I can pinpoint the exact moment I started reconsidering the cake. For most of my life, I had thought of it exclusively as a celebratory confectionery: to be eaten – as dessert, usually – on a birthday, anniversary or wedding. Then, one summer in college, I spent a month in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, where I was enrolled in a conservation biology course on the tiny rural campus of an ecological research institute. A team of local women prepared and provided not only breakfast, lunch and dinner, but also two coffee breaks, mid-morning and mid-afternoon. The undoubted star of the latter, late coffeewas a cake, cut into neat squares: fuba bolo, based on cornmeal, coconut, condensed milk, over one day; dense chocolate frosted in a buttercream another; vanilla sponge covered with strawberry jam and vanilla cream the next.
For weeks I had a piece every afternoon. What at first seemed unreasonably indulgent became necessary: I worked a fierce appetite through the scorching forest and its interstitial patches of farmland, testing soil pH levels, shunning cows, scanning the treetops looking for monkeys and sloths. This cake was not a dessert; that cake was food. More importantly, it was formally sanctioned daily enjoyment, with no trace of the guilt I would have felt eating cake so regularly in my normal life.
The concept of everyday cake is supported by cultures around the world. The cake features prominently in the English afternoon tea ritual as well as the Swedish coffee break known as fika. Italians eat cake for breakfast. American food culture, as far as it can be defined, tends to oscillate between wild excess and excessive restraint without stopping in between; it’s either fried Oreos or Gwyneth Paltrow’s recipe for frozen banana “ice cream”, hold the cream. It was hard to imagine eating a slice or two of cake everyday at home. When I returned to the States, I came back to afternoons without cake.
Then, last winter, I came across a new cookbook, published in October 2020 by writer, photographer and food stylist Yossy Arefi, titled “Snack Cakes: Simple treats for anytime cravings.” Forget “cellar door”; is there a more beautiful sequence of words in the English language than “snacking cakes”? A British friend told me she found it redundant (“Cakes are only good if they’re nibbled on, I hate eating cakes after a meal!”), but for me it was a revelation. Over the past two years, cake has become an unlikely artistic medium – rather avant-garde, the more fantastic the better – and sometimes a proxy for socializing: if you’re going to be alone, or even in a small group, you might as well do something over-the-top festive, not to mention Instagram-ready. “Why make a simple cake when you can drive it crazy?” Madeline Bach, the baker behind a small pastry shop called Frosted Hag, said in an interview for a Times article titled “Let ’em eat cake (wacky, fancy).” I wouldn’t turn down a slice of Bach’s vanilla cake with “blood orange curd filling, topped with Swiss lemon meringue buttercream, blood orange slices, chrysanthemum blossoms, sugar pearls and dried baby’s breath,” but, thanks to Arefi’s book, the quieter cakes have become a staple of my diet.
In the introduction to “Cakes to nibble,” Arefi defines the term — which, she is quick to note, she didn’t coin. A snack cake is “a single layer cake, probably square, covered with a simple frosting – or nothing at all – and it should be really easy to make, requiring little” other than a reasonably stocked pantry. , a bowl and a whisk,” she wrote. Each recipe relies on the same basic formula: an egg or two (although one of the cakes is vegan) beaten with sugar, then whipped with butter or oil, milk (or buttermilk, coconut milk, yogurt, sour cream, or ricotta), a cup or two of flour (in some cases gluten-free), salt, baking soda, and/or baking powder. Complements of fruit, chocolate, nuts and spices are folded in at the end, and some of the finished cakes are glazed or served with dollops of flavored whipped cream.
“I always want to show people that baking isn’t as intimidating as people think,” Arefi told me recently, over the phone. “There’s a lot of writing about how baking is so scientific, not like cooking. And I think that can be really intimidating. “Snacking Cakes” was a great way to show that it doesn’t have to be super difficult, you don’t have to mess everything up in the kitchen. You can cook something really satisfying, and it can only take an hour. All of the cakes are “weeknight friendly,” she notes; she could not know at the time of writing (she submitted the text to her editor in January 2020) how pandemic-friendly they would be, both in terms of the effort and ingredients required and the boosting potential for mood. “When I have a cake to snack on my counter,” she wrote, “I sneak a little slice of it every time I pass by.” For days and weeks spent mostly sequestered, sneaking small slices of cake — not to mention the meditative process of making one — can stave off unease. A snacking cake is a perfect candidate for “procrastinate”; I cooked more than one when technically I should have written this article, although I suppose you could call it research.
Which makes “Snacking Cakes” perhaps my favorite cookbook of all time, and by far the most used (I tend to collect and read cookbooks with love, but rarely engage ), is how Arefi adheres to constraints without sacrificing creativity. Each cake is as smart and attractive as it is simple and really easy to make. During a first page of the book, I started using Post-it flags to mark the cakes I wanted to bake, before realizing it was an exercise in futility; I wanted to bake them all. Leafing through the book is also part of his pleasure; as my cousin Sarah, a seasoned bookseller and avid “Gâteaux à nibble” noted, the size of the book – the height and width of the pages – “is about the size of the cakes”, which Arefi prefers cook in an eight-by-eight-inch pan format, although it offers modifications for pans of other sizes and shapes.
And so, me and other fans, Arefi told me, made my way, “Julie & Julia” style, through each of the fifty recipes, which are categorized into four sections: “fruit” , “hot”. + toasted”, “chocolatey” and “not your average vanilla”. I whipped frozen passion fruit pulp into the batter for a cake and covered it with a bright pink icing made from freeze-dried strawberries. When fresh strawberries appeared at the green market last summer, I carefully sliced them and layered them on a cake made with whole milk yogurt and whole grain flour. I was delighted with the combination of rhubarb and sumac in a crumb cake so nice I baked it twice. I folded blackberries and blueberries into fluffy ricotta curds, mixed crystallized ginger into grated sweet potato and pear, and mixed cinnamon, cardamom and allspice into mashed potatoes. pumpkin and olive oil, which is also dipped in a maple glaze. For a friend’s birthday, torn between a lemon cake with olive oil and another with chocolate and peanut butter, I made both, the first in a silicone mini-loaf mold , bought for the express purpose of sharing snack cakes more easily, the second in a muffin tin and presented him with a box of mixed confections.
Even after making them all, I won’t be done: the recipes are modular, each with a sidebar of ideas for substitutions and variations, and suggestions for mixing and matching batters and toppings. I’m a strict recipe follower, not a developer, but “Snacking Cakes” gave me the freedom to be a little creative in the kitchen. As I was glazing these lemony olive oil mini buns, a plastic jar of pink peppercorns on my counter caught my eye. Emboldened by Arefi’s style, I decided to smash them on top, to great effect. Arefi’s recipe for carrot cake calls for topping it with just chopped toasted pecans and flaky salt, but I knew she’d approve of me borrowing the cream cheese frosting from her red velvet cake recipe. when I made it for a friend who requested the frosting.
We do not observe a formal late coffee or afternoon tea at my house. However, like Italians, we prepare a regular breakfast of cakes. In 2020, Maurice Sendak’s picture book “In the kitchen at nightbecame a favorite of my then one-year-old son, Otto. It tells the story of a child named Mickey, who dreams of a trio of mustachioed bakers mixing it in a giant bowl of dough, shouting, “Milk!” Milk! Milk for the morning cake! Spoiler alert: Mickey avoids the oven, and the book ends with a pleasantly enigmatic epilogue: “And that’s why, thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning.”