We have reached the time of year when it’s dark as I leave in the morning and dark when I return home, which, while not depressing in a seasonal affective disorder way, certainly affects my mood. I make my way out to the car in the pre-dawn chill, huddled close and indrawn. The windshield flares with crazy, sparkly frost patterns when Ben switches on the headlights. Sort of chiaroscuro for the soul. (Guaranteed, I won’t feel this romantically about dark mornings come February, so let’s enjoy it while we can.)We winterized this weekend: tacking sturdy plastic over the mesh door to the chicken coop, planning to hook the ducks up with a heat lamp, bringing in loads of firewood and stacking it beside the woodstove. I like these tasks; they’re comforting and necessary, in an Aesop’s fable kind of way (remember this one?). Warm, spiced baked goods fit the bill, too, these days. This cake/quick bread is the best I’ve made in recent memory, nutty with the browned butter and densely moist from the squash, perfumed throughout with cinnamon and cloves and ginger. If you’re storing up for winter like us, double the recipe and bake two. If you wrap the loaf tightly in plastic and freeze it, you can defrost and eat anytime over the next few dark months.
Sparkling brown butter spice cake
Adapted from Heidi Swanson (101 Cookbooks)
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
- 1 tablespoon toasty seed or nut oil, such as almond oil or hazelnut oil (I used a butternut squash seed oil Ben bought for me. If you don’t have a good oil that you want to use, just up the butter by another tablespoon)
- 1 cup whole wheat flour, plus a but more to prepare the pan
- 1/2 cup amaranth flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
- 1 cup fine grain white sugar or muscovado sugar, plus another 2 tablespoons for topping
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 cup pureed, roasted winter squash
- 1/4 cup milk
- Brown the butter first: Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat until toasted, giving off a beautiful nutty aroma. If your pan is dark colored, be vigilant. You want the dairy solids in the butter to be brown and toasted but not scorched. For me, over medium heat, this takes 5-15 minutes (still haven’t figured out why there’s so much variation). Stir in the nut or seed oil if using. Remove the butter from the heat source and allow it to cool, but not to harden.
- Now, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and flour a 1-lb loaf pan. Whisk the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and sea salt into a large bowl. In another bowl, whisk the sugar, eggs, squash, and milk. If your squash is a bit lumpy in the mixture, press it through a sieve. Test the butter’s temperature with your finger—if it is cooled and not still hot, stir it in to the wet mixture (if not, wait a few more minutes—you don’t want to cook the eggs).
- Stir the wet ingredients into the dry mixture until just combined.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle liberally with the 2 tablespoons of sugar. Bake the cake for about 50 minutes, until start to pull away from the sides of the pan and the center of the cake no longer jiggles. As Heidi says, do your best to avoid over-baking, as part of the charm of this cake is how beautifully moist it is from the squash.