And Introducing: The Wedding Cake (and the Cookie it Came From)

Raspberry-Marsala Cupcakes with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

It all started, fittingly, with a cookie.

It was early spring in 1998 and I had been hitchhiking along the west coast of Ireland, trying to reach my destination, a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center on the remote and windswept Beara peninsula, before nightfall. The center was home to a friendly hostel, so I’d been told, and a killer view over Bantry Bay. After getting a ride most of the way I’d had to trudge the final mile or so on foot, the weather getting grayer and drizzlier by the step. Luckily I’d thought ahead and called to reserve for a bed, however the man I’d spoken to on the phone had given me a bizarre condition: I was welcome to stay at the hostel as long as I understood that I wouldn’t be able to speak the entire weekend. He explained that the majority of other hostel guests would be attending a silence retreat. I hesitated a moment and then agreed; a weekend of silence and contemplation might not be bad for me either.

By the time I reached the hostel, a converted farmhouse perched precariously on a coastal cliff, it was getting dark and I hadn’t seen a soul on the property. I entered through what looked like the front door and found myself in a large living room, lit by a fire in one corner and completely empty except for a young man with short blond hair and glasses who was drinking a cup of tea and reading a book in front of the fire. Remembering the vow of silence that he may have taken (for I certainly didn’t know who was a retreat participant and who not), I stood there awkwardly, not knowing even where to put my backpack. He looked up and smiled warmly.

“Are you here to stay at the hostel? The warden will be back in a minute. Here, I’ll make you a cup of tea. Want a cookie?”

He jumped up and held out his package of McVitte’s digestive biscuits. Shrugging off my backpack and plopping down on the couch, I gratefully took one and said how glad I was to find someone still talking. He laughed and told me the silence-retreatants were out at a session and would be back in a couple of hours. Not having anything else to do until the warden arrived, I settled in with the cookies and the tea and started to get to know this friendly and generous fellow. He told me he was German, despite his curiously Spanish name and complete lack of accent, and that he had lived in Bulgaria for several years but that Ireland was really his favorite country. It turned out we had both ended up quite by chance at this hostel; he’d had the place recommended to him by some Swiss tourists who’d given him a ride earlier in the week, and I’d recently met someone in Dublin, where I was studying at the time, who had raved about it. It seemed both of us had decided to come out here on a sudden impulse, thinking it had sounded like a relaxing place to spend the current three-day weekend.

It wasn’t too long before the silence-retreatants returned and we had to stop the conversation. Manuel got up and signalled that he was going to cook his dinner in the hostel kitchen; I figured I’d wait until he was done to make mine, and opened a book. A few minutes later there was a whisper in my ear.

“Why don’t you come have some spaghetti with me?”

Before I knew what I was doing I was declining; I’d shopped carefully for the three nights I would be there and had exactly enough food to last me if I ate what I had brought. He looked crestfallen. “But I really made too much. It’ll just go to waste if you don’t help.” Something about his tone must have told me that it wasn’t only about the waste of food, so I accepted and joined him for his meal of spaghetti and reconstituted tomato sauce. We went outside so that we could continue our conversation while we ate; I can’t remember any of what we talked about but somehow it was 4 a.m. before I managed to get into bed. The next night was the same, only I cooked, and again it was nearly morning by the time my head hit the pillow.

Without realizing it the three days we had both been planning to stay became five, and five became eight. My missed classes were the furthest thing from my mind; I nearly even forgot to call my flatmates and let them know I hadn’t fallen off a cliff. Manuel and I were together every minute; we’d been to town and shopped together and spent every night working together to see what we could create from the limited supplies in the tiny Irish supermarket. I found myself amazed at how open-minded he was about food – anything I suggested he would agree with heartily and eat with pleasure, and my then-vegetarianism, a source of consternation for many people, didn’t faze him in the least. Before long it was clear to both of us that something more than a hostelling friendship had been sparked, and night by night it grew stronger as we huddled over the ancient stove together.

About six and a half years later, and exactly one year ago today, I married that friendly guy who welcomed me into the hostel with a cookie. It was a small and intimate affair with our closest family and friends at the beautiful Molly Ward Gardens in Poulsbo, Washington, and to make life easier on ourselves we let the wonderful owners of the venue take care of everything from the flowers to the food. Something in me just couldn’t let them do everything, however, and in spite of the numerous warnings from well-meaning friends, relatives and magazines that making a cake is the last thing a bride needs to worry about, I insisted I would do it. After all, it just didn’t seem right that we should celebrate our relationship without celebrating the act of creating, preparing and sharing something delicious that had brought us together so many years ago.

Happy Anniversary, my darling. Here’s to many, many more decades of sharing and preparing delicious things together.

Cutting the cupcake: “If you cut any deeper, my dear, you will have a one-handed husband!”

The Wedding Cake(s)
Raspberry Marsala Cupcakes with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

The inspiration for this cake came from the June 2004 issue of Bon Appétit, which had as its cover recipe a beautiful tower of rose-decorated cupcakes. I discovered this is definitely the easiest option for a homemade wedding cake, as there is no stress with balancing layers and supports and they can easily be made ahead of time and frozen until needed. Most of the things you need to make the tower (waxed cardboard rounds, plastic support legs and ribbon) you can find in any baking or craft shop; I stumbled across a site on the internet that sold the entire thing as a kit, including the tiny gold-etched mini pannettone wrappers that elevate these to far beyond normal cupcakes. In any case, give yourself a good two days for making the stand and multiple batches of the cake and frosting – if you’re doing it as a wedding cake, that is. If not, give yourself about an hour!

Serves: about 10, multiply recipe as needed (I multiplied by four for my needs)
Cake source: based on this recipe from Bon Appétit (see their directions if you want to make it as a single cake)
Frosting source: based on this recipe from Bon Appétit

For raspberry marsala cake:
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup sweet Marsala
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
2 cups fresh raspberries

For white chocolate cream cheese frosting:
4 ounces high quality white chocolate (such as Lindt or Perugina), finely chopped 
1 1/2 8-oz packages cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/4 cups (packed) powdered sugar (about one-third of a pound or 150 grams) 
1 cup chilled heavy whipping cream

Edible organic flowers, for decoration

Special equipment: mini pannettone cake molds, available from many cookware stores or online

To make cake: Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375°F. Place ten pannettone molds on a baking tray and spray nonstick cooking spray (or grease lightly). Whisk first 5 ingredients in medium bowl to blend. Combine Marsala and orange juice in small bowl. Beat butter and sugar in large bowl until well blended. Beat in eggs, vanilla, and lemon peel. Beat in Marsala mixture in 2 additions alternately with flour mixture in 3 additions. Transfer batter to prepared cups. Sprinkle evenly with 2 cups raspberries.

Bake cake until top of cakes are golden and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 15-20 minutes. Remove from baking sheet and cool on rack. Cool to room temperature (can be made one day ahead and kept at room temperature or frozen for up to a month).

To make frosting: place chocolate in top of double boiler set over barely simmering water. Stir just until chocolate is melted, smooth, and just warm (do not overheat); remove from over water. Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese in large bowl until fluffy. Beat in half of sugar, then the warm chocolate. Beat cream and remaining sugar in medium bowl until medium-firm peaks form. Fold into cream cheese mixture in 3 additions. Cover; chill. Refrigerate frosting at least 6 hours and up to 4 days.

On day of serving, spread cakes with frosting and decorate with edible organic flowers, if desired.

Photos © 2004 Isabel Gates. See her wonderful work at (clicking on ‘gallery’ and ‘weddings’ will show you a couple more from our wedding).

Fashionable Flowers and Squash Blossom Soup

Squash Blossom and Gruyere Soup with Herb and Pinenut-Stuffed Blossom Garnish

Have you ever noticed how food, like clothing, is subject to the same endlessly cyclical tides of popularity? Have you seen how ingredients can languish in obscurity for decades, only to burst onto the scene again in such a chorus of fanfare you’d think they had just been discovered? Think of what was wildly popular a decade or two ago: I remember it like yesterday when everyone was getting excited about sundried tomatoes, heart-healthy sauces and ‘California Cuisine’. Bet you haven’t encountered any of these in a memorable restaurant meal recently. Now think of ponzu, verjus and viande sous vide. There doesn’t seem to be a cutting-edge chef in the world who isn’t playing with these in the moment, at least if Gourmet is to be believed. The funny thing is that as sure as dinner follows lunch, within another few decades people will be turning up their noses at ponzu and once again adorning their filet mignons with sundried tomatoes. This exercise in collective amnesia is nothing to lament, in opinion, it’s just the way things work in trends of all kinds, foods being no exception.

Another good case in point is undoubtedly our recent obsession with squash blossoms. I could swear that up until a few short years ago, I had never so much as heard that zucchinis had blossoms, let alone seen them in food. People who grew zucchini or summer squash in their gardens knew that come summer they’d simply have a glut of vegetables that they’d have to unload on unsuspecting friends and neighbors lest they drown under the weight of this prolific crop. No one considered harvesting those little orange blossoms that appeared just before the squash and making dinner out of them instead. Some time during the last five years, however, squash blossoms have been ‘discovered’, and now it’s hard to ignore them. Squash blossoms are suddenly turning up in everything from fritters to pasta, salad to omelettes, soup to preserves. If you’re slightly less plugged in to the changing fates of foodstuffs you might be forgiven for thinking humans had just discovered squash blossoms are edible, which couldn’t actually be further from the truth.

In fact squash blossoms have been adorning homosapiens’ dinner plates for just as long, if not longer, than their more famous vegetable by-product. Like all squashes, zucchini and summer squash are native to the Americas, and both they and their blossoms have been used extensively in indigenous Central American cuisine for millennia. You will still find the squash blossom making starring appearances in modern Mexican cuisine – it goes under the name flor de calabaza and finds its way into soups, quesadillas and salads, not to mention giving chiles and tortillas a run for their money as a favorite envelope for fillings.  Interestingly enough, when the Europeans first observed the indigenous Americans eating squash, it was not the vegetables that caught their attention, but the blossoms. Soon after Columbus returned to Europe zucchini found their way to Italy, where they found instant popularity – as decorative garden plants, to be precise. Italians loved the vibrant and sensual blossoms these new plants produced, and kept them for ornamental purposes long before they discovered that any part of the plant was edible. Luckily for us, the Italians were intrepid gastronomes and soon discovered that just about everything the plant produced was edible – and went on to concoct a whole range of dishes showcasing the delicate and earthy flavor of the beautiful blossoms.

Though slow to catch on in the U.S., squash blossoms are turning up more and more frequently on the hottest restaurant menus in the country. Unfortunately, they can be tricky to track down for the home cook because of the difficulty in bringing them to market – they’re just too fragile. In fact, unless you have a garden of your own, you may never be able to taste them at their absolute prime, which is reported to be within four hours of harvest. If you have access to a good farmer’s market, however, you’ll probably be able to get your hands on decent ones, which if you rush home and keep refrigerated will last up to a day. I was so excited by finding them at the Pike Place organic market that I didn’t hesitate to buy a huge sackful, imagining a myriad of exotic things I was going to do with them. What I didn’t do was stop to consider what eight hours spent in a backpack on a hot summer day would do. When I finally opened my bag at home that night I was dismayed to find that those poor blossoms were looking decidedly less crisp and vibrant than they had when I’d made my menu plans. Not to be completely defeated, however, I came up with a use for them that didn’t depend so much on their freshness – I made a fragrant and delicate cream soup that beautifully set off their spicy floral fragrance against the rich nuttiness of gruyere cheese. And while the soup was delicious, the most incredible thing was imagining how the taste of these trendy little flowers have been amazing people already for hundreds of generations – not a bad track record for the ingredient no one had heard of ten years ago.

So get ahold of some squash blossoms while you can – no one known when the winds of fashion will blow them back into obscurity. But even if you miss them this time, they’ll undoubtedly be around again – and as long as being fashionable is so delicious, I’m more than happy to wait for their return.

Squash Blossom and Gruyere Soup with Herb and Pinenut-Stuffed Blossom Garnish
Serves: 6

For soup:
about 1 lb. squash blossoms
1 small onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons butter
4 cups light vegetable or chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup shredded gruyere cheese
salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste

For garnish:
6 large unblemished squash blossoms, prickly stems and interior pistils removed
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated
a handful chopped fresh herbs: basil, thyme, tarragon, sage, rosemary
1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper

chopped fresh herbs, for garnish

Prepare the blossoms by cutting off the prickly stems and removing the yellow pistils from inside each flower. Chop coarsely. In a large heavy pot, sauté the diced onion and garlic in the butter over medium heat until the onion is soft and translucent but has not started to brown. Stir in the chopped squash blossoms, and sauté for a minute or two until they wilt. Stir in the stock, and let simmer for about 20 minutes, until everything is soft. Puree the mixture, either by using an immersion blender or in batches in a blender. Return the soup to the pot and stir in the cream and gruyere cheese, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm without boiling until ready to serve.

For garnish, combine the ricotta with the parmesan and herbs. This part can be done in advance. Just before serving, stir in the pine nuts so they don’t get soggy. Season the mixture to taste, and stuff each of the reserved whole blossoms with a spoonful of the mixture. Float the blossoms on the soup and sprinkle with chopped fresh herbs. Serve immediately.

Note: This soup is also excellent cold.

Home Sweet Home with a Rainier Cherry-Almond Gratin

Rainier Cherry-Almond Gratin 

Being asked by well-meaning strangers where home is for me is one of the more difficult questions I regularly encounter. Having spent good portions of my life living in places as diverse as Spain, California, New Orleans, Ireland and Germany, it’s sometimes hard for me to pin down that elusive concept of ‘home’ others bandy about so freely. I can easily tell people where I was born, where I’ve studied, where I lived then and where I live now, but home? It’s hard to say. If home is where the heart is, my home is obviously in Scotland at the present. However, if home is the place where you feel most peaceful, content and connected with the world, the place you feel you would rather be most any time of the year and the place whose produce you would be happy eating each and every day of your life to the exclusion of all else, then without a doubt I am a Pacific Northwesterner through and through.

Of course it helps that this is where my family still lives, so coming back to Washington year after year gives me a sense of continuity and belonging I don’t have anywhere else. Since I first left home eleven years ago to become an exchange student it’s become a place synonymous with rest, relaxation and escape from the rigors of ‘real life’, wherever that real life may be taking place. But sometimes the depth of my attachment to the Northwest surprises even me. Year after year I feel a tension building up the longer I am away, a tension that reaches its crescendo as my parents relate the improving weather of spring and tales of the first flowers and strawberries, a tension which miraculously melts into relief the moment I step off the plane into the warm Northwest sunshine and realize not too much has changed in my absence. I find myself relieved that the landscape is still so beautiful and the summer still so benign, relieved that Seattle is still so exciting and the view I wake up to still so awe-inspiring. And of course I’m relieved that the same cornucopia of beautiful ingredients are still coming into their fullness year after year just as I arrive for my visit.

I took the ferry into Seattle yesterday in order to go to the Pike Place Market, a place you should never ever visit on a summer weekend but on a weekday is just possible if you’ve learned the technique of navigating around the tourist roadblocks. I specifically wanted to go yesterday because of a new attraction at the market on Wednesdays: organic produce. In addition to all of the market’s usual sellers, a special section has been set up in the open air along Pike Place, where sellers from all corners of Washington come once a week to sell their organic bounty. The prices are great, the selection impressive, and the quality and freshness impeccable. I had picked up a bagful of zucchini blossoms, a couple pounds of assorted heirloom plums, juicy apricots and salad greens, when I stumbled upon two things that sweetened my homecoming. The first was organic Red Haven peaches from Rama Farm in Bridgeport. Let me tell you something – if you live in or near Seattle, run, don’t walk, to the market next Wednesday – I don’t care if you have to take the day off work to do it – and buy these peaches. They are the best peaches I have ever eaten, hands down. Eating the first one as I ambled along the waterfront, juice gushing down my chin and all over my shirt, I could barely keep my eyes focused ahead of me, such was the tendency for them to roll back into my head in ecstasy. Before I knew it I had eaten half my purchase, so I hiked back up to the market to buy some more before it closed (and unsuccessfully begged Rick, the friendly peach-seller, to consider shipping to Scotland while I was at it). I briefly considered doing something blog-worthy with those peaches, but could think of nothing that would do them more justice than eating them exactly as they are.

My second find, which did produce something blog-worthy, was cherries – oodles and oodles of Rainier cherries, to be exact. I had not really planned to do anything else with cherries this year, especially as I’ve already given you these two cherry recipes already and the supply seemed to be drying up in Scotland as I left. But upon seeing that my absolute favorite – the locally-grown blushing yellow-and-pink Rainier (which I love for being sweet and tart and chock full of what I consider quintessential cherry flavor) – is at the peak of its season right now, I couldn’t resist carting enough home to put some to good use (good use of course being something besides popping them into my mouth). In fact, I ended up making something (from The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells which I recently borrowed from the Edinburgh public library) that was so good, I would have gladly rescinded every cherry recipe I’ve published thus far in order to have this one alone catch your attention. Heidi did a great post on the same recipe a couple of months ago, but I simply couldn’t not share my version ot it too. In fact, I like it so much I’ve made it twice already, and those who know me well can vouch for the infrequency of that. It’s also great because, unlike those heaven-sent peaches, just about any cherry you can get your hands on will work fine for this. Though of course I’m partial to those pinky-sweet Rainiers, if for no other reason than just because they remind me I’m home.

Cherry-Almond Gratin
Source: The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells
Serves: 6
Note: I imagine that you could substitute any number of fruits for the cherries here, particularly apricots, peaches, nectarines, figs or berries. Just adjust the sugar and lemon juice accordingly.

2 pounds/1 kg fresh cherries, rinsed, stemmed and pitted
juice of one large lemon
4 tablespoons sugar, or to taste (adjust for sweetness of your cherries, but avoid over-sweetening as topping is quite sweet)
1 cup/125 grams finely ground almonds
8 tablespoons/125 grams unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons heavy or double cream
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup/120 grams powdered/icing sugar, unsifted
Several drops of almond extract (to taste)
Powdered/icing sugar for dusting the gratin

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C.

Butter a medium ceramic or glass baking dish and set aside.

In a heavy-bottomed pot c
ombine the cherries, lemon juice, and sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring regularly, for 15-20 minutes, until the cherries are starting to fall apart and the liquid has thickened. Transfer the cherries to the prepared baking dish and allow to cool.

Prepare the almond cream: whisk together the almonds and butter until smooth. Add the eggs, cream, salt and powdered sugar and whisk until thick, smooth, and well blended. Add the almond extract, mixing to blend. Spoon the cream over the cooled cherries in the baking dish.

Place the baking dish in the center of the oven and bake until the gratin is a deep golden brown, about 20 minutes. Remove to a wire rack to cool.

Dust the gratin lightly with powdered sugar and serve in wedges, warm or at room temperature. This dessert is best served a few hours after it is prepared.