Time is slipping away from me, running through my fingers like sand while I…do what? Clean floors, wash clothes, make dinner, wash up, go shopping, play with the children in the play areas, bring them home, undress them, bathe them, look after them until it is bedtime, tuck them in, hang some clothes to dry, fold others, and put them away, tidy up, wipe tables, chairs, and cupboards. It is a struggle, and even though it is not heroic, I am up against a superior force, for no matter how much housework I do at home the rooms are littered with mess and junk… -Karl Ove Knausgaard (My Struggle

It somehow seems criminal that here we are in early May, the time for celebrating rhubarb, strawberries and asparagus, and I am writing to tell you about a cake that gets both its flavor and dewy (never the dreaded “m” word!) texture from kabocha squash. But the truth, though one often ignored in the initial rapture of discovering the bright and colorful world of spring produce, is that the seasons aren’t always as clear-cut as they might appear, particularly if you base your knowledge of them on the covers, websites and Instagram feeds of food blogs and magazines. Plus, we must recognize that sometimes late season squash is simply better than early season strawberries; trust me, I know: the Greek and I eagerly bought three baskets of strawberries this weekend at the Newark farmers’ market and, while several tasted as sweet as I had hoped, the rest were clearly picked too soon, tinged with white and slightly sour. The sun clearly needs to have a chance to work its magic–except for a few days that seem nothing but flukes, Delaware has been deluged with clouds and spring showers–and, until then, I’m sticking with squash and ramps (Delaware/the east coast for the win!) and asparagus and relishing that my plate can accommodate all of them in the strange middle ground, geographically and seasonally, in which I find myself.

The other reason I am taking about squash flavored cake in early May is twofold. The first is that, back in late February, there was a heatwave in Delaware: it was 80 degrees and sunny, the air full of sneeze-inducing pollen and the promise of spring. I turned off the heat, opened the windows and foolishly believed that, the still short days aside, spring had arrived. This coincided with the height of my obsession with the Gjelina cookbook, a book that is utterly preachy about following the seasons to the absolute Letter (it serves no BLTs in winter because tomatoes are not in season. To me, this seems a little too extreme. While I find hothouse tomatoes to be sad little affairs and often not worth the price, I think there is still something to be said for them, as Amanda Cohen argued in the New York Times in the dead of winter), occasionally sloppy with its recipe writing (in a recipe for farro with pureed roasted beets, it tells you to puree the beets and to season them, but never to add them back in, leaving you with a beet-less farro…These kinds of mistakes, so easily avoidable, drive me crazy; let me add here that, if Chronicle Books would like a cookbook editor who notices these kinds of details, I am looking for a new job and would be thrilled to join the team) and simply fantastic when it comes to standout vegetable recipes (the recipe for glazed carrots alone offers a new horizon for a staple root) that, though a little labor intensive, are worth every bit of work you will put into executing them. Compared to some of the side and main dishes, the recipe for Kabocha, Olive Oil and Bittersweet Chocolate Cake looked positively easy. To me, it also seemed, with its glossy olive oil glaze and the toasted pepitas that go on top, like a harbinger of spring.

While I had planned on writing about this cake sooner–it is, quite simply, not a cake to be missed, the best dessert–complex, comforting and perfectly sweet–I have made all year, and I say that having adored the Istanbul baklava–there is the small fact that, despite my best intentions, I was swept away by life in mid-March. I was in Berkeley for a conference, then back in Delaware for ten days, with a side trip to Annapolis, before heading to Hong Kong to visit my college roommate for a week; upon arriving back in the U.S., though I had an acute upper respiratory infection, the Greek and I drove straight to Pennsylvania to see my grandmother, who had recently had surgery, and to help my grandfather around the house and with the cooking. Once I recovered, it was time to head back to California for a weekend whirlwind, complete with a wedding in Marin County, breakfast in Sonoma and several (quick!) meetings with friends in Berkeley. In short, it has been hard to feel centered, let alone to have time to write and reflect. But with this post, I am hopefully returning to some kind of normalcy or, at the very least, movement forward.

Because I have been away for so long, I wanted this post to include both the links that I like to share in my first post of the month and a recipe, which represents a deviation from tradition. But the good news about running a blog that answers to no corporate sponsors, etc. is that you can recreate the rules at any moment. I plan on doing just that in the weeks to come; there will be one more post that features squash (bear with me! I promise it is worth it), a celebration of spring, a trip to a Greek island, a recipe for a Japanese-inspired birthday dessert (one week to 33!) and notes about Hong Kong. I don’t know where all of this time and energy are coming from (or will come from), but I’m going to ride this wave of spring fever while it lasts. And with that, this month’s food for thought (the cake recipe will be at the very end):

A cocktail fit for a Roman

The very best spring minestrone

Another ghost of seasons past (save this one for next winter): Blood orange chia pudding.

The Greek and I have decided to go to Portugal (port, egg custard tarts, all the pottery!) on our honeymoon, but Sri Lanka was a contender. This is why, when I saw a recipe for beetroot curry and kale mallung (kale steamed with onion, spices, coconut flakes and a little water; no oil is used), I had to try it. After eating this meal, I will confess to having had second thoughts about Portugal.

How to fight procrastination and ward off the “panic monster.”

Coffee naps!

The (false) enigma of Donald and Melania Trump

Until recently, when I picked up Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, I had been reading only female authors–Lily King (Euphoria), Kate Atkinson (A God in Ruins), Rachel Cusk (Outline)–and relishing every minute of it. Of these three authors, I can’t say which one I enjoyed the most, but if you are looking for anything to read,  I would recommend them all.

Despite my inability to choose, A God in Ruins may just be special. In his review of this novel, Tom Perrotta made a fine case for embracing sprawling fictional worlds that employ “the whole realist bag of tricks.” Tolstoy, wherever he is, is most definitely celebrating this pronouncement.

When you read articles online these days and then click over to the comments, most of them are angry and, in a lot of cases, downright rude. This is why it was nothing short of heartening to read this article–about learning new skills as you age–and then find that the comments, rather than embrace vitriolic troll-manship, were a celebration of achievement later in life: playing the mandolin, taking ballet at 60, becoming a lawyer at 61, learning to juggle. Three cheers for aging gracefully!

I am not militant feminist, but it might just be time for an honest conversation about what it means to carry the “woman card.”

Lies, hysteria and the Zika virus: a reason to embrace the genetically modified mosquito (I, personally, am all for it).

I have often been perplexed by Girls even as I avidly watch it. The episodes in Japan this past season were not only stunning, but they also perfectly capture the strangeness of what it means to be a foreigner living in Japan. But as much as I loved these, I found myself wanting to turn away every time Hannah Horvath came on the screen and exhibited her inherent selfishness. There is something about this character that, for better or for worse, presses the buttons of most viewers

I covet lots of silly things (newly released copper Vitamixescookbooks devoted to Roman cuisine, beautiful pottery that is made by hands more skilled than my own), but when I realized that Moleskine came out with a pen and notebook that magically transforms your scribbles into digital text, I literally squealed with joy. For anybody who has ever painstakingly transcribed notes, isn’t this the most amazing invention ever? Most definitely better than a Vitamix. 
While I appreciate new technology a la Moleskine’s new notebook, I find other new forms of technology, like fertility trackers, to be taking it all one step too far. Knowledge may be power, but don’t they also say ignorance is bliss? Plus, do women really want this information falling into the wrong hands (and digital information always falls into the wrong hands…eventually)? 
Reasons to reconsider bleached cake flour (complete with scientific explanations; this link is courtesy of the Greek).
We live in a strange world, one so strange that a small internet sensation might involve a naked guinea pig (possibly one of the cutest things ever) posing with his favorite foods. Just think of this as the obvious next step for lovers of cute cat videos. 
The appeal of Game of Thrones.

This article, in a nutshell, discussed many of my current favorite TV shows: The Good Wife, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Jane the Virgin, even Madam Secretary (the least clever and most mainstream of them all, but still a solid network drama in the age of disappearing network dramas).

On this blog, I have preached for many years about the glories of two female-driven shows, Borgen and The Good Wife. The latter came to an end this past Sunday and, quite frankly, I am torn about the final episode. On the one hand, I found myself captivated by its final moments; on the other, I couldn’t believe that this was deemed an acceptable end and mainly because it appeared to be a whole new beginning (as somebody who didn’t even write a conclusion to her dissertation, I understand the inherent difficulty of crafting an ending after years of investment and know that I should not judge). These two reviews (do not click on them if you are invested in the show and have not seen the final episode), the first wholly negative and the second more forgiving, yet disappointed, capture my two states of mind on the episode.  And, with that, a cultural phenomenon comes to a close.

Kabocha, Olive Oil and Bittersweet Chocolate Cake 

serves 6-8 generously
adapted from the Gjelina 

One of the things I most loved most about baking this cake was its reinforcement of my understanding that, just like the bag of all-purpose King Arthur flour tells me, 1/4 cup of flour equals approximately 30 grams, not 25, which tends to be the standard in most baking books. This conversion allows me to easily substitute flours like spelt or buckwheat, which, at least in the world of Bob’s Red Mill, also weigh 30 g per 1/4 cup. For this cake, I swapped out one half cup (60 grams) of all-purpose for spelt and mainly because I find that it’s nice to vary things up a little; it also adds a little more fiber and nutrients to my baking, meaning that, when I inevitably eat a slice of cake for breakfast, I can comfort myself with the thought of “whole grains.” 
       I also, because I knew that this might make an appearance at breakfast, decided to use only two tablespoons of olive oil in the glaze, which didn’t affect the texture at all. It was still smooth and glossy, with what the cookbook calls “the viscosity of honey.” 
       To make this cake, it isn’t necessary to roast a kabocha squash, puree it and then let the pureed squash drain overnight (or for up to 4 hours)–plain old canned pumpkin puree will suffice–but it certainly adds a unique flavor and an added sense of accomplishment. 
       A final note: while the baking time for this cake is a suggested 75-90 minutes, my cake took only an hour to bake. That said, my oven here in Delaware tends to run hot. But I would still suggest that you start checking the cake at 60 minutes; you don’t want to over bake this one. 
For the cake: 
One 1-pound (455 grams) kabocha squash, seeded
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil (255 ml), plus more for drizzling 
1 cup (120 grams) all-purpose flour + 1/2 cup (60 grams) spelt flour OR 1 1/2 cups (180 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1 1/3 cups (265 grams) granulated sugar
3 large eggs 
8 ounces (230 grams) bittersweet (60% and up) chocolate, finely chopped
3 tablespoons pepitas, toasted
For the olive oil glaze: 
1 1/4 cups (150 g) confectioners’ sugar, sifted, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons hot water, plus more as needed (the texture may need to be adjusted)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 
2 tablespoons crushed cacao nibs (optional), or finely grated dark chocolate (also optional)
Preheat the oven to 425 F.  Place the squash halves on a baking sheet, drizzle them with olive oil and turn them cut-size down. Roast until very soft and beginning to caramelize around the edges, 30-45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool, then spoon out the squash flesh and place it in a food processor. Pulse until smooth. 
Place the pureed squash in a large piece of cheesecloth and wrap it into a tight bundle. Place the bundle in a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl and let drain overnight or for up to 4 hours. Squeeze and twist the cheesecloth to remove any extra water (I had about 1/2-2/3 cups of liquid from the pureed squash). Measure out 1 cup (225 grams) of the pureed squash. If there is not enough, feel free to augment the pureed kabocha squash with canned pumpkin puree; if there is extra, store it in the fridge for up to 5 days. 
Preheat the oven to 325 F and butter a 9×5-inch loaf pan. 
Sift the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt into a large bowl. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the sugar, olive oil, squash puree and eggs. After making a well in the center of the flour mixture, pour in the wet ingredients and whisk until just combined. Then, stir the chopped chocolate into the batter. 
Pour the batter into the prepared ban and bake until browned on top and a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 60 to 75 minutes (depending on your oven, the cake might need to bake for as long as 90 minutes; as per the instructions in the headnote, start checking your cake at 60 minutes). 
Let the cake cool for 20 minutes in the pan on a rack, then run a knife around the edges and invert the cake onto the rack. Let cool for another 20 minutes. Transfer to a serving plate. 
While the cake is cooling, toast the pepitas in a small pan for 3-5 over medium heat. Set aside and let cool. 
Using a small bowl, sift the confectioners’ sugar with 2 tablespoons of hot water until a smooth and thick glaze forms. Add more sugar or hot water as needed; the viscosity should resemble honey. Whisking constantly, drizzle in the olive oil. 
Once the cake has completely cooled, pour the glaze over it, allowing it to drip over the sides. Decorate with the pepitas and cacao nibs (or finely grated dark chocolate, which is what I had on hand), if using. Let the glaze settle before serving. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s