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A Birthday, and Cake

[Tea and cake, March 2010.]

Suddenly, it’s raining and I am drinking an americano (Blue Bottle, double shot, with cream and sugar); two things that have not occurred in awhile, March being so full lately of sun and wind. I feel my right hip aching a little as it does sometimes (an old hiking injury) when it rains but the forecast this weekend is for clear skies and I plan to throw myself out into it as much as possible. I am thinking of story ideas and upcoming spring trips to the East Coast. I am thinking about photo excursions. I am thinking about the vegetables I will roast for dinner tonight (a motley assortment of: turnips, brussels sprouts, a few potatoes, maybe something else). And I am also thinking about my friend Jessie, in England, because today is her birthday.


Jessie’s sort of the sister I never had — or at least the sister I always wished I had (with apologies to my brother; I wouldn’t trade him for anything but there is always a little wistful wondering that lingers, a secret what would it have been like, to have another girl in the family?

). We met ages ago in college and became family very quickly; I was her maid of honor when she married one of my best friends a few years (!) back and we’ve visited each other in California, Florida, and the U.K., too. We’ve taken the Greyhound from New York to DC together and little road trips to Yosemite and Cambridge besides, and used to live within walking distance of each other when we all lived in Washington (oh, those halcyon days of impromptu bbqs and Sunday night ‘Sopranos’-watching and lasanga dinners and late-night drinks at that funny basement sports bar place!). We’ve also spent countless hours drinking wine or coffee or green tea or or or in our various places of residence and never, ever tire of each other’s company.

That’s a really good friend, I think.

I used to record the dinner parties I cooked (and in fact am trying to revive this little tradition) and have just found the writing-up I did for her birthday party five years ago today:

Last night: huge, gorgeous birthday dinner for wonderful friend J. 10 people for food, and I of course made so much, but, surprisingly, there were not too many leftovers. After the standard apps [note, 2010: I would guess this was hummus, a cheese plate, probably olives], there was: sweet potato soup, garnished with lemon, bien sur; black lentils with garlic, carrots, red pepper, tomato and pearl onions; tuna steak (just a pound) with tomato basil sauce; roasted curried cauliflower; steamed asparagus with lemon; hummus and pita; spinach salad with almonds and a yummy, simple lemon dressing. The cake wasn’t as good as other times, but there was ice cream, too, and champagne and wine.

I wish I could see her today — I’d definitely cook dinner again (although this time I might roast, rather than steam, the asparagus. It’s much better that way.) Instead, given that whole many-thousands-of-miles thing between San Francisco, Calif. and Beckenham, U.K., I can only offer a piece of virtual cake.

However, it’s very good piece of cake.


Now: this cake. I baked it the other night for a dinner party; as sometimes happens, I got it into my head that a cornmeal-based cake would be just the thing. No matter that I love chocolate with a true and steady heart — I guess I felt like a change from my standard (if delicious) rotation of chocolate cakes, brownies, and cookies. Plus, a cornmeal cake with whipped cream and fruit seems to signal spring, no matter I seriously considered wearing my winter coat on the walk over to my friend’s apartment because it was so chilly (instead: a fleece + down vest did the trick, and nicely).

I’ve certainly made cornmeal-based cakes before, mostly in the form of shortcakes served with fresh berries picked from the blackberry bush in my parents’ backyard or sliced strawberries in season, always with lots of whipped cream, and I’ve definitely baked my fair share of cornbread for muffins and stuffing. But I’ve never hit on the perfect cornmeal-cake recipe until now.

I think the secret here is in the sour cream, and the crunchy crust of caramelized sugar. My tried-and-true cornbread recipe calls for buttermilk but I think if you’re going for a richer, more dessert-y flavor, the sour cream (and butter) is what you need. I didn’t, after all, want this cake to taste too much like cornbread — a hint of cornbread was more like it — as I wanted it to be a proper dessert (the vanilla helps with this, too). As is usual when I try a new recipe I was tentative about the results — nothing like blindly trusting things will come out to rights — especially because the cake, to be honest, emerges from the oven a bit homely and plain. But it smelled delicious nevertheless from the butter and vanilla, and I picked up some heavy cream and strawberries to go alongside (and err, to pretty it up a little bit).

And, you know, sometimes blindly trusting is not so bad at all. We all devoured this cake (generously swiping the strawberries through that pile of delicious whipped cream) and some of us even had seconds (some of us even ate a piece for pre-breakfast the next morning). It was perfect for March: sweet but not-too, with that crunchy cap of sugar on top, slightly gritty from the cornmeal but not in an unpleasant way, run through with good butter and vanilla, tender from the sour cream. Definitely a recipe for the ‘save for many future references’ files.

This cake may not be fancy — it’s not chocolate after all, which always seems to me the only thing for a proper celebration — but it’s a lot like Jessie: straightforward, unexpectedly delicious, sweet, and true. I’d serve it to her or any March baby with absolute confidence. Of course, it’s a lovely pre-breakfast snack as well (or so I’ve, um, heard).

Happy birthday, dearest friend. I miss you.


, adapted from epicurious.com

1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 tablespoons finely grated orange peel
1 cup sugar

2 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons sugar (I used organic sugar I buy in bulk from my organic market; I think turbinado would also work well)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch cake pan with 2-inch-high sides (I used a springform cake pan). Dust pan with cornmeal, tapping out excess.

Sift flour, 1/2 cup cornmeal, baking powder, and salt into medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until smooth and fluffy. Beat in orange peel. Gradually add one cup sugar and beat until light and fluffy, occasionally scraping sides of bowl. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in sour cream and vanilla. Fold in dry ingredients in three additions until just incorporated.

Transfer batter to pan; smooth top. Sprinkle with crushed sugar.

Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan on rack 10 minutes. Run knife around pan sides to loosen. Turn cake out onto plate, then invert, crushed sugar side up, onto rack. Cool completely.

Serve with freshly whipped cream and fruit.


  1. I tend to make cakes for my husband that I would really want made for me and am trying to rectify that; he absolutely adores cornmeal baked goods, so this just might do the trick. (And I get the impression it will still be a cake I’d like made for me, but I’ll keep that part a secret.) Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. I’ve long loved cornmeal in a cake, but that dollop of sour cream sounds fabulous. Will give this a go, thanks.

  3. Thank you my darling! You were definitely missed in last night’s celebration! I toasted to my lovely best friend in California with too many vodka tonics to count and wished you were here! Tonight is dinner in Covent Garden at the same restaurant Samer took me to, Belgo, for a Belgian feast of mussels and frites and many many delicious beers!

    I miss you so much!

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