Saturday, March 7, 2009


As the late, great Benjamin Franklin so concisely put it : “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”

Now, I’m not so sure about the guests; that depends both on the guest and on who you are asking (I have friends whom, if they visited, would not be shown the door after only 3 days. Au contraire.)

But as for the fish….

Each home is redolent of its own particular odors, embedded in the walls, reaching down from the attic, clinging to the carpet and emanating from the kitchen. Welcome or not, we come to recognize those scents oddly part and parcel to our own home, whether welcome and familiar or invading and attacking our senses.

Take our current apartment. I know that on most days, we catch the odd whiff of warm puppy here and there as we walk through the rooms. Waking Marty up in the morning and squatting down in front of his cage to greet him, the sleepy dog smell can be overpowering, yet strangely comforting.

When someone leaves the door that leads down to the basements (appropriately called “caves” in French) open downstairs, the overwhelming smell of damp and dirt and closed-in spaces is everywhere, crawling up the steps and sliding under the door of our apartment. Some are repulsed by this smell, but I find it curiously nostalgic, stirring up childhood memories of forbidden excursions down into my grandparents’ basement, exploring the cobweb-ridden space, digging through sandy, damp unmarked boxes filled with odds and ends and old books, entranced by the dusty unlabeled bottles lined up against the wall, waiting for a stranger to jump out at us from around a corner. We were both fascinated and terrified.

When someone smokes in the staircase – which is “strictement interdit!” - strictly forbidden, the smoke seeps under our front door like the evil ghost of cigarettes past, long white phantom fingers slithering under and up, sliding their way invisibly into our nostrils and wrapping themselves around our heads.

And then there are the cooking smells, which greet friends and family as they walk through the door and sometimes even indicate my kitchen activities to unsuspecting neighbors (Mme. R up on the third floor often comments that she adores the delicious odors coming from my apartment).

Sharp and acidic, eye-watering or mouth-watering, titillating or exotic, these cooking odors are the promise of things to come.

Savory or sweet, one can always tell what’s cooking. Peppers roasting or couscous simmering, something woked or something burning, these are the scents and odors that bring a home to life.

And something in the oven baking, the delicate scent of cinnamon and vanilla, this is comfort, both homey and heavenly at once. They know when a wonderful, warm-from-the-oven, home baked treat is being prepared. Preferably with cinnamon and chocolate chips incorporated in somehow. They catch this magical fragrance and either snuggle further down into the sofa cushions with a contented smile on their faces or they clamor into the kitchen, all excited by the familiar, heart-warming cake smells.

I usually make pretty much the same wonderful Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake every time. But once in a while, I want something bigger, sweeter and denser, more cake than coffee cake but with the streusel, brown sugar, cinnamon, chocolate chips. Mmmm.

From Carole Walter’s wonderful Great Coffee Cakes, Sticky Buns, Muffins & More

1 ½ cups sour cream (I used 0% fat fromage frais)
1 tsp baking soda

1 ¼ cups toasted pecans (I left out the nuts)
3 Tbs granulated sugar
2 Tbs dark brown sugar
½ tsp ground cinnamon
(since I didn’t use pecans, I added a handful of mini chocolate chips to the inside layer of streusel)

3 cups flour, spooned in and leveled
2 tsps baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter (she calls for slightly firm, I softened mine to room temperature)
1 ¾ cup superfine sugar
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preparation :

In a small bowl, stir together the sour cream and the baking soda and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour.

You can see what the baking soda does to 1 1/2 cups of sour cream!

Position the rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Generously butter a 10-inch angel food cake pan, line the bottom with baking parchment and then butter the parchment.

If using pecans, place them in a food processor with the sugars and the cinnamon and pulse, 5 or 6 times, until the nuts are medium chopped. Set aside.

Make the cake :

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter generously a 10-inch angel food cake pan, then line the bottom with parchment paper, and butter the paper.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.

Put the butter into a large mixing bowl cut up into cubes. Mix on medium speed until smooth and lightened in color, about 2 minutes.

Add the superfine sugar, 1 or 2 tablespoons at a time, and beating for 6 to 8 minutes. It will be light and really fluffy.

Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for 1 minutes after each addition, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Blend in the vanilla.

Reduce the mixer speed to low. Add the flour mixture alternately with the sour cream, dividing the flour into four parts and the cream into three, beginning and ending with the flour. Mix until just blended after each addition. Scrape down the side of the bowl as needed.

Spoon two-thirds of the batter into the prepared cake pan. Sprinkle ½ of the cinnamon-sugar mixture (with the pecans if added) evenly over the batter. I sprinkled a handful of mini chocolate chips all over the sugar mixture.

Cover with the remaining batter, spreading it delicately over the sugar mixture until even and smooth, using the back of a large, clean soup spoon.

Sprinkle with the remaining cinnamon-sugar (pecan) mixture evenly all over the top, pressing it gently into the batter with the back of the spoon.

Bake for 1 hour and 10 – 15 minutes in the preheated oven. The cake is done when it is risen and the top is golden brown and springy to the touch.

Remove the cake from the oven and let stand on a cooling rack for 30 minutes. Loosen the cake from the side of the pan gently with a knife. Holding the center tube, lift the cake from the outer ring and place it back on the cooling rack. Let stand for another 20 – 30 minutes.

To remove the cake from the center tube section of the pan, cut a hole in the center of a large square of aluminum foil and place in over the top of the cake. Invert the cake (I had help) onto your hands or a cooling rack, carefully slide out the tube, then cover with another rack and flip back upright. Remove the foil and let the cake cool completely before transferring to a serving platter.

Storage (according to Carole Walter) : Store under a glass cake dome or wrapped tightly in plastic wrap for up to 5 days. This cake may also be frozen.

Results : a sweet; dense flavorful cake with just a touch of streusel swirling through it and the joy of a mouthful of chocolate in almost every bite. The top was crunchy and cinnamon-y.


Sara said...

What an adorable dog! Of course the cake looks delicious too :)

asiangrrl said...

Jamie, it goes without saying that the cake looks oh-so-moist and tempting. What really struck me about this entry, however, (besides the fact that Marty looks like a dark chocolate tartlet in his bed) is how evocative the story part is. I felt like I was right there with you in your apartment building. You really do have a way with words.

P.S. I also really like the pic of the glamorous women smoking. Sooooo chic!

Chef E said...

Ditto on Asiangrrl and Sara...

I am reminded of my most recent supper blog and the neighbor as I opened the door saying "Does it smell like dirty old socks to you", and I said, no it is the POM and Balsamic chicken I am making, and she turned and went back in, evidently our oven seeps into their coat closet and they are made at me :) I wonder what they think when I am making curries and my stove top smoker???

My Carolina Kitchen said...

First of all, Marty is adorable. I too felt you did a great job of taking us to your apartment. I love the black & white of the ladies with their cigarettes - it looked so chic then.
Your coffee cake looks terrific. I'm always running out of things to serve for breakfast when house guests are here for a couple of days. Now I've got a good new recipe. Thanks.

squirrelbread said...

Fan-tastic! There really is nothing finer than the smell of baking sweet dough and cinnamon...



Jude said...

What a cute puppy! Almost looks like he got caught with doing something.
This is sure to drive me nuts with the scent as it bakes.

My Carolina Kitchen said...

I just received the “Fabulous Food Blog” award and I’m passing it on to you. Please see my recent post on My Carolina Kitchen, to view the rules associated with this award.
You have a fabulous blog and deserve the “Fabulous Food Blog” award.
Hope you are having a nice time in NYC.

YankeeSoaper said...

I've just poured my cup of tea and catching up on posts.. your dish would go great with my tea! Looks delicious!


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