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At the Weekend

[Dinner Saturday night, in the backyard, June 2009.]

Craisglist is many things to many people — classified ads, a place to find a language partner or track down that person with whom you made eyes on the bus, volunteer opportunities — and it’s always been very good to me. I’ve gotten a few jobs, even a freelance gig or two, and the sweetest, most light-filled apartment in which I’ve ever lived. But I think the best thing craigslist has ever given me is my book group.

Oh, my book group. It’s hard to believe we’ve known each other for three years now — and that we were all strangers before this funny thing that is the Internet connected us. Sometimes things happen and you feel like they worked out for the best and thus are grateful and sometimes they happen inexplicably well, almost as if they were meant to be, and those are the very best times of all. Pretty much in those instances you just have to take a deep breath and don’t ask too many questions; it’s too good, you see, to over analyze.

[At Kunde, June 2009.]

My little book group falls into this latter category. When we met up at a cafe in Hayes Valley lo those many years ago we were all taking a chance: What if we don’t like each other? I’m sure many of us were thinking. Hey, I don’t even know these people! It was like one big blind date. It may have even been awkward (I can’t exactly remember now, because I was in a haze of jetlag and the one beer I had probably put me over the edge). But when I arrived late to our first ‘official’ meeting — work had been excruciating — and my new friend immediately poured me a large glass of wine (You need it, she said) I knew I was exactly where I belonged.

[Champagne at Gloria Ferrer, June 2009.]

One of the nicest things — and there are so many — about this group is that we all have eclectic tastes in books. This of course makes for interesting reading: I’ve read books I might never have heard of otherwise and even if I haven’t loved each one it’s always good to try something new. We do seem to have a penchant for memoir (“Dry,” by Augusten Burroughs, was last month’s selection and which I highly recommend) and the occasional light reading slips in every so often (not a bad thing, though “He’s Just not that Into You” maybe wasn’t liked so awfully well) to mix things up. Next month we’re reading Jon Krakauer’s excellent “Under the Banner of Heaven” — so you see what I mean about ‘eclectic taste.’

[In the vineyard, Kunde, June 2009.]

Another nice thing is that we all like to hang out and drink wine and eat good food and not only when we meet for our monthly book-chats (‘book group’, you see, is just two words stuck next to each other by now — it’s really so much more). So in part because of this we decided to celebrate three years going with a weekend in Sonoma County — what better place? Unfortunately the whole gang couldn’t come along (and they were missed!) but the five of us who made it definitely drank enough wine and ate enough cheese to compensate for their absence. Really all we wanted to do was to cook a bit, sleep in a bit, wine-taste a bit, and relax — truly the only way to spend a weekend out of town.

And so we did all of these things.

[Sonoma County, June 2009.]

I grew up in Sonoma County so I’m biased I know. Oh, I love Marin too (though I must admit I’m partial mostly to its western environs) with its tucked-away beaches and wide expanses of grass overlooking Tomales Bay, but the air where I’m from is different. It’s fresher somehow than in the city, touched less with sea-breeze because it’s a little further inland and so you get more of the smell of fields and earth (and the occasional whiff from the cows). Napa is crammed with lots of good wineries and pretty views but if I had to choose I’d go to the aptly named “Valley of the Moon,” waving to Jack London State Park along the way.

(So, lucky me.)

It was a lovely weekend, sun-filled and sparkling. At Gloria Ferrer — reached at last after careening around the back roads not lost necessarily just not exactly finding it for awhile — we sat in the sun sipping champagne and devouring cheese and hazelnut-cranberry crackers and the appropriately named “Dirty Martini Dip.” We looked over the brown hills and talked of weddings and sustainably grown food and baked goods and wine and maybe even a book or two, the breeze warm and sweet against bare arms. It was so nice to be outside we skipped the tour and ordered another bottle instead: definitely the right choice.

Back home there was lots of cooking of course: breakfasts of scrambled eggs with fresh herbs and feta, french toast made from the bits of leftover baguette, roasted potatoes drizzled with olive oil and rosemary, blueberry-buttermilk cake, a decadent fruit salad, lots of coffee. We ate every meal in the backyard, listening to the birds and cajoling the neighbor’s cats to visit.

Saturday night we landed up ’round 6:30 starving and in need of more wine so we all just set to it in the kitchen. I love that my parents’ kitchen — all granite counters and room to breathe — is large enough to do that; in my apartment kitchen two feels like a crowd (unless, of course, you’re close

) and I usually end up doing most of the cooking myself just because it’s easier. But there’s something inexplicably sweet about cooking with others, especially when they’re such good cooks and love food as much as you do.

While I swirled chard (that I didn’t have to chop — fantastique!) with red onion and feta someone opened a bottle of wine, someone else sliced bread and plated up the cheese, somehow the table was set without my noticing, and it all came together in a flash.

We ate

cheeses and hummus, with bread

big green salad with home made bread crumbs
penne with chard, feta, and toasted pine nuts

which was simple and satisfying and just right.

[Dinner, June 2009.]

Oh, delicious weekends! Why-ever must you pass so quickly? I’m left this morning wondering where my breakfast mimosa has hidden itself and cursing the infernal fog that once again has blanketed San Francisco. I’m already homesick for those few days and would like some more very soon, thank you.

I’m also missing a slice of the cake I baked — a riff on the berry-buttermilk cake published in last month’s Gourmet and which my friend took home the last slices of. It’s a perfect breakfast nibble, laced with buttermilk and rife with berries but not overly sweet. I would argue it’s best enjoyed outside in the sun with friends but you could also, say, make it for Father’s Day brunch or pack it up and take it with you to work for a mid-morning snack or or or. Pretty much it’s quintessential summer in a baked good and makes me think of early mornings hiking out along a sea-trail or a lazy afternoon canoeing on the Russian River, trailing fingers and toes in the warm water.

Well, it’s very good at any rate. I think I might have to bake another this weekend to herald the true start to summer — sun not required (but, please, so appreciated).

Blueberry Buttermilk Cake, adapted from Gourmet, June 2009
The original recipe calls for raspberries but I substituted blueberries because I didn’t have any … next time.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 stick unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 large egg
1/2 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 cup fresh raspberries (about 5 oz)

Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle. Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Beat butter and 2/3 cup sugar with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes, then beat in vanilla. Add egg and beat well.

At low speed, mix in flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour, and mixing until just combined.

Spoon batter into cake pan, smoothing top. Scatter raspberries evenly over top and sprinkle with remaining 1 1/2 Tbsp sugar.

Bake until cake is golden and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack and cool to warm, 10 to 15 minutes more. Invert onto a plate.


  1. That penne looks to die for. I have been telling myself to take the plunge and finally cook with greens like chard for months, now might finally be the time. And I’ll confess, I don’t know that I would have noticed the blueberry cake in Gourmet if I hadn’t seen it here first.

    I enjoy your blog. Just started reading a few weeks ago.

  2. I had intended to make this last night, but was too tired by the time the butter softened. However, I woke up early this morning, and so decided to make the cake before heading in to work (I guess that is the upside of needing to move your car for street cleaning at 6am).
    What a yummy way to start the day, plus I have more waiting for me when I get home!

  3. My daughter and I made your cake last night. We seem to be on a late afternoon baking binge. Odd, as we approach the first official days of summer. But, fitting as there suddenly seems to be an extra hour of afternoon, just waiting to be filled. Though, it’s hard to tell if the extra boost of heat in the house is really warranted.
    Still, the cake was especially easy and my daughter suggested we make a runny lemon icing, which firmed up nicely as we finally sat to enjoy a slice while thumbing through her yearbook at nine o’clock at night, on the eve of the last-day-of-first-grade. Thank you for posting this perfect recipe, Nicole.

  4. to dream to dream! i will just make some blueberry buttermilk cake and imagine myself at the magical “bookclub”.

  5. I was eying that recipe too, with the wonderful blueberries I have in my freezer. We must be on the same wavelength!

    ps the penne dish looks sublime.

  6. Oh, that all looks and sounds so perfect!

    And as someone who has made some friends thanks to the dear old Internet herself, I understand where you’re coming from. It’s fascinating!

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