I'm out at the house this weekend, happily breathing in the sea air and stopping at all the beaches around town, watching the water change color with the hour. There's something specifically wonderful about the ocean in winter weather. It's mercurial and capricious, swinging quickly from a placid turquoise to a sullen navy blue, the surface swirled by cold winds and pelted with ice.
Being out here is a welcome change from the pace of Manhattan. It's quieter, and though we have a routine, it's such a departure from the routine of the week. We order pizza from the best pizza place in town (this weekend, we tried the special: white pie with ricotta, mozzarella, sheep's milk cheese, speck, caramelized fennel, and baby spinach). We go out to dinner on Saturday night at a restaurant in the next town over, situated in a beautiful inn. (For anyone interested, or if you ever find yourself in the area, it’s the North Fork Table & Inn, and the kitchen is run by former Gramercy Tavern pastry chef Claudia Fleming.)
We sit at a table by the fireplace. I have sparkling wine and a fantastic salad of bitter greens and chicory and hazelnuts and dill and radicchio, dressed in a creamy buttermilk dressing. He has a beautiful appetizer of thinly sliced roasted beets piled with still-crunchy quinoa and delicate ribbons of beet greens. We order fresh semolina pasta which comes in wide, flat strips twirled with hunks of tender, fall-apart duck confit and wilted greens, all showered with Parmesan. There’s warm focaccia on our bread plates, dimpled and shiny with fruity olive oil. I have poached cod atop a brilliant green sauce of cilantro and spinach with tiny fresh garbanzo beans and cauliflower. Instead of having dessert there, we order their chewy oatmeal cookies to go. (Dear restaurants of the world, please offer cookies to go, always. Thanks.)
Otherwise, I do little but wander town, do a little writing, and curl up to read. I start watching season 1 of HBO's Divorce and trying, very earnestly, to try not to imagine Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw. But guys, it's tough!
I've also fallen deeply in love with the new Netflix series called "The World's Most Extraordinary Homes", which happens to encompass many of my favorite things: British accents, real estate searching, nice and non-dramatic reality television. It's sort of like the Great British Bake-Off meets the NYT real estate section meets...all British humor. I love it. (Side note: What is it about British accents that makes even regular sentences sound so posh?)
I've been listening to these songs on repeat: Work by Charlotte Day Wilson and Worry No More by Diplo and Santigold. (If you can listen to the Diplo song without dancing, wherever you are, then I applaud you. Actually I'm very skeptical of the inner joy calibration of anyone who can resist.)
I've been reading and re-reading the sample chapter of Alternate Sides by Anna Quindlen, and so eagerly awaiting the book's release on March 20.
Coincidentally, March 20 is my 31st birthday. Typically, I don't revel in my birthday much: I'm not one of those it's my birthday month, celebrate me! type of humans.
The past few years have been a mixed bag, birthday-wise. A low point was the day I spent assisting on a photo shoot (with a group of efficient, focused photographers and food stylists, none of them knowing it was my birthday) where it snowed wildly all day and I burned my right hand badly cooking a pan of crepes. I remember walking home to an empty apartment in the snow, cold and tired and hurting, and making myself macaroni and cheese before collapsing into bed.
So I don't need to get wild about my birthday, but I think perhaps we could up the ante a bit. This year, I requested something fancy which is unusual for me. But I just thought, why not? Celebrate when you have a reason to! Celebrate when you don't have a reason to! So think of me on March 20, when I will be having dinner for the first time ever at Eleven Madison Park and hopefully wearing something impossibly stylish. Perhaps some stilettos. Most likely some dark red lipstick.
Since I'll be celebrating in such a grand fashion, I won't need to make my own birthday dessert. But if I did, I think I'd choose a cake. And I'd choose something sweet but tart, with contrasting textures. Something that begged for a scoop of ice cream. Something that took some effort, that surprised me with every bite.
This recipe looks complicated but it's completely doable for even an amateur baker! And it's the sort of thing I will absolutely make for celebrations, and for the birthdays of people I love. Because it's exactly the kind of cake that people will remember, and isn't that what birthdays should commemorate?
Passionfruit Meringue Cake
Makes one 9" cake
1/2 cup (1 stick, 113 grams) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups (350 grams) + 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
3/4 cup (90 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup milk
4 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1 cup mascarpone
4 tablespoons passionfruit pulp (from about 2 passionfruit)
2 tablespoons (16 grams) confectioners' sugar
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease two 9-inch round springform pans and line with parchment.
Cream together the butter, 3/4 cup of sugar, and vanilla until light and fluffy. Beat in the 2 whole eggs, one at a time.
Fold in the flour, baking powder, salt, and milk, alternating between dry and wet. Divide the batter evenly between both pans and smooth the tops.
In a stand mixer, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Slowly add the remaining sugar in a slow stream, while beating, and continue to beat until the meringue is thick and glossy and very stiff. Spread the meringue evenly over both pans. Smooth the top of one pan, and on the other pan, use a knife to make spikes and peaks in the meringue. Sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of sugar over top.
Bake for about 30 minutes, and then remove from the oven and let cool in the pans.
To make the filling, whip the heavy cream until it has stiff peaks. In a separate bowl, whisk together the mascarpone, passionfruit pulp, and confectioners' sugar. Fold in the whipped cream.
Carefully remove the cakes from the pans. Place the cake with the smooth meringue top on a cake stand or plate, and cover with the passionfruit filling. Top with the second cake.