Some weeks feel like they stretch into months; others fly by in an instant. The long ones require a little more patience, a little more effort—I have to stop and notice my impatience or mood, and recalibrate. I think about how nice it is to have the luxury of time at home without too many meetings or travel or appointments. I think about things I reliably like (cold cream poured over warm homemade chocolate pudding, the smell of shallots cooking in olive oil, showering with Molton Brown’s bergamot and orange body wash, listening to Sam Cooke when I prep dinner, putting on just-from-the-dryer socks) and I practice shifting my mindset from “what’s coming next” to “where am I right now”.
I read these lines from Rita Dove—an exceptional and new-to-me poet—on this very thing. In her poem “Flirtation”, she writes:
After all, there’s no need
to say anything
at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares
like a tulip on a wedgewood plate
Anything can happen.
Outside the sun
has rolled up her rugs
and night strewn salt
across the sky. My heart
is humming a tune
I haven’t heard in years!
There are ways
to make of the moment
so the pleasure’s in
How lovely are those last lines? We could do worse than to spend our efforts figuring out our own personal ways that work to turn any given moment into a topiary—something pleasurable to walk through.
So what works for you? Here are more things that work for me: riding my bike down through Greenwich Village, skirting the edges of Washington Square Park, feeling the breeze lift my hair as I turn onto Sullivan Street. Reading another poem, this one (“The Hush of the Very Good” by Todd Boss) so sexy that I blush a little sitting by myself at my kitchen table. Getting a 20 minute back massage for the first time in months (one of the many perks of living in New York City—fantastically affordable, wildly good back massages at nearly every nail salon). Reading anything from McSweeney’s, but especially this (if you don’t laugh out loud at the sentence with the Jeeves reference…I don’t know what to say to you).
The deliciously anticipatory pleasure of looking forward to a good book. (I just started “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane” by Lisa See, after tearing through both “Educated” and “Save Me the Plums” and so far, I am as riveted by it as the other two.)
Making something with your hands—this can be anything! If you’re my mother, this would be something like an exquisitely intricate handmade wooden jigsaw puzzle or a pop-up birthday card out of heavy cardstock in the shape of a real, functional Ferris wheel. You know, just a casual crafting session.
Somehow I did not seem to inherit those particular genes, so I stick with the skills I did certainly get from my mother: baking. Nothing grounds you quite like cooking, both by the soothing rhythm of kitchen work, and also from the particular pleasure of making your own food.
It doesn’t need to be anything new. But it can be! One thing I love to do if I’m feeling adrift (or even if I’m not), is to take a classic recipe and rework it somehow. It keeps me in comfortable, familiar territory, but also introduces the fun of experimentation. Plus, with baking, if you start with a solid template you can be assured of success.
Pick a recipe you love, and vary the spices. Add nutmeg and black pepper and ginger to your cinnamon roll filling. Sprinkle a little cayenne into the cheese in a cheese roll recipe. Layer taco flavors into a homemade lasagna (YEAH you heard that right—throw some crushed taco shells in there and some taco seasoning).
Or you can swap a different ingredient—try subbing 25% of the all-purpose flour in a cake recipe for almond flour. Use toasted sugar instead of plain granulated sugar. Swap maple syrup for honey.
Today’s recipe is a perfect example. I start with a fairly straightforward crumb cake recipe, and use sour cream instead of my usual Greek yogurt. I add cardamom and lemon zest to the batter.
I take a cue from a King Arthur recipe I love, and make the ribbon of sugared cinnamon filling even darker and more pronounced by adding a little black cocoa powder (this is optional).
I turn my staple streusel topping into something thicker, denser, and much more substantial by doubling the ingredients, adding cardamom and nutmeg and extra melted butter. The resulting topping is a perfect replica of the top-heavy crumb cakes I find in little hole-in-the-wall delis and bakeries around New York.
So have at it!
Sour Cream Cardamom Crumb Cake
Makes one 9” x 13” cake
For the cake
3/4 cup ( 170g) unsalted butter
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups (248g)granulated sugar
1/2 cup (106g) dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 large eggs
3/4 cup (170g) sour cream
1 1/4 cup (283g) whole milk
3 1/2 cups (420g) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
zest of 1 lemon
For the filling
1 cup (213g) dark brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon black cocoa powder
For the streusel
2 cups (240g) all-purpose flour
1 cup (213g) dark brown sugar
1 cup (226g, 2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9” x 13” baking pan.
In a stand mixer, cream together the butter, salt, and sugars. Beat until pale and fluffy.
Add the baking powder, vanilla, and eggs (one at a time) and beat until well-combined. I like to beat it on medium-high speed for an extra 2 minutes, just to really get some air into the batter.
Whisk together the sour cream and milk in a small bowl. Add this mixture to the batter, alternating with the flour and cardamom and lemon zest, and mix until the batter just comes together.
Mix together the filling ingredients in a small bowl.
Pour slightly less than half of the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the filling mixture evenly over the batter, then top with the remaining batter.
Make the topping by mixing together all the topping ingredients, except for the confectioners’ sugar.
Sprinkle the topping mixture over the batter, pressing down gently.
Bake for about 50 minutes (start checking after 45, and know that sometimes it can take closer to 60 depending on your oven).
Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 15 minutes before dusting the top with confectioners’ sugar and serving.