There is a whole catalog of cooking devoted to what to make when you peer nervously into your bank account and find the balance lacking — one could even argue that the affordable preparation and dissemination of nutrients has always been the primary goal of cooking, before we got distracted by $700 blenders and organically milled heirloom cornmeal porridge (ahem, guilty as charged). Yet what better time to celebrate meals that don’t weigh heavily on our wallets than in the hours after our annual reckoning with the IRS? From the world’s cheapest protein (eggs, crispy, scrambled, smashed and omelet-ed with potatoes), to the most humble (beans, in soup, in curries, stews and chilis) to inexpensive cuts of meat, cooked and stretched forever (in tacos, over orzo, Jewish-style or in the heartiest of soups), most of the time when we’re talking about budget cooking, we’re talking, understandably, about dinner. But one cannot survive on stews and slops alone or at least one should not be expected to in the third trimester; somewhere it is written, or at least it is now.
It has been 1 year, 6 months and 6 days since I last shared a recipe for a stacked, filled, and unconscionably indulgent layer cake on this site, an unforgivable oversight on my part. I certainly haven’t gone that long without sharing any cake recipes — I’m not a monster — but sometimes you need more than an Everyday Cake. Sometimes you need a great big celebratory ta-da in the center of your table. Sometime like now.
About six weeks ago, around 9 p.m. on a day I had consumed mostly air and maybe a slice of toast because I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how food had ever tasted good, without any warning, I wanted a slice of chocolate cake with swirls of chocolate frosting and probably some sprinkles and the sprinkles, so help them, better be rainbow. Except the word “wanted” doesn’t accurately describe the craving; it was suddenly everything. I needed a piece of chocolate cake so badly that I began to regret every cupcake shop I’d ever walked past and not gone in during the height of the mid-aughts cupcake craze. I regretted not licking every beater of chocolate buttercream that had ever crossed my path when I worked at a bakery in high school. And I regretted that when I asked my husband why we didn’t have any chocolate cake, he said “because you haven’t made any?” He was correct — I’d made them dinner, instead — and the great unraveling of all that had once been right and good but failed to lead me to chocolate cake continued.
Prior to last month, I had spent exactly zero minutes of my life thinking about date cake, craving date cake or noting the absence of date cake in my life and/or site archives. Clearly, this was a misstep on my part, but I’d always assumed they were exceedingly sticky sweet, and also, well warm. I should just stop right here rather than confessing the latest entry in How Weird Are Deb’s Food Tastes?, I know I should, but that’s never stopped me before so here goes: I’m not very into warm, quivery desserts. Like soufflés. And oozy chocolate cakes. I basically don’t understand how I survived the 90s either. I understand if this means you cannot speak to me anymore.
Not 10 seconds after I hit “publish” on Tuesday’s fall-toush salad, pretty much out of the clear blue sky, wherever it might be hiding, I simultaneously began craving carrot cake, feeling vaguely annoyed that we didn’t have any around (because I haven’t made it in six years, maybe?) and more pressingly for the breadth of this site, why I didn’t have what I’d consider a go-to recipe for the kind of hearty, craggy thud of a carrot cake loaf I want more of in my life. Sure, there’s a carrot cake cupcake/layer cake in the archives, but it’s a featherweight, for swirls of cream cheese frosting and birthday candle. I wanted breakfast/afternoon snack carrot cake, the kind that comes in thick slices and toasts well with salted butter. In my mind, they’re different. And my mind, as you can gather, ponders these things a lot.
Inadvertently, this has become Festivus week on Smitten Kitchen, wherein I air my grievances at past recipes and exhibit what I hope can be passed off as “feats of strength” in reformulating them for modern times. Still, nobody could more surprised than I am that of all the recipes in the archives, it’s Martha Stewart’s decadent chocolate babkas from seven years ago that have ended up in this queue, because at the time we found them beyond reproach: rich, buttery, crumbly and intensely chocolaty. They were precisely what we’d remembered getting from the store growing up, but better, I mean, I’d hope they’d be. Clocking in at 3/4 pound of semisweet chocolate and almost a cup of butter per loaf, the recipe in fact uses triple this (2.25 pounds of chocolate! 1.25 pounds of butter!) for three loaves. And not unlike the chicken pot pies, this, along with the messy, complicated prep, became the problem. Despite repeated requests from our families every holiday, I’ve probably only made it once since, if that. It’s all too much.
There are recipes on my Cook This list that I’ve been plotting for years but take forever to jump from that place where they’re a rough idea of how I think something might taste good and how I’ll make that happen. There are items on the list which are just the names of dishes I haven’t tried yet and want to learn more about. And there are recipes that make me kick myself every time I see them because how have we not made a good hearty tortilla soup here yet? And where is that Russian napoleon I’ve been promising you? But this here is none of the above. Exactly one month ago, someone emailed me (hi Angela!) and asked if I had ever made a German Sunken Apple Cake [which sounds even cooler in its native language: Versunkener Apfelkuchen] and I had barely finished reading the email before I had a new tab open because I had to immediately know what it was.