I’m leaving this afternoon to visit my family in Norway for two weeks. So I baked.
I completely forgive you for the raised eyebrows and incredulous pursing of the lips. Who bakes when they’re about to leave for two weeks?! Who bakes while they are still scrambling to make sure they have packed for every possible type of weather?! Who bakes while they’re frantically attempting to get the house cleaned and the dog prepped for having a stand-in puppy mamma?! Just how addled in the brain am I?!
But, you see, I have an explanation. These are travel cakes. Or, at least, they were meant to be, but more on that later.
You may now be asking, “ok, well, what are travel cakes?” My answer, I’m afraid, is I don’t exactly know. But, I decided to go ahead and try to make some anyway.
A few days ago, while I was practicing a few highly skilled work avoidance techniques, I found myself reading through menus from an assortment of bakeries in San Francisco. Because apparently I can’t simply distract myself with Facebook like a normal person. Anyway, one of them sold something called travel cakes, and I was utterly taken with the sound of that.
I tried to do a little research, but googling travel cake just brings up millions of hits that have to do with cakes and travel and not the two unified into a single brilliant concept. But, I did find one snippet of information explaining that travel cakes are a French thing, sturdy little cakes meant to be good for transporting, perfect for bringing to a friend’s house, or on a picnic, or elsewhere on the road.
Now as luck and a little bit of planning would have it, my parents, one of my dearest friends, and I are all converging on the airport in Amsterdam at the same time (Joel, unfortunately, is arriving a day late. Work, urg.). We’re coming from different directions but will then all be boarding the same flight to Norway. Wouldn’t it be fun, I thought, if I arrived in Amsterdam bearing travel cakes to share with them?!
Of course it would be fun! So, I set to work trying to make my idea of perfect travel cakes.
I wanted them to be individual sized, just right for filling the palm of your hand. They should be well-built, with a tight enough crumb to stand up to a little jostling. They should be moist and tender, neither airy nor too dense. Something a little along the lines of a pound cake, but with a little more interest to the texture. A bit of nubble or crunch.
I looked at pound cake recipes, yogurt cake recipes, cornmeal cakes, olive oil cakes, summer fruit cakes, and financiers. I snatched my favorite bits and pieces of each and married them together to try to create the ideal cakes I had envisioned. I particularly liked the idea of a moist, hardy almond-flavored cake, a la pastel vasco, but I can’t eat almonds. I was struck instead with the idea of using pistachios.
I used honey as my sweetener, and grated in a wee bit of lemon zest for its perky floral scent. I generously spooned the fluffy, creamy batter into my muffin tins, and then, because I had a few early season cherries still around and they were absolutely insisting that they would be the perfect pairing for pistachios, I plopped one (or two) into the center of each cake.
I set them in the oven and puttered off to continue my packing. Not many minutes later, a vague smell of burning began to mingle with the sweet scent of baking cake. I heard sizzling noises. I ran into the kitchen to check what was going on. In my desire not to use more than one muffin pan, I had filled each of the cups right to the top, and now they were overflowing and running together in a massive sea of hot batter. Oops.
The overflow problem was generally solved by placing a rimmed baking sheet under the muffin tin. But still, when they came out of the oven, instead of having a dozen lovely, neatly contained cakes, they were all stuck together by a flat, baked top crust. Lesson learned, nut batters do not have the viscosity to form muffin-like domes. Don’t overfill the muffin tin!
I carefully ran a knife around, cutting between each cake, hoping to loosen them adequately from one another. Then I inverted the pan and shook all my little cakes out. It was, ahem, a bit of a mess. Rather than having created sturdy cakelets, these were fragile little creatures as faltering as early spring blossoms.
These weren’t travel worthy! They quivered delicately, appearing ready to crumble apart with just a gentle touch of a finger. The centers of them were caved in, a pock mark around each cherry.
I felt crushed. So much for travel cakes, I sighed, while picking up one of the many shattered edges and popping it into my mouth. Oh. My. Word. These cakes may not hold up to jostling or manhandling, but heavens that shard was delicious! I ate another crumbled piece, and another, and another. I couldn’t stop.
The texture was ethereal. Airy yet substantial, and impossibly moist. The taste of lemon came through, darting lightly around the subtle buttery nut flavor of the pistachios. Just these two flavors together were interesting enough to deem these stellar cakes, but then there were the cherries. Oh the cherries! They had cooked into sweet jammy pockets. I think, apart from “cellar door,” sweet jammy pockets must be one of the loveliest phrases in the English language, and it’s certainly one of the loveliest things you can stumble upon in a bite of cake.
Next time I may save myself the worry of loosening dozens of little cakes by baking the entire thing in a single 9-inch pan. This may also give it the sea-legs it needs for a voyage. But, whether or not these cakes are tough enough to travel, they’re going to. They’re delicious enough that the effort to keep them safe in my bags will be worth it. I can’t wait to share them!
And now I’m off! I’ll see you guys again in a couple of weeks!
*Update: I just took these out of the refrigerator, where I’d stored them overnight, to pack them up, and they seem much sturdier now. Perhaps they’re travel cakes after all!
Little Pistachio and Cherry Cakes (makes about 16 small cakes, or one 9-inch cake)
- 1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs. toasted, unsalted pistachios
- 1 1/4 cup all purpose flour
- 2 Tbs. (aluminum free) baking powder
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1/2 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
- 1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
- 3/4 cup honey
- 2 eggs, at room temperature
- 1 tsp. lemon zest
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- about 16 cherries, washed and pitted
- Preheat your oven to 350F. Thoroughly grease one 12-hole muffin tin, plus about 4 more holes on another tin (sorry to make you use two!). Or grease one 9-inch cake pan.
- Put the pistachios plus 1/4 cup of the flour in a food processor. Process together until the pistachios are quite finely ground. Transfer to a small mixing bowl. Whisk in the remaining flour, the baking powder and the salt. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a standing mixer, fitted with the whisk attachment, add the softened butter and the honey. Beat together on high speed until the mixture is light and fluffy. Next, beat in the eggs one at a time until fully incorporated, stopping to scrape down the sides of the mixer between each addition.
- Blend in the vanilla and lemon zest. On low speed, beat in half the creme fraiche, followed by half of the flour-pistachio mixture. Repeat with the remaining creme fraiche and flour mixture, mixing until it is just fully blended.
- Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tins (or cake pan), making sure you don’t fill the holes any higher than 2/3s full. Push a cherry (or two!) into the center of each little cake.
- Bake in the oven, rotating the pan after 15 minutes to promote even cooking, until a tester inserted in the center of a cake comes out clean, about 25-30 minutes.
- Transfer to a cooling rack and allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Run a knife around each cake to loosen it. Then, carefully invert the muffin pans onto the cooling rack, rap the bottom of each of the little cakes to dislodge it. Lift the pans up. Hopefully, you will have cute – if slightly fragile – little cakes waiting for you on the cooling rack. Allow to cool completely, but feel free to stuff yourself on any crumbs that have fallen off while you wait.