Punctuation with Parsnip Cake

I’ve never once heard someone say, “Thank goodness it’s March.” Or “ Hot diggitity, it's parsnip season!” Parsnips plod through winter just out of sight, either cellared or left underground to be unearthed in early spring.  I think it’s safe to assume very few exclamation marks get attributed to them. 

It's more like a vegetable with a question hanging off the end of it.   What do you do with a parsnip?  What is a parsnip good for?   It's frequently underutilized and often misunderstood.  It looks like a frightfully pale carrot that’s never been allowed out of the basement.  Literally.  Often, it’s paired with turnips.  And none of these things help its reputation very much. Which is a shame because it is really a lovely and versatile root vegetable. 

So I’ve decided to bring parsnips out into the light of day, to keep company with all those toothache-inducing bunny rabbits and Easter bonnets.  Because parsnips that have nestled underground all winter can taste pretty sweet.  Sweet enough for cake?  Well, if the carrot can do it, then so can the parsnip.

And where better to road test such a cake than my monthly staff meeting: which is stacked with dietitians.  At this point you would be wise to flush out any preconceived notions about dietitians.  At least the ones in my office.  We do not go around tisk-tisking sugar and subsisting on baby carrots.  Mostly we go around ooh and ahh-ing about cake.  We are ladies that love cake.  And we shamelessly use staff meetings and birthdays to exploit it. 

So this month I took a carrot cake recipe and parsnip-bombed it.  Then I spiced it up with ginger and allspice. Out went the raisins, and in went some dried figs that I soaked in Cointreau.   I punched up the cream cheese frosting with a bit of rum.  And voilà!, the lowly parsnip suddenly had panache.  It didn't even wobble with all that booze.

My boss met this cake with the trepidation one might expect.  “Oh … parsnips?” she said slowly.  Her hesitation apparent with the question mark that dangled at the tip of her parsnip. 

But this cake caused such a stir—such a commotion—that I can no longer associate the parsnip with anything other than impassioned exclamations.  This boss of mine—a refined woman whom often looks like she’s stepped off L’Avenue des Champs-Élysées—had three pieces. 

A co-worker that was celebrating a certain special half-century milestone took home a leftover slice.  She confided the next day that she had urged a fellow commuter on the train home to try her cake.  That she simply must try her cake.  Her parsnip cake. 

I’m not exactly sure how it all went down, but I picture two women … with one fork … on a train … giggling over cake.  She also later said that she would remember her fiftieth birthday—not for the age—but for the cake that she had to celebrate it.  Which, when we get right down to it, is just the punctuation the parsnip deserves! 

Parsnip Cake
Inspired by Ina Garten’s recipe for carrot cake


For the cake

¾ cup dried figs, cut into a bite-sized dice
~ ¼ cup Cointreau
2 cups sugar
1 1/3 cup olive oil
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour plus 1 tbsp
1½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp nutmeg
1/8 tsp allspice
2 tsp baking soda
1½ tsp kosher salt
1 pound parsnips, peeled and grated (about 3 cups)
Zest of one orange
¾ cup walnuts, roughly chopped

For the frosting

¾ pound cream cheese, at room temperature
½ pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tsp vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
¾ pound confectioners’ sugar
~1/4 cup dark rum


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Combine the figs and Cointreau in a small bowl and set aside.  Butter and flour two 8 inch cake pans and set aside.  Beat the sugar, oil, and eggs in a stand mixer until light yellow and slightly fluffy; add in the vanilla and then add in the figs and Cointreau that were set aside.  In a medium bowl, sift together the two cups of flour, spices, and baking soda; add in the salt and then add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients.  Toss the parsnips, orange zest, and walnuts with 1 tbsp of flour; add this to the batter, folding it in with a rubber spatula.

Divide the batter between the two cake pans and cook for 10 minutes at 400 degrees and then decrease the heat to 350 degrees and cook for about 40-50 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.  Let cool completely on a wire rack.  Meanwhile, combine the cream cheese, butter, vanilla, and salt in a stand mixer with a whip attachment; add the sugar in slowly and beat until fluffy.  Finish by pouring in the rum, adding more or less as desired.

When the cakes are fully cooled, gently turn them out of their pans.  Then, turn one cake upside down (with the flat side up) on a serving platter lined with parchment paper that can be pulled off after the cake is frosted.  Spread this layer with frosting and then place then second cake on top with the right side up (the rounded side).  Spread a thin layer of frosting on the cake, starting with the top of the cake and working your way down the sides; this will create a thin coat of frosting and it doesn't have to look pretty.  In fact, it probably won't.  This is called the crumb coat and it will help the finishing frosting go on smoothly.  A detailed explanation can be found here.

Place the cake in the fridge for 30-60 minutes to firm up the frosting and then frost the cake with the remaining frosting by starting at the top of the cake and working down the sides. Remove the parchment paper.  The cake can easily be covered and refrigerated (frosted) overnight, if not serving right away.

Makes 1 double layer cake.

-I know there are no "active" shots of this cake.  But can we just agree that the inside looks as nice as the outside?  


The Shocking Truth About These Buckwheat Buttermilk Pancakes

Last Friday I received an e-mail that read: “THE SHOCKING TRUTH ABOUT DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME.”  [Pause.]  Could there be something truly sinister lurking about this yearly occurrence?  Something worthy of all caps font? 

Something so shocking that it could lure me into losing time by clicking on a link about losing time? Are we (and I use the collective “we” loosely here) really trying to drum up commotion over time?  One hour, to be exact.

I never did get jazzed up enough to actually click on the link.  Sorry.  Consider me a Daylight Saving deadbeat.  I guess we'll never know the shocking truth.  What I do know is that what we’ve lost in time we can potentially gain in pancakes. 

Pancakes, now pancakes incite passion.  I’ve been looking for the perfect recipe.  And I think it’s safe to say I’ve found my syrup mate.  In fact, I’ve been holding out on you.  At least one—if not two—rounds of saving daylight have gone by without me sharing the recipe.  This was not intentional, I assure you. 

They were just hard to photograph.  I would stand in my kitchen flipping pancakes, eating them hot and crispy straight from the pan, and labeling the glass jar of forks on my countertop as situationally obsolete.  By the time I’d sit down to eat breakfast, I’d have a belly full.  Eating a composed stack seemed a tad aggressive. So it took some restraint to get this shot.  I hope you can appreciate that. 

Because these pancakes are a special breed.  Though they have a healthy dose of whole grain in them, they refuse to come off as heavy.  And, yes, it’s absolutely worth the extra step of whipping the egg whites separately. Take the time.  I know we’ve recently lost an hour, but it’s important.  It’s equally important that the butter and sugar make their way into the batter.  I know what you’re thinking, but just do it.  All of it.  These things make the pancakes light and buttery and slightly sweet.  No accompaniments necessary.  Though, a drizzle of grade B maple syrup and a healthy pat of butter is unabashedly appropriate.  So butter away.  Gild with syrup. 

Now, depending on you and your breakfast routine, what happens next may vary.  Normally, I try to use breakfast time to compose myself before the-madness-that-is-life begins.  But there is really no other way to say this.  THESE PANCAKES ARE SO DELICIOUS THAT YOU MAY FALL OFF YOUR CHAIR IN SHOCK.  YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.

Buckwheat Buttermilk Pancakes


1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup buckwheat flour
2 tsp baking powder
¼ cup plus 2 tbsp sugar
½ tsp kosher salt
3 eggs, yolks and whites separated
1½ cups buttermilk
3 tbsp unsalted butter, melted (plus a few tablespoons more for the pan or griddle)
1 tsp vanilla extract


Sift the flours and baking powder into a large mixing bowl; mix in the sugar and salt and set aside.  In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks, buttermilk, melted butter, and vanilla.  Whisk the wet liquid into the flour mixture until well combined.  Whip the egg whites in another medium bowl until soft peaks form (when the peaks are just starting to hold and firm up).  This can be done in a mixer, though I tend to whip them by hand to because it’s less mess to clean up; it only takes a minute or two with a whisk.

Mix ½ of the whipped egg whites into the pancake batter by gently folding them in with a rubber spatula and then do the same with the remaining whites.  (You will have little pockets of egg whites that do not get fully incorporated and that’s okay, you don’t want to overmix here.)

Heat a pan or griddle on medium heat and grease well with butter.  Pour a scant ¼ cup batter for each pancake into the pan or griddle, allowing for enough room to flip them.  They are ready to turn when they start to bubble and appear golden brown when you gently lift their bottoms up.  When the pancakes are cooked through on the other side, remove them and repeat until all batter has been used.

Yields about 15 pancakes

-The Clinton Street Baking Company & Restaurant is a brunch spot in NYC.  They've created quite a following for their pancakes.  They also have a cookbook.  It made The New York Time's Year's Best Cookbooks in 2010.  No biggie.  

-The original recipe doesn't include buckwheat.  But I've been on a bit of a buckwheat kick, so half of the all purpose allotment went to my new favorite flour.  (They are also extremely good with just all purpose flour.)  I also halved the recipe and made smaller pancakes; they're a bit bigger than silver dollar size, but not by much. 

-I also cut the butter in half.  They were so buttery the first time I made them that I had a hard time justifying additional butter.  I like to use a decent amount of butter when griddling.  And then I also like to add more butter with the syrup.  So I figured enough was enough was enough.  The original also calls for milk instead of buttermilk.

-Once again, friends, this is a perfect food to freeze.


Chocolate Stout Coffee Ice Cream & Young

I’m going to come right out with it.  I was feeling feisty the day I made this ice cream.  Sure, I started off calm enough, with a morning yoga class and lunch at Area Four.  But things quickly veered off after the clam pizza. 

I accidentally sprayed myself with some serious sandalwood cologne that I mistook for perfume at a shop on Charles Street.  I left promptly, smelling of man forest.  Once home, I took one look at the screens my landlord hastily installed last fall—screens that actually prevent me from opening my windows—and decided they were coming down.  

I spent the next two hours with a screwdriver and Neil Young.  The scent of sandalwood lingering faintly in the background. I can certainly think of worse times.  And I would share them.  But I’m still in a Neil Young jag and “Carry On” is playing.  And so I must.

So where was I?  Oh yeah. After the screens, and a few other chores, I poured myself a cold one.  A stout.  The music got louder.  I ate brownies for dinner.  And I set out to make ice cream that was going to have beer in it. 

I ground up dark roasted coffee beans.  Cracked another pint (for the ice cream).  Knocked over some heavy cream.  Turned up “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Drank some more beer.  And then made ice cream. 

A strong ending, if you ask me.  This ice cream is assertive.  It’s unapologetic and grownup.  It’s the kind of ice cream that says: so what.  I like sturdy coffee and beer so thick and dark you can’t see your soul through it.  In fact, I’m going to make these items into dessert.  I’m going to have dessert for “dinner.”  And I’m going to reject your suffocating screens, thank you very much.  

So, sure, this ice cream is in chilly conflict with the delicate, floral ice cream I made last month.  But for something that goes “in like a lion,” lavender just ain't gonna cut it.  This is another flavor courtesy of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.  She makes it at her shop around Father’s Day.  Personally, I think it’s a perfect match for March.  Perfect for the time of year that often has a little bite to it.  For when we are teetering on the edge of spring.  And perhaps looking for a way to round out the stout, sandalwood, and screwdrivers; primed and ready to let a little unruly breeze in. 

Chocolate Stout Coffee Ice Cream

2 cups whole milk
1½ tbsp cornstarch
1½ ounces cream cheese, softened
1¼ cups heavy cream
2/3 cup light brown sugar
2 tbsp light corn syrup
Pinch of salt
2 tbsp dark roast coffee beans, ground
½ cup dark chocolate stout (see notes)

Mix 2 tbsp of the whole milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl.  Whisk the cream cheese in a separate medium-sized bowl.  Combine the remaining milk, heavy cream, brown sugar, corn syrup and salt in a medium saucepan and place on medium-high heat; boil for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent the milk from scorching. 

Remove the pan from the heat and add the ground coffee beans and let steep for 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, prepare a bowl with ice and water and put a smaller bowl (ideally both metal bowls) inside the bowl filled with ice and water.  Once the grounds have steeped, strain them out using a strainer with a cheesecloth over it. Squeeze the coffee grinds in the cheesecloth to extract all the liquid that you can and then discard the grounds.

Return the milk mixture (now infused with coffee) back to the saucepan and gradually mix in the cornstarch mixture; bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat and stir occasionally until it thickens, which should take a minute or so. 

Remove the pan from the heat and gradually whisk some of the hot liquid into the cream cheese until the mixture is smooth.  Add the cream cheese mixture to the remaining hot liquid and then add the stout and stir to combine.  At this stage, if you have little pieces of cream cheese or too many bits of coffee grounds, you can strain the mixture again.  (The resulting ice cream will have lovely little flecks of coffee grounds, but most does get strained out.)

Pour the mixture into your bowl on ice (alternatively you could pour it into a ziplock bag and submerge the bag into the ice).  Let it cool for about 30 minutes and then stick in the fridge overnight to let the flavors meld.

The next day, churn the mixture in an ice cream machine for 20-25 minutes, or until the mixture gets thick and creamy and pulls away from the sides of the bowl of the ice cream maker.  Pack the ice cream in an airtight container.  Cover with a piece of parchment paper cut to fit the container and freeze for at least 4 hours, or until the mixture is firm.

Makes about 1 quart

-I used Imperial Choklat Stout from Southern Tier Brewing Company.  You may wish to check out a new local company, Night Shift Brewing.  They have a Taza Stout.  You can’t buy it yet, but hopefully soon.  I'm crazy for Taza, so I'm pretty excited about this melding of local chocolate and local beer.

-Corn syrup.  She’s a controversial lady.  I’ve used brown rice syrup (also not shy from controversy recently) in its place in ice cream recipes in the past and this recipe would probably take kindly to it.  This time around I used this.

-For the coffee I used French roast coffee beans and ground them in a coffee grinder, which can also be done at the market or grocery store. 

-If you forget to soften the cream cheese ahead of time you can stick it in the microwave for a few seconds.

-Did someone say Guinness floats? Why, yes, what a wonderful idea for St. Patrick's Day! (I typically skip the blackberry in mine.)


Sun in the Sky, Breton Fleur de Sel Buckwheat Cake

I’ve accepted this time of year tends to be a bit bland for my taste.  The grayness that lurks in the crevice of February and March usually forces me into hibernation.  During this time I keep to myself, and try to keep out of trouble.  This year I failed, miserably. 

The two-day affair I had with an unforgiving frozen yogurt recipe is one I’d rather forget.  An encounter with a slab of pork belly shot me straight out of a dead sleep, our earlier romance lingered violently on the cold bathroom floor for the next few hours. In a last-ditch effort, I looked for solace in a lackluster bouillabaisse, wasting saffron and drinking too much wine in the process.

Of course none of this helped.  I just felt puffy.  I stopped interacting with others. Bright lights became irritating.  I growled at people showing signs of affection.  I began to wonder if maybe I had Asperger’s. 

But then I made this cake. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon.  As the sugar and butter fluffed up, I started to breath again.  Once the smell of cinnamon and dark rum crept through my apartment, I stopped grinding my teeth.  When I took the cake from the oven, its glossy, yellow crosshatched pattern smiled at me with a cakey gap-toothed grin.  And for the first time in quite a long while, I didn’t feel compelled to roll my eyes.  Or scoff. 

I heard Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” start up in my head.  Fish in the sea, you know how I feel.  Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel.  Everyday cake lovers, you know how I feel.

This is a rich cake that uses nutty buckwheat to its advantage, playing off the butter and rum.  The fleur de sel melds these flavors, supports them, and serves as a salty backbone for the cake.  It’s a simple cake.  A very pretty cake.  A special cake that looks and tastes far better than its ingredients would lead you to believe. 

And so I’m leaving my hole.  Winter recluses, you know how I feel.  The end bits of February never seem very pleasant.  Not that this cake is a cure-all, but it is certainly a welcoming recipe.  A worthy end of winter companion.  Amazing what a little butter and buckwheat can do. It’s a new dawn.  A new day.  And a new cake.  And I’m feeling good.

Breton Fleur de Sel Buckwheat Cake
Adapted from Diary of a Locavore


For the cake

1 cup buckwheat flour
1 cup all purpose flour
a scant ¾ tsp fleur de sel, plus a few extra grains to sprinkle on top of the cake
¼ tsp cinnamon
½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup light muscovado sugar
4 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp dark rum

For the glaze

1 large egg yolk
1 tsp milk


Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a 9 inch pie pan with butter.  In a small bowl, sift the flours, ¾ tsp salt, and cinnamon.  Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy.  While the mixer is on low speed, add the egg yolks one at a time and finally the whole egg; then add the vanilla and rum.  Mix in the dry ingredients, a third of the flour mixture at a time.  Stir the mixture with a rubber spatula until it just comes together and the flour is no longer visible.

Pour the batter into your prepared pie pan (it will be thick).  Use your spatula to smooth it over.

Whisk the egg yolk and milk together for the glaze.  Brush it generously on top of the cake and then, using the tines of a fork, rake three parallel lines across the cake in one direction and three parallel lines in the other direction.  For a picture of this, see here.  Sprinkle the cake with just a little bit more of fleur de sel, a pinch or so; use your judgment.  Bake the cake for 30-40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean when inserted into it.  Let cool slightly on a wire rack.

-Be careful not to overbake this cake.  I almost did.  It was saved in the knick of time.  Diary of a Locavore also warns of this.

-This recipe was originally attributed to David Lebovitz; it comes from his book The Sweet Life in Paris. Which doesn't surprise me in the least. (The cake also freezes brilliantly.)

-I used muscovado because the time called for something fancy. Light brown sugar can be substituted.

-Where Nina Simone is high priestess, Jay-Z and Kanye West are kings.  They use Nina's "Feeling Good" in their song "New Day" from their Watch the Throne album. It's also a go-to for me, of a different sort.