It began, as distress often does, on Sunday night when I should have been watching Homeland and going to sleep early. Instead, I was on the internet when I came across a gorgeous apartment only to look up from the laptop and see my own decidedly less gorgeous apartment sprawled out before me, and said, as I have a zillion Sunday nights before this one, “Why is this place such a MESS?” And continued, “Alex, look at this apartment on the web. Why can’t we do this? We have these to-do piles everywhere and whole weekends pass and we never get to them and uuuugh.” And my husband, he of few words but exceptional insight, said “We went to the Museum of Natural History today.”
And then the obviousness of it hit me. It is amazing how easy it is to look around and react with frustration and stress, and so much harder to remember that, duh, the second we have free time that could feasibly be spent dealing with that pile of unfiled preschool art projects, weeding out the chipped glassware, steam-cleaning the carpets, hanging those pictures on the wall, we’d rather do anything else in the world. This is us; we chose this. We decided a long time ago to actively, consciously do everything in our power to keep our weekends clear of work and tedious tasks so that we may enjoy them as a family; to mentally sign off for 48 hours, so that on Monday, when real life returned, we’d be ready for it. The upside of this is that I love our weekends [our general rule is that we either must leave the city for a while or stay in it, but pretend to be tourists -- Central Park and museums and ice-skating and hot cocoa]; the downside is that our home doesn’t look the way I want it to, as it hasn’t yet learned to fix itself up in our absence (rude).
Obviously, this is not to say that people with exceptionally pretty homes have weird priorities or no fun at all (they’re no doubt better at time management than we are, or less lazy), nor does it mean that because goofed off this weekend, we live in a sty*. Like I forewarned, this isn’t going to seem earth-shattering to most people. But since this clicked in my head on Sunday, I’ve found a delicious patch of mental calm, remembering that life as we know it is often the result a series of choices we’d make again in a heartbeat [indeed, I just auditioned this conversation with myself: "Deb, should we hang find a better place for those table panels this weekend?" "Meh, I was hoping we could walk over the Brooklyn Bridge." See? I did it again.] thus we might as well embrace it in all of its imperfect glory.
This is less difficult to do when the “imperfect glory” in question is cake-shaped. I spent last week reconsidering Thanksgiving classics I’d regarded thus far with a healthy dose of skepticism, things like green bean casseroles and breakfast stuffing. I knew it was time to find a level of acceptance for the strangest of American Thanksgiving traditions, sweet potato casseroles with toasted marshmallows. I could never get my head around this dish — so sweet! so weird on a plate with turkey and gravy! — and so I just relocated it to what I consider its rightful place, the dessert table. Here, more than a pound of sweet potatoes burrow in a thick, insanely moist and lush spiced cake before being dolloped with toasted marshmallow frosting. It’s a little campy, sure, possibly outright strange (pumpkin cakes = acceptable, sweet potato cakes = suspicious seems the general logic of fall recipes) but to taste it is to hopefully be as converted as we were.
I hope that wherever you eat this week, your travels are easy, your stuffing is just the way you like it, and that you, too, enjoy your perfect-in-it’s-imperfect-glory holiday.
* I realize that I’ve probably worried some people, who now think that our apartment is crawling with vermin and dirty dishes, or that you’ll next see us on a Hoarders episode, so for the sake of honesty, here is my living room this very second, in all of its work-in-progress — thank you notes that need to be written, cookbooks that need to be read, board books that need to be packed up, crooked paintings on the wall, groceries that are waiting to be put away, piles of cookware that have spilled out of the kitchen — reality.
Thanksgiving recipes: My favorites are listed here, but if you think I’ve missed something, head to the search box (top left, under the logo) and type in the ingredient — I bet it’s here. Unless you’re looking for a whole turkey recipe… um, next year, I promise. [Thanksgiving Recipes]
Thanksgiving questions: As always, I am responding to questions left in the comments as often as possible (yesterday, I answered a record 54!), and will be checking for new comments throughout the holiday, so feel free to give me a shout if you run into trouble.
Sweet Potato Cake with Toasted Marshmallow Frosting
Please, don’t limit this cake to Thanksgiving. With or without the marshmallow frosting, this would be a fine fine layer cake (one layer is a grand 1 1/2 inches tall) for a first birthday or for that friend that insists they like pumpkin desserts but doesn’t know that they will actually prefer sweet potatoes. Why sweet potatoes? I suspect most Southerners already knew this, but they are so much better in baked goods than pumpkin, more creamy and dense, with more flavor and depth. Pumpkin is usually either often from a can of indeterminate date and origin, or has been tediously roasted and pureed and then sometimes reduced again, only to yield what (to me) often has just half the flavor of a sweet potato. Nevertheless, before it is asked, yes, you could use the equivalent amount of pumpkin puree here instead.
Serves 16 in approximately 2-inch squares
1 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes (about 2 to 3 medium or 2 large)
2 cups (250 grams) all-purpose flour
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon (more to taste) ground ginger
Two pinches (more to taste) ground cloves
1/2 cup (1 stick or 115 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup (190 grams) packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
3 large egg whites
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar (will help stabilize egg whites, don’t worry if you don’t have it)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Roast sweet potatoes: Heat oven to 375 degrees. Prick potatoes all over with a fork. Rest on a baking sheet. Roast for 45 minutes to 1 hour, turning once or twice, until soft. Let cool completely. Can be kept in fridge for up to 3 days, if baked in advance.
Make cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Line the bottom of an 8- to 9-inch square pan with parchment paper, then butter the paper and sides of the pan. [If you trust your nonstick pan, you might be able to skip the parchment, but I don't like to live on the edge when it comes to getting cakes out of a pan.]
Peel cooled sweet potatoes and run flesh through a potato ricer, or mash until very smooth. (Do not blend in a blender or food processor.) Measure 1 1/2 packed cups (about 12 to 13 ounces) from sweet potato mash; you may have a little extra, which you should warm up with a pat of butter and sprinkle of sea salt and not share with anyone.
Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices together in a medium bowl. In a large bowl, beat butter and brown sugar together with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add vanilla and eggs, and beat until just combined. Mix in sweet potato puree, then stir in dry ingredients just until they disappear.
Spread batter in prepared pan, and bake cake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 35 to 40 minutes. Let cake rest in pan for 5 minutes on a cooling rack, then invert onto cooling rack, and let cool completely. You can speed this up, as I always do, in the fridge.
Make frosting: Place egg whites, granulated sugar, a pinch of salt and cream of tartar in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of gently simmering water. Whisk mixture for 3 minutes, until whites are warmed and sugar granules feels mostly dissolved. Remove bowl from top of saucepan, then, with an electric mixer, beat egg white mixture on high speed until stiff, glossy peaks form, about 4 to 7 minutes longer. Add vanilla and mix until combined.
Frost and decorate: If you’d like to make huge, marshmallow-like dollops, spread a bit of frosting thinly over cooled sweet potato cake. Then, using a very large round piping tip (I have an almost comically large one with a 1/2-inch opening) or the corner snipped off a freezer bag, pipe large dollops of frosting all over thin frosting layer. If you’d like to skip the dollops, you can just spread the frosting, thick and swirly, all over.
Using a kitchen torch, lightly brown the dollops so that they look (and smell!) like toasted marshmallows.
Serve: At room temperature cut into squares. Cake keeps at room temperature for two days; any longer, I like to keep it in the fridge.