Desperate measures

lemons and mug

whole wheat lemon loaf

First of all, I want to be clear about something: my friend Polly (remember her pasta salad?) did not bring us lemon cake for dinner when Lucas was born. She brought us a perfectly cooked pork loin, an insanely good spinach-gruyere casserole, a chicken and rice dish that was melt-in-your-mouth memorable … and also lemon cake. But — but. When I think back to Lucas’s first week of life, what I remember from my kitchen is that cake.

Kyle loves cake (loves might not even be strong enough here) but he does not love lemon desserts. He will eat them, mind you – he just won’t eat them in their entirety in a single sitting. I, on the other hand, love lemon anything. In fact, lemon is probably the single flavor I lean on most heavily in my cooking, whether it’s savory, sweet, or somewhere in between.

whole wheat lemon loaf wrapped

I was also in that weird post-delivery, not-sleeping, random-eating thing that happens in those first few newborn days. Whenever I felt hungry I would wander into the kitchen and find myself with a slice of this rich, buttery, lemon-infused poundcake, with its tart lace of icing over top and its luscious syrup-moistened crumb. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, whatever. It was the ONLY thing I felt like eating.

I went back and traced the history through email, and it is actually even more embarassing than I remember it: when Lucas was five days old (that is, two days after Polly delivered the original cake) I emailed her for the recipe. When he was two weeks old, we exchanged a series of brief notes where Polly let me know she was baking for another friend – the recipe makes two, did I want the second one? My reply is that I already have one in the oven.

sliced lemon loaf

By Lucas’s sixth month, there are no less than eight distinct Hannah/Polly email chains with “lemon cake” in the subject line. They range in discussion over contractors, dinners out, birthdays, play dates and moving companies – but always, the lemon cake is baking in the background.

It was probably in the interest of one day wearing my non-maternity jeans again that I decided I needed to tweak the lemon cake recipe. I got to work eliminating sugar, adding some whole grains, and trying to maintain the richness, the tart lemony-ness, the awe-inspiring smell of the original. (Half the reason I make this cake is for the smell – your home will smell like the best bakery you have ever been to, all butter and vanilla and rich sweet goodness). Enter: the whole-wheat lemon loaf.

To be clear: it’s more cake than bread.

But it’s also more wholesome than cake.

And I still consume it at an alarming rate.

I’m also sharing Polly’s original recipe. I only rarely make it anymore – but a single bite brings me back to a cold cold east coast February, to a clear gray evening that was wedged between two huge snowstorms. This cake is wintery-fresh and also warm, and for me at least it will always be the taste of Lucas’s first birthday.

And no matter what geographic distance there is between me and Polly – we will always have lemon cake :) (Recipes below the Sunset tour)

The Sunset Magazine Tour

I promised several people that I would write about this, and so I have, but really- feel free to skip down to the recipes below if Sunset is not your thing! This little blurb turned out to be kind of long. It’s just that last Friday was an amazingly fun day and there are lots of little things to share. I went with a group of momfriends to Sunset magazine headquarters, which if you live here is just down the road from home. We then gleefully ran around their beautiful campus in a full-on, behind-the-scenes tour like you wouldn’t believe (we could hardly believe it ourselves). Here is a photo of us with food editor Margo True:

us with margo true

(Photo credit: Shannon Thompson. As my friend Lori pointed out – look how we are all aglow! Left to right: Lindsay, Jenn, Margo True, Rachel, Lori, me, Joanne, and sugar-hating baby N)

Margo True is sort of who I’d like to grow up to be. Except I wouldn’t want to be a magazine editor. But she was so nice, and knows SO MUCH! We got to hang out and chat with her at length – it still makes me smile remembering. I am such a nerd – but I can really geek out on food, and the friends I was visiting with are just the same. Here are some of the things we covered with Margo, in case you’re wondering: sustainable and delicious tuna loin (not to give anything away, but watch for your September issue … ), the perfect individual egg recipe (hers: fried on cast iron, NOT flipped, but steamed for a moment or two at the end to set the yolk – top with fresh herbs), open floor plan kitchens and why she likes collaboration, discussion, and even distraction in the kitchen; raw milk and her astonishment at how different fresh milk tastes from what we are used to (her words: it is lighter on the palate, and you can taste the cream but at the same time it is not at all rich), her inspirational (and ultimately James Beard Award winning) one-block-feast blog and the book she wrote to go along with it … She was friendly, generous with her time and thoughts, down to earth and remarkably knowledgable. We were all a little bit in love with her by the end.

I love architecture, and seeing the original Cliff May building – with its thick adobe-style brick walls, floor-to-ceiling windows, mission-inspired accents and wood beams, and the shockingly fluid weaving together of the indoors and outdoors … really cool. Our tour guide, Shannon, knew all there was to know about the history of the building, the company, the magazine, the grounds – and even shared fun little gossipy bits about intrigues and deals in the underground wine cellar (where they had, by the way, an enormous antique brandy warmer – 2 gallons at least – with a spigot at the bottom. Imagine the parties!)

The gardens and grounds were wonderful. Beautiful and inspiring, of course, but not as immaculately manicured as you might imagine. It is a real working garden – living and breathing – divided into zones that move from the rhododendrons of the Pacific Northwest to the cactuses of the Southwest, with everything in between. We spotted projects that we have seen on the pages of the magazine itself, and got to see some new ones that might be showing up soon. The outdoor kitchen and entertaining area is achingly wonderful – it looks like the movie set for the best backyard party you’ve ever dreamed of. Chickens, fruit trees, edible borders, moveable outdoor rooms and tables with living centerpieces – it’s all right there, behind the building, spread over seven lush acres.

a little corner of the garden

Of course, the test kitchens were a treat. I think we all crossed our fingers when Rachel asked Margo if she might be hiring ‘novice’ test cooks (they test all their recipes there in the kitchen with home cooks as well as chefs) – sadly, they are all booked up. But here’s a picture – doesn’t this look like a fun place to work? So clean, so organized! :)

sunset test kitchen

My favorite room was the prop-styling and food photography room. It was like a giant and very well-curated thrift store! There are only one or two of most of the dishes, but they are all lovely. I took a couple pictures but it is really hard to capture the depth of the ‘closet’ and all the shelves and shelves and shelves of various styling props that they have. This is one shot of the ‘dish wall’ – each of those tall cabinets contains dishes, organized by color and size. What you see up above are colanders, bowls, etc. Imagine having a job where what you do each day is ask yourself “Hm. Which color dessert dish is going to show off this raspberry sorbet to best advantage?” — and then get to spend hours poring through all these lovely things? I am not really even a dish person – but I could see how I might become one, given the opportunity.

sunset prop styling room

Sunset began in 1898 as what Shannon brilliantly called “the original in-flight magazine” – it was published by the railroad company, and given to riders on the Sunset Express, which was the premier train heading out West. From the very first issue, it featured spectacular locales (there was a piece on Yosemite in the inaugural run!) and photography. It was also a literary magazine, publishing stories and poems that eventually evolved into the travel, food, and lifestyle writing that is now so familiar. (Part of me thinks we should harken back to those days and Sunset should start publishing poetry again! A poem about pan-seared scallops or fresh garden arugula seems like it might be nice, no?)

I loved getting to see behind the curtain – and I loved how familiar it all felt. I had seen so many of the things in the magazine that we were now seeing in person. We even saw the camping gear that was being put back in storage in that prop room, after being featured in the May issue. (Jacob so desperately covets that camper on the front that he actually tore the cover off the magazine, and keeps it in his ‘office’. We discuss it quite frequently, and he longs to spend a night in it!)

the sunset camper

Photo credit: Sunset Magazine

Oh – and for those who are interested, here is a look back at some influential Sunset covers that was put together by some people at Stanford a few years ago.

To Shannon, our fun, funny, beautiful and kind tour guide – THANK YOU! Our morning was so special (and our gift bags were so full!). You know so much about Sunset, and you were so wonderful to spend so much time with us and take such good care of us. We are all still abuzz – you totally made our month. We are already plotting our return – next time, we are going to bring lunch and eat it sitting outside. It’s Western living, after all. And we are pretty lucky that we get to live here.

sliced lemon loaf

Whole Wheat Lemon Loaf
Polly’s original recipe is this one, from Ina Garten, and it’s a doozie. I think it is my very favorite cake, ever. Deb at Smitten also made the original, as a bundt. The bundt is my own tendency here, too – but in original pound form it makes two cakes, which is perfect for sharing on a dinner-delivery. I have made the obvious swaps and omitted the ‘extra’ sugar – but that is not to say that the original is too sweet. In fact I think it is a perfectly balanced cake – sweet, tart, rich. It is just not the cake that I want to eat every day. So here we are – and I think the new version is wonderful, too. Just don’t think of it as cake. Renamed lemon loaf, it becomes something special in its own right.

2 sticks unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups sugar (I often use half white, half brown)
4 eggs
1/3 cup grated lemon zest (6 to 8 large lemons)
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 freshly squeezed lemon juice
3/4 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-2 teaspoons demerara sugar

Optional: crème fraiche and fresh blueberries, for serving.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour two 8 1/2-by-4 1/4-by-2 1/2-inch loaf pans, or one bundt pan. Line the bottoms with parchment.

Cream the butter and sugar in an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment until light and fluffy. Mixing at medium speed, add the eggs one at a time, letting each incorporate. Add the lemon zest and stir in.

Stir together in a separate bowl the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a liquid measuring cup combine the lemon juice, the buttermilk and the vanilla. With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture and the buttermilk mixture, alternating, beginning and ending with flour.

Divide the batter evenly into your pans, or pour into the bundt pan. Smooth the top and then sprinkle with the demerara sugar. Bake for about 1 hour, until a cake tester comes out clean. It will smell phenomenal while it bakes :)

Serve slices with a big dollop of crème fraiche and a handful of blueberries sprinkled over top.

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13 thoughts on “Desperate measures

  1. What a fun read – I feel like I went on the tour, too! I’m with Jacob – that camper is so cool looking. Thanks for sharing!

    • there is something very appealing about the camper, isn’t there? it looks so cozy. I guess you can rent them somewhere here in CA … we might look into it for a night or two :)

  2. That Sunset garden must be a fun place to visit! And I loved the story of this lemon cake. That time with a new baby is such a blur, this cake must be something awfully special to have caught your attention. :)

    • Sunset was so cool. I kept trying to edit this to sound less gushy and star-struck and finally just gave up. There is an incredible sweet/tart/rich thing going on with that does grab your attention … or maybe it’s just that citrus wakes you up? :)

  3. I’m a sucker for anything with lemon and I love that this has whole wheat. Definitely bookmarking this recipe. And what fun! Looks like that Sunset tour was great. I sometimes buy that magazine so that I can fantasize about living on the west coast. We love it there and often think if we could ever make the move.

    • Sunset was pretty cool … and trust me, it is aspirational reading even for those of us who do live here ;) My mother-in-law sometimes reads Southern Living (even though they live in PA) … it can be nice to take a mental break away from home!

  4. Hannah!!! I made this for the first time last week in what I think has been over a year and here it is on your blog!! Yes, we will always have lemmon cake! ALWAYS. We miss you! However you are always in our home with all these fantastic recipes!

    • we miss you guys too. I still can’t stand thinking about H and J playing tennis together. But yes, lemon cake is forever :) Maybe we can have a slice in August. xo

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