and his writing process, followed by his participation in a 4-person reading. Even before that night, I respected his work so much; now, as I mentioned above, he is solidly one of my favorite writers. When I met him after the reading, I was thinking of a political poem he shared with us and an essay he had written for The New Yorker, so of course I blurted out something to the effect of “thank you for your words, you are my life raft (in these dark political times)”. Sigh. He smiled kindly, said I had wise eyes, and signed my book.

ps. Both the poem and political essay are available to read online.

Human Acts by Han Kang

I almost didn’t read this one. The Vegetarian, her previous novel, was not a favorite, and this sounded so dark… which it was, but how could it not be, given the subject? From my review written just after reading in April:

‘Heartfelt, tense, beautiful, and informative. I did not know about the Gwangju uprising (May 1980) so the history was new to me. This novel is told through the eyes of observers and victims of the bloody and brutal stance against the unflinching regime of Chun Doo-hwan. The use of various narrators and historical recall managed to both mask (mercifully) the violence against students, and heighten its effect on those who saw friends and compatriots die. The storytelling was crisp and emotional, the translation beautiful.’

The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam

I still think of this novel often, so slim and with so few characters, and consider it one of the most impactful I have read in many years. Even months later, I recall my sense of what the beach looked like, the strangling heat and humidity, how the characters must have felt as strangers pushed together by war and family and circumstance. It is an emotional and impeccably written book, not one word wasted, and I marvel at the author’s skill to put so much detail, so succinctly, into 208 pages.

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

A fascinating read about the Hermit of North Pond, a legend I had heard about for years in murky detail through sensationalized local reporting. The story is astonishing: Christopher Knight lived for 27 years in the dense Maine woods, undetected and without human contact. The story by Mr. Finkel begins after Mr. Knight has been discovered, arrested, and charged for the break-ins he used to gather food and gear, moving between present conversations and past recollections. As a Mainer, it was fun to uncover the story from the hermit’s perspective, and as a reader, it was a fast-paced account of a story unlike any other.

The Return by Hisham Matar

A heartbreaking and fraught account of a family’s experience with loss and fracture. The author’s father was a political dissident in Libya, disappeared after living in exile in Cairo and never seen or heard from again. The author tells his father’s story, as well as he can; some of the story of Libya, from as far back as the time of Italian rule; and his own story as a fatherless son returning to Libya after Qaddafi was overthrown. I cheered when I saw that Mr. Matar won a Pulitzer for this book. To be recognized for the importance of the story and the strength of his writing is the least he deserves.

Somebody with a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill

Oh, Mary Gaitskill, how I adore you. One of my favorite short story authors, I somehow never knew her talent as an essayist. From my review in May:

‘Finding this collection of essays was like finding a treasure chest long-buried in the attic. Like her or not, Ms. Gaitskill has a strong and familiar voice. I admire her frank discussion of all manner of subjects: books, music, movies, art, sex, love, treatment of others. I used to think her “shocking”, because she says and writes things I don’t often see, but I realize she is truthful. I don’t think her words are intended to provoke, or shock, just to make the reader consider something or someone in a different light. It’s refreshing, and interesting.’

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

Boy, was this novel ever more than I expected. I like to read books “cold”– even when recommended by a friend, I beg for no more than basic plot info, so I can discover on my own. I never read reviews or criticism beforehand. As such, I really didn’t know anything more than this: there’s a husband, and wife, and some discovered letters. The story that pours from these letters is half love story and half confessional, with a whole lot of mystery and feelings stirred up and stirred in. The plot alternates between current-day, narrated by one of the couple’s adult daughters, and letters from before, written by the wife. The timeline stayed hazy for me, and my feelings about each character shifted dramatically as the letters were revealed. I loved that aspect of the story. I had no idea where the plot was going and was honestly surprised by the way the story played out.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

This novel broke me in half. I was quite literally breathless reading most of it– I would have to pause, remember to breathe, and then continue. The characters are crisp and distinct, especially Jojo. There is so much pain, love, devotion, and loyalty in the story… I’m not even doing it justice. There are no words I can offer that haven’t been shared by a critic or fan, so I will say simply: read this book. It is not easy to read, but it is important and exquisite and worthy of every bit of praise, every award. Ms. Ward is clearly one of the best authors writing today. May she bless us with dozens more novels like Sing.

So there you have it, my Top 10 of 2017. Now, tell me your favorites! Please comment. What did you love reading in 2017, and which books are you looking forward to in 2018? Happy reading!

Cranberry clementine breakfast rolls.

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We had Christmas with my sister’s family this past weekend, and I wanted to make something special for Sunday brunch. I’ve been thinking about a breakfast-appropriate baked treat with cranberries and orange for a little while now, so I decided to adapt the Meyer lemon breakfast rolls I made a few years back to make cranberry clementine breakfast rolls. They feature an enriched dough which is studded with cranberries, rolled with tangy cream cheese filling, and topped while warm with a bright clementine glaze. I am really pleased with how they turned out! I used clementines for the orange/citrus part because they are so sweet and easy to juice. They give the rolls a bright, fresh flavor and scent. The cranberries are an accent flavor; they look so pretty and festive in the dough. The rolls themselves are soft and flaky, an ideal base for the tart, sweet, tangy flavors of the fruit and filling.

I enjoy working with enriched dough: it can be made by hand or quickly in a stand mixer, is easy to pat or roll out into the rectangle you need to create, and is forgiving if you need a little more of less time to proof. In other words, it’s a great recipe for beginners or novices because the final product almost always tastes fantastic, and the recipe usually works with the time constraints of, say, a busy holiday weekend. I think the pictured batch could have risen for another 30 mins. before baking– but I didn’t have an extra 30 mins., and I was still pleased as punch with how they looked and tasted. That, to me, is an ideal holiday (or any day) recipe: festive, special, flexible, and mostly made ahead!

After a family breakfast with scrambled eggs, Mailhot sausages, plenty of coffee, and these fragrant cranberry clementine breakfast rolls– which my 4 year old niece helped me glaze– we were properly fortified to watch the kids open their Christmas gifts. A nice treat to start a fun day. Happy Holidays!

Cranberry Clementine Breakfast Rolls (makes

For the dough:

  • 3 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 2 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • zest of three clementines
  • 1/2 c. buttermilk
  • 8 T. unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into pieces
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/4 c. chopped fresh cranberries (not frozen)

For the filling:

  • 5 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 T. clementine juice (from about 1 clementine)
  • pinch of kosher salt

For the glaze:

  • 1/4 c. clementine juice (from about 2 clementines)
  • 1 c. confectioner’s sugar, sifted
  • pinch of kosher salt

Day 1: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine 3 c. flour, sugar, yeast, salt and zest. Mix to combine. Add the buttermilk and cubes of soft butter to the dry ingredients and turn on the mixer, low speed. Lightly whisk the eggs and add to the mixer as it runs. Walk away if you need to, but let the mixer go on low-medium speed for at least 5 mins.

Toss the chopped cranberries with 1/4 c. more flour and add to the dough. Mix for another minute. Remove the dough (it should be in a ball around the hook) from the mixer bowl and knead with your hands for a few minutes, adding a dusting of flour if the dough is very sticky, then create a ball again. Place a small amount of neutral oil in the bottom of a glass or ceramic bowl; make sure the dough is entirely coated (lightly) with oil. Cover with a tea towel and allow to rise in a warm spot for about 3 hours, until it has about doubled in size.

While the dough rises, make your filling. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix until smooth. Refrigerate until you are ready to roll the dough, though it is helpful to bring the filling to room temperature by removing it from the refrigerator about 40 mins. before you need to use it.

Lightly flour a bread board or large cutting board. Turn the dough out and pat or roll into a large rectangle, about 10″ x 15″. Starting at one long end, spread the cream cheese filling over the surface of the dough, leaving 1-2″ of dough open at the other long end. The filling should completely and evenly cover the rest of the dough. Starting at the filling-covered end, roll the dough into a long tube. Pull the clear end up and over the roll and pinch to seal. Refrigerate or freeze the dough for about 20 mins. before cutting.

Cut the cold filled dough in half through the middle to make two tubes of uncut rolls, about 8″ long apiece. Then, cut each tube again in half, then each of your four tubes into 4 pieces. (I know this does not add up to 15– I had two stub ends that I combined to make one bun.) The key is consistent thickness, so work slowly. It does get messy… but I like to think of the mess as flavor and character, so I don’t get frustrated. I used a serrated bread knife, cleaned between cuts, and have seen other methods using bench scrapers and plain dental floss to make the cuts. I was not that concerned with perfection… but if you are, there are some good instructions on the web. When you have about 15 similar-sized buns, place them in a lightly sprayed 9″ x 13″ baking pan in five rows of three. Push the rolls right up against each other so they fit snugly in the pan. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. The rolls should rise again, slowly, overnight.

Day 2: Remove the pan from the refrigerator and loosen the plastic wrap so it covers the pan lightly. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Allow the buns to warm up for about an hour at room temperature. Bake at 325 for 20-25 mins., rotating the pan once midway through, until the cranberry breakfast rolls are golden brown and the center ones are cooked through.

Mix up the clementine glaze by combining 1/4 c/ clementine juice, 1 c. confectioner’s sugar, and a pinch of kosher salt in a small bowl. Drizzle the glaze, yes all of it, over the rolls, as soon as they come out of the oven. Use a bread knife or spoon to pull the rolls away from the side of the pan so the glaze drips down around all sides. The glaze will harden slightly as the buns cool. Serve immediately.

Leftover breakfast rolls will keep, tightly covered, for 2-3 days.

Chocolate ginger cookies.

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I love baking cookies to give as holiday gifts. I start looking for recipes to make in early November, poring over cookbooks and baking magazines and taking notes on food blogs. There are a few I make each year: buckeyes (technically candy, but who’s counting?), Mexican wedding cookies, stuffed cookies, and snickerdoodles. In addition to the standards, I like to create or try at least one new recipe. I made butterscotch no-bakes and peanut butter-stuffed cookie cups from the new (and fabulous!!) Sally’s Cookie Addiction cookbook. And, after a request from a coworker to marry ginger and chocolate in a holiday treat, I made these Chocolate Ginger Cookies.

I love the bite of ginger, but decided to keep it subtle here, giving you a festive, zingy hint of flavor but letting chocolate be the star. Chocolate ginger cookies have a crisp exterior and a perfectly soft middle. They are dunkable in coffee or tea, and shippable, which checks most of the boxes I consider when planning cookies to gift. The sugar coating gives them texture and a pretty, wintery look. They are un-fussy, a key factor for me at this busy time of year. There is a time and place for frosting and cookie cutters, but I relish a cookie recipe I can scoop and bake quickly. In past years I would send boxes of homemade goodies to New England; this year I’ll be mailing back to Seattle, so they have to hold up for a few days in transit, and not arrive in pieces. Chocolate ginger cookies should be perfect for shipping.

If you are looking for a cookie to make for a potluck, cookie swap, or holiday gift, look no further! Peppy ginger and rich chocolate together are a wonderful match. Your friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, etc. will be thrilled at your thoughtfulness. Happy holidays!

Chocolate Ginger Cookies (makes about 45 cookies)

  • 8 T. unsalted butter
  • 1/2 c. semisweet chocolate chips, or 4 oz. dark or semisweet chocolate
  • 3 T. candied (crystallized) ginger, minced
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 c. dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 c. white sugar
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 c. flour
  • 1/2 c. baking cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 – 1 c. white or sanding sugar, to finish

In a small saucepan over low to medium heat, melt the butter and chocolate chips. Remove from the heat, add the candied ginger pieces and salt, and cool slightly. Make sure the mixture stays liquid. Steadfastly avoid eating this chocolate mixture with a teaspoon, or you’ll have to make more.

Into a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, add 1/2 c. white sugar, brown sugar, eggs and vanilla. Mix on medium speed until well combined and slightly frothy.

Sift together flour, cocoa powder, ground ginger, and baking soda. Set aside.

Stream the cooled chocolate mixture into the egg mixture, while the mixer runs on low speed. Scrape the sides of the bowl and mix for 2 mins. Add the sifted dry ingredients in two batches, stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl in between additions. Mix only until combined. Cover the mixing bowl and chill the dough for at least 2 hours, and up to 2 days.

When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 3 baking sheets with parchment paper. Use a small 1 T. cookie scoop (or a small spoon) to form balls of dough. Roll each ball in white or sanding sugar and place on a cookie sheet with 1″ or so room between cookies, about 16 per sheet. Bake for 12-14 mins., rotating the pan once halfway through. Remove from the oven and slide the parchment paper with cookies onto cooling racks. Let cool at least 20 mins. before serving, at least 1 hr. before packing.

Chocolate ginger cookies will keep for 4-6 days in a tightly covered container at room temperature. You can freeze them for 2-3 months.

Thanksgiving traditions: corn spoon bread.

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For years, so many I lost count, we’ve had Thanksgiving dinner with our closest Seattle friends. We got really, really good at making this meal. Everyone had a specialty to add to the table: smoked or fried turkey with perfect gravy, green bean casserole with Red Mill onion rings for the topping, the Best Yams Ever, rutmousse, homemade pies, a dessert known simply as Log. We never tired of our standards and rarely added anything new to the mix, having perfected the ideal array of dishes… until spoon bread. A revelation of butter and corn. The happy marriage of cornbread and corn pudding, both of which I adore. It’s rich, sweet, comforting, and absolutely at home with all the other flavors of Thanksgiving.

Though being in Maine means spending holidays with family, something I’ve dreamed of for years, I will miss our Thanksgiving dinner with friends. When I was feeling a little wistful last week, I decided to make corn spoon bread for my family, and oh-my-goodness did they like it. Mom thought maybe I should make it for Thanksgiving dinner, and my sister liked it enough to ask for the recipe, so I decided to share here. Though I’ve added nothing to the original recipe, it certainly qualifies as a Thanksgiving tradition in my home– and writing up the recipe is a cool reminder of our epic celebrations with beloved friends. Happy Thanksgiving to all! Most especially to C&C, M&S.

Corn Spoon Bread (from Deep South Dish)

  • 1/2 c. fine yellow cornmeal
  • 2/3 c. flour
  • 1 T. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • several grinds of fresh black pepper
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 2 c. frozen (thawed) or fresh corn
  • 1 15 oz. can of creamed corn
  • 1 c. sour cream
  • 1/4 c. whole milk
  • 8 T. unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 large eggs, whisked

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly spray a 2 1/2 qt. casserole dish, or equivalent. I like to use a 2 qt. white souffle dish.

Whisk together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, kosher salt, black pepper and sugar. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, mix together the remaining ingredients. Fold the dry ingredients into the wet mixture, just until mixed. Carefully pour the batter into your prepared pan.

Bake for 75 to 90 mins., until the center has set so a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, and the top is golden brown.

Serve hot or warm. Leftovers will keep in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for about 4-5 days.

Banana spice cake.

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Hello readers! It’s been a long time. My Master Plan for Blog Continuity went right off the rails in mid-April, shortly after my (very fun) experience with the Peoplehood of the Traveling Swirly Pan. I knew my writing was going to slow down, but I didn’t expect it to stop. If you’re reading this post… hi! Thank you! Glad to be back.

So here’s what happened: in late June we hopped into a moving truck with two cats, a dog, and lots (and lots and lots) of boxes… and moved to Maine. This was a very good move for us, and we were both excited, but I think we underestimated how complicated it is to move cross-country. When we were 20-something babies going west, it was so easy. This time, packing was a little more involved than I expected (I had TWO KITCHENS) and I thought it might be smart to plan out each day of the trip– how long we would travel, where we would stop for meals and to sleep– instead of winging it like we did in 1998. Great idea, right? When I wasn’t researching hotels in Gillette, WY, I was spending as much time as possible with Seattle friends, and eating out fairly often: one more trip for tacos at El Camion, one more bowl of pho from our local spot, one more book group meeting at Lola, etc. I sure didn’t factor in how challenging it might be to cook with most of my kitchen gear in boxes and zero free time to recipe test in my usual leisurely way, and then find time to write and edit. So here it is November… can you believe it?… and I am mostly settled, and my shame about my Master Plan failing so spectacularly is pretty much gone, and I am cooking and baking and ready to write.

So let’s talk about banana spice cake. This is not the recipe I thought I would write as my First Post From Maine. I had grand plans of a themed return, maybe even a “guess where I am?” series with recipes featuring blueberries, maple syrup, lobster, Allen’s Coffee Brandy, etc. I thought I would at least lead with whoopie pies: at one point my Master Plan included creating a Seattle-themed whoopie pie as my last West Coast recipe, then writing about traditional whoopie pies when I got to Maine. Well, that didn’t happen. (Yet. Those Seattle-style whoopie pies are still front and center in my recipe testing plans, so stay tuned.) Anyway, the best laid plans and all that. One day last month I was staring at some very ripe bananas and got the idea to create a cake that was a happy marriage of banana bread and spice cake. Banana spice cake has brown sugar and buttermilk for texture and moisture; cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice for flavor; and is topped with an easy cream cheese frosting because why not? This banana spice cake was an instant hit with my family. (I *swear* they are letting the bananas get too ripe in the fruit bowl now so I will make it again… and I really don’t mind.) A few weeks ago I started mixing one up while dinner was in the oven and it was done and frosted in time for dessert. I realized at that point I was inspired to share the recipe, eager to jot down some notes and write again (hooray!). Even if banana spice cake was never part of the Plan, it is the right recipe right now, and so here it is.

The leaves are mostly on the ground now and it is getting legitimately cold. I don’t mind; I have a good winter coat, cute hats, and new Bean boots, so I am ready! I look forward to having more time to cook, bake and plan while it’s cold and (dare I say it) SNOWY outside, and more time to write so I can share my recipes with you. As for this banana spice cake– if you’re looking for a warm, gently spiced, easy, autumnal recipe, this is worth a try. I promise it won’t be my last recipe post for six months. Thanks for reading!

Banana Spice Cake (adapted from Kitchen Treaty)

For the cake:

  • 8 T. unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 c. dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3 large (or 4 small) very ripe, soft bananas
  • 1 c. buttermilk
  • 2 c. flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 2 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. allspice
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt

For the frosting:

  • 8 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 3 T. unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • pinch of kosher salt
  • 2 c. sifted confectioner’s sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon (optional)
  • 3 T. whole milk (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly oil or spray a 13″ x 9″ glass or ceramic pan.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter, brown sugar and sugar until very light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and eggs and mix until well combined. Add the bananas, which should be so ripe you don’t need to mash them… but if they’re not quite there, mash them a little with a fork before adding to the bowl. Mix until you have a lumpy (from the bananas) batter.

Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and kosher salt. Add to the wet ingredients and mix just until combined.

Spread the batter evenly in your pan and bake for 35-45 mins, until the cake is golden brown and a knife inserted in the center comes back clean. Let the cake cool for at least 30 mins. before frosting.

While the cake cools, make your frosting: In a clean mixer bowl, whip the cream cheese, 3 T. butter, vanilla and salt until smooth. Sift in the confectioner’s sugar and mix until combined.

Optional: To play up the spices in the cake, add an extra 1/2 tsp. cinnamon to the frosting. To make a slightly thinner, looser icing-style frosting, add 3 T. milk.

Serve the cake warm or at room temperature. It will keep, covered, for about 3-4 days.

The Peoplehood of the Traveling Swirly Pan.

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In 2013 I was working from home and spending hours each day recipe planning, recipe testing, baking, cooking and writing for this, my beloved blog. I was also reading a lot of other cooking blogs, and Jenni Field’s Pastry Chef Online was (is!) one of my very favorites. I forget the exact origin story, but at some point Jenni announced the start of a community-building, cake baking project called Peoplehood of the Traveling Swirly Pan. The traveling swirly pan is Dorothy, a dramatic Nordic Ware bundt pan, and with her companion journal Toto (and now Toto II), she travels the country to the kitchens of those who have signed up to participate in the Peoplehood. Anyone lucky enough to host the pair will have a week to bake, document and share their experience online and in Toto. So… cake, community and writing about both? You better believe I added my name without hesitation.

And then I promptly lost track of her. 2013 was a long time ago. When I got notice in mid-March that my turn was coming up, I was surprised, excited… and worried. What would I bake? WHEN would I bake? At the start of the project, I had grand plans of baking a cake a day, or at least several during my week, hosting a tea/tasting party to share the bundts, and decorating my pages in Toto with color pictures and clever comments. Well. That just is not my reality these days, so I sat down to plan a better strategy for my time with Dorothy. I thought I could definitely do two cakes, one with the spices and flavors I love to show in my recipes, and another that was just over the top decadent. I thought about almond and cardamom, maybe something using cherries and mahleb, or perhaps a spring celebration of rhubarb and fresh herbs. I thought about a savory bundt for exactly two minutes. I considered filled bundts, pudding bundts, frosting vs. glaze vs. dusted powdered sugar. I thought about showcasing some of our family favorites, gluten-free apple or coconut with ginger and orange. Nothing grabbed me, nothing seemed quite right… and then I got sick. Sigh. Baking while sick is never a great option.

Don’t worry, this story has a happy ending. Once more I evaluated my plans and decided that when I felt better, I could get one beautiful cake made, photographed and shared. I looked through my notes about options and decided I would do something more classic than exotic but stay true to my own style and preferences. I also decided it was important to celebrate Dorothy with a new recipe instead of making a cake I had already baked and shared. There is a sweet little cake book called Cake Simple with a half dozen (okay, more) recipes I had bookmarked to try. One is a dark chocolate bundt, rich and decadent, I thought would go beautifully with the salted caramel sauce from Baked Elements. A perfect solution! Dark chocolate is nearly universally appealing, and the salted caramel sauce as “glaze” is exactly the kind of workaround I would find to make an exciting cake with no frosting. The cake looked straightforward and I had caramel sauce already from another recent baking project. I was so happy to have a plan that felt in line with my usual recipe planning methods.

I baked the cake on Tuesday night; it was a dream batter to make, fairly simple with no mixer required. I let the cake cool overnight before taking it out of Dorothy to glaze. Well, let me tell you, Dorothy must have liked my choice, too, because she was not interested in letting the cake go. When the bundt finally released, it was missing the top pieces that would have made the beautiful sharp angles in her swirl pattern. I got rolling hills instead of Rocky Mountains. And I still call it a victory: the dark chocolate cake is delicious; the salted caramel sauce is a perfect match, and served to disguise some of the missing top; and the crumbs stuck in the pan were scraped out and saved so I can make the chocolate babka recipe I have wanted to make for years. Now that is a win-win if I have heard of one.

My time with Dorothy has come to an end; I wrote up the recipe and a quick summary of my week in Toto, and packed everything back up to send to the next lucky baker in North Dakota. I am grateful to Jenni for coordinating this project! It was so much fun to read through Toto about other cakes, baking parties, and even meet-ups where Dorothy was passed in person, geography allowing. I am proud to be part of the Peoplehood, to have this story to tell, and I hope someone will be inspired to try my midnight chocolate cake in their own beloved bundt pan.

Midnight Chocolate Cake with Salted Caramel Sauce

For the cake:

  • 3 oz. bittersweet or unsweetened chocolate, shaved or broken into small pieces (I used Scharffen Berger 99%)
  • 3/4 c. boiling water
  • 3/4 c. cocoa powder (I used Hershey’s Special Dark)
  • 1 3/4 c. flour
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 c. dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 c. buttermilk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 T. vanilla

For the salted caramel sauce:

  • 1 c. sugar
  • 2 T. light corn syrup
  • 1/4 c. water
  • 1/2 c. heavy cream
  • 1 tsp. fleur de sel
  • 1/4 c. sour cream

Let’s start with the caramel sauce, since that can be made days in advance. This recipe makes about 1 1/2 c. and you won’t need much more than 1/2 c. to glaze the cake. (But don’t let me stop you from using more.) You can use leftover sauce on ice cream, brownies, apple slices, etc.

Have all ingredients measured and nearby BEFORE you start cooking. In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup and water. Stir gently to prevent the mixture from splashing up the sides of the pan. Heat on medium-high, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Increase the heat to high and cook, without stirring, until the mixture is dark golden brown and a candy thermometer reads just shy of 350 degrees. Do not leave the pot unattended or you will burn your caramel. You will. It takes about 6-8 mins. to get the right color/temperature and goes from clear to perfectly golden quickly.

Remove from the heat and add the cream; the mixture will hiss, bubble and release steam. Do not add cream with your hand/face/arm over the pan; steam burns. Add the fleur de sel. Whisk in the sour cream and set aside to cool. The caramel sauce will keep in the refrigerator for 10 days, according to the cookbook, and sometimes a little longer, according to my experience.

Now let’s make the cake. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Liberally grease Dorothy or a similar 10 cup bundt pan. Use melted butter, canola oil or spray, and get into all those ridges. Lightly flour the pan and shake out the excess.

Put the dark chocolate pieces in a large bowl and pour the boiling water over. Stir until the chocolate melts and set aside to cool.

Whisk together the cocoa powder, flour, baking powder, baking soda and kosher salt.

When the chocolate mixture has cooled, add the white and brown sugar and stir until smooth. Add the buttermilk, eggs and vanilla; stir until smooth and well-combined. Sift in the dry ingredients and fold them in just until combined. The batter may look a little lumpy, but that’s okay. Pour into your prepared pan, smooth out evenly, and bake for 40-50 mins., until a skewer inserted into the deepest part of the cake comes out clean. Cool completely on a wire rack before attempting to get the cake out of the pan.

When you are ready, use a rubber spatula to loosen the cake around the edges and from the center tube. Place a plate upside down over the bundt pan and invert the cake onto the plate. You may need to shake and shimmy a bit to get it out.

Drizzle the salted caramel over the top of the cake. Serve immediately. Store for 3-5 days in a cake keeper at room temperature. Enjoy!